Do Music Purists Have a Point?
I suppose this post can be considered a follow-up in some way to my first post that proposed an integration of world music in western classical music education. Music purists (i.e. individuals who hold that after a certain point their selected genre went wrong) exist in all forms. There are western classical purists, jazz purists, and even heavy metal purists, who all draw a line that they think shouldn’t be crossed in their chosen music. Do these people have a point? Should musicians and composers adhere to a certain understanding of what should and shouldn’t be done with their selected genre?
In all honesty, I don’t know how much of a leg to stand on musical purists, in any genre, truly have. My reasoning is that, firstly, who truly determines these musical boundaries? Is it musicologists? Music critics? Fans? Record Producers? All of these people have differing opinions, so it is difficult to determine set boundaries authoritatively and unanimously.
Secondly, many of the styles that purists actually defend arose out of evolution of other styles of music, or syncretic (combined) interactions of multiple styles of music. Heavy metal came out of rock, rock came out of blues and so on, so it seems slightly absurd to defend something that would not even have existed if people adhered to musical purists of the past.
Thirdly, musicians and composers, when driven, tend to make the music they want to make regardless of the consequences (I am a composer, and pretty much whatever comes to my mind I put down onto staff paper). Philip Glass, along with John Adams and Steve Reich, pioneered minimalism in western classical music, much to the dismay of music critics of the 1960’s and early to mid 1970’s (the New York Times back then declared the music of these composers to be non-musical and actually instructed their music critics to not write about it). Of course, Glass and others wound up flipping the classical world on its head. Rock music, as it has been well documented, was deemed as a “fad,” “Satanic,” and ultimately something that would die away. That didn’t stop Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and others from changing the course of music forever, no matter what initial obstacles they faced.
Certainly, music should be treated with respect, and especially in the case of music that may not come from your culture you should educate yourself as much as possible before attempting to write it (what results from ignorantly writing “ethnic (I really refrain from using this term as it is charged with Euro-centrism)” is music that inaccurately portrays a culture, possibly leading to incorrect and disrespectful stereotypes). Some instruments around the world, such as the Mbira (lamellophone played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe) have sacred contexts and should be used with the utmost caution (perhaps not used at all).
This is my two-cents on musical purism, but it is just an opinion. I don’t claim to have the authority of musical understanding, as music is an ongoing discussion between scholars, audiences, musicians, and composers. Music is malleable, and will never be totally understood, as it is in many ways a mysterious phenomenon.