Penguin Café Orchestra – an imaginary folklore

Introduction to a hallucinatory experience

“…the Penguin Café is an imaginary but necessary place which everybody with an ounce of spirit ought to invent for themselves.” – Robert Sandall, on the Penguin Café Orchestra (PCO) homepage.

Simon Jeffes

Some years ago, in the mid-80s I think, I was given a cassette tape made from a rather scratched vinyl LP by a friend who said, “I think you’ll like this.”

“Like” was an understatement – it blew me away, as the saying goes. The tape was of the album Penguin Café Orchestra, of which I had never heard before.

This started me on a quest to find more music of the Orchestra which was not well known in South Africa at the time

Along the way I discovered an interesting story and some more personal links. This is the story of the PCO and of my love of their music.

PCO was formed by music-school drop-out Simon Jeffes who was born in Crawley, Sussex, England, in 1949, after a hallucinatory experience due to food poisoning – a prosaic enough cause for such a transcendent experience!

Jeffes had this experience in the South of France in 1972, and the dream or vision was to him “a scene of ordered desolation. It was as if I were looking into a place which had no heart.” And then, in his words, while he was sunbathing on the beach the next day, “suddenly a poem popped into my head. It started out ‘I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café, I will tell you things at random’ and it went on about how the quality of randomness, spontaneity, surprise, unexpectedness and irrationality in our lives is a very precious thing. And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what’s most important. Whereas in the Penguin Café your unconscious can just be. It’s acceptable there, and that’s how everybody is. There is an acceptance there that has to do with living the present with no fear in ourselves.”

Pastoral loveliness and Metropolis

Poster for the film “Metropolis”

The music of the PCO is somewhat like that – it has a quality of almost just being, not referring to anything else and yet, even on first hearing, to many people it sounds familiar, as though they have always known it.

PCO’s music is often labelled “New Age”, though Jeffes himself did not see it like that – it is not at all ethereal and unreal, but has a solid grounding in reality, sometimes quite harsh reality, and this is reflected in the titles of some of the pieces – “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter”, “Telephone and Rubber Band”, “Dirt” (not much ethereal about that!), “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas” and, of course, one of their most famous numbers, “Music for a Found Harmonium”, which Jeffes composed on a harmonium quite literally found discarded on a pile of rubbish in Japan.

Craig Beaden, in his article on the PCO, wrote about the group’s “Britishness” and its tendency towards “pastoral loveliness” and concluded that the music is not classifiable, indeed, its best not to try: “Waves of understanding now wash over us: it is all this and more, so as to avoid description rather than disturb the ‘unconsciousness,’ and not dare look into the face of God, it is better to leave it as is.”

It is music that simply invites one in, there for each individual to make of it what they will.

For me, PCO’s music is like a kind of healthy comfort food for the soul, wholewheat ear candy! This is precisely because the music is not all light and happiness, but has an underlying, bracing dark side, which is thought-provoking rather than relaxing.

For an example of the dark side watch the video of “Telephone and Rubber Band” used as the soundtrack to a scene from Austrian-German film maker Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis . The Kafkaesque scene is, in Beaden’s words, “gut wrenching.” Not much of the pastoral loveliness there. Chilling, rather.

Metropolis was released in Germany in 1927, at a time when the Weimar Republic was relatively stable. The movie is about a city-state set in the year 2027 in which there is strict apartheid between the workers who live in horrible conditions below the ground and the thinkers or planners who live in great luxury and ease above the earth.

A young man called Freder, whose father, Johann ‘Joh’ Freder, is the leader or ruler of the “metroplis” of the title, falls in love with a young worker woman called Maria, and goes underground in search of her. Here he encounters the unbelievably dreadful conditions under which the workers live.

The whole story is an allegory about the separation of “head”, “heart” and “hands” which leads to disease, and the need to bring the three into harmony in order to have health and well-being.

Lang himself did not particularly like the movie and was upset when the Nazis became infatuated with it. He left Germany in 1934 for first Paris and the the United States, where he continued making films.

Contributors

While the PCO was not a permanent orchestra with a fixed personnel, it did have some members who were fairly regular contributers.

The most regular was cellist Helen Liebmann, who was the one members, aside from Jeffes himself, who was in every form of the orchestra. Indeed her soulful cello was integral to the PCO sound.

Jeffes himself played a long list of instruments, some pretty normal, like electric and accoustic guitars, some very eccentric, like milk bottles, triangle, electric aeolian harp, and, of course, the famous rubber band.

Two fairly frequent contributors were trombonist Annie Whitehead and trumpeter and flugelhorn player Dave Defries. Both Whitehead and Defries also played with Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath over many years.

Another interesting contributor was violinist Nigel Kennedy.

The PCO played together in its various formats for 24 years and in that time released some nine albums, from the 1976 Music from the Penguin Café to the 1999 album Oskar Und Leni.

Jeffes died in December 1997 after a long battle with cancer.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

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~ by Tony McGregor on September 19, 2012.

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