City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

John Purser - Music and Society event

By Bill Dunlop - Posted on 14 August 2007

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John Purser, with Jan Ferry

John Purser has devoted a large part of a very full and active life to the study of music in Scotland. The results of this were first published over a decade ago as 'Scotland's Music', a weighty tome in all senses, a first edition of which is likely to set you back by well over £100 - so it's good to know that a new edition, updated and emended is due out from Mainstream shortly.

Purser is one of these sadly all-too-rare rara avis, a ferociously enthusiastic polymath. His knowledge of musical development in Scotland is unrivalled in its scope, and the breadth and
depth of learning he brings to the subject equally so.

If Purser knows his
stuff, he's also generous enough to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions
of others, and in his allotted hour in the ScottishPower Studio Theatre,
illustrated the additional material of the second edition of 'Scotland's Music'
by citing the work of other specialists which has brought the archaeological
find of part of a Celtic carnyx to the point where copiers of the instrument
can be made and played.

Purser was
equally generous to contemporary composers, citing James Macmillan's setting of
Robert Carver's 'O Bonnie Jesu' alongside Carver's own original setting. moving
on to the twentieth century, Purser talked of the fortuitous finding of
manuscripts of the composer Cecil Coles, playing a section of the composer's
work 'Cortege'.

Ranging from examples of Scotland's earliest known music to
'The Proclaimers', Purser indicated how very diverse Scottish music is, and how
much it draws from and feeds into other traditions, citing the example of the
work of Willie Ruff of Chicago, who has identified Gaelic psalmody as one of
the traditions from which African-American spirituals, blues and gospel singing
emerged. Negro slaves attending the services of their Gaelic-speaking masters
went on to interpret what they heard in their own ways.

Despite recognising the potential values of 'cross-over',
Purser pointed out that today's 'World Music' names rarely understand the roots
of the traditions from which they freely borrow - 'they travel with their ears,
not with their minds or bodies'. He cited the U. S. musician Bonnie Ryder, who
lived on a Scots farm with a fiddle playing farmer, and was able to draw on
that daily embodied experience in her own playing. Despite the decade since its
first appearance, John Purser's enthusiasm for 'Scotland's Music' remains
undiminished and this alone makes one hungry for the second edition.