Butchering the classics through avant-garde amateurism: the Portsmouth Sinfonia embodied the joyous collectivism of 1970s British counterculture.
In 1970, galvanized in part by the musical experiments of avant-garde composers Gavin Bryars, John Cage and Cornelius Cardew, students at Portsmouth College of Art in England formed their own symphony orchestra. Christened the Portsmouth Sinfonia, its primary requirement for membership was that all players, regardless of skill, experience or musicianship, be unfamiliar with their chosen instruments. This restriction, coupled with the decision to play “only the familiar bits” of classical music, challenged the Sinfonia’s audience to reconsider the familiar, as the ensemble haplessly butchered the classics at venues ranging from avant-garde music festivals to the Royal Albert Hall. By the end of the decade, after three LPs of their anarchic renditions of classical and rock music and a revolving cast of over 100 musicians—including Michael Nyman and Brian Eno—the Sinfonia would cease performing, never officially retiring.
The first book devoted to the ensemble, The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia examines the founding tenets, organizing principles and collective memories of the Sinfonia, whose historical position as “the world’s worst orchestra” underplays its unique accomplishment as a populist avant-garde project in which music, collectivity and humor all flourished. The unorthodox journey of the Sinfonia unfolds here through interviews with the orchestra’s original members and publicist/manager, magazine publications, photographs and unseen archival material, alongside an essay by Christopher M. Reeves.