Regular readers of the CDA mailer remember the infamous “Classical Music Fails” volumes 1 and 2. They are lowlight reels of classical-music nightmares, the worst things that can happen onstage. The standout among those — and this is saying something — was a shitty, broken-down, unattributed performance of Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (Don’t worry, I’ll link to it later.)
The Zarathustra performance was so bad I figured it was a hoax, but luckily the folks over at Touchpress are able to attest to its authenticity.
The group responsible for the carnage was the Portsmouth Sinfonia. They were founded at the Portsmouth College of Art in 1970 as a conceptual art project. The concept? Nobody in the orchestra knew how to play their instruments. The mistakes were the art, man.
Portsmouth Sinfonia’s founder, Gavin Bryars, demanded an earnest effort from his subjects. They practiced, they improved marginally, and they performed in a way that sounded approximately like what the composer intended. The Portsmouth Sinfonia counted none other than Brian Eno among its members (on clarinet!). Composer Michael Nyman was even more dramatically seduced while attending a Portsmouth Sinfonia performance:
I sat through the first half […] and I was so moved and entertained and excited by the music that I went up to Gavin in the interval and said, ‘Is there a spare instrument? I’d like to join.’ They had a spare cello, so suddenly I was playing ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ in the second half.
When you’ve got that kind of heat it follows that more and more people would start to hear about it. The Portsmouth Sinfonia grew so popular (really?!) they recorded an album which Rolling Stone called 1974’s “Comedy Album of the Year.” They played Royal Albert Hall and other downscale venues while billed as “the world’s worst orchestra.” And then they broke up.
The lesson here is that if you premise your recordings on a certain “authenticity” fans are happy to get behind it (the Wesley Willis / Lil B axiom) even if it sounds… kinda suspect. Some fails are secret successes, we love what we should hate, we’re so random and unpredictable like that. Reach for the stars.