A Sound Mind by Paul Morley

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Reviewed by Karen Langley

Paul Morley made his name as a music critic for the New Musical Express back in the halcyon punk days of the 1970s and 1980s; a writer who often divides opinion, he’s moved on to become a more generalised cultural commentator, turning up in all manner of different places over the years. His roots are always in music, though, and it’s maybe been disconcerting for some to see him move closer to a connection with what is termed ‘classical music’. Back in 2009, he took part in a pair of documentaries shown on BBC4, How to Be a Composer, which followed him during a year he spent studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Those fascinating programmes were the catalyst which led to Morley delving more deeply into the classical form – and the result is this magnificent and mammoth book!

A Sound Mind opens with Morley on a plane, getting the travel jitters and contemplating what might be the last piece of music he would listen to, should the plane go down. At one point, it might well have been the punk band The Fall; nowadays it’s more likely to be a string quartet. This springboard sends Morley off on a journey of discovery and exploration through the whole history of classical music; as well as wider cultural discussions of where the arts sit in modern times, methods of delivery of those arts, the decline of rock/pop music and criticism, and the gate-keeping surrounding classical music itself. And frankly, much much more!

I had always believed it was about finding the language and structure to explain how and what the music made you feel.

This being a book by Paul Morley, the approach is obviously idiosyncratic; A Sound Mind is no linear work telling a simple history. There is a certain amount of autobiography involved, as Morley explores his first exposure to classical music when he was young; and in another time or place his love of music could have taken him in a very different direction. Of his first encounter with The Planets, he describes it as “… the sound of falling in love with being human on a lonely planet spinning with such a vivid, vulnerable life amidst infinite space.” He considers string quartet and piano music in depth; takes a particular year (1973) and looks at the different kinds of music being made, much of which he wasn’t aware of; interviews some fascinating musicians; and of course provides tantalising and tempting lists of composers and works to check out.

One particularly fascinating chapter collects together articles Morley wrote about classical music for a variety of publications after the BBC documentaries, when he became a kind of go-to writer or speaker in an attempt by the classical music titans to get the form across to a wider audience. Needless to say, they didn’t get anything remotely straightforward but what they did get was some stunning writing! It’s worth noting too that he’s often bitingly funny; for example, describing Andre Rieu as “…not so much a musician as a baroque-uniformed salesman selling candy coated sound and a fake luxury tourist experience.”

A Sound Mind is in many ways a difficult book to summarise because it roams across such wide territory; there is, for example, important discussion of the terminology we use and our tendency to need to put works of art of any kind into a box or genre. His discussion of the borders between classical and pop inevitably leads to avant-garde rock music and consideration of whether we should blur the lines completely, dispense with the pomp surrounding classical music and just enjoy where any particular sound takes us. Labelling something as ‘classical’ implies certain cultural norms which might be seen to exclude some sections of society; yet many forms of instrumental music (which is, after all, what this is) are loved by all. 

Art is ultimately what helps us deal with the turbulent, sometimes toxic force of change; it explains it, predicts it, contains it, is a necessary antidote to the rampaging forces of those claiming power, dictating morals, reducing freedom, setting us apart and shredding truth and beauty.

Crucial to Morley’s exploration of classical music is the existence of streaming platforms; they provide the possibility of exploring the composers and their work, untethered from the cultural fences built around them. Morley meditates on the changes which have taken place in the traditional music industry and the effects of these modern technologies and music storage systems; they’ve dramatically changed our habits in terms of the way we listen and where we listen. Additionally, our ability to access just about any piece of music we want, whenever we want, has altered our appreciation of the form radically. Like Morley, I remember the days when it was impossible to track down old recordings – or indeed find out much about them – so the music streaming platforms have completely restructured our relationship with recorded music. Morley’s thoughts on this are more widely applied, too, as he considers the state of modern so-called pop music, which is generated by the people behind the scenes for the chosen pretty pop star to sell as a product. Ironically, you could perhaps argue that Morley was in the vanguard of that trend with his involvement in the record label ZTT…

As I mentioned at the start of this review, the book is informed by Morley’s year at the Royal Academy, and the sections covering this are fascinating. During the programme, he composed his first piece of music, a string quartet; and the section of the book devoted to these years is particularly outstanding. Although the book ranges over pretty much all of the history of composed music, the string quartet is a form which can stand much experimentation, as well as being a more portable, accessible kind of instrumental music which can be taken to locations impossible for an orchestra. And intriguingly, when Morley begins to prepare to compose his own string quartet, it is to the prose of Virginia Woolf that he turns for guidance…

The job of writing about music actually seemed to me to be about building a bigger context inside which the music existed, a cultural, social, personal, historical, visual, commercial, intellectual and emotional history.

In truth all of Paul Morley’s books are superficially about Paul Morley. However dig beneath the surface and you soon see that he’s actually using this structure of his own life and experiences as a springboard to explore deeply profound thoughts and concepts. Here, it would be easy to flippantly dismiss Morley as simply jumping on another bandwagon, but it’s clear from reading A Sound Mind that he’s long had a love for instrumental music in all its forms. Morley addresses head on the cliché about people turning to classical music as they get older and more boring, contending that actually the form is more complex and adventurous than most of the so-called pop music being packaged up and released nowadays. Certainly, having checked out a few of his recommendations (and the book is full of them!) I would tend to agree – some of the modern instrumental composers he cites are producing works which are stunning. And the striking cover design cleverly and deliberately mimics the cover of  the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks LP to make the point that what’s bracketed under the term ‘classical music’ can be as radical, if not more so, than punk.

Because of its length and the complexity of its ideas, A Sound Mind does take a certain amount of commitment – it’s the kind of work which absorbs you completely while you’re reading it. However, it’s a book which is so brimful and buzzing with ideas and notions that it’s worth the effort; I’ve barely scratched the surface here of just how wide-ranging it is.  Sprawling and all-encompassing, reflecting Paul Morley’s tendency to throw in the kitchen sink et al – which is no bad thing in my view as his writing is music to my eyes – A Sound Mind is the kind of book which transports you out of the everyday and into a place where art and culture really matter. If you want a dull, linear history of classical music, this is not for you. But it you want to take a fascinating journey with an inspirational writer, watching him discover and explore all kinds of intriguing music and ideas via some stellar prose, then this book is absolutely what you need. Prepare to have your mind expanded!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has always believed that everyone’s life deserves a soundtrack.

Paul Morley, A Sound Mind (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-140886875 599pp., hardback.

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  1. This sounds absolutely brilliant and it’s gone straight onto my wishlist!

  2. I’ve enjoyed the programmes in which he displayed his exploration of classical / serious / traditional / art music (all terms trying to describe what is really an amorphous genre of music) and in which he also displayed his love of fashioning words and phrases to describe his experiences. As a classically-trained musician I think I would recognise in his honest enthusiasm my own response to the variety that’s on offer, though of course I came upon it at a much earlier age.

    1. I think you’ve hit on what I love about Morley – whatever he’s writing about he brings his all to it. Both his interest in his subject and his search for a new way to write about it are always to the fore. I’m completely technically unmusical, but I love listening to a vast range of it and I did find the way he explored the subject and conveyed his feelings here quite marvellous.

      1. How does it compare to “The Rest is Noise”? I have always found Morley an interesting and entertaining writer and a great speaker live too.

        1. Um. When I’ve read the Ross I’ll let you know – it’s been on the wish list forever! 😁

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