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17 March 2021updated 27 Jul 2021 11:43am

Paul Morley’s A Sound Mind is an intimidating history of classical music

This is a collage of Morley’s life as a long-time music journalist, slightly shorter-time classical music advocate, and conspicuously mortal human being.    

By Emily Bootle

Paul Morley’s A Sound Mind may seem like a book about music, but really it’s about death. This is both in the sense that Morley is preoccupied with it throughout and that he writes as much about the mysterious, metaphysical nature of music as what it sounds like. In music there is an overwhelming sense of the present moment and the certainty that it, like everything else, will end.

This is ironic, because at points it feels like Morley’s book might be the one thing that never does. At 600 pages it’s an intimidating volume, though perhaps this is to be expected of a book that attempts “to rewrite [classical music’s] entire history”. Organised loosely around Morley’s own journey of musical discovery – initially, his quest to find out which piece of music will be the last he hears before he dies – it is written in a detailed stream of consciousness, which gives way to published articles, interviews and pages and pages of musical lists. As well as a history of music, A Sound Mind is a sort of collage of Morley’s life as a long-time music journalist, slightly shorter-time classical music advocate, and conspicuously mortal human being.

Morley grew up in Stockport and made his name at the NME in the late 1970s; the book is rooted in his crossing of the boundary from rock critic to classical buff. In 2009 he presented BBC2’s How to be a Composer, spending a year at the Royal Academy of Music studying classical music and writing a string quartet despite not being able to read music or play an instrument, and “confirming for every musician I have ever given a bad review to that, as an unfortunate edit had me say during the first programme, ‘I know nothing about music.’”

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The show juxtaposed Morley with the academy; pop and rock with classical. A Sound Mind is, in a sense, a manifesto for equalisation: an attempt not just to cross the boundary but prove it is unnecessary. There’s no snobbery or value judgement of either world by Morley, just his newish, unwavering passion for classical music. As a teenager in the 1970s he thought it sounded old-fashioned and conservative next to rock and its thunder of revolution. Now, he ponders that it is pop that is dated and classical that is, by nature, eternally modern.

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Morley’s natural affinity with classical seems to be directly related to his curiosity about the mysteries of the universe: he frequently articulates, with enviable eloquence, how this music expresses the inner workings of the mind, the complexities of time. His is a young head on old shoulders: his underlying sageness is combined with a childlike curiosity about and enthusiasm for music (and the meaning of everything) that is buoying and infectious. He just wants more music, more, more, more, and devours every scrap he can find with such scrupulous consideration that it’s surprising he ever has time to do anything else.

His wonderment is a fresh contribution to the analysis of Western art music, which, Morley points out, often lacks the “intensity and insight” of rock criticism. His ebullience would rarely be found in conventional musicology because it reveals naivety, of a sort. Mozart “is at his most magical in encapsulating this sense of time, and musical time, and the constantly surprising combination of tension and resolution, of the known and the unknown, and ultimately of giving a kind of shape to the future, which hasn’t yet happened, but, to a point, is destined to, in some form or another”, he writes, in a breathless outpouring that just about makes sense, but doesn’t mention any of the actual notes. In decades of writing more than successfully about music, Morley had “never thought about notes, chords, modulations, pitch relationships, tempo, timbre or cadences”. In all seriousness, why start now?

The question of technicality is more significant when considering this book’s claim to be a rewriting of music history. That would seem to promise some sort of critique of history’s telling until now, which is not forthcoming. Instead, he seems to have reorganised it. Morley has a predictably wide range of interests, and offers more information about and appreciation for women composers than I heard during the course of my three-year music degree, but there is little interrogation of the issue of gender inequality (nor is there much on racial inclusivity). This is not an oversight necessarily, but a consequence of having so much basic musical ground to cover that there is little room for “hows” and “whys”.

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Morley is scathing about attempts to sex-up classical music for a mainstream audience. The 2012 Classic Brit awards ceremony is a “scheming nationalistic reduction of music into a sticky, manipulative meringue”, while “Classic FM forensically removes the guts of classical music, transforming it into a kind of fragrant security blanket”. He thinks classical music should be integrated into our lives rather than remaining removed and subjected to endless repackaging. But another problem he doesn’t mention is that, in 2021, most people struggle to pay attention to anything for more than about ten minutes at a time.

Streaming is similarly linked to our diminished attention spans: it is harder to focus on one thing when overwhelmed by choice. It is illuminating to consider that streaming has contributed significantly to pop’s status as outdated and classical’s as modern. Pop and rock are bound up in records and CDs: their musical formats have been defined by the restraints of their media. “Classical” music has always existed – it’s adapted before, and it’ll adapt again. What streaming provides, says Morley, is “a collapsing of music history”, and a fulfilment of the promise made by John Cage that “all music would exist at once”.

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Cage crops up frequently in Morley’s musings, perhaps because he, too, is fixated on music’s temporal nature. There are several pages dedicated to Cage’s time-stretching “Organ²/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible)”, one performance of which began in 2001 and is scheduled to finish in 2640. And to return to Morley’s death obsession, it seems that stretching time in a broader sense is one of the major draws of classical music: it is at once viscerally present and from another world.

We never find out what Morley wants that last piece of music to be. But reading his densely woven, sometimes jumbled thoughts about his life, as well as Spotify, Classic FM and, yes, death, I realised what Morley seems to be getting at: that what matters about music is less when it was written, and more when it is heard.

A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite its Entire History)
Paul Morley
Bloomsbury, 624pp, £30

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold