The Glory Of The Portsmouth Sinfonia

The magnificent cacophany of ‘the world’s worst orchestra’ remembered.

Born from the experimental and avant-garde music world of the 1960s, The Portsmouth Sinfonia was part novelty act, part sincere experimentation to redefine how we understand music. Formed by Gavin Bryars at the Portsmouth School of Art in 1970, the orchestra became an unexpected mainstream cult hit, and even now their unique interpretation of both classical pieces and pop hits is startling.

The idea behind the Sinfonia was simple – the members were either people who had never played a musical instrument before, or else musicians being made to play an instrument that they were unfamiliar with. They were initially given well known pieces of music to perform, so that they would at least have an idea of how the piece was supposed to sound and progress. Contrary to popular belief, the orchestra members were not trying to play badly – in fact they were told to do their very best, and even had rehearsals. But of course, they were unlikely to suddenly turn into the London Symphony Orchestra.

The  Sinfonia was invited to play at the Royal Festival Hall, and then released their first album, Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics, in 1974. Later that year, they performed to a sell out crowd at the Royal Albert Hall – by this time, their ranks had swelled to include Brian Eno, who also produced the debut album and the live recording of the Albert Hall show.

The joy of the Sinfonia – and the thing that makes them in interesting social experiment as well as a novelty act – is the way their versions of famous tunes are both maddeningly familiar – you’ll be able to identify everything they play almost immediately – and yet so completely off-kilter that the tunes become fresh and original. You’ve heard countless orchestral versions of The Blue Danube, all of which sound exactly the same, but the version by the Portsmouth Sinfonia makes it feel as though you are hearing it for the very first time. The discordant elements – what Eric Morecambe would memorably call playing with “all the right notes… just not necessarily in the right order” – are curiously enjoyable to hear.

The Sinfonia continued through the 1970s, but their impact was dimished, ironically, by the members becoming more proficient at their chosen instrument. Practice might not have made perfect, but it did smooth out some of the rough edges. However, it might be said that these less obviously cacophonous versions were even more subversive, as they could almost pass as a straight rendition, yet clearly still had something not quite right about them.

Sadly, the Sinfonia has not performed live since 1979. Surely it is time for a new incarnation to merge to blow the dust off an increasingly dull music scene.