To be honest I’m not certain that Michael Nyman, The Spectator‘s music critic in the late 60s, was one of the performers on this infamous (and in my opinion greatest) recording of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. But what is certain is that Nyman (alongside Brian Eno and Gavin Bryars) did become an enthusiastic member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia and had been a fan ever since he first witnessed one of their deliberately execrable concerts:
‘I sat through the first half… and I was so moved and entertained and excited by the music that I went up to Gavin [Bryars] 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.’
For those who don’t know what was so special about the Sinfonia, listen to the recording above. We’re not talking about a few fluffed notes. What you hear is cataclysmically, self-destructively awful playing. And though it’s hard not to laugh, the point was deadly serious. The orchestra was packed with the cream of the British classical avant-garde, its logic rooted in the most eminent ideas of contemporary composition and its achievements were in some ways a pinnacle of experimentalism.
The point was no one was told to play badly. Everyone had to play either an instrument that they couldn’t play well, or in a way that meant that playing well wasn’t an option. Everyone had to be trying their very best in other words – even if that still meant playing their worst. The result was a glorious mess, producing a sound that was strangely fresh and powerful – and very funny.
It got them into trouble with publishers though. The orchestra’s manager Martin Lewis once told The Sunday Times how the publishing house of Also Sprach served the Sinfonia ‘with a cease-and-desist order’.
‘To Lewis’s eternal regret, the case never came 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.'”‘
Anyway, happy birthday Richard Strauss. (I’m sure he’d understand.)