The Worst Orchestra in the World

For those not acquainted with the incomparable Portsmouth Sinfonia, I submit for consideration the following two clips:


These performances are so uproariously funny that many might assume that they were expressly intended as fodder for “viral” videos; however, a little Googling reveals that this is far from the case. Interestingly, the orchestra was formed at the Portsmouth School of Art in 1970 with founding members including English composer Gavin Bryars. Loosely based on Cornelius Cardew’s “scratch orchestra”, the ensemble has included students and amateurs as well as creative figures such as Michael Nyman and Brian Eno. The only requirement for membership in the orchestra—that individual performers play an instrument in which they were not proficient—is notable not only for its humorous irreverence but also for the way it articulates a fearless, do-it-yourself ethos that is the all the more apparent as the ensemble takes on the kind of material that might happily populate a “Light Classics” concert—a symbol of the uncritical “easy listening” approach and a stagnant, conventional repertoire.

For me the laughter brought on by listening to the Portsmouth Sinfonia is hardly an exercise in haughtiness or schadenfreude (as are many “blooper” videos). Rather it seems to have something to do with the unflappable joy and enthusiasm these musicians exude, even in the face of utter “failure” as defined by classical performance standards. Their plucky perseverance calls these very traditional standards of success and failure into question, replacing them with the idea that recreational music-making, communal participation, and having fun might be just as essential to healthy musical society as hitting all the right notes.

One thought on “The Worst Orchestra in the World

  1. colin holter

    I love this group because they remind us that playing music (let alone playing music in a huge group on stage in sync) is a special and peculiar thing for humans to do. I’d rather live in a world with a thousand Portsmouth Sinfonias than a world with no orchestras but the Big Five.

    Reply

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