Do orchestral musicians really have to practice four to six hours a day? Yes and no. It’s true that groups like the Chicago Philharmonic expect their members to know “notes,” “chords” and “scales.” If you don’t, they won’t let you join, and they won’t even let you play along with them during their concerts. But not all classical musicians are such fucking snobs. If your body temperature is in the neighborhood of 98 degrees Fahrenheit, congratulations! You’ve just passed the audition. You’ve got all the chops you need to play in Gavin Bryars’ people’s orchestra, the Portsmouth Sinfonia.
Inactive since the 70s, the Sinfonia once welcomed musicians and non-musicians alike, though people of talent were expected to play instruments on which they were not proficient, and all members were expected to play the repertoire to the best of their abilities. The result was a special kind of cacophony: every familiar theme (Also sprach Zarathustra, the William Tell Overture, Beethoven’s Fifth), though played as ineptly as possible, was approached with respect and even care. You will instantly recognize every tune they attempt, and you will probably bust a gut.
The orchestra’s most famous member, Brian Eno, produced (and played clarinet on) the debut album Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays The Popular Classics. Eno also appeared on the live Hallelujah, a recording of the orchestra’s triumphant 1974 performance at the Royal Albert Hall, and the Sinfonia put in an appearance on Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), contributing the seasick strings to “Put A Straw Under Baby.” In this short clip from the Royal Albert Hall show, you can see Eno singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah (scroll down for more of this performance):
From the sleeve of Popular Classics, here are Eno’s reflections on the Portsmouth Sinfonia:
The Portsmouth Sinfonia usually claims a membership of about fifty – the number fluctuates. Within the orchestra is represented the full range of musical competence – some members playing difficult instruments for the first time, others, on the other hand, of concert standard. This tends to generate an extra-ordinary and unique musical situation where the inevitable errors must be considered as a crucial, if inadvertent, element of the music.
It is important to stress the main characteristic of the orchestra: that all members of the Sinfonia share the desire to play the pieces as accurately as possible. One supposes that the possibility of professional accuracy will forever elude us since there is a constant influx of new members and a continual desire to attempt more ambitious pieces from the realms of the popular classics.
My own involvement in the Sinfonia is on two levels – I am a non-musician in the sense of never having “studied music”, yet at the same time, I notice that many of the more significant contributions to rock music and, to a lesser extent, avant-garde music have been made by enthusiastic amateurs and dabblers. Their strength is that they are able to approach the task of music-making without previously acquired solutions and without a too firm concept of what is and what is not musically possible. Coupled with this, and consequent to it, is a current fascination with the role of ‘the accident’ in structured activities.
Legend has it that Beethoven, among other composers, enjoyed performances of his music by enthusiastic music-makers who may well have possessed a similar range of abilities to those of the members of the Sinfonia.
Whether he would have enjoyed our rendering of his Fifth Symphony is, of course, something we will never know.
Eno Sept. 1973
Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics: