INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo APRIL 2009 - by Jonny Trunk
PORTSMOUTH SINFONIA PLAYS THE POPULAR CLASSICS
If in 1973 you'd bought this album based on a desire to own the world's favourite classical tunes, you'd get it home, stick it on and probably wonder if your turntable needed servicing. You'd question the belt drive, maybe check the platter speed too. Probably even take the LP back to the shop and complain. Because even though it's an album of eleven popular classics, they are all played in a most unpopular way.
It was all the brainchild of Gavin Bryars, a lecturer at Portsmouth College Of Art in 1970. Based on the theories and Scratch Orchestra idea of composer Cornelius Cardew, Bryars decided to enter a talent competition called Opportunity Rocks with a band he'd hastily assembled. It was all a bit of an art school prank by the sounds of it, and the band headed for the stage as The Portsmouth Sinfonia. The rest is the stuff of musical legend. You see, it wasn't about getting the music right, it was about getting it right in the wrong way. Or maybe just getting it wrong in the right way. None of the musicians playing was trained, and if they were trained a bit in one instrument they had to play a different one. Luckily, performing classic tunes offers up a few advantages in that the players would know roughly when the notes should be changing. It should also be noted that everyone involved did want to play the music correctly, but it was inevitable that they couldn't. And that was the whole idea.
One listen to this debut album takes you back to the sound of an early school concert, or rather to the even earlier rehearsals. Or the tuning up bit. The sound makes your mind work in unusual ways, readjusting to the bad notes, almost trying to predict and enjoy them. To some this album is a low point in music, to others it's high musical art.
From its earliest appearances the ranks of the Sinfonia swelled, and over the years members would include the likes of Brian Eno, Michael Nyman and Simon Fisher Turner. As Eno notes on the back of this LP, Beethoven would have delighted in having this music played by enthusiastic amateurs rather than trained professionals. You can hear Eno's point. It's much more entertaining, more so if you have a sense of humour.
The band went on to greater things - sell-out concerts including a night at the Royal Albert Hall, a live album, and in 1979 they turned their attention to the rock canon on 20 Classic Rock Classics. They even cut a Top 30 hit 45 known affectionately as Classical Muddly.
Their whole output is currently out of print, but surely it's only a matter of time before someone with good ears and a strong stomach reissues the best classical album ever made by the world's worst orchestra.