In 1969 UK composer Gavin Bryars was teaching at an art college in Portsmouth. Whilst Bryars had already composed the Sinking of the Titanic, his most famous piece, featuring the voice of an unknown tramp, Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet was still two years away. Teaching weekly classes, at first they did a few John Cage pieces before one of the students hit upon the idea of a classical orchestra, and the Portsmouth Sinfonia was born.
What makes the Sinfonia so interesting is that no one knew how to play their instruments, and to be fair the result sounded somewhat akin to an orchestra falling off a cliff. But much funnier. Even musicians who joined, like Brian Eno, played instruments they were unfamiliar with and though they played earnestly, the results were dire. They performed only popular songs, like the William Tell Overture because it was the theme song to the Lone Ranger and Blue Danube because it was in Kubrick’s 2001. They made a classical album before moving onto rock and demolishing tunes like A Day In The Life and Leader of the Pack.
“There was this album of something like the London Symphony Orchestra playing Switched on Rock classics and we thought this was the worst orchestra in the world and there couldn’t be a worse one than us so we had to make our own album,” Bryars told me recently. Whilst Bryars is a guest of the Adelaide Festival next month, keep an eye out for the Portsmouth Sinfonia. There’s nothing else like it.