Warmer: What kind of music do you listen to now, or did you listen to when you were very young? As regards music lessons at school, what were you taught? In music, do you know what is punk? Do you know any famous punk bands/singers? When and where do you think punk started?
Now read the text, answering the questions that follow.
Portsmouth Sinfonia – the real godfathers of punk?
Adapted by Roger Hartopp from articles featured in the Sunday Times, published May 30 2004, The Daily Telegraph, May 23, 2004, and Wikipedia, 1 October 2015
Those people who say that British punk was born during the Sex Pistols' very first gig at St Martin's School of Art in central London on a November night in 1975 may need to think again. For there is a serious case to be made for its birth having been five years earlier in Hampshire.
In May 1970, the composer Gavin Bryars, then a lecturer at Portsmouth College of Art, entered a talent competition entitled Opportunity Rocks with a band that he'd quickly, and without any rehearsals, put together for the occasion. Purely as a joke, and planning it as a one-off, he called the group the Portsmouth Sinfonia.
According to Brian Eno, who later that same year became one of the Sinfonia's clarinettists, despite never having played the instrument before: "The philosophy of the orchestra was that anybody could join; there was no basis of skill required."
As well as not being able to play the instrument they held in their hands, the only rules were that everyone had to come for rehearsals and that people should try their best to get it right and not intentionally try to play badly. Art student James Lampard was one of around twelve members who were there at the beginning. ''I went out in the morning, bought a saxophone and tried to play it at the first rehearsal that afternoon.'' In their first public performance, that mix of all people of all skills (or lack of them) enthusiastically played its way through the William Tell Overture, and the audience had tears of laughter streaming down their faces. The self-styled "world's worst orchestra" was in business.
Bryars's roughly organised group of various backgrounds and skills – which, in the course of the next decade, would include the composers Michael Nyman and Simon Fisher Turner, and the record producer Clive Langer – created a phenomenon that came to be seen as half-beauty, half-beast. The albums they released afterwards, and their audacious Albert Hall concert, won them a fan base that mostly saw them as a comic attraction in the English-eccentric tradition of Monty Python. At the same time, they cocked an almighty snook (or a five-fingered salute) at the classical-music establishment, with critics expressing their disapproval or contempt. Does this remind you of the attitude of punk?
Despite the obvious comic possibilities, there was a more serious side to this new, exciting project. ''There was an artistic statement in it, a pre-punk philosophy,” says Lampard. “If you want to start an orchestra, then just go ahead and do it. It didn't matter if we could play or not. We were interpreting these classical pieces in a different way.''
Western music's traditional adherence to harmony and order may partly explain why the Sinfonia tended to be seen as a bunch of amusing, if mildly irritating, schoolboys. Some of the laughter that welcomed it at the time may have been nervous: it was better to view its butchering of Beethoven as a silly joke that doesn’t upset anyone, and to ignore the feelings of chaos and uncertainty induced by the strangely beautiful, even sinister, noise the orchestra arrived at by chance.
Michael Nyman, who attended a Portsmouth Sinfonia concert in London in the early 1970s, places the orchestra firmly in the avant-garde tradition. "I sat through the first half," he recalls, "and I felt so emotional and entertained and excited by the music that I went up to Gavin in the interval and said, 'Is there a spare instrument? I'd like to join.' They had a spare cello, so suddenly I was playing In the Hall of the Mountain King in the second half."
Nyman accepts the humour inherent in the Sinfonia's readings of the classics, but he argues that there was something very great, intensive, and even rebellious happening in and around the quiet, disrespectful laughter. "We were all serious artists or experimental musicians," he says, "and none of us actually joined to make funny music. Because of the skill structure of the Sinfonia, you couldn't fail to come up with results that were different and disliked. But we weren't deliberately bad. And the combination of everybody's individual errors built a musical structure that was incomparable."
Brian Eno, who produced the Sinfonia's early recordings, has described the orchestra's abilities as "a range of competence, from bona fide virtuosi to extremely incompetent"; the golden rule being, adds Nyman, that "this wasn't an opportunity for skilled musicians to waste time doing unimportant things." Lampard: ''We took it very seriously. It needed a lot of hard work to be quite that bad. We had to learn an uninhibited way of playing. As the size of the orchestra gradually grew, we had a complete mix of members, including some very fine musicians.''
Eno's verdict is that the Sinfonia "produced some beautiful music: what you heard was a number of approximations of how the piece should be played." He has compared it to folk music, where "variety is achieved not by people trying to do something different from one another, but by accidentally doing something different; this sense of a limitation being turned into a strength." In other words, although he doesn't say so himself: punk.
The British punk-rock fanzine Sniffin' Glue famously carried on its cover the words: "This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band." Isn't that, in a sense, what Bryars did? Martin Lewis, the Sinfonia's manager since 1973 certainly thinks so. "The Portsmouth Sinfonia pre-dated punk," he says. "We used to say that it openly welcomes musicians of all ranges of competence, from those of symphony-orchestra standard to those who don't know which end of a violin to blow. Four years later, you had punk: the same idea or belief of people picking up instruments they couldn't play but wanted to play. I think the Sinfonia anticipated the Sex Pistols – so blame us for Sid Vicious.” (The bass player for the Sex Pistols, except he couldn’t play the instrument.)
The orchestra became a regular feature of concert halls and places with developing and growing arts centres in the early 1970s, collecting new members as they went, but their popularity suddenly grew in 1973, the year they signed with Transatlantic Records to record an LP.
Martin Lewis was the young publicity executive given responsibility for the new act, without knowing what he was taking on. ''At first I couldn't understand why we'd signed an orchestra doing classical favourites,'' he recalls. ''But after I listened to them playing for a few minutes I stood with tears streaming down my face, thinking, 'This is my baby.' I've been their manager ever since.''
In creating the resulting album, The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics, the group brought their own philosophy to the recording studio. ''There were no second takes,'' Lewis explains. ''If you hit a wrong note, it was there for ever.'' Such wonderful errors are all over the record.
Listening to it again, one might be forgiven for thinking that Richard Strauss wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra with the Portsmouth Sinfonia in mind. Their interpretation of the William Tell overture is reputed to have changed Leonard Bernstein's attitude to the piece for ever.
By the time of the Albert Hall event, the orchestra's ranks had increased to 82 with a number of experts among them; Gavin Bryars was in the cellos, along with Michael Nyman (euphonium) and Brian Eno (clarinet).
Incredibly, the Sinfonia was once served with a cease-and-desist order by the publishers of Also Sprach Zarathustra. To Lewis's eternal regret, the case never went to court. "I wanted to bring the whole orchestra in as witnesses. They complained that we'd rearranged the piece, and we said, 'No, we haven't, we just haven't been able to play it very well.'" In other words, although he doesn't say so himself: punk.
However, as the years passed, the musicians eventually became used to and more skilled at playing their instruments, which reduced the novelty of the group. Although the group never formally disbanded, it performed its last concert in 1979.
But more than four decades on, Lewis feels the world is once again ready for the Portsmouth Sinfonia. "We started and finished the 1970s," he says affectionately. "From May 1970, when we were born, to September 1979, when we played the Rainbow. So, as a manager, it's been a fairly quiet several years."
1. What was the philosophy of the orchestra?
2. Could the performers join if they could already play an instrument?
3. In your opinion, did they have to read music?
4. What did the classical music establishment think of the orchestra?
5. What does Brian Eno compare the music to? Do you agree?
6. What was the orchestra’s philosophy when it came to recording their music?
7. Why do you think the orchestra was served with a ‘cease-and-desist’ order by the publishers of Also Sprach Zarathustra?
8. Why do you think the orchestra has not performed since 1979?
9. Do you think there was some kind of artistic statement made by the orchestra? Were they the godfathers of punk music?
10. Would you like to join? What instrument would you like to play?
VOCABULARY & GLOSSARY
Sex Pistols - An English punk rock band formed in London in 1975, and were responsible for beginning the punk movement in the United Kingdom and inspiring many later punk and alternative rock musicians
gig - a live performance by someone such as a musician or a comedian. They performed twenty gigs in just two weeks.
Gavin Bryars - English composer and double bassist
rehearsals – here, practicing playing pieces of music to be ready for a performance. If you want to be part of the orchestra, you must regularly attend rehearsals.
Brian Eno - English musician, composer, record producer, and best known for his pioneering work in rock, ambient, pop, and electronic music
Michael Nyman - English composer, best known for his soundtrack work for the movie The Piano
Simon Fisher Turner - English musician, songwriter, composer, producer and actor, also writing soundtracks for a number of films directed by Derek Jarman
Clive Langer - English record producer and songwriter, best known for working with Alan Winstanley, producing albums by Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Elvis Costello and Morrissey
audacious – adjective meaning to take risks in order to achieve something. He’s got audacious plans to become president.
to be eccentric – to behave in a strange way and have habits or opinions different to most people. He may be eccentric because he likes wearing a beret and dark glasses, but he gets the job done.
Monty Python - British comedy group who created the television show Monty Python's Flying Circus, and whose influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles' influence on music
to cock an almighty snook - to give a 'five-fingered salute', that is, by holding up your open right hand, putting the tip of your thumb to your nose and at the same time waving your fingers in the direction of someone you have no respect for. When the teacher told him he had to stay after school, the boy cocked an almighty snook at him while his back was turned.
classical music establishment - the people who believe they are some kind of organisation that has power and influence in the understanding and performance of classical music. The classical music establishment won't like the idea of a piano concerto performed with an electric guitar.
contempt – to have no respect for someone or think that they are unimportant. He just shows contempt to his staff – he never comes out of his office or talks to us and expects his managerial staff to do that.
adherence – to act in a way that is expected. The Americans have strict adherence towards their constitution.
to be irritating – to be annoying, to act in a way that makes someone feel fairly angry and impatient. Stop clicking your pen – it’s really irritating me!
to be nervous – here, to be uncertain or unsure, to not know what is going to happen next and this makes you worried. I was nervous before seeing the dentist and before my wedding!
chaos – a state of complete disorder and confusion. Your desk is in a state of chaos – tidy it up!
uncertainty induced – here, a state or condition caused or brought about by the feeling of being uncertain or unsure. I don’t like the uncertainty induced by his choice of words as regards the company’s future.
sinister - to seem evil or harmful. There's something sinister about that new guy in the accounts department.
avant-garde - here, music that is very modern and experimental, often not following what would be regarded as established methods and patterns of performance. Not many of the classical music establishment like avant-garde music.
In the Hall of the Mountain King - a piece of orchestral music composed by Edvard Grieg in 1875 from the play Peer Gynt. Its easily recognizable theme has given it iconic status in popular culture and has been arranged by many artists
inherent – the necessary and natural parts of something. Stress is an inherent part of dieting.
disrespectful – to not show respect for something. Don’t be disrespectful towards your uncle!
incomparable – an adjective to describe something that you cannot make a comparison with, or even beyond or above comparison. In my opinion, when it comes to flying or sailing to get to Australia, the two methods are simply incomparable.
to be competent/competence – the level of the skill that someone has, how good they are at something. She’s a competent driver, but he has very little competence in his car.
bona fide virtuoso (singular)/virtuosi (plural) – a genuine or real person who is extremely good at something, especially at playing a musical instrument. Nigel Kennedy is a bona fide virtuoso at the violin.
to be uninhibited – to behave as someone wants to and not worry about what other people think. I’ve no problem with nude sunbathing – I’m completely uninhibited.
fanzine - a magazine for people who are fans of, for example, a particular pop group or football team. Fanzines are written by people who are fans themselves, rather than by professional journalists. Fanzines were very popular for spreading messages to fans in the days before the internet.
chord – a number of musical notes played or sung at the same time with a pleasing effect. I can’t play chords on a piano – I’m a one-finger on each hand person!
anticipated/to anticipate – here, to do something before anybody else does. I anticipated you wanted coffee this morning, so I’ve already bought the milk.
Also Sprach Zarathustra - a piece of orchestral music composed by Richard Strauss, made famous as the main theme to the film 2001 - a Space Odyssey
William Tell Overture - an overture to the opera William Tell composed by Gioachino Rossini. It has been popularly used in both classical music and popular media, being the theme music for The Lone Ranger.
reputed to – when people say something is true, but you do not know if it is definitely true. He’s reputed to have taken two million zlotys out of the company pension funds.
Leonard Bernstein - American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist, acclaimed for his music for West Side Story and a range of other compositions.
euphonium – a brass musical instrument from the tuba family, and used mainly in brass bands
cease-and-desist order – a legal order from a court or government agency telling someone to stop doing or being involved in a particular activity. Because of their late-night parties, the family was issued with a cease-and-desist order from their neighbours.
to disband/disbanded – when a group or orchestra chooses not to continue together any more. The Beatles officially disbanded in 1970.