My Taste in Terrible Music #2: Portsmouth Sinfonia

The opening to Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra is possibly one of the most famous orchestral works ever composed – its iconic use in 2001: A Space Odyssey complements the tone poem’s philosophical origin, and its emotive power doubtless comes from its masterful harnessing of the overtone series – the simplest possible musical relation, presented in an awesomely moving orchestration:

Beautiful.


I genuinely love that video. Portsmouth Sinfonia, founded in 1970 in Portsmouth College of Art, was an orchestra of amateurs – all players were either non-musicians or were playing unfamiliar instruments. Their notorious career was infamous throughout the 70s, as they became known for rendition of such other favourites as:

The William Tell Overture,

The Hall of the Mountain King,

and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

As well as being hilarious, it actually raises some interesting questions; what defines a work? These pieces have all been butchered by any conventional standard of performance, but it’s still possible to identify what pieces are being played. Though this seems to have caused conflict when they released their recording of Also Sprach; the copyright holders claimed they had made alterations to the music, but the orchestra manager claimed they were unintentional, and “happened more as a result of incompetence.” Their anarchic and earnest approach to music has been compared to the rise of punk later in the decade – it’s got to be admitted that there is a startling DIY ethic at work here. They weren’t worried about their level of skill or the opinions of the critics – they wanted to play the music and they did.

Of course, by its very nature, this orchestra was a temporary affair; as the players grew more proficient on their instruments, they began to play more correctly and the unique selling point of the orchestra began to fade away.  Over its ten-year career, the Sinfonia played the Albert Hall (they booked it themselves after the BBC refused them a slot in the Proms), released three albums, and had such famous members as Brian Eno and Michael Nyman.

Youtube only seems to have intermittent coverage of their music, though other audio websites seems to have fill in some of the blanks, such as Holst’s Jupiter. The Portsmouth Sinfonia website, gives us the exciting news that a reunion is planned… unfortunately, the website doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2004, and there’s no hint anywhere else to indicate this planned reunion, or the CD reissue of their recordings, ever took place.

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One response to “My Taste in Terrible Music #2: Portsmouth Sinfonia

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