Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Penguin Café

Another music post...

Nearly thirty years ago now I bought a CD on pure impulse, knowing almost nothing about the performers: When in Rome, by the Penguin Café Orchestra. You’ve probably heard some of their songs: “Perpetuum Mobile” — in 15/8 time! — or “Telephone and Rubber Band”, though maybe not my favorite of their songs, “Dirt.” The style is difficult to describe and definitely doesn't work for everyone. Simon Jeffes, who founded the PCO, wrote its songs, and played whatever instruments needed playing for a given tune, called their work “modern semi-acoustic chamber music,” and, in a different context, “imaginary folklore.” I like that latter description: I imagine a hidden land somewhere populated by people of English, Celtic, Portuguese, and Venezuelan descent, playing away on instruments they found in their grandparents’ attics. As I say, not for everyone, but I loved it from the start.

When Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumor in 1997, at the age of 48, it seemed that the story of PCO was over. But a one-off reunion concert on the tenth anniversary of his death, featuring his son Arthur, caused a great many people to say that they want more. So Arthur Jeffes (an archeologist by training) got some musicians together and founded Penguin Café to play his father’s music and some of his own. The results are getting more interesting — for instance, in Cantorum, an attempt to use some of the characteristic rhythms and repetitions of electronic music with analog ones. Check it out:

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