Weird of the Day: Portsmouth Sinfonia, “Also sprach Zarathustra”
What happens when you tackle the classical music canon with all the enthusiasm and rank amateurism of a high school garage-punk band? You get Portsmouth Sinfonia, a classical ensemble active in the ’70s that
butchered reinterpreted everything from the William Tell Overture to the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Originally made up of students from the Portsmouth School of Art, all of whom were either total beginners or trained musicians who had switched instruments, the project was conceived as a kidding-but-not-really experiment by a teacher/composer named Gavin Bryars. Bryars wanted to see if it was possible for novice musicians to play clumsy approximations of familiar classical pieces that would still be recognizable to audiences. Based on this version of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” better known now as the theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’d say the experiment was a raging success.
Ironically, as members of the Sinfonia gradually got better at their instruments, the public lost interest, and the project disbanded in 1979. They’ve been back in the news this year because this marks the 40th anniversary of their legendary performance at the Royal Albert Hall (yes, they got so popular at one point that they played the Royal Albert Hall—that kinda sticks in your craw, doesn’t it, trained classical musicians?). We found them by way of an article on Cracked.com called “7 Bizarre Music Experiments That Went Shockingly Wrong” that also called out several Weird List bands, including Stalaggh/Gulaggh, Hatebeak and Matmos. I don’t think any of these experiments went “shockingly wrong,” per se—more like their creators set out to do stuff that would make people go, “That’s not right.”
Bonus fun fact: For awhile, Portsmouth Sinfonia counted Brian Eno and minimalist composer Michael Nyman among its members. In the right (or wrong?) context, we are all amateurs.