The World's Worst:
A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia
Co-edited with Christopher M. Reeves
Published by Soberscove Press, May 2020
In 1970, galvanized in part by the musical experiments of avant-garde composers Gavin Bryars, John Cage and Cornelius Cardew, students at Portsmouth College of Art in England formed their own symphony orchestra. Christened the Portsmouth Sinfonia, its primary requirement for membership was 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 100 musicians—including Michael Nyman and Brian Eno—the Sinfonia would cease performing, never officially retiring.
The first book devoted to the ensemble, The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia examines the founding tenets, organizing principles and collective memories of the Sinfonia, whose historical position as “the world’s worst orchestra” underplays its unique accomplishment as a populist avant-garde project in which music, collectivity and humor all flourished. The unorthodox journey of the 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.
Distributed in the United States by Artbook | D.A.P.
Softcover / 6.75 by 9 in. / 232 pages
What a teeming, joyful tribute to the Portsmouth Sinfonia this is. The World’s Worst is a paean to art school experimentalism, to the creative value of amateurism and accidents, to the idea that conceptualism can also be anarchic and funny.
Sukhdev Sandhu, director of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, New York University
Our contemporary political leaders appear to be rank amateurs, but the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s story proves that challenges to professionalism (the good kind) have been around for several decades. With every passing year, the ensemble feels further ahead of its time—not only in its solicitation of trained and untrained musicians or its fluent facility with the cultivated and the vernacular, but also in the visionary path it found for a post-Cagean music that went through art school in its post-conceptual phase. This incredible collection brings together historical documents—liner notes, programmes, flyers, letters—with the invaluable remembrances of members of the Sinfonia. It should serve as a guiding inspiration for every future shambolic disaster born of love.
Benjamin Piekut, author of Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem