Amherst MagazineSkip repeated navigation.
Amherst College  
Site Map
Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2003 > Song of the Caravan
Asian landscape, sheep, mountains.For centuries, the Silk Road tied Asia together and created an astonishing cultural exchange. But the exchange disappeared with the silk trade, and rich traditions were largely lost. Today, in a groundbreaking project, ethnomusicologist Ted Levin ’73 is reviving the cultural treasures of the Silk Road and using music to again tie all the countries of Asia together.

The Song of the Caravan

By Rebecca Binder '02

I’m walking into downtown Amherst with Ted Levin '73, and I’m having trouble keeping up with him and simultaneously managing the breath to maintain conversation. One of Levin’s long strides easily engulfs two of mine. Levin seems accustomed to walking for utilitarian reasons: to get somewhere, to meet someone or to share something. His jaunty, purposeful steps seem suited to a bustling Uzbek city or an unforgiving Siberian outpost. It seems almost absurd to expect the gait that has relentlessly carried the ethnomusicologist through Europe, Asia and the vast, shrouded Central Asian corridor between the two to navigate the tame streets of a college town.

But my guilt is unnecessary; Levin is comfortable here. Over the past 30 years, he has moved in and out of academia, settling finally at Dartmouth College, where he is an associate professor of music and a well-respected authority in ethnomusicology. He also returned to Amherst in 1998 as a visiting associate professor in the music department. Where Levin pulls away from the pack of academics is in his contributions back to, and advocacy for, the musical cultures he studies. Levin ponders over how to categorize his work; he likes to describe himself as “an activist-scholar.” Since 1998 Levin has been a vital administrative force at the Silk Road Project, a wide-ranging multidisciplinary initiative spearheaded by celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The Silk Road Project explores cross-cultural influences among the lands comprising the Silk Road and the West. The effort takes its mission one step further, providing an opportunity for the music to find a place in contemporary culture.

Ted Levin
Ted Levin '73

“If you asked a dozen ethnomusicologists what ethnomusicology is, you’d get a dozen different answers,” Levin tells me. “It’s essentially the study of music in its relation to a cultural and a social context; as an aspect of culture.” We’ve reached our destination—a coffee shop in town—and mercifully, we’ve sat down. “People call me an ethnomusicologist,” Levin continued. “I’m not always comfortable with the ‘ology’ part of that, because I’m less interested in the scientific study of music than I am in the people angle, the social angle. So the work that I’ve done, starting when I was a student at Amherst, has really been that—it’s been an interest in music and exploring other kinds of musical thinking, some of which are very different from what we’re accustomed to here.”

Physically, Levin is striking; his lanky body lends itself to a certain grace. He carries himself with an intelligent confidence that hints at both unpredictable adventure and staunch refinement; he seems equally capable of lecturing to a classroom of students and of exploring the corners of a distant city. To that, I would add a note on his eyes—they’re piercing blue—and a description of how he uses them: Levin captures the rare ability to look at several things at once. During our interview, as he focused on me, he was also taking stock of the cashier behind me and on what the customers next to us were drinking.

That quality must prove handy to his fieldwork. “Fieldwork is, to a large extent, hanging out with people,” Levin said. “It’s talking, and listening and watching. It’s observing.”

Levin began his fieldwork in Central Asia in 1977 while studying for a Ph.D. in music at Princeton University. He credits Amherst with germinating his interest. “When I came to Amherst I had already been interested in folk music, and I’d learned to play the banjo, the fiddle and some other instruments,” he recounted. “I had the good fortune to fall into the orbit of professor Henry Mishkin, who was then the chair of the music department. He was charmed by my interest in Celtic music, and he encouraged me to pursue it. And it was really thanks to his encouragement that I began to take this seriously,” Levin leaned towards me. “That it wasn’t just about being a banjo picker, that there was a way that you could study this music and look at its deeper implications.”

Continued >>

Photos: Ted Levin (landscape); Frank Ward (Levin)


Online Extra


"Best Ethnomusicology Book Ever"—a review by David B. Reck, professor of music and Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst, published in summer 1997


Silk Road Project

Interactive Map of the Silk Road

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

  E-mail the Editor  
Search Amherst magazine