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A Lifelong Rock Critic Goes Back to the Actual Classics

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How I Fell in Love With Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite Its Entire History)
By Paul Morley

Paul Morley is a 63-year-old English critic best known — still, to his annoyance — as a rock music journalist. He made his name reviewing rock ’n’ roll concerts for the (now online-only) British magazine New Musical Express in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and has since broadened his range into his own experimentation (taking part in the first incarnation of the ’80s “avant-pop collective” Art of Noise), record producing (he co-founded the ZTT label in 1983) and promotion (mostly for the rather cheesy band Frankie Goes to Hollywood), and books, including two on Joy Division. He still writes about rock today, when asked, but his focus has shifted. His current mission is to inspire rock fans to explore and love classical music.

An admirable aim, as far as it goes. He praises the New Yorker critic Alex Ross, whose own evolution has been the reverse of Morley’s. Ross remains rooted in classical music, very much including the up-to-the-minute experimentation Morley also champions, but has embraced some semi-related forms of popular music, like Radiohead, Björk and Brian Eno. To Morley’s chagrin, though, he realized he lacked Ross’s musical literacy; so to compensate he hooked up with the BBC to document the year (2010) he spent studying composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, despite not being able to read music or play an instrument. He still somehow succeeded in composing a few scores, to which he (perhaps blessedly) provides no links, and has since become the British pop world’s go-to spokesman for the country’s mostly hidebound classical music organizations, desperate to diversify their audiences.

This quasi memoir is the result of Morley’s post-pop adventures. He has long evinced a lively, informed interest in contemporary classical music as well as experimental rock, as in his eccentric 2003 pop history, “Words and Music,” which includes serious nods to American experimentalists like John Cage, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Alvin Lucier. In this new book, a kind of mirror image of his rock history, he’s embraced the whole of classical music, or at least his idiosyncratic understanding of it.

For Morley, the fulcrum from classic classical music to modernity was Debussy and Ravel at the turn of the 20th century. He’s not much interested in pre-Baroque music, and glosses over Handel and indeed most 19th-century German music and opera, especially Wagner, whom he offhandedly disparages every few pages. His first extended consideration of early-20th-century music is Holst’s “The Planets,” of all things.

Morley loves lists. In 2003, a reader had limited access to whatever songs Morley named in “Words and Music.” But nearly two decades later, thanks to streaming sites like Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud, anyone can hear anything anytime. Lists abound in “A Sound Mind,” but now they’re playlists, the accessibility of which makes the proselytizer’s task much easier. Morley’s playlists can leap from genre to genre. They encourage the neophyte to exploration, to assemble personal playlists of his or her own.

A downside is that these sites came into being as conduits for songs, not whole albums, let alone large-scale symphonies, oratorios or operas. One can find them, but they don’t fit neatly onto playlists, or encourage a rock fan toward the kind of extended concentration that extended composition often demands. When opera does appear on Morley’s lists, it’s in the form of scenes, not entire scores. He calls Mozart’s operas his “most impressive achievements,” but he’s “afraid” of them, and never ventures a serious discussion of them. No real consideration of Verdi or Richard Strauss. When he turns to “the current state of opera,” it’s standard repertory he thinks of, not the lively experimentation from composers he otherwise admires.

Morley is a bright writer, and most of his commentary on specific pieces and composers is sophisticated and insightful. But he wallows in overwriting (as in this book’s subtitle), and has a weird predilection for repetition and afterthought. Early on, for instance, he describes Beethoven’s work as “an uncanny demonstration of the relationship between time, space and mind, thinking and body, between sound and silence, between inside and outside, bliss and tension, temporary and permanent, motion and emotion and, ultimately, between life and death.” No editor seems to have been able to temper his enthusiasm.

The book’s organization is similarly scattershot. Not for him a conventional, chronological exploration of the entirety of classical music (capped by Richard Taruskin’s magisterial six-volume “Oxford History of Western Music,” which is unaccountably missing from Morley’s playlists). Instead we get a lot of autobiography; “a few of my favorite things”; observations about music writing; a flashback or two to his adolescence; some often amusing reports on visits to stodgy classical events and festivals (like Glyndebourne); chapters on the string quartet and piano music; periodic, unexplained swipes at the “humorless sentimentalist” Simon Cowell; transcribed interviews with performers (the British pianist Joanna MacGregor) and composers (Harrison Birtwistle, John Adams, Oliver Knussen); a never-answered musing on what music he wants to hear as he takes his last breath; and, of course, ever more playlists. Much of this haphazardly assembled book seems to have been triggered by whatever articles and talks and panels and interviews he happens to have been asked to provide or participate in or whichever composers he was able to interview, in print or in public.

Like a playlist, “A Sound Mind” — filling nearly 600 large pages with smallish print — is maybe meant to be dipped into, not actually read front to back. A pity: Morley is smart if self-involved, but he lacks an overarching structure. Like those in the operas, symphonies and choral masterpieces he slights. Next book, maybe.

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