"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Telegraph August 5, 2009 - by Peter Culshaw
MUSIC FROM THE PENGUIN CAFE
Simon Jeffes was way ahead of his time in his world music experiments with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, now his son Arthur has reunited the band.
You will have heard the music of the Penguin Café Orchestra, even if you aren't one of their hard-core fans - like the two Japanese girls who flew in last month from Tokyo and turned-up to Glastonbury as Penguins. Tunes like Telephone, Rubber Band and Music For A Found Harmonium, which is now a standard in Celtic folk circles (a remix by Paddy's Revenge was in the pop charts last year), or Giles Farnaby's Dream, which combines a Renaissance melody with a South American hoedown have been used endlessly in adverts from Hobnobs and IBM to BT, and in many films and TV soundtracks.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that the music has such a continuing longevity. When Simon Jeffes, the composer and self-described "proprietor" of the Penguin Café died aged forty-eight in December 1997, the band were not exactly a household name (only one of their records, Signs Of Life, scraped into UK Top 50). They had released records on the appropriately named Obscure label, and seemed destined to become an interesting, but small footnote in the annals of English music history.
However, a one-off reunion at the Union Chapel in London to mark ten years since Jeffes's death proved an immediate sell-out, as did a couple of hastily arranged extra dates. The audience response was one of the warmest I've seen in years. Now Simon Jeffes' son Arthur, previously an archaeologist, has put together a young team of musicians to play the music, along with a few of his own compositions and they have been playing a successful run of Festivals from WOMAD to Glastonbury and will be playing at the Big Chill this weekend and the Queens Hall during the Edinburgh Festival.
Simon Jeffes, when pressed, described the music as "modern semi-acoustic chamber music" or "imaginary folklore". Jeffes' problems classifying the music were not confined to himself. As Arthur Jeffes pointed out to me "I think the PCO are the only group to have been put under classical, folk, jazz, world and pop sections in the record stores. Everything but the heavy metal section." While some critics accused the group of being kitsch or even twee, there was a serious intent and warmth underlying the apparent whimsicality of the Penguin Café music. Brian Eno, who signed up the band to his Obscure label and then the fashionable Editions EG imprint said "Given his non-allegiance to any particular musical category, Simon Jeffes could be marginalised as an English eccentric - and thus sort of overlooked. The truth is he discovered a huge musical territory".
Simon Jeffes was, if anything, the closest English equivalent to Erik Satie, not just in the use of eccentric titles and the fact that they both wore green suits, but in the delicacy and cleverness of their minimal tunes. Both were fascinated by esoteric mysticism (Satie with Rosicrucianism, Jeffes with Zen Buddhism, at one point spending four months in a monastery in Japan, where the PCO had their biggest following). Jeffes would make comments like "I wonder if anyone is looking at us the way we look at Penguins, fondly observing all their struggles and idiosyncrasies."
Nor was he that prolific. "He would spent weeks polishing the piano when he had to do an album" according to Arthur and pieces could be inspired by random elements - the rhythm of dripping taps, the discovery of an abandoned harmonium in a side-street in Kyoto, the accidental combination of ringing and engaged tones on a phone, he would then painstakingly work up these ideas in an often intricate manner. He once told me he greatly admired the kind of people who build cathedrals out of matchsticks.
Another reason for the continuing interest in the Penguin Café (Arthur is toying with the notion of opening an actual Café) can perhaps be traced to the origins of the band. The idea of the Penguin Café came to after a bout of food poisoning in 1972 in France, when Jeffes was in bed, delirious, and, as he wrote later "had a nightmare of a place that was like a modern hotel.
There was an electronic eye which scanned everything. In one room there was a couple who were making love, but lovelessly. In another room there was a musician, wearing headphones but there was no sound". In other rooms people were interacting with screens "it was a terrible, bleak place".
As a prophetic dream of the future where everyone is locked behind screens and communicating through email and Facebook rather than face to face, it was a prophetic vision. The Penguin Café was to be an antidote to this.
Jeffes' was way ahead of his time in his world music experiments, incorporating as well as violin and cello, Venezuelan cuatros, Zimbabwean mbiras and ukuleles - although the result was something quintessentially English in its restrained passion. He was quietly influential behind the scenes - for a time he was Malcolm McLaren's ethnomusicology adviser, arranged the sickly strings for Sid Vicious' version of My Way and, says Arthur, "taught Adam Ant how to play the Burundi drums". Arthur recalls being impressed at the age of fourteen that fashionable types like The Orb and Andrew Weatherall were dropping round for dinner.
"It's been twelve years since dad died and for a long time to go back to his music, which I was brought up with, was a sensitive and emotional thing to do," comments Arthur. "The reunion shows were really lovely but several of the musicians were unsure whether to do any more. They were all musicians I grew up with and was in awe of, so it would have been difficult to tell them what to do, apart from anything else." Arthur decided to rename the new group Music From the Penguin Café and has assembled a young team of first-rate musicians. One of them Cass Browne, a percussionist who has played with Damon Albarn and the Gorillaz said, "I didn't know the music that well, but it's really extraordinary, open and inviting.
Each piece has a different character which makes it a dream to play." Arthur's own music is naturally influenced by his father "I love the music innately but then I was indoctrinated from birth, but having heard the tunes thousands of times, I still think it's the best thing ever." From the reaction of the crowd who I saw cheering them on in the rain at the one of their festival appearances, plenty of other people clearly think the same thing.