The World's Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia

The World's Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia

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In 1970, galvanized in part by the musical experiments of John Cage, Gavin Bryars, and Cornelius Cardew, students at Portsmouth College of Art formed their own symphony orchestra. Christened the Portsmouth Sinfonia, the primary requirement for membership specified 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 one hundred musicians—including Brian Eno and Michael Nyman—the Sinfonia would cease performing.

The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia, the first book devoted to the ensemble, examines the founding tenets, organizing principles, and collective memories of the Sinfonia, whose reputation as “the world’s worst orchestra” underplays its unique accomplishment as a populist avant-garde project. While seemingly a niche musical anecdote, the story of the Portsmouth Sinfonia engenders wide-ranging conversations that touch upon the legacy of interdisciplinary art pedagogy, the power of popular music, the investment necessary in order to work and learn together, and the effects of destabilizing canonization. The unorthodox journey of the orchestra unfolds here through interviews with original members and their publicist/manager, magazine publications, photographs, and previously uncollected archival material, alongside an essay by Christopher M. Reeves.

The collaborative publications and curatorial projects of CHRISTOPHER M. REEVES and AARON WALKER deal with the generative possibilities of collective creative making.

CHRISTOPHER M. REEVES is a Chicago-based research creator and PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. There he coordinated “Expanded Art History for Plants,” a series of pedagogical and performance experiments in the UIC Greenhouse. He co-founded and ran Museum Gallery/Gallery Museum and Third Party Gallery in Cincinnati, OH from 2009-13; he currently co-runs Flatland in Chicago. His essays have been included in such publications as Incite JournalCounter Signals 2 (Other Forms), and Emergency Index (Ugly Duckling Presse). His work has been exhibited in Europe and throughout the United States.

AARON WALKER is an artist and programmer living in South Carolina whose projects often spring out of an interest in self-organized, artist-run culture.