A few years ago, on a plane to Barcelona, with a trio of string quartets by Beethoven, Brahms and Hindemith for company, Paul Morley found himself musing on the piece of music he would choose to be the soundtrack the final moments of his life. “To arrive at an answer,” he recalls in his introduction to A Sound Mind, “I would have to write a book, to explore once and for all what my thinking about music is.”
Any casual reader or, indeed, classical buff drawn to Morley’s writing for the first time by the extravagant, though probably ironic, promise of the book’s title would be advised to pay heed to that sentence. It provides a much more accurate description of this epic, endlessly digressive undertaking in which Paul Morley thinks about music for around 600 pages. Along the way, his thoughts roam freely through a whole range of tangentially related subjects including self-reinvention, memory, mortality, criticism, taste, embarrassment, modernity, nostalgia, genius, iconoclasm, the lingering presence of the pop cultural past and the floating, opaque nature of the pop cultural present. Pure Paul Morley, in fact.
The journey begins with a late midlife crisis of sorts as he recalls his time as a music critic for the now defunct Observer Music Monthly in the 00s. There, he found himself constantly “being asked to write about teenybop stars and faux feuds while in my mid-50s”. The book is in many ways a response to that predicament, but it is also, more crucially, the result of his time spent studying composition at the Royal Academy of Music in 2009 for an oddly highbrow BBC reality TV show. There, an ageing ingenue among the seriously engaged and knowledgable young students, he set out sensibly “to learn the basics of music-making and playing”.
That undertaking alone would have made for a fascinating, if much shorter, book. A Sound Mind, though, is also about his attempts to “to see if I could work out a clear version of the history of classical music” and, in doing so, “demystify a vast, complex world” that often appears to outsiders to belong exclusively to an “elite obsessed with ossified geniuses and their timeless masterpieces”. It is also a memoir of sorts, touching on his formative years as a post-punk – and avowedly anti-rockist – writer at NME in the late 1970s and early 80s and his role as the self-appointed cultural theorist of ZTT Records, home of Frankie Goes to Hollywood as well as Morley’s own postmodern combo, Art of Noise.
Throughout, there are chapters given over to now familiar Morleyesque themes, including personal playlists, which, though interesting in themselves, interrupt the narrative flow somewhat. As was the case with his previous book, The North (And Almost Everything in It), Morley’s exhaustive approach can sometimes be exhausting.
If, though, one surrenders to the shifting, drifting nature of the narrative, there is much here that is illuminating. An extended section called The String Quartet – in Four Parts works brilliantly, not least because it is anchored to Morley’s experience of trying to compose a piece that combines “four instruments into one voice, one voice into four minds”. From there, he moves on to consider, among other things, the genius of Beethoven; the challenging compositional language of the modernist composer Elliott Carter; a short story, The String Quartet, by Virginia Woolf; and the “one movement, pop song length” composition he completed at the Royal Academy of Music. In the latter, he detects traces of Debussy, Britten and Shostakovich as well as Nick Drake, Robert Wyatt and New Order. Whether that is entirely a good thing or not is left unexplored.
Morley’s urge to democratise classical music – “to find ways of bringing the classical and the non-classical together without making it any sort of issue or drawing attention to it” – is laudable but not entirely convincing. A chapter on 1973 comprises an eclectic playlist from that year in which Roxy Music rub shoulders with Penderecki, Shostakovich with Lee Perry. It works as a manifesto for Morley’s culturally democratic, endlessly curious approach to music, but many of the choices seem worlds apart in terms of ambition, scale and composition. You may also struggle, as I did, to understand how the feral, proto-punk thrust of the Stooges’ Gimme Danger fits into the classical value system other than as an utter negation of the same.
He is on more solid ground when he tackles the modernists, minimalists and experimentalists, whose musical explorations chime with certain rock and jazz iconoclasts whose work he has long admired. A chapter on the Obscure moves seamlessly from John Cage and Cornelius Cardew to Harold Budd, Gavin Bryars and the inevitable Brian Eno. I would have liked more about the huge shift of consciousness that is required of the listener who attempts to immerse him or herself, untutored, in the daunting intricacies of Stravinsky or Shostakovich after a lifetime of listening to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis. From my experience, that has been a challenging and protracted journey akin to navigating an unknown landscape without a map.
The book drifts to a close with extended extracts from question-and-answer interviews Morley conducted with Eno, John Adams and Harrison Birtwistle. The latter conversation ends abruptly when the composer announces: “I’ve said enough.” This epic attempt to demystify classical music might have benefited from that kind of brevity of thought, but, for all its tangential wandering, it is a constantly surprising read. You may want to pace yourself, though.
• A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love With Classical Music (And Decided to Rewrite Its Entire History) by Paul Morley is published by Bloomsbury (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply