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

Edited by Christopher M. Reeves and Aaron Walker

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 Michael Nyman and Brian Eno—the Sinfonia would cease performing, never officially retiring.

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. In the simple constraint that defined the ensemble, the trappings of European concert hall traditions commingled with an experimental approach to music, producing a sense of joyful collectivism that was shared with the Sinfonia’s audiences. The unorthodox journey of the Portsmouth 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.

 

The collaborative publications and curatorial projects of CHRIS 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 Journal, Counter 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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