Author: Campbell, Bruce

On The Subject of Purity

I don’t know about other cultures, but this one we have here seems to value purity. We want to buy water that is 100%, we buy Dove soap because it’s 100% (pure what? I don’t know!)

The push for purity has a very ugly side too, as applied by Hitler or the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s all – or nearly all – an illusion, and in most cases, an ideal not worth pursuing, in my humble opinion.

Purity, or near absolute purity can only be created in a lab, with the few elements whose atomic makeup will resist joining up with others – and physicists resist using the word pure. They prefer to call these elements “noble”.

In everything else – forget about it! “Pure” water can only pure for a nanosecond once it’s distilled – then airborne or earthbound molecules join the game. The clearest, tastiest spring water from snowmelt or a spring high in the Sierra is anything but pure. It contains all sorts of adulterants – natural ones maybe, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s ONLY oxygen and hydrogen atoms.

Some folks like their pooches to be “purebred”. They’re worth more, and a source of pride. But often, the gene pools of these animals are about as deep as a pie plate, and unfortunate recessive traits doom many of the breeds to short lives marred by hip problems, or deafness. Who wins, there? The notion of pure breeding hasn't worked very well for humans, either - it's a meaningless ideal.

Some folks like their bluegrass “pure”, too, but what the heck does THAT mean? Bill Monroe’s original musical concoction that came to be called bluegrass was a mongrel of musical influences – from country to Celtic, Gaelic, and blues. If we were talking about a metal, we’d say that Bill created an outstanding alloy. (see Bruce jump adroitly from metaphor to metaphor!)

Funny things about alloys. They often benefit from tinkering and adding other “impurities”. Steel is a great example. Originally it was just an iron/carbon alloy, and it was good – the alloy was harder and resisted rust better than just iron (iron hates to stay “pure!). Subsequently, we found that even more complicated steel “recipes” with manganese, chromium, tungsten and other metals made steel with varying properties to suit a variety of applications.

I think art in general, and music in particular, resists “purity”. The more ideas that are added, and the more tinkering done, the better it evolves, and opens up new possibilities. Not every experiment is a success, of course (remember Bach on the Moog?), but occasionally, some new vision emerges.

Anywhere along the journey, of course, the art consumer (music lover) may decide that the zenith had been reached. We find an iteration that totally works for our tastes, and in our infinite conceit, dub it “pure”. For me, that’s a rollicking Jimmy Martin or Red Allen performance – it makes the hairs on my arms stand up, and it’s like there is just no NEED to make bluegrass any different from that. That’s PURE – right?

Posted:  8/8/2012

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