Meet the World’s Worst Orchestra, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, Featuring Brian Eno

What is it about objec­tive­ly ter­ri­ble works of art that so cap­ti­vates? Cults form around Tom­my Wiseau’s The Room, the “Cit­i­zen Kane of bad movies,” or ama­teur girl-group The Shag­gs, “the best—or worst—band of all time.” Such utter art­less­ness can­not be faked, but it can, com­pos­er Gavin Bryars found, be delib­er­ate­ly orches­trat­ed, to quite enjoy­ably ter­ri­ble effect. In 1970, Bryars staged a three-day tal­ent show at the Portsmouth School of Art, with come­di­ans, ven­tril­o­quists, musi­cians, etc. His own entry was the Portsmouth Sin­fo­nia, now right­ly known as the “world’s worst orches­tra.” The Sin­fo­nia, writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, “wel­comed musi­cians and non-musi­cians alike, though peo­ple of tal­ent were expect­ed to play instru­ments on which they were not pro­fi­cient.” The first iter­a­tion of the group con­sist­ed of 13 stu­dents who could hard­ly play at all.

Lat­er ensem­bles fea­tured more dra­mat­ic dis­par­i­ties in tal­ent. But no mat­ter their lev­el of abil­i­ty, “all mem­bers were expect­ed to play the reper­toire to the best of their abil­i­ties. The result was a spe­cial kind of cacoph­o­ny: every famil­iar theme (Also sprach Zarathus­trathe William Tell Over­tureBeethoven’s Fifth), though played as inept­ly as pos­si­ble, was approached with respect and even care. You will instant­ly rec­og­nize every tune they attempt, and you will prob­a­bly bust a gut,” adds Dan­ger­ous Minds.

Maybe it’s the earnest­ness that gets us, the best of inten­tions pro­duc­ing the most ridicu­lous of results. Though formed as a “one-off joke,” Atlas Obscu­ra notes, the Sin­fo­nia con­tin­ued after an “out­pour­ing of enthu­si­asm,” and even attract­ed Bri­an Eno, who joined on clar­inet, an instru­ment he’d nev­er played, and pro­duced and record­ed with the group on their debut 1974 album, Portsmouth Sin­fo­nia Plays the Pop­u­lar Clas­sics.

The group’s num­bers swelled by the mid-sev­en­ties to include, Eno wrote in the album’s lin­er notes, “a mem­ber­ship of about fifty.” He lets us know in his dead­pan intro­duc­tion that the Sin­fo­nia took its work seri­ous­ly. The orches­tra “tends to gen­er­ate an extra-ordi­nary and unique musi­cal sit­u­a­tion where the inevitable errors must be con­sid­ered as a cru­cial, if inad­ver­tent, ele­ment of the music.”

It is impor­tant to stress the main char­ac­ter­is­tic of the orches­tra: that all mem­bers of the Sin­fo­nia share the desire to play the pieces as accu­rate­ly as pos­si­ble. One sup­pos­es that the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pro­fes­sion­al accu­ra­cy will for­ev­er elude us since there is a con­stant influx of new mem­bers and a con­tin­u­al desire to attempt more ambi­tious pieces from the realms of the pop­u­lar clas­sics.

This is dif­fi­cult to read with a straight face, but Bryars “was adamant,” the blog Clas­si­cal Music Reimag­ined explains, “that the musi­cians shouldn’t play for laughs – they hon­est­ly had to play to the best of their abil­i­ty, and atten­dance at rehearsal was manda­to­ry. Footage of the orches­tra in action shows an incred­i­ble lev­el of con­cen­tra­tion and focus (if not results).” A few mem­bers do seem be hav­ing fun with Han­del’s Mes­si­ah in the short clip of a live per­for­mance below, fea­tur­ing a seri­ous Eno. But most of them are gen­uine­ly giv­ing it their all.

Exper­i­men­tal the­ater, con­cep­tu­al art, or prac­ti­cal joke, it makes no dif­fer­ence. There is tru­ly some­thing “extra-ordi­nary and unique” about this “musi­cal sit­u­a­tion,” you must agree. The so-bad-it’s‑goodness of the Sin­fo­nia comes not only from their lack of tal­ent, but also from the enor­mous gap between inten­tions and results—a uni­ver­sal­ly rec­og­niz­able con­di­tion of the human com­e­dy. We cel­e­brate the excep­tions, those whose great efforts tru­ly pro­duce great­ness. But in the Sin­fo­nia, we may encounter the less-great parts of our­selves, enno­bled in their inep­ti­tude by the fool­har­di­ness of this tragi­com­ic dar­ing.

via Atlas Obscu­ra +  Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Ian Hays says:

    Yes, I was a mem­ber of the Portsmouth Sin­fo­nia in 1969 with oth­er stu­dents from the then Portsmouth School of Art and Design. As an idea the inten­tion has always been per­vert­ed and pre­sent­ed as a project that was essen­tial­ly con­cerned with mak­ing very bad music — when in fact the pre­sen­ta­tion in per­for­mance was that of musi­cians prac­tic­ing the musi­cal pieces they had in front of them — it was this “prac­tice” that was on stage and not the typ­i­cal pol­ished per­for­mance. A sim­ple idea that has sym­bol­ic mean­ing strong­ly con­nect­ed with the lives ordi­nary peo­ple.

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