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The Portsmouth Sinfonia to return?
January 11, 2005 4:50 AM   Subscribe

The Portsmouth Sinfonia to return? In 1974, Gavin Bryars rounded up a group of novices and enthusiastic amateurs, called them the Portsmouth Sinfonia and let them loose in a recording studio. The result: some of the most disturbing classical music ever committed to tape. Intrigued by the concept, the legendary Brian Eno signed up and played clarinet for the orchestra, adding a certain star cachet to the cacophony. On the back of sympathetic TV coverage, there followed a now-legendary concert at London's Royal Albert Hall. Thirty years later, there are plans to release Portsmouth Sinfonia's output on compact disc by way of celebration. A brazen attempt for quck laughs and publicity, a serious exploration of entropy in the musical medium, or simply an early entry in the torture tape experiment?
posted by scaryduck (36 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
If you picture their version of Also Sprach Zarathustra as a field recording of a terrified elephant's death throes, it almost works!
posted by picea at 4:58 AM on January 11, 2005


Thanks, scary. I ran across this music when I was doing my practice teaching as a budding band instructor. It was "new" then. This brought back memories, and probably will result in a few night sweats again.
posted by charms55 at 5:05 AM on January 11, 2005


truly the shaggs of the classical music scene
posted by pyramid termite at 5:54 AM on January 11, 2005


I remember finding a sound clip of this some years back. Definitely fell into the "so bad it's funny" category, although a whole CD might be a bit much.

Eno's the kind of person who would vehemently argue that it is art. I'm the kind of person who would agree, with the caveat that it is bad art.
posted by salmacis at 5:55 AM on January 11, 2005


Oh man... the climax of Also Sprach Zarathustra, where it's supposed to resolve into that bombastic melody with the organ tones... whoo! That's really something.

Actually it kind of reminds me of the tenor sax solo in "Super Bad"... poor Robert McCollough, a barely competent sax player, is stuck in the JBs with James Brown, Maceo Parker, and the Collins brothers, and he just can't quite keep up when the solo gets around to him. James is yelling at him the whole time, "Come on, Robert! Come on!" Whee.
posted by rkent at 6:20 AM on January 11, 2005


I can't wait for the album "Polyphonic Spree and Portsmouth Sinfonia-- LIVE!"
posted by paddbear at 6:22 AM on January 11, 2005


Perhaps my favorite and least listened CD is Jesus Blood: Never Failed Me Yet, created by Gavin Bryers with additional vocals by Tom Waits. It is basically a 70 minute loop of an old homeless man from London singing "Jesus blood, never failed me yet" with orchestration in the background. At a certain point Tom Waits takes over the vocals, and then it goes back to the homeless guy.

It's least listened to because no one around me ever wants to hear it! But it's beautiful in a hypnotic sort of way.
posted by alms at 6:26 AM on January 11, 2005


folks ... this is truly worthy of an fpp in itself ... from the same site, may i present homer slockenheimer and his godawful, unbelievably bad, audio torture tape of all time version of "o holy night"

you will never be the same after hearing this
posted by pyramid termite at 6:42 AM on January 11, 2005


ZOMG! They're finally putting it out on CD! Yessssssss!!!

There's simply nothing like the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The joke that makes it work is that they're not trying to be bad, and they're just competent enough to get the very basic form of whatever they're tackling, finding that perfect tightrope where the idealistic potential meets the harsh reality.

Over the past few years I've periodically scanned eBay to see if anyone had such an item, to no avail. This is great news! I've tried in vain to explain to my 11-year-old the wild joy of hearing "In the Hall of the Mountain King" approach its final, frenzied, hacking chords with the various instruments falling all over each other trying to get to the right spot. Jesus, I'm laughing now just thinking of it. Thanks, scaryduck.
posted by soyjoy at 7:17 AM on January 11, 2005


This is the best thing ever, at least for this week.
posted by 40 Watt at 7:27 AM on January 11, 2005


Oh, and on afterthought, those unfamiliar with Gavin Bryars' work might want to at least check out "The Sinking of the Titanic", a 70-minute ambient-ish orchestral piece recorded (on some recordings at least) inside a giant water tank with the premise that the band on the doomed ship continued to play even after the water covered their heads. Tons of long, slow passages with lots of natural reverb, and eventually the players get out of phase enough that the whole piece becomes a wonderful shifting blur of sound.
posted by 40 Watt at 7:32 AM on January 11, 2005


Just. Wow. And to think I gave up on being a musician just because I had no talent for the trumpet. I now realize that I am just a quitter. This is wonderful, scaryduck.

(And Blue Danube Waltz sounds like it should have been in The Shining.)
posted by theFlyingSquirrel at 7:39 AM on January 11, 2005


Because it features the Sinfonia playing, I've got fucking Put Straw Under Baby from this album stuck in my head now. Thanks. Thanks a lot.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:46 AM on January 11, 2005


Is it just me, or does Homer Slockenheimer sound like that stuttering kid from South Park with a record deal?
posted by evilcupcakes at 7:54 AM on January 11, 2005


I had the 45 of them playing Also Sprach ... on one side and the William Tell Overture on the other when I was a kid. I played the hell out of it and then one day it just sort of disappeared from my record collection.
posted by octothorpe at 7:58 AM on January 11, 2005


folks ... this is truly worthy of an fpp in itself ... from the same site, may i present homer slockenheimer and his godawful, unbelievably bad, audio torture tape of all time version of "o holy night"

Isn't "Oh Holy Night" torture enough?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:05 AM on January 11, 2005


Is it just me, or does Homer Slockenheimer sound like that stuttering kid from South Park with a record deal?

I thought it sounded surprising like Cartman's rendition of "O Holy Night". So much so that I now wonder if Matt Stone and Trey Parker have heard and were appropriately inspired by the Slockenheimer version.
posted by theFlyingSquirrel at 8:32 AM on January 11, 2005


Well worth remembering -- I'm glad they are being reissued.

I remember an interview from when they were new. Apparently the secret was the mixture of musicians -- enough people who knew what they were doing so that the music remained recognizable, enough rank beginners to make it sound awful, enough in between to round out the sound -- then rehearsing just enough -- too little and they all got lost, too much and they would start to sound too good.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:35 AM on January 11, 2005


This sounds essentially indistinguishable from a few dozen junior high bands I've had to suffer through. How come Brian Eno never deemed those to be Art?
posted by infidelpants at 8:47 AM on January 11, 2005


infidelpants, they are art. For the same reason.

The whole concept reminds me a lot of a large orchestra I was part of in high school. Once per year, all of the high school orchestras from the central part of the state would get together to play a single concert. The idea was that every orchestra would individually work on a set of pieces, and then the whole group would practice throughout a single day and perform in the evening.

On one year, we were out of synch. Really out of synch. Rather than follow the conductor, it sounded like high school students were just trying to keep pace with the person in front of them. When this was expanded to several hundred people, there were some serious delays. The back of the auditorium was about a sixteenth note behind the front, or more. I wish I had a recording.
posted by mikeh at 8:55 AM on January 11, 2005


and they're just competent enough to get the very basic form of whatever they're tackling, finding that perfect tightrope where the idealistic potential meets the harsh reality.

Not sure how this differs from a typical junior high school orchestra, but ok. OTOH, I do believe that bad art is indeed the highest artform, so kudos for that.
posted by psmealey at 9:16 AM on January 11, 2005


This is awesome. Reminds me of 'Strange Strings' by the late great Sun Ra.

From Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times of Sun Ra:

Strange Strings (issued in 1967) pushed further in the direction that Sun Ra had been heading in The Magic City. From a search of curio shops and music stores Sun Ra has assembled a number of stringed instruments-- ukeleles, koto, mandolin, a 'Chinese Lute'-- and passed them out to the reed and horn players. He thought that strings could touch people in a special way, different from other instruments; and though the Arkestra didn't know how to play them, that was the point: a study in ignorance, he called it.

Marshall Allen said that when they began to record the musicians asked Sun Ra what they should play, and he answered only that he would point to them when he wanted them to start. The result is an astonishing achievement, a musical event which seems independent of all other musical traditions and histories. The music was recorded at high volume, laden with selectively applied echo, so that all of the instruments bleed together and the stringed instruments sound as if they, too were made of sheet metal.

posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:26 AM on January 11, 2005


Oops, that should be "Sun Ra HAD assembled..."
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:28 AM on January 11, 2005


Wow, this is great.

I had no idea that Gavin Bryars was behind this. His album "Farewell to Philosophy" -- featuring a 20-minute concerto led by luminous jazz bassist Charlie Haden -- is one of my favorite recordings.
posted by digaman at 9:42 AM on January 11, 2005


Great post. I love Bryar's Titanic and Jesus' Blood (the version without Tom Waits), but I had never heard of this piece. It's art for the sake that someone (Bryars) DID it and presented it as such. I can't wait to hear it.
posted by ism at 9:50 AM on January 11, 2005


My Christmas shopping for next year is now finished.
posted by chicobangs at 10:04 AM on January 11, 2005


Not to pick on you, psmealey, but "Not sure how this differs from a typical junior high school orchestra" is the new "My kindergartner could've drawn that!"

The obvious rejoinder is: Yes. Exactly.
posted by soyjoy at 10:11 AM on January 11, 2005


fucking Put Straw Under Baby

Argh! My eyes ears! Ze goggles, zey do nothing!

(Actually, considering how good the rest of the album is, the horribleness of that particular track is even more...impressive.)
posted by Vervain at 10:18 AM on January 11, 2005


Don't get me wrong, soyjoy, as a musican who struggles mightily with the form myself, I do have an appreciation for this. But when I listened to the interpretation of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (linked above), I flashed all the way back to the 7th grade, when we were subjected to pretty much the exactly same rendition in an all school assembly.
posted by psmealey at 10:21 AM on January 11, 2005


One thing to note: virtually everybody in the Sinfonia could read music (they did have scores to follow). They just didn't necessarily have a lot of ability--or a little--on the particular instruments they were playing.
posted by 88robots at 10:21 AM on January 11, 2005


This reminds me of my middle school wind band! I still have no idea how our band director could suffer through teaching beginning students for over 20 years, but I'm thankful that she did.
posted by turtlegirl at 10:33 AM on January 11, 2005


The Portsmouth Sinfonia had it's origins in the Scratch Orchestra put together by Cornelius Cardew to perform Paragraph II of his "Great Learning".
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:52 AM on January 11, 2005


Sun RA!
Thanks for the connection to the Symphonia, Fuzzy Monster! You nailed it.
posted by zaelic at 5:01 PM on January 11, 2005


I was a member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia in 1979 (leader of the second violins for a brief, heady spell - we played London's Rainbow Theatre, offering a sort of murdered Boston Pops medley in the style of Last Night at the Proms; I remember laughing so hard during rehearsals my face hurt and the chin support of my violin was permanently slippery with tears). I loved the comments of Soyjoy, Quinbus Flestrin and 88robots - they all get it perfectly. I think I was probably a typical player - 12 years of private lessons, no natural talent whatsoever but with a touch of the Pia Zadora syndrome - an excruciatingly misplaced desire for artistic self-expression. Audition was via an essay by post, naturally. I think the charm of the Portsmouth Sinfonia probably can't stand too much analysis but listening to those clips made the tears of joy spring forth again. Thanks scaryduck.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:25 AM on January 12, 2005 [2 favorites]


Jody, that's an awesome story!

Also, I resolve to use the phrase "Pia Zadora Syndrome" at least twice today.
posted by chicobangs at 8:42 AM on January 12, 2005


Posts like Jody's are why I love metafilter. Thanks for sharing, that's so cool that you were involved!
posted by ism at 3:39 PM on January 14, 2005


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