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The Portsmouth Sinfonia

Classically Out Of Tune Artistic Fun

By Mike Singleton - MikeydredPublished 7 months ago Updated 7 months ago 3 min read


Sometime in the mid seventies, I started to appreciate classical music after being completely bored by it at school, then I heard "Mars" from "The Planets" by Gustav Holst on Alan Freeman's Saturday Afternoon Rock Show, and went out and bought the album. I knew Manfred Mann's Earthband had used a theme from "Jupiter" for their single "Joybringer" with permission from the Holst estate.

"Jupiter" was the only other piece that stayed with me from "The Planets" and the theme about three minutes in where it slows down is still one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever heard.

And Now - The Porstmouth Sinfonia

I can't remember when I first heard The Portsmouth Sinfonia and initially thought of doing this as a playlist, but I think the introductory "Classical Muddly" gives a good enough indication of what they are about, but you will be able to find a lot more about them on YouTube. This took the "Stars On 45" concept and applied it to classical music (even if it was out of tune).

I have also provided so links for you to follow.

When I first heard them I thought there was something wrong with the radio or the DJs tape or record player. They were definitely out of tune or sounded it.

I think John Peel played their stuff and Brian Eno used them for "Put A Straw Under Baby" on his album "Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy". Seen by many as a joke, something to laugh at as though they were incompetent clowns, but there actually was method behind their apparent madness.

This is how they came into being (taken from the book "The World's Worst: Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia"by Christopher M Reeves)

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.

My music collection includes all the artists listed here including the Portsmouth Sinfonia themselves (even though they are a very fluid body).

The thing is some people thought this was a punk/classical hybrid but it was anything but that. This was an artistic experiment but was as valid as the work of Varese and Stockhausen in that it challenged the boundaries of classical music, although this was funnier than the aural attacks from the other two mentioned composers.

I don't know if anyone has ever tried this since but would be interesting to see it done today. I never got the hang of wind instruments (I was thrown out of the scouts for straightening out a bugle) although I do have a didgeridoo and I can make uncontrolled noises with it.

I also have difficulty playing violins and bowed instruments because I can never prepare the bow correctly, so I am stuck on standard stringed instruments, keyboards, and electric noise generators.

I would love to hear what you think about the concept and their sound. Yes, they are not masters of their instruments but that was the artistic goal, and in that, I believe that the Portsmouth Sinfonia succeeded.

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About the Creator

Mike Singleton - Mikeydred

Weaver of Tales, Poems, Music & Love

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Comments (4)

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock7 months ago

    This reminds me both of Charles Ives & P.D.Q. Bach. Frank Fyock, who was an upperclassman when I first attended the Conservatory of Music at Yankton College, would have absolutely loved this.

  • Cendrine Marrouat7 months ago

    You can tell which bands have been influenced by classical music. Their songs usually stand the test of time. Many bands in the 1970s experimented with the form. Genesis, Deep Purple, and Mike Oldfield are good examples. The complexity of their tunes are quite exemplary. Good luck finding that in contemporary mainstream music! Never heard of Portsmouth Sinfonia, though. Time for me to get acquainted. Thank you, Mike!

  • Dana Crandell7 months ago

    I think I remember reading a reference to this fairly recently, but this is the first time I've actually listened. Understanding what you're listening to definitely changes your perspective. Thanks for sharing. One of my favorite projects from my teaching years was having the class make didgeridoos with PVC pipe and beeswax, then attempt to learn to play them. The results were interesting, to say the least. Personally, I never came close to mastering circular breathing, but some of the "kids" had a knack.

  • Mariann Carroll7 months ago

    I love classical music due to when I was young. I dance ballet at three and we were trained to dance with classical music. My two brothers play the violin. My mom play the piano , so classical music was normal for my ears to hear it. Thank you for introducing me to new classical artists in this story 🥰

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