A truly terrible orchestra, but a sheer delight

Listening agog to a rendition of a classical favourite on Friday morning’s BBC Radio 3 by the so-called Portsmouth Sinfonia, reprised in a Youtube upload straight from the vinyl, I wondered why the sounds, still recognisable as music, but nearly breeching the limits, seemed so familiar. Then I remembered the marching cacophony of the brass band, who never seem to need to practise throughout the year, striding out to lead the Tar Bar’ls tour around Allendale’s Market Square on New Year’s Eve.

So wonderful in their sublime yet excruciating performances, the offerings by both bands are given by exhilarated players, clearly not intimately familiar with their instruments, and in the latter instance possibly the worse for wear after visiting local hostelries before their show-turn. One difference though is that there are still vinyl recordings to be had of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, while I’m not sure if there are any recordings of the Tar Bar’l brass band. Perhaps there are a few private recordings. Clips on video through the wonders of the internet may be all we can conveniently access.

The thing with both bands is, though, that it’s all great good fun; wrong notes and duff timing are all part of the excitement; indeed, the Portsmouth Sinfonia was formed at Portsmouth’s College of Art in the early ’70s, by Gavin Bryars, and recorded in association with Brian Eno, who assembled a collection of ‘musicians’ most of whom could scarcely play a note. Or, for contradistinction, consider if for example, the brass players were to start rehearsing their Tar Bar’l numbers at this point, from mid-summer onwards until the end of December; the resulting orderly progression of The Keel Row, The Blaydon Races, or A Bicycle Built for Two would feel inappropriately dressed up, somehow. The same way, I’ve always thought, as when operatically-trained voices warble away on The Lambton Worm or Cushy Butterfield — these songs are not meant to be smoothed up, polished to perfection. Rather, they’re meant to be music that everyone can, and indeed must, sing along with, that is to say, real folk music, or ‘music of the folk.’

It doesn’t matter what you call it though, whether it traces its roots to music hall times or to ancient shepherds trilling on the fellsides under the wide Northumbrian skies, whether it’s a mangled effort at well-known classical themes, or just a group of folks enjoying the excitement of Allendale’s New Year’s Eve fire, this music is always a delight. And that’s its charm, I imagine, the togetherness we all feel as we giggle helplessly during the 1812 Overture desperately destroyed by the Portsmouth Sinfonia, or tap our feet together with the Tar Bar’lers marching to the rhythm of the three songs the brass band purport to know.

Participation is everything, isn’t it?!

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