Musical Space: So Bad It’s Good

Apr 12, 2016

Portsmouth Sinfonia

Let’s consider Jon Benjamin’s piano playing on his provocative new jazz album “Well, I Should Have.” This effort follows the time-tested formulas of the genre: traditional arrangements, a world-class back-up band, and high production values. But Benjamin is a comedian, doesn’t like jazz, and, most importantly, doesn’t know how to play piano.

There’s a film documentary of the session; the interaction between his complete failure at the keyboard and the highly experienced and unsuspecting side-men is a bold exercise in confrontational comedy. But it also raises the question: Can a bad musician make good music?

Musical incompetence occasionally crops up in our musical space. There’s the case of Florence Foster Jenkins. Jenkins was an heiress and wannabe operatic soprano whose sincere intent seemed to make up for her unequivocally bad singing. Then there was the 1960’s rock band of sisters, The Shaggs, as inept as they were endearing, whose rediscovery in the ‘80s left record reviewers wondering if they could even tell the difference between good and bad.

The ultimate exploration of poor musicianship, I think, is the Portsmouth Sinfonia. They were conceived in 1970 by a group of experimental composers who were asking the same question I am. The Portsmouth Sinfonia was an orchestra of very earnest but completely untrained musicians. The experiment was a runaway success. Their recordings, including that of a live appearance at Royal Albert Hall, lay bare an intense psychological drama that most professional musicians try their best to hide. The audience witnesses the Portsmouth players willingly perform despite what must have been deep shame and evident physical pain, always choosing bravery and optimism over taste and non-participation. They prove that music has much more than just intrinsic value - music is also a process defining and sharing the human spirit.

So, to answer the question “can a bad musician make good music?”

I will side with the Portsmouth Sinfonia, or anyone who’s ever played in an amateur garage band, and answer with an unqualified “yes.”

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