performing what could fairly be called unsuccessful music
November 13, 2017 1:25 PM   Subscribe

That time that Brian Eno was a member of the worst orchestra in the world. (You may know them from that one Youtube video).
posted by MartinWisse (29 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The Long No.
posted by pracowity at 1:48 PM on November 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

...their attempts at songs were almost always recognizable, just cringe-inducingly bad, with plenty of off-notes and random blasts of noise coloring each performance. This gave the Sinfonia a comedic appeal, but also ended up producing a raw sort of sound that gave it a distinctly emotional and human feel.

I dispute the author's definition of both of those labels.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:48 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another article on the Sinfonia which includes this interesting tidbit:
A scheduled concert for the inmates of Wandsworth Prison faced opposition from the Howard League for Penal Reform on the grounds that it constituted a form of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.
posted by dannyboybell at 2:12 PM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I discovered the Portsmouth Sinfonia a few months ago and I love them. They make me laugh every time I listen to them. Their earlier stuff is way better (i.e. played worse) than their last record, 20 Classic Rock Classics. I couldn't find a mention of this in the Atlas Obscura article, but legend has it that the orchestra had become fairly decent at playing the instruments they were once unfamiliar with, and thus disbanned.
posted by bigendian at 2:31 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm kind of worried that this is exactly how the Symphony For A Broken Orchestra, in which I am playing (a busted) French horn, will be received.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:40 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh my stars.

This... I think this is like how some people eat very hot sauces? Like, they get actual tears in their eyes but keep eating, because it releases endorphins? I think that's why/how I somehow did not rip the headphones off of my head halfway through the "Blue Danube," even with all the cringing?

I think there's also some admiration for the performers. They're not good on their instruments, but there's nothing that says they aren't good with music. It's quite possible they got the full-body cringes I was getting, but somehow didn't throw down the instrument and run out of the room. So, mad respect.

I never knew that "so bad it's good" could even be a thing in musical performance.
posted by seyirci at 2:46 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Always loved them. I suspect that early exposure to the Residents and Fred Frith and Eugene Chadbourne warped my brain in a particular way.
posted by metagnathous at 2:56 PM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

I got their first album, Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics, to review in 1974, and listened to it a few times. Classics indeed, in addition to Also Sprach – excerpts from the Peer Gynt and Nutcracker Suites, the Wiliam Tell Overture, the Blue Danube Waltz, and so on. Can't remember if I ever wrote anything about it.

Never realized that a) the Sinfonia released more than one record or b) Eno was one of the 33 musicians pictured on the cover. Now that I pull the record off the shelf, I see that in addition to being listed on clarinet, he’s credited as the 'sound producer,' and – along with conductor John Farley – wrote the liner notes.

"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," Eno said, adding "I am a non-musician [myself] in the sense of never having “studied music,” yet at the same time, I notice that many of the more significant contributions to rock music and, to a lesser extent, avant-garde music have been made by enthusiastic amateurs and dabblers." His complete liner notes can be found here.

p.s. I try to listen seriously as well, but the beginning of their rendition of Beethoven's Fifth truly is hilarious to me.
posted by LeLiLo at 3:11 PM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Portsmouth Sinfonia was how I discovered Brian Eno.

Make of that what you will.
posted by prismatic7 at 3:58 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I expected something at least as good as a high school orchestra, but no.
posted by GuyZero at 4:14 PM on November 13, 2017

The community I grew up in started band members in the third grade. Full sized instruments and all. "Cringe inducing," would be the understatement of the century when evaluating what sounds an enthusiastic 8 year old can produce with a trombone.

I remember with teeth-clenching fondness the first time I encountered Portsmouth Sinfonia when I moved to the UK in 1979, at 20. They were presented on the telly as a real thing, even as audience members were chortling away as the house lights came up. It was simultaneously hilarious, enthralling, and the most endearing misery I had ever heard, and it took me right back to the first three months of third grade.

Our band director was a true visionary to have carried on through that hideous hot mess.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:55 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Long No.

Ambient 5: Desert Bus
posted by zippy at 6:09 PM on November 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

The thin veneer of anti-professionalism shimmers somewhat on 20 Classic Rock Classics, their version of God Only Knows includes that funny little bridge that The Langley Schools Music Project discards. But it's all good, both albums are on my list.
posted by ovvl at 6:10 PM on November 13, 2017

I was leader of the second violins of the Portsmouth Sinfonia in the late 1970s for three or four London concerts and it was the most brilliant, lovely fun. Most of us could actually read music (due to years and years of otherwise fruitless music lessons), we just also had tin ears, poor technique, no talent at all, but - weirdly - a genuine desire to be part of a grand symphony orchestra. It was certainly a bonkers idea but it was a joy to be part of it - and to be playing on major stages, murdering pieces like The William Tell Overture and laughing ourselves silly.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:32 PM on November 13, 2017 [30 favorites]

I found it physically uncomfortable to listen to this music and had to turn it off after less than thirty seconds, but I'm glad to know about it.
posted by Kwine at 7:40 PM on November 13, 2017

I really love this. You never know exactly what they're going to do from moment to moment.
posted by umbú at 8:14 PM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also Sprach Zarathustra comes out like the wailing of lost souls. I got goosebumps before having hysterics. An interesting combo!
posted by ninazer0 at 8:48 PM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

For a delicious recent jazz take on this, see H. Jon Benjamin's fantastic anti-jazz (ultra-jazz?) album, "Well, I should have... (learned how to play piano)".
posted by FatherDagon at 9:28 PM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Such is the nature of Art that the same notes conjures up wailings of souls for one listener, while in me--perhaps this speaks to my juvenile frame of mind--it evokes nothing less than a series of ripe, room-filling flatulence so vivid that I could practically smell the notes. Powerful stuff.
posted by Pantalaimon at 9:45 PM on November 13, 2017

See. My ear is damn near tone deaf too and this sort of thing, and the obvious endearment for it from folks here (myself included), makes me want to hop back upon my discussion inducing but totally just my opinion hobby horse that our humanity's love for music, as defined by certain traits*, is just a social construct that has little to no basis in physiology.

*I'm not a musical person so I cannot run down the list of traits like a truly educated person could but, if I had to try to put words to some examples, it would include the old joke about the Asian musician being introduced to Western music for the first time and, when asked which piece was his favorite, he said "The first one" referencing the orchestra tuning up. That's based upon the two schools of music being on different scales (trigonometric vs ... Uh something?) I think. Or how the only instruments that don't produce purewave forms (again probably not the right nomenclature) are the didgeridoo, bagpipes, and (I think?) throat singers. And how those instruments can/do grate against many people's ears.

But don't mind me, some of my favorite jams are Native American drum circles/chants. And the banjo.And bad orchestras it seems.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:55 PM on November 13, 2017

My god, that Strauss waltz! Brilliant.

There's an achingly romantic fin de siècle feel to the Blue Danube waltz for me, even if it is an old warhorse of a piece, conjuring visions of late Habsburg Empire evenings, beautiful women in ball gowns, and sharp dressed men waltzing in fancy palaces, oblivious to the world soon to come crashing down around them.

This though, isn't that. In point of fact, it's probably a better aural description of the world around them, on the cusp of revolution and war, society pulling apart at the seams as a five hundred year old empire creaked and groaned—much like this orchestra!— under the stresses of the industrializing 20th century. Also, funny.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 1:22 AM on November 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

And thus was punk rock born.
posted by whuppy at 7:25 AM on November 14, 2017

Srsly tho, thanks for posting. These songs fill me with unbridled joy.
posted by whuppy at 7:38 AM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh my god I am DELIGHTED by this. I was grinning ear to ear from the first note of Also Sprache; the way it descends aesthetically (even as its ascending tonally) into a kind of dissociated ramshackle in the final few notes feels to me like it stumbles right into nodding at Ligeti's deliberately dissonant Atmospheres. I'm going to pretend that if given the opportunity, Kubrick would have incorporated it into the 2001 soundtrack.

Danube by contrast has more cohesion to it that's alllllmost disappointing by comparison but I am really loving the kind of "we're drunk but not too drunk to walk" momentum it has.

see H. Jon Benjamin's fantastic anti-jazz (ultra-jazz?) album, "Well, I should have... (learned how to play piano)".

YES. It is very good. We had a post about it and I impulse bought it and I have never regretted it.
posted by cortex at 7:54 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

And oh my gosh the contrast between the flagrantly competent vibes player and everyone else in this Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies is magnificent. The rhythmically grounded, nearly-consistently melodically correct chimes erecting a deceptively stable platform into the supports of which the rest of the orchestra keeps running in at full careening tackle is just really really good. When the vibes stumble on the melody a couple times later on you almost want to apologize and give them a hug and buy them a hot cocoa and tell them no one could be expected to operate under such circumstances.
posted by cortex at 8:01 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Transformations of familiar music are often delightful to hear. And there's many ways to achieve that transformation, but one I haven't thought of was lowering the skill of the performers! Though, I should've.
posted by ignignokt at 8:31 AM on November 14, 2017

that also sprach is the best thing ever. so many amazing laughs i have experienced listening to that with friends. a wonderful remaking of something so strongly lodged in our minds...
posted by danjo at 9:27 AM on November 14, 2017

Thanks for this - Also Sprach Whatsisname is still tear-inducingly, cringingly hilarious, even after all the years.

I learned two new things today:

First, for some reason I thought the Portsmouth Sinfonia was a big put-on by professional musicians ("only a good musician could play that bad")...I did not know it was a group of earnest beginners. Wow. I almost feel bad for laughing. Almost.

The second is that Brian Eno was briefly involved. Eno is brilliant and cool, so this becomes brilliant and cool.

I'm sort of inspired to drag out my two long-unplayed guitars and that dusty pile of kit-built '70s synth stuff I built while at uni, and express my unmusicality without restraint. If you're in SW Toronto, close your windows now.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:55 AM on November 14, 2017

Alas, being a music educator for many years has desensitized me to the tragicomic effect of this kind of thing.
posted by speicus at 11:32 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

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