The World’s Worst Book Review
Craig J. Saper
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Citation: Smithee, Allen and Craig J. Saper. “The World’s Worst Book Review.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 22, 2020. doi:10.20415/hyp/022.r06
Keywords: Portsmouth Sinfonia, Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, worst orchestra, hoax.
The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia. Edited by Christopher M. Reeves and Aaron Walker. Foreword by Gavin Bryars (Sobercove Press, 2020).
Faced with The World's Worst, I'm not at all sure how I'm supposed to write a review of this catalogue of press releases, liner notes, descriptions of the performances, letters, announcements, and other stuff related to the Portsmouth Sinfonia. When I wrote to ask if there was any money for publishing this review, the books review editor wrote back and said, no. WTF, people do this for free (or for some ulterior motive) for a performance review? The Sinfonia's members included some amazing musicians, including Brian Eno and Michael Nyman. I just read a funny piece in Textshop Experiments about Eno's list of Oblique Strategies to spur invention. Here is a good bit: Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, first produced in 1975 and available in four editions, is an evolving list of over 100 instructions meant to help the creative person deal with common obstacles such as writer’s block. In our meditation on the creative possibilities for the list in humanist studies, the authors—John Venecek and Barry Mauer—took Brian Eno’s instructions both as directives and as subjects for inquiry, showing us a possible approach to rethinking the essay as a form and as a process.
Eno stated, “The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, ‘Don't forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,’ or ‘Don't forget you could adopt *that* attitude.’
These cards evolved from our separate observations on the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated. They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case, the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.
-- Brian Eno/Peter Schmidt Oblique Strategies © 1975, 1978, and 1979
Working in alphabetical order, Mauer and Venecek selected one prompt per week from Eno’s list and responded to each with approximately 500 words, writing our sections separately. We took turns selecting prompts for each other so that one of us would always be surprised, which is a key aspect of Eno’s strategies and his composing process. At the end of the week, we shared our results and selected the next prompt.
Anyway, to become a member of The Portsmouth Sinfonia, a school orchestra based at the Portsmouth College of Art and started in 1970, you had to fulfill two prerequisites: you must have a passion for music and you must have no experience or practice playing the particular instrument you will play in the orchestra. One member was caught practicing, and, then, not allowed to perform.
The blurbs on back cover sum it up better than I can:
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
The Portsmouth Sinfonia’s sincere efforts to play the classics (on instruments chosen without the benefit of performer schooling) yielded nothing less than an as-yet-unsurpassed, unbridled joy for audience and musician alike. These key texts offer insight into the group dynamics and social and cultural relevance of the project….
— Hannah B Higgins, author of The Grid Book
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 several 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
At a moment when a large portion of the UK—if not the world—seems hellbent on cutting out its heart to spite its face, it is crucial to return to histories like the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The historical accounts and remembrances herein are full of contradictions, pleasures, jokes and awkward moments between performers and audiences that always steer toward inclusion and veer from cynicism and pessimism. Reading this account of experimental collective endeavors and alternative forms of education has a decidedly populist bent. It reminds that populism wasn’t always petty racists and narcissistic crooks. At one time populism could be the ridiculously beautiful social responsibility of trying, no matter how imperfectly or full of folly, to reach that final note together with passion.
— Anthony Elms, Daniel and Brett Sundheim Chief Curator, Institute of Contemporary Art / University of Pennsylvania
The collection would have been better if it was actually liner notes with the vinyl in a sleeve in the front cover. Still, one must instead imagine the joy of the amateurs searching frantically for the right notes and failing repeatedly -- keeping a straight-face even as the audiences laughed at their valiant effort in spite of their complete lack of training, practice, or ability. It was done as a pure joy unsullied or unimpeded by their utter incompetence.
I hope you enjoy The World's Worst it as much as I did, and do. Wishing you and yours good luck, and let's hope someone else takes the Portsmouth Sinfonia to heart as a model of uncreative writing, and a theory-hobby.
My only instructions were to write a 1000-1500-words review of this book that I am still reeling over as a revelation. One story awakened me when they somehow got to play in Albert Hall -- a premiere venue for even virtuosos. It took some extra effort and PR to fill the hall, and that included a bus load of American tourists, who couldn't stand it and left even while the rest of the crowd was showing their appreciation with peals of laughter. What is particularly important about the Sinfonia, and why they couldn't simply send an mp4 instead of playing live, is the surprise in the moment of the struggle, and often the ultimate failure, to perform the classical music correctly. They do not try to create something new, but stumble through something well-known to concert goers in order to find the surprise in not achieving the technical perfection as if to paraphrase something Brian Eno, I think, once said: the part of the musical performance that fails to achieve that technical perfection becomes the locus of the innovation. The cracking voice of the singer is the passion exceeding the technical requirements, and the jazz riff depends on not getting the notes exactly right. The Sinfonia must have been magical even as the audience -- and there are some great pictures in the book -- was uncontrollably and joyfully laughing in delight and faux horror or thrills at every missed note. It was magical because it opened the orchestra up to unheard of sounds and the shattering of the ambience. Eno and Nyman (and many others in the Sinfonia) went on to create artistic/musical permutations concerned with ambient sounds and visualizations.
Can we risk a lack of technical proficiency today during self-quarantine and refusal to die for someone's convenience? Serious times. Or, is that same amateur's joy now found its expression in everything from musicians trying out experimental combinations and instruments from different locations like the musicology professor's, Patrick Burke's, daily performances on Facebook (facebook.com/pat.burke.129). The untrained passion leading to the collective enervation in a constant stream and feed when the music arrives here in the intimate privacy of our homes and everywhere in world's premiering: the world's worst is hopeful.