University Communications

The Newsletter for Marshall University        August 31, 2011

Profile: Ian Levstein

On a sweltering summer day with the air conditioning down and the heat index soaring to stratospheric levels outside, the only sound Ian Levstein could hear in his Forensic Science Center office was the steady hum of a portable oscillating fan with its insistent whirr, whirr, whirr. It was a mundane sound, which to most meant only a cool welcome breeze, but to Levstein—well, it was literally music to his ears.

Levstein hears music everywhere ... and sometimes sees it as well. That evening, inspired by the rhythm of that humming fan, he went home, put pen to paper, and began composing Magnificat, an ambitious orchestral piece with choir which features a setting of a text from the Bible. “It all began with that oscillating fan, it was totally random. I wasn’t expecting it but there it was,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a big event to start the creative juices flowing.”

Actually, those juices have been flowing quite freely for many years for the musician/composer, whose day job he describes as Information Technology Specialist for the Forensic Science Center. Levstein supervises the Computer Forensics Lab, does data recovery, works on faculty and staff computers, repairs computers, and keeps the network up and running. He’s also the "go-to guy" for the School of Medicine, which provides the center's network feed, and works with Computing Services when issues need to be resolved.

But once the workday is done, his passion for music takes over. It’s a hobby, but a near all-encompassing one that stretches back to his days as a teenager growing up in Toronto, Canada. And although he’s written an estimated 80-90 songs for voice/guitar and a number of pieces for small instrumental groups, he’s never hesitated to tackle composing on a much grander scale.

Take, for example, a piece he wrote for a full orchestra when he was 17. “I never got a chance to hear it. It’s one thing to write it,  but it’s totally different to have someone play it for you,” he says. “Since I didn’t have an orchestra at my disposal, it was just in my head. But a few years ago I purchased PrintMusic—a software program that allows you to write music while the sound card in the computer plays it back. It sounds like you have flutes, violins, trumpets, French horns, and clarinets—in short, an entire orchestra. I couldn’t wait to transcribe my first major piece and for the first time in 35 years, I actually got to hear what it sounds like.” At long last the now seasoned composer would hear his youthful “masterpiece” in all its glory. And indeed the music did come alive with the swelling sound of a full orchestra. The big reveal had finally arrived—along with a BIG surprise. “It wasn’t anything near what I thought it would sound like; it really wasn’t very good.” he says laughing. “I was just a kid when I wrote it and after hearing it I thought—oh, I’m going to put that away—no one’s going to hear that!”

A triple citizen of the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada, Levstein has an undergraduate degree in music theory and composition, a graduate degree in education, a master’s degree in technology management, and is currently working on a Ph.D. For 10 years he was a high school music teacher and bandmaster in Kingston, a town halfway between Toronto and Montréal, splitting his time between two schools. Later, he taught for three years at an adult education center, helping people re-train for jobs and obtain GEDs. Then came education cutbacks. The local Board of Education offered to buy out contacts for tenured teachers as a cost-saving measure and Levstein promptly took them up on their offer. “I retired at the ripe old age of 43. I got a very generous lump sum payment, so I moved to Nova Scotia and for the next two years I basically did nothing,” he says frankly.” I was retired, happy, and had a nice apartment practically on the ocean. Life was good. My parents were 'snowbirds' who had a condo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, so I spent time going back and forth.”

But then love entered the picture and changed everything. He met his wife, Sheila, and moved to Ashland, Ky., a move he hadn’t anticipated in his wildest dreams. But love conquers all, so move he did and quickly procured a job working in the education department at the Federal prison in Ashland.

While nearing completion of his master’s degree in technology management at Marshall, he took a job in the IT department for the School of Medicine and subsequently worked there for eight years before transferring to Forensic Science two and a half years ago.

Actually, computers and music have always joined smoothly for him—a happy marriage of two seemingly diverse fields. “I have always been interested in computers; it goes all the way back to 1983 starting with computers in my music classroom,” he explains. His school had a number of Commodore 64 computers with a rudimentary three-voice sound interface device—the ancestor of today’s sound card. “I introduced my students to music through these computers. They were crude by today’s standards and very expensive because the industry was so new, but I let the kids experiment with them using a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer hooked to the computer so they could play around with sounds. That’s how I got interested in computers.”

And basically everything he knows about computers is self taught. “I never had any formal training until I started work on my M.S., and that was more than ten years ago. Last year, I started a Ph.D. program at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale and I found new experiences in the Computing Technology in Education program, which ties in with my interests in both computers and teaching.”

And if Levstein hears rhythms and music in the most ordinary everyday objects, he also sees them in unexpected places. Take his avid interest in astronomy, for example. He doesn’t just point a telescope skyward and look for the Big Dipper or a few stray stars. He’s a committed amateur astronomer who has been studying the movement in the heavens for many years. In fact, he’s been involved with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for more than 22 years and, for the past three years, has been the editor of their monthly e-Bulletin. He got hooked while he was living in Kingston after attending a lecture on Mayan astronomy. From then on astronomy became his third avocation, right up there with music and computers, which actually formed an orderly triad for him. He joined the Kingston Center and eventually served two terms as its president. “I still get back there whenever I can,” he relates.

He uses an eight-inch Celestron telescope and, for many years, took spectacular astro photographs. Unfortunately, film for his Pentax K1000 is no longer being manufactured and good digital cameras which can be attached to his old telescope are expensive, so for now he’s content just to sky-watch along with everyone else—without the photographs. But the murky Tri-State skies don’t always cooperate, he laments. “One problem with this area is it’s so humid we have a lot of cloudy nights. Light is a factor as well. You need really inky black to observe well, and we get a lot of reflected glow. It’s not the same as being in the north country with no lights at all.”

It was in fact the constellation Orion—which, except for its famous Horsehead Nebula can be viewed with the naked eye—that inspired him to write Orion – Suite for Orchestra with five movements, each named for a region of the winter constellation. Then, after a stay at Stonewall Resort in northern West Virginia, and inspired by the peace and tranquility he found all around him, he composed Stonewall Resort Suite, in which he sought to capture the essence of his experience. He was so pleased with this composition that he contacted the resort, offering its use for free as a promotional tool but, after an initial perfunctory response, the resort did not stay in contact with him.

Tunes and scraps of music can come to him at any time and any place, and they get stuck in his head, he admits. Sometimes he hears tiny fragments of melody, a meager two or three bars, a kaleidoscope of song with bits of musical color flying all around in his head. The trick is to harness them and put them into some useable form. Technology has opened up a whole new world for composers, he says. He now uses Finale, a professional music-scoring program which has greatly eased the rigors of composing the old-fashioned way with pen and paper.

Admittedly, he’s an amateur composer writing on the side as a hobby, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t created some works of which he’s quite proud. Take his Requiem, for example. “I’m no Mozart,” he hastens to say, “but it’s really not too bad.” He’s done a lot of church music, including settings of the Gloria, and Psalm 98. And his Magnificat, based on the humming fan, is not yet finished but coming along quite nicely, he says.

His tastes have always been eclectic and elastic. He’s more than willing to dip a musical toe into sundry melodic tide pools just for the fun of it. In his younger days he did some folk music and, he modestly acknowledges, was a member of a couple of folk groups. He even dabbled with writing some folk and pop tunes but today he’s sticking strictly with orchestral works.

In college he majored on French horn and minored in classical guitar, but “I can belt out a tune on just about anything." However, he confesses with refreshing candor, "I don’t really play any other string instruments and I don’t play the piano very well at all.”

Working on his Ph.D. is keeping him busy these days but, when possible, he tries to find time to travel with his wife, Dr. Sheila Stephens, who is the palliative care nurse at Cabell-Huntington Hospital and a part-time faculty member for West Virginia University. Traveling with her to professional conferences has allowed him to explore parts of the U.S. he hadn’t previously seen—an experience he savors. “I’ve traveled more in the past few years than I have in my whole life. We have been criss-crossing the country. I love exploring different parts of the U.S. Sheila’s in workshops and conferences and I can go out and be a tourist.” Then, too, there are enticing visits to his stepchildren, Amy York and Todd Stephens, both Texas attorneys, and his collective “two and a half grandchildren,” as he puts it.

He’s mellow about his life and the sometimes serendipitous twists it took that ultimately brought him to the good place he is today. “The stars aligned cosmically for me after I left Kingston, and I have always loved teaching,” he reflects. “I’m lucky that I’ve been able to combine two diverse interests: music and computers. I know my work has matured. I’ve never had external validation that I’m getting better, but I think I am. While I’d love to hear it performed live, I’m content to know that the music exists.”


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