WHAT do you do when you have spent your working life writing about pop music but you’re now in your late middle age? Paul Morley has been thinking about this question for the last decade. “You get to a certain age and it seems undignified, I suppose,” the 63-year-old admits. “I was still being asked to write these articles in my fifties about One Direction and Taylor Swift.”

Morley, writer-provocateur on the New Musical Express at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s, sometime member of 1980s studio band The Art of Noise, biographer of Grace Jones and David Bowie, felt, as he moved through his fifties, that he needed to find new music to write about it. And he found it. It just so happens, though, that it was old music.

His latest book, A Sound Mind, is a partial history of classical music, but it is also a book about why it still matters, and why some people think it doesn’t. It is a book about how online streaming has changed everything, and about the role of the critic in the age of the algorithm.

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It’s also an account of Morley’s own discovery of this old new music. It takes in Mozart and Ravel, Debussy and Webern among many, many others and it will, as Morley’s books tend to do, entertain, exasperate and enlighten, possibly all at the same time. In so doing, it makes you think about classical music in a fresh way. Certainly a more quixotic, more Morleyesque way. “Great classical music,” he writes at one point, “is a kind of spaceship built to explore the vast unknown.” Morley has always been something of a futurist. Now he’s finding that futurism in a time stream that goes forwards and backwards at the same time.

“I guess I’m still listening to new music, even if it’s from the 18th century,” he tells me. “It might be from 1976 or 1876 or 1776. Those timelines are broken down with everything now being available. I’m fascinated by that and what that means.”

It has been a learning process for him, trying to find his way through the oceanic depths of classical music. He had always been interested in music on the margins of pop and rock. That connected him to 20th-century classical composers including Eric Satie and Steve Reich, but he wanted to go much further. A Sound Mind is the map of that journey.

“There’s obviously the usual history that you’re told and is revealed through the usual places; the Radio 3s and the Classic FMs. I found it increasingly interesting that classical music to most people was the softer, more soothing, therapeutic, almost easy listening side if you like.

“And what was interesting to me was the history of classical music that was a series of revolutions, a series of revelations. I was interested in imagining what music from the 18th and 19th centuries was like when it first emerged and was radical and progressive and surprising.

“I was also interested in its adaptability. Which obviously this year has become more of interest, the idea that a music that is often under threat of being exiled, ignored or rejected keeps coming and finding ways to exist.”

In some ways classical music is its own worst enemy, Morley argues in the book. One one hand, it can be prone to smoothing out all the creases and challenges in the music (you could call it the Classic FM tendency). On the other, there is a default elitism, an academicism, a willingness to raise barriers against new listeners.

“There is definitely a world where the system of classical music kept itself to itself and moves along in its own grooves and doesn’t want to be threatened or have to deal with the outside,” Morley suggests. “They keep it a mystery. They keep it elitist – the clothing, the formalities.

“It becomes a problem, because it doesn’t open up the music to outside curiosity, to those who might be interested in it if they didn’t feel they were being expelled or repelled before they’d even got there because they don’t know the rules. They don’t know the language.”

Morley was not put off and, as it develops, A Sound Mind becomes a love letter to the music he discovered; it’s about his infatuation with Debussy and Ravel and his love of Anton Webern. It’s a book full, as are many of Morley’s books, with playlists – of where to start listening to the pianist Joanna MacGregor, for example, or of music from the year 1973 that takes in Bach, Reich, Beethoven, Roger Waters, Kraftwerk and Harrison Birtwistle amongst others.


Joanna MacGregor

And it’s an account of his slowly coming to terms with some of the giants of classical music. As the book proceeds, Mozart moves more and more to the fore.

“Initially, I suppose, he was the great symbol of someone who was not interesting to me and would never be interesting to me,” Morley admits. “I wasn’t taken by it, didn’t know how to get there. And then of course I would bump into him accidentally. I would buy everything by [American jazz pianist] Keith Jarrett and suddenly he’s doing Mozart concertos.

“And very slowly I began to see and think about Mozart in a very different way. And then he became part of my exercise. Could I write about Mozart? Did I have the knowledge? Was it allowed? Would I get it wrong? Would that matter? Am I allowed to get it wrong because I’m trying to find out and surely that’s a good thing? So, let me make mistakes.”

Ultimately, he says, he realised that Mozart’s music “was just the result of a great mind, an astonishing mind, a philosophical mind. And it sounded the way it did because of where he was in time and when he was born. But if you could break through that and just get to the idea of what he’s doing, what he’s representing ...

“I suddenly became much more of a Mozart aficionado. I’d realised in a way he’d been kept apart from us, again almost ideologically on purpose. ‘Don’t think of him as a radical mind dealing with dark desperate subjects. Let’s think of him as the bewigged, powdered, almost sugary souvenir.’”

There are, Morley admits, gaps in his knowledge and taste. Tchaikovsky doesn’t figure much in the book, for example. “I realised that late 19th-century post-Wagner bombastic period was my prog rock era if you like. I was waiting for Satie, Debussy and Ravel. They turned out to be the punk rock as much as Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern.”

A Sound Mind is also a book about mortality and how classical music allows us to face up to our own inevitable end, or in this case Morley’s. Throughout, he is on a quest to locate the perfect music that can serve as the last thing he ever listens to.

“There’s no doubt some of the great historical masterpieces are death-soaked,” he suggests. In short, they are more age-appropriate. Which is where we came in.

“There’s no doubt that it does seem more graceful, if you like, to be listening to this music when you reach a certain age.

“You might be in your fifties or sixties and love the Velvet Underground, but it shouldn’t be only that. Not for me. It enables me not to be settling down into just watching YouTube videos of Joy Division for the rest of my life, but keeping moving, keeping thinking, keeping going, and this music seems to be a part of accepting, dealing with and understanding that.

“Obviously, it’s had a huge impact this year with the kind of weird loneliness of the world, the fact the ground is shifting under our feet. Sometimes listening to some great instrumental music like Shostakovich or Webern or Ligeti and Harrison Birtwistle seemed so much more appropriate under the circumstances we’re in, to face up to this strange time when we are all at death’s door. Suddenly classical music that seemed to be about being at death’s door is incredibly relevant to a world that seems to be at deaths door.”

A Sound Mind, by Paul Morley, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £30


String Quartet No. 1, Johannes Brahms

I realised I wrote about a ton of string quartets [in the book], but didn’t write about any Brahms string quartets so I’ve just been listening to some Brahms.

Langsamer Satz, Anton Webern

One particular piece that I like, talking about death, is a very early piece called Langsamer Satz, 1905, which is a period when tonality is disrupting.

Panic by Harrison Birtwistle

I love the idea that Harrison Birtwistle went on a solo journey over the last 30, 40 years. He was in a world, a mind a place of his own, finding his own language with a great northern accent that was both genuinely northern but also transcendently northern, cosmically northern. And I love the fact that when people think about classical music they forget the characters and the heroes and villains if you like Birtwistle who are constantly stretching logic and reason and looking so far ahead and so far behind.