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Season 3: Ep. 3: Sounding Tuvan Hospitalities of Place with Dr. Theodore Levin


Theodore Levin has a lifetime of scholarship in studying music, culture, and spirituality of Central Asia and Siberia. His book on Tuvan Singing opens new understandings of melodies of timbre and musical relations with ecology and the natural world. This episode draws together a rich conversation on hospitality, mimesis, sonic painting, intertwined listening, and the violence of uprooted imaginations. 

Keywords: Tuva, Tuvan Singing, Tuvan Throat Singing, Hospitality, Acoustic Ecology, Aga Khan, Central Asia, Mimesis, Imitation

Dr. Theodore Levin

Theodore Levin is a longtime student of music, expressive culture, and traditional spirituality in Central Asia and Siberia. As an advocate for music and musicians from other cultures, he has written books, produced recordings, curated concerts and contributed to international arts initiatives. Levin served as the first executive director of the Silk Road Project, founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He  is currently Senior Project Consultant to the Aga Khan Music Initiative. His research and advocacy focuses on the role of arts and culture in promoting and strengthening civil society, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. At Dartmouth College he teaches courses on world music, sonic landscapes, music of the Silk Road region, and a course on the art, science, and symbolism of musical instruments.”


Recordings are generously integrated with permission from Theodore Levin’s archive  and from public domain recordings made by the US National Park Service. 


Discussion Questions

1. What are the rituals of hospitality within your culture? How do rituals of hospitality slow down interactions for practices of recognition, affirmation, and welcome?

2. To listen to Tuvan music we have to suspend our traditional notions of music, time, and rhythm. What can be learned from a Tuvan sense of music, melody, rhythm, and time?

3. Take a walk and practice listening to the timbre of your local soundscape. What do you notice? How do you need to reframe your listening to hear the multiphonic soundscape of your place?

4. Tuvan musicians practice an ethic of listening-sounding to a place. How might this ethic be practiced in your place? How might children embrace this experience?

5. Mimesis describes artistic forms of imitation and representation. Also presented in the episode was research that speaks to the power of imitation as a fundamental building block of relationships. How have you experienced imitation and representation as practices of being with others? In your deepest friendships and family relationships, how do we find ourselves mirroring each other?

6. Tuvan listening-sounding may point to a restorative and reparative path toward entering into ecological relationships that embrace reciprocity and care. What can be learned from this tradition?

7. The episode speaks of a violence of "assimilated placelessness" that is often pursued for progress and modern nation-building. How do you experience this violence? What can be done to repair this violence?

8. The episode closes with a look at pluralism and the power of embracing one's own culture as a path to curiosity towards the Other. Describe Levin's ethic of pluralism. What do you resonate or not resonate with?


2:20 Central Asia
5:37 Hospitality
10:51 Reframing Music
14:32 Artyy-Saiyr
14:57 Reframing Melody
16:11 Listening to Ecology
18:08 Reframing Rhythm & Time
20:56 Singing to Place
22:51 Mimesis Narration
24:03 Mimesis Conversation
28:40 Imitation & Self Construal
29:41 Borbangnadyr
30:36 Sonic Painting
35:04 Zhenya Sonic Painting
37:23 Violence of Placelessness
46:58 Pluralism
50:52 Power of Culture
52:07 Closing Thoughts


Cross, S. E., Hardin, E. E., & Gercek-Swing, B. (2011). The what, how, why, and where of self-construal. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 142-179. doi: 10.1177/1088868310373752

Levin, T. (1996). The hundred thousand fools of God: Musical travels in Central Asia. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Levin, T., & Süzükei, V. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 

Levin, T., Daukeyeva, S., & Köchümkulova, E. (2016). The music of Central Asia. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Sound Files Available from Indiana University Press:   (Click on "Feature")

Related podcast Episodes:

1. Eco-literate music education with Dr. Dan Shevock

2. Podcast with Theodore Levin's student, Tyné Angela Freeman


Alash Ensemble




music, central asia, people, sound, listening, culture, melody, imitation, agha khan, world, uzbekistan, book, peacebuilding, spirits, soviet, hospitality, tradition, sing, identity, ethno linguistic


Theodore Levin, Kevin Shorner-Johnson


Theodore Levin  00:00

Help people understand culturally speaking, who they are, gives them the material they need and the and the sense of selfhood to become pluralist to become interested in the culture of others and to feel that they can be at once rooted and empathetic.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  00:21

You are listening to season three of the music and peacebuilding podcast, a professional development network at music Exploring intersections of peacebuilding, sacredness, community, creativity and imagination. Through research and story. Theodore Levin is a longtime student of music, expressive culture and traditional spirituality in Central Asia and Siberia. As an advocate for music and musicians from other cultures, he has written books, produced recordings, curated concerts, and contributed to international arts initiatives. Levin served as the first executive director of the Silk Road Project, founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He is currently senior project consultant to the Agha Khan music initiative. His research and advocacy focuses on the role of arts and culture in promoting and strengthening civil society, pluralism and cosmopolitanism. At Dartmouth College, he teaches courses on world music, Sonic landscapes, music of the Silk Road region, and a course on the art, science and symbolism of musical instruments. This episode draws together a rich conversation on hospitality, mimesis, Sonic painting, intertwined listening, and the violence of uprooted imaginations.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  01:48

Recordings are generously integrated with permission from Theodore Levin's archive, and from public domain recordings made by the US National Park Service. I have been a fan of Ted Levin's work for some time. And I find much to learn in his scholarship about how we might repair our relations with each other, and our ecological being. So in your book, 100,000 fools of God, I was able to read about your long list of adventures and your relationship with Central Asia. And so I think I want to open by asking about what tethers you to Central Asia, and what brings you back again and again, in curiosity and relationship.


Theodore Levin  02:31

When I graduated from college, I received a travel fellowship, Thomas Watson fellowship that allowed me to spend a year pursuing a project of my own devising, the only conditions were that I had to leave the United States for a year, not work and not go to school. So I decided to start in Ireland, and go overland to India. And along the way, looking at music, listening to music, and asking myself the question, is music a universal language? That's a question that I think is out there in our culture. And I think a lot of people accept the kind of default answer that yes, of course, music is an international language, because everyone has music. But I really wanted to find out for myself, the extent to which that was true. And so I set off and I traveled in Europe, I went, took a train across Turkey, bus across the Iran, a van across Afghanistan, and then trains around India and then later, bought a car with the fellowship money in Europe and drove it into the Soviet Union, and all the way down to the Black Sea. And, and into the Caucasus, to Georgia, the Republic of Georgia and Armenia. And of that whole year, the part of the world that really resonated the most strongly with me, was Central Asia. And I have to say that here I am almost 50 years later, and I still feel that I'm following up the leads from that trip that I made in 1973. In 1974. I've returned to many of those places that I visited. And I've gotten deeply interested in quite a few of those musics, but the one that really became the center of my professional activity was music of Central Asia and that's possibly because it was so little known there was so little known about it outside of the region. Of course, music in India has been studied for a long time. There's a lot written about it a lot recorded. It's a wonderful music, and I love Indian music. But it wasn't clear what I could contribute. Because there were other people who had been there longer and gone more deeply into it. But no one from the West had gone deeply into that music from Central Asia. So that's where I felt I could make a contribution. And that's what I've done for the last 50 years.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  05:33

And I think I need to acknowledge in this interview that he was in listening to one of the Smithsonian folkways recordings of Azerbaijani Mugham. That took me on an airplane over to Baku, and I just completely fell in love with the musics there in Azerbaijan. If I returned to your, to this first book that kind of describes your travels, there is, without a doubt, there's a there's a theme of hospitality through that book. I'm understanding that hospitality offers a kind of slowness, that centers relationship before you get to listen to the music. And before you get to ask the questions that you seek. So can you tell us about what you've learned from accepting kind of a lifetime of Central Asian hospitality?


Theodore Levin  06:20

Well, it's made me a more hospitable person myself, I think, because I realized how very central it is in human relations. There's a ritualized element to it, which is very strong in Central Asia. And, and that was sometimes really concerning, because the the ritual part of it normally meant eating a lot of food and drinking a lot of alcohol. Before, as you said, Before, you could really get to the music, which is what I was there for. But in general, I think hospitality is just such a basic human need, and also a kind of human impulse, you know, to welcome strangers to offer succor or support to strangers. We see this in our own culture, I think, in times of natural disasters and catastrophes when people reach out. The thing that was interesting in Central Asia was the extent to which hospitality remains ritualized, I think in, in the United States, I think we, we think of ourselves, and I believe we really are very hospitable people. But it's informal, Americans are informal, our culture is kind of informal. That's not the case. In Uzbekistan, you know, and that's, I think, in any kind of traditional culture, that's one of the things that defines it, the enduring value and presence of ritual. So many things are ritualized in life, you know, the life cycle, events, weddings, of course, which, you know, in the United States, you can do whatever you want, if you want to get married. That's not the case. There. There are still very, very strict formulas. They've relaxed a little bit in recent decades, but but still much stricter than here. And so the element of being a guest, the idea of being a guest, in someone's house also has a very ritualized aspect, the offering of food, the acceptance of food, the drinking of tea, the asking whether you'd like more tea, all of these things have a kind of roadmap. And as the guest, you have to follow it. So I got used to doing that. And kind of pacing myself, I guess, with with the vodka consumption, which in those years, this was, I haven't done, I haven't traveled around rural Central Asia in recent years. So I don't know whether the vodka drinking is still as strong as it was. But, you know, this was a Soviet custom. That that was taken over by the local people there who were of course, Muslims. And you know, in in Islam, if you're a pious Muslim, you don't drink alcohol. There are different views on that within Islam, and I know Muslims who do drink, but you know that the overlay of Soviet culture in Central Asia produced this kind of hybrid culture in places like Uzbekistan, and what was funny about it was that the men used to pour their vodka into traditional Uzbek tea bowls, so that they'd be seeking to be drinking tea, it looked like they were drinking tea, but in fact, they were drinking vodka.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  09:52

And I'm so impressed that you made it through Uzbekistan as a vegetarian, like that's really impressive.


Theodore Levin  09:58

That was not easy. i Yes, as I wrote in the book in Uzbek, there is no word for vegetarian. They, they describe you as a grass eater. Yes, if you're vegetarian, and I, you know, I faced the same issue in Tuva. In Siberia, that that's even more carnivorous. Than Uzbekistan, in Uzbekistan, at least there are vegetables, they grow wonderful vegetables. In Siberia, really, there aren't very many vegetables. It's Northern, and it's very short growing season. And, and so the whole diet there is centered around meat and dairy. So that was tough.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  10:49

So if we transition our conversation toward Tuva, which is where I want to spend a lot of time today. First, I want to help our listeners maybe to suspend some of our traditional notions of what music is, and what sound is. So if we start first with pitch and melody, I think you open up this understanding as you relate the story, the tuning of the igil, as the performer told you that he cared most about tuning the relationship between the strings rather than the string itself. Um, so can you talk about some of the predispositions that Euro centric music listeners need to suspend as we start to encounter pitch and melody in Tuvan music?


Theodore Levin  11:32

If you grow up in the United States, or Europe or for that matter, just about anywhere in the world, music is all about melody and rhythm. Those are the elements that that are worked with, by songwriters by composers. When you start learning music, you start learning melodies, or you start learning rhythms. But there are other parts of music that are not really foregrounded, in European music, or even in a lot of Asian music, Chinese music, for example. And that element is timbre. Timbre is one of the hardest things to describe. And in fact, it's officially described by physicists or acousticians is, whatever is left after you subtract everything else. So in other words, it's it's it's the only element of music that's defined sort of negatively, by what it isn't. It's not melody. It's not pitch. It's not rhythm. What it is, is the particular color. That's that's a metaphor, of course color. But it's a useful one. If you think about how would you know the difference between two different instruments, say, an oboe and clarinet that are playing the same note the same pitch at the same loudness or amplitude? Well, the way you'd know the difference is by their timbre that means the color of the sound that particular qualities, physically speaking, the arrangement of the harmonics, in the harmonic series, or the relative amplitude or loudness of those harmonics that give the sound its particular color or quality. Now, that's the quality that interests Tuvans, and that they really tune into, both in listening and in learning this traditional kind of music. So that was a big lesson for me, too. You know, when I first got interested in Tuvan music, what I heard, what I focused on was what I was used to listening to, which was these little pieces that they wrote or that they composed, using overtones that were little melodies, very simple folk melodies, using five pitches pentatonic that really went something like one of the really well known ones is ya da da da da da, da da da da, da da.



[Music Interlude of Artyy Sayir]


Theodore Levin  14:57

but that's a very satisfying melody, but that's not really at the core of what that art form is about, that's kind of a, I think, maybe a later development or something that was sort of a hybrid form of, of Tuvans listening to other kinds of music and developing those melodies. What they're interested in is pure timbre. They don't need melody, it doesn't need to have any kind of melodic coherence to be interesting for them. And in fact, it's more interesting, when it doesn't have that kind of melodic coherence. Like in the melody I just interested, I just illustrated. It's pure sound. And and what it is, is an attempt to reproduce the sounds of the natural world that whose most salient feature I would say, is timbre. You wouldn't say that the wind makes a melody or that the sound of running water makes a melody. You can sometimes infer a kind of melody in wind and water and of course, composers use those as inspirations.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  16:11

The following is a dawn soundscape from Rocky Mountain National Park. Using Levin's frame, I invite you to listen to the multitimbral soundings of the music of dawn, the water and a cacophony of living.


Theodore Levin  16:55

Bird the sounds of birds? Well, yes, birds can, in a way sing bits of melody. But with these little exceptions of little snippets of something we'd recognize as melody. Really what those sounds are, are pure timbre. It's it's waves, sound waves vibrating at certain frequencies. In certain combinations. There are elements of noise, what we would call noise, as opposed to music, particularly in something like water or wind. But those are the sounds that nomads are surrounded by, day in and day out. And that really were the inspiration for this kind of human sound making. So learning to understand that process of how those natural sounds were transformed into this quite amazing art and technique of using overtones or harmonics naturally present in the human voice to make this kind of music. That's what took me a while to understand. No, it didn't, it didn't happen right away.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  18:08

Yeah, and I definitely want to move to the idea of water here in just a second. And I think it's also important to note or that you know, that also, our traditional understandings of rhythm need to be suspended. And if I can read one of your quotes here, you say, "in pitch centered music sequences, a pitches progress through a form that has a certain duration, and that moves toward a prepared conclusion. But it doesn't make any sense to apply this conception of form to timbral logic, the top shoor ,igil shoor, people would play these instruments for a long time sitting around the campfire before the hunt. When they'd go out at dawn, they'd sing and play the whole night. the eternity of being was part of the herder sense of time." Can you talk about this eternity of being and how this changes the sense of time in music.


Theodore Levin  18:57

Well, they don't have pieces as such, traditionally, they don't have you know, we we have musical works, we talk about works, pieces, songs, compositions, these are all units of music. In Western cultures. Traditionally, they didn't have that people would just start singing, these were spontaneous sort of eruptions of sound in response to some kind of Sonic stimulus in the environment. They might go on for a long time, they might go on just for a little bit of time, then there would be a break, they might listen some more to that wind or river or bird, whatever it was, then they might imitate and sing a little more than there would be a pause, more listening, imitation, but it wasn't bound by any sense that a piece of music should be X number of minutes in order to keep the listeners attention. because there weren't any listeners, this was music that was really made for oneself. And for the spirits. These were people who believe in the presence of spirits, Earth Spirits, water spirits, mountain spirits, wind spirits, bird spirits, they're animists, they believe that everything is inhabited by spirits. And so really the audience for the sound that they make are these spirits and themselves. So it's not, they don't have to worry about whether people are getting bored, whether it's too long, whether it's going to keep someone's interest. And so that changes the whole equation of what music is, and and how it relates to time and the consciousness of time.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  20:56

Because in essence, it's singing to a place. And the other thing that you talk about is that some of the most sacred places are Rivers Springs or caves or places where the inner world kind of comes to meet the surface level world. Could you introduce maybe the sacredness of ee, and how the singing to place interacts as a sacred act?


Theodore Levin  21:19

Yes, that's exactly right, that that people sing to places. And they sing to the spirits of those of those places. So if you believe that the world is inhabited by spirits, then the job the task of music is to make an offering to a spirit. And those spirits are our most commonly present in points of contact between the inside of the earth and the outside. So a place like a spring would be an obvious place to go to, to have a communication with the Spirit. Fires also have spirits so that when they do shamanic rituals, which is a way of purifying something, or healing someone, they they always throw milk in the four cardinal directions for the spirits, and they throw it into the fire, and they say a prayer to the spirits of fire. But all of those spirit worshipping or offering rituals are accompanied by sometimes by prayers or incantations, and can also be accompanied by singing. So making an offering to the spirit through song and music.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  22:51

In three episodes this season, we will explore mimesis, roughly translated as a balance between imitation and representation, Philosophers in Western and Eastern traditions, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucian and other traditions have long examined artistic representations and imitations of forms and ideas. Sometimes, as Plato warns, art may distort and corrupt perfect forms. However, I want to leave that discussion aside for a later podcast on music and violence. Instead, we look at mimesis as the building block of relationship. In this podcast and coming episodes, on Filipino peacebuilding and the Japanese shakuhachi. We ask if artistic imitation and representation might be entry points to relationship and ecological care. We begin with Borbangnadyr, an imitation of and singing to the sound of water.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  24:03

Yes, so I was deeply moved by the description of Borbangnadyr, and how this technique emerges from a deep sense of listening to the babbling of a Brook, and how it's kind of an imitation of the harmonics of water and what that decision is to sing beside a stream, and in a sense, enter into a relationship with it. So maybe, could you start by introducing us to this idea of mimesis that you address in the book and talk about how, how I think I sense that this is a movement into relationship, through this imagining?


Theodore Levin  24:40

Well, mimesis or mimesis it's pronounced differently, you know, it's a Greek word. And it's a very old concept. You can you can find it in Plato and Aristotle. And you know, that they, both of them Plato and Aristotle were interested in mimesis, as a form of acting on the emotions. In other words, when you go to the theater, and you see an actor acting a part, what, how does the actors emotion actually get transferred to you? What is it that makes you feel? The the pain, say? Or the suffering of the actor? How does that mechanism work? And, and the same question comes with music, you go to hear something, say a very sad piece. You know, suppose it's a funeral march? Why do you feel sad? What is the actual mechanism? Is it? Are we hardwired? To feel sadness when we hear music that's slow? And that's in a minor key? Or is that a cultural adaptation? Are all people hardwired? Do all people respond the same way? Or are there cultures where happy music, music associated with say, with happy events, weddings, etc? is in minor keys? Those are interesting questions. And it comes down to a lot to this question about mimesis, imitation. So when you imitate something, some sound in the world, according to the Tuvans, you're showing respect for to be able to imitate it or represent it, it doesn't mean that you need to imitate it precisely. You can't you can't sound exactly like the wind or like water, but you can represent it. And when you do that, their understanding of what that means is, yes, you're forming a relationship with with that entity, and with that spirit, and you're showing respect to it. And the sound is acting in you the sound of the water or the bird or whatever. And you're, you're then sort of repeating that, repeating that back. And these, as I traveled around in Tuva, with with these singers, what I saw was that this is almost like a reflex. In them, they'd hear a crow or something. And right away, they'd want to imitate it. It was some kind of mimetic reflex. Children would do that a lot. They'd imitate domesticated animals, the sounds of goats, and sheep, and cows, sort of to practice, but it seemed, it seemed culturally ingrained in them that this was a good thing to do that this was an appropriate thing to do. I mean, we, we also have in our culture, you know, these kinds of stylized animal sounds bah for a sheep or woof, woof for a dog or moo for a cow. But a cow doesn't really say, moo. Right? That's our kind of stylized way of representing it, the Tuvan kids, by contrast, would actually make those sounds very, very authentically. I mean, you you know, if you try you can pretty well sound like a cow. Or, you know, a chicken I mean, there are people who do these kinds of animal imitations very well and of course, birds, but but the, the children in Tuva were, somehow they understood that what they, what was interesting for them, was to try to imitate those sounds as precisely as possible.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  28:38

Cross Haridin and Gercek Swing, wrote an article on self construal, or the degree to which we feel a sense of interdependence with others. After reviewing and summarizing relevant research, they write, quote, imitation may create a sense of interpersonal similarity, or synchrony, which then greases the wheels of interpersonal interaction. In general, people who are mimicked by an interaction partner, tend to like that partner, to have greater rapport with the partner, and to engage in more pro social behavior." As I listened to this profound clip of a Tuvan musician, listening to water and singing back to it, I wonder if this listening-sounding may be a restorative and reparative path in times of ecological violence that require intentions of interdependence, care, and imitation.



[musical excerpt of Borbangnadyr]


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  30:36

I was really interested from the concept of Tuva when you started talking about an encounter in the 100,000 fools of God, where you went to the south of Uzbekistan and met a gentleman who maintained a tradition that seemed to speak from the same heritage that had informed the Tuvan tradition that was more low toned, that that also painted Sonic pictures. And then, at the end of this series, you had this wonderful, it seemed like a very sacred 15 minutes with this woman who brought a jaw harp. And both of these traditions seem to really live. And so can can you talk about this encounter and how it's part of this, this larger tradition of sonic painting?


Theodore Levin  31:26

Well, that tradition of Sonic painting is very alive in in Tuva. And really all over Northern Asia. And also, by the way, in China, there's a very active tradition in China of music that illustrates painting, particularly landscape painting. But the little piece of it that I heard in Uzbekistan was indeed this lovely woman who played the the jaw harp or recall the Jews harp, which is probably a corruption of jaw harp. I just spoke about the ethnic complexity of these groups, Uzbeks, who now we, you know, they they occupy a country that's known for cotton growing for agriculture, for some of its big cities, like Bukhara and Sammarkand that were on the Silk Road. But they were also nomads. You know, some of the founders of the Uzbek culture, we're descendants of Genghis Khan. So there's this still this nomadic element in Uzbek culture that's most present in this area that I visited, that you just asked about it, it's a steppe area, there's no agriculture there. It's too dry to grow food or raise crops. So they herd, they have animals, and the music that they play, or perform is also related to the epic poetry traditions of the nomadic sphere of inner Asia of the Cossacks, the Kyrgyz, the Turkmens, the Tuvans, the Altai, people, Mongols, these are all historically nomadic groups, they had no had they, they didn't have books, you couldn't take books around on your horses, your camels, they memorized everything. They have phenomenal memory, so long, epic poems, many times longer than the Iliad or the Odyssey, that they knew by memory that the reciters knew by memory, and part of what their music did. It's related to this idea we spoke about of performing music for a place, you can communicate with the spirits of the place. And you can also describe the place through sound. So that's another thing that that they do. And there are some wonderful, I have one wonderful recording video recording in the book on Tuva. That shows a shepherd sitting on a hill. And he's looking at a mountain range or range of hills. And he's visualizing it, but transforming the visual impression into a sonic Sonic impression. So in other words, singing the image of the hills. And that's something that also is done by the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, with their so called Song lines. There's this wonderful book of Bruce Chatwin called Song lines, where it's kind of an ethnographic novel. But this has been well documented, they they literally sing the land in order to make maps of it. And this is something along the lines of what the Tuvans do. singing the land singing, the the the the markers and the landscapes as a way of identifying their place. where they're from, and the land that they know.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  35:04

In the chapter on Mimesis, Levin asked "what the sound of the mountains is like?" to talented Tuvan poet and singer Zhenya. Listening to the sound of the mountains, the birds and the wind Zhenya proceeded to sing pulsations of wind and the gentle grandeur of the mountains, he reflected. "When I go there in the summer, I climb up to the top of a mountain and look at the endless taiga. The part that's close to you looks green. And as you look into the distance, it gets bluer and bluer. It's a feeling of endlessness, infinity, I'd stand on top of a summit. And when you cry out, the sound scatters in all directions. In my singing, I tried to give the sound of an echo. When you come to the mountains after being in the city, there's such a silence, you shout, and your voice goes and goes and then comes back." The following is an excerpt of that painting of distance infinity, color, and silence.



[Zhenya singing a painting of a mountain]


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  37:25

Because this is a podcast on peacebuilding, I think I want to transition to a kind of violence that I sense, in particular, you, you talk about a kind of modern violence that I might describe as an assimilated placelessness in the pursuit of progress, particularly within the Soviet history of some of these areas, and in your text, and whether it be the story of Tuvan music or the Bukharan Jewish community or stories of Shashmaqam there's an underlying story of Soviet histories that dreamed of an imagined national culture that kind of resulted in, in a kind of a simulated placeessness so I wondered if you might talk about the dissonance between the imagined national, and then the rooted diverse being in place of the local and how those, how you've sensed those coming into conflict across the history?


Theodore Levin  38:18

Yes, this is a complicated question. And it's one that's been written about a lot by scholars who have gone at it from the perspective of of identity, social identity, political identity, different layers, multiple layers of identity, that have been pieced together and torn apart and reconfigured through this tortured history, particularly in the, in the 20th century, of the creation of the Soviet Union. By through the the forced amalgamation of, of many different ethno linguistic groups, all of whom were required to assume the identity of what's been called What was sort of satirically called homo Sovieticus, by by the Russian writers Zinoviev. But this Homo Sovieticus, you know, the Soviet man, the ideal Soviet person, who would have forgotten their original ethnic identity except perhaps for the preservation of some kind of local traditions reimagined in a Soviet form. They have this, this slogan, nationalist in content socialist in form to describe art and literature and music in other words, that you could have music that was played say by Tuvan instruments or Uzbek instruments but the words would be about collective farms and fulfilling the five year plan and the glory of socialism. And so what was lost in all of that was this strong sense of, of local tradition, particularly local spirituality because, of course, the Soviet Union was a country rooted in atheism. I mean, the the idea was that, as Marx said, religion is the opiate of the people. And so the the hope was that religion would just wither away as people adopted socialism and the progress of socialism and they saw the benefits of leaving behind what the what the Bolsheviks viewed as a superstition, that is religion. But that wasn't the way a lot of people saw it. And and so this tension ensued between, you could say, forced forced forgetting of the past, what the Soviet ideology ideologists called, the struggle with the old or struggle with the past. So there was forced forgetting. But there has also been forced remembering, which is really this sort of what's happened, I think, in the the post Soviet times where, again, the Soviet Union is now regarded Well, it's that again, it's complicated, because a lot of what the Soviet Union did that was viewed negatively in the immediate post Soviet years is now coming back for reassessment. It's viewed more positively. But the forced remembering now is is about the glories of these post Soviet nations, and sort of artificial constructions of their history and heritage, that are foisted on people through holidays like Navruz, which is the Persian New Years, which is now celebrated all over Central Asia, by different ethnicities, where they recount the you know, the history of the of these peoples really, I have to say, falsifying certain elements of history,


Theodore Levin  42:32

to to present the idea that, that these that there is some kind of direct lineage coming from the far distant past that's led through history to these present day nations as sort of coherent ethno linguistic groups. So part of what I've been trying to do in my own work is really challenge those, what I would call ethno nationalist assumptions, or constructions rather, they're not assumptions, challenge, ethno nationalist constructions of history, which I think are can be very harmful to one's sense of identity, because let's face it, all of us are the products of migrations, of intermingling, of very complex social histories, that as we now are beginning to acknowledge in the United States have some very unsavory elements in the past. And that's not only true of United States, it's true of pretty much all of the world. You know, there was slavery in Central Asia. There was slavery in the Middle East. There were all kinds of forced migrations, forced exiles, mass, enslavement, mass imprisonment of whole populations, all of these movements, vast demographic movements, led one step at a time, to the ethnicities and the, the kinds of social groups that we have today. So when you begin to scratch the surface of those, it gets complicated, very, very fast, and the kind of simplistic national identities and sub national identities that are reified through culture and through music and through let's call it heritage management. Today, are our attempts really to erase that past and, and to make, to construct ethno linguistic identities that are congruent with political boundaries? In other words to reinforce the identity of nation states? But of course we know that that doesn't always work, and that the borders of ethno linguistic groups are not congruent with the borders of states, they're rarely so how can they be? So that's where you get a lot of the the tensions now, not only in Central Asia, but of course, all over the world, you know, where you find these tensions between the boundaries of states that says, you know, you such and such an ethnic group you are, you know, you are, whatever, you know, your, your, your citizens of this country, but those people say, No, we're not citizens of your country, our ethnicity, our roots are somewhere else, you have no right to tell us, you know, so these, these are the kinds of things that are playing out and, and music, you know, music might seem a long way from that kind of political conversation. But it's not because music as a as an element of expressive culture is very much related to to the idea of identity of, you know, the language you sing in the kinds of musical forms that you consider your own, the the kinds of, of repertoires and styles that you consider your own the kinds of consinguinities or cultural relationships that you might have with people you consider your, your ancestors or people you consider your kin, your near kin. All of those things can come in conflict with the attempts of politicians to tell you know, you're this or you're that. So that's what's kind of in a nutshell being played out. Now, I think, with a lot of these, these social movements.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  46:58

So your latest text, the one that is an incredibly thorough examining of the musics of Central Asia with so many different co authors adding chapters to that book that's been funded by the Agha Khan, if I'm saying that correctly. In one of the final chapters of that book, when when you talk about like the intent of this project, you say "that the book was envisaged first and foremost as a way to introduce students in Central Asia to their own regional musical heritage, on the theory that when people feel secure in their own historical and cultural identity, they create a strong base for the development of a pluralist worldview that embraces the coexistence of other different identities," can you can you talk about this project and how that's in line with what you just talked about, about trying to embrace and affirm that sense of pluralist identity?


Theodore Levin  47:51

Yes, I think that they they go hand in hand, as I wrote that, you know, the, the pluralist the Cosmopolitan, is, is the person who has an interest in other people and their and their cultures. But that interest, I think, has to be supported by a firm sense of who one is, and what what one comes from culturally speaking. So by helping, you know, a lot of a lot of people everywhere in the world can't trace their ancestry back more than a generation or two, you know, I'm, I'm one of those too, I mean, I, my generate my ancestry disappears into the Nazi death camps. Two generations back, I know very little about my family. And, and I think that's true of quite a few people in the world for various reasons. It's not that they're not interested. But there were migrations, there were genocides, there were all kinds of things. So to try to help people understand culturally speaking, who they are, gives them the material they need and, and the sense of, of selfhood that they need to become pluralist to become interested in the culture of others and to feel that they can be at once rooted and empathetic with with other people in other cultures. So, this music of Central Asia book is part of a much larger project that's been ongoing for 20 years now. That's part of the Agha Khan Development Network. That's a large multinational development network that was established by His Highness the Agha Khan, who is the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. And that's a group of around 15 to 20 million Muslims spread around the world now who regard him as their their Imam, their spiritual leader. And what the Agha Khan views himself as doing and his community as doing through this work of which I'm apart and my projects are a part is, as he's put it, realizing the social conscience of Islam in the contemporary world through institutional action. And that institutional action is the Agha Khan Development Network, and its various agencies and programs, among which is the Agha Khan music program, which has sponsored this textbook


Theodore Levin  50:52

the Agha Khan believes very strongly in the power of culture, and interestingly in the power of music, as a kind of social bond to help create community. And so for him and for the work we do, music is there as a way to help build community to help young people feel their own culture feel that they're a part of something that's larger than themselves, that that's older than themselves, and that will exist after they leave this world. And it's also a way of providing a livelihood for musicians to perform their own music. And to have it heard by people both in their own culture and around the world. Thanks to these CDs that we put out with the Smithsonian and the textbook and you know, tours we've we've had an active or until COVID active concert touring program of musicians from the region, all of those that are our attempts to help both disseminate this music and strengthen it as an element of community.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  52:05

As we close this episode, I embrace the love of poetry that is so deeply held in Central Asia, constructing a poem from the ideas in this podcast.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  52:20

When we find ourselves in the company of roaring waters, nearby creeks, the poetry of leaves in the wind, may you wrap your arms, embracing sounds to enter the marrow of your being. Pull closer, we are in sacred space, the hospitality of here. Let us sing to this place and listen, sing and listen until exchange  entwines. Coloring our impermanence in pressing necessities of relation. May we sing and listen. Songs that caress weave embrace, tangles of care, winding roads across mountains, rivers, caves, valleys to a presence of being here.


Kevin Shorner-Johnson  53:20

 Special thanks to Theodore Levin for his time expertise and his generosity in granting permissions for the audio files used in this episode. His text along with Valentina Suzükei, is titled, where rivers and mountains sing, sound music and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. links to related episodes, references and related sound files, videos and resources are found on our website. For related episodes, I encourage you to listen to Theodore Levin's student Tyne Angela Freeman, or to an earlier episode with Dr. Dan Shevock, a leading scholar and eco literate music pedagogy. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to leave a review on Apple podcasts, such that others may find this space. Thank you so much for the generosity of your time in leaving your review. This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson. At Elizabethtown College, we host a master of music education with an emphasis in peacebuilding. thinking deeply we reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music

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