Review of ‘A Sound Mind’ by Paul Morley

Classical music. Elitist, stuffy and boring, right? Wrong! In this memoir and unconventional exploration of classical music, Paul Morley seeks out the avant garde, the experimental and the surprising. His taste in the more radical works is to be expected (he was a founder of cutting-edge group Art of Noise and worked with Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and he laments the sanitised, soothing playlists of Classic FM and the like.

The subtitle of this book is How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite its Entire History). The author is well-known as a ‘rock critic’ but he was wondering what would be the last song he ever listened to and then realised how much music he’d been missing out on. This book explores his feelings about the composers he discovered and is packed full of recommendations, enough to keep you listening for years. It’s a very personal perspective but is informative too. He focuses on particular composers, such as Holst, Mozart, Cage and Eno. What I like the most is the idea that there are no boundaries between the different styles or genres of works, that there should be no big cultural divide between ‘classical’ and ‘pop’. It’s all music. Morley doesn’t define exactly what classical is. His writing on what are considered classical works is peppered with references to jazz, folk, rock and electronic music. Opera does have a section to itself, but I get the impression he has to work hard to love it, partly due to the ‘image problem’.

Despite the exciting ideas and playlists, I only enjoyed maybe 50% of the content of this book. Much of Morley’s writing about the music he loves is very wordy indeed. Whenever it got abstract and repetitive, I ended up skim-reading until I reached some music history or an interview or something that I actually understood. Occasionally, I feared that I wasn’t intelligent enough to understand what he was talking about, which ties in to the fear that many people have that they can’t listen to classical music because they don’t know or understand it. If you’re looking for an introduction to classical music, particularly the avant garde, then I don’t recommend this book, as the names, musical terms and descriptions won’t mean much unless you already have some knowledge and listening experience. If you want something more thought-provoking and are prepared for the wordiness, then give it a go.

Thank you to the publisher Bloomsbury for the advance copy via NetGalley. The book is available to buy now.

7 thoughts on “Review of ‘A Sound Mind’ by Paul Morley”

  1. I’ve started listening to Spotify playlists of classical music when I work, and some things are very interesting! I don’t know much about the genre, but I believe there are boring stuff in every genre! Great review 🙂

    1. I agree that every genre has interesting and dull music, we can’t write any genre off without exploring it 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I love classical music and opera, but I must admit I mostly stick to the pop(ular) rather than the avant garde and in my view the popular stuff is just as accessible as Beyonce or Taylor Swift. Too bad you ended up skim reading and only partly enjoyed this book. You are probably right, it’s targeting people who are already familiar with the more avant garde, which is a shame.

    1. I do really like some classical music but it can seem intimidating that there’s so much out there (obviously there are centuries of classical compared to mere decades of what we’d call pop). I don’t think it was very useful to have rambling descriptions of pieces and the book certainly isn’t a guide of any sort, more of a personal response with recommendations. Thanks for your comment 🙂

      1. Yes, you are right, it might feel intimidating. I think the best approach is to listen casually to a few different things over time, and eventually you’ll work out which composers and genres you get on with.

  3. Looks like the author had a niche-market in mind. And woah….wordy and intimidating? Not a great idea when writing a book! Sorry you didn’t enjoy this. It’s ok, on to the next!

    1. He is one of those serious music critics 🙂 I liked some of it but generally not an ideal read. Thanks for your thoughts Jee 🙂

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