Listen to this track by avant-garde-minimalist-ambient-folk-jazz-chamber-whatever collective Penguin Cafe Orchestra. It’s “Music For A Found Harmonium”, the opening track as taken from the 1984 album Broadcasting From Home. The track was initially inspired in just the way you might think; by PCO founder Simon Jeffes actually finding a harmonium in an alley in Japan while on tour there, and then building a piece of music around it.
It’s this kind of out of the box thinking that set him upon this road to start with. The music of Penguin Cafe Orchestra is driven by all kinds of sources, from classical music, to jazz, to folk music of all kinds, referencing traditional pop structure and melody using a variety of stringed instruments, piano, and brass. But, another source used to create the music is from “found sounds”, and in found objects too, from rubber bands to discarded harmoniums.
So, how did Simon Jeffes establish this musical approach, and what can be found in this tune that exemplifies it?
These unconventional approaches to creating music would certainly define “the band”, which was mostly a vehicle for Jeffes’ experimental projects in making music out of disparate and unexpected sources. During the span of years in which the PCO was an active concern from the early ’70s to the late ’90s, it has boasted a wide number of collaborators, with Jeffes being its creative fulcrum, along with cellist and PCO co-founder Helen Liebmann as the only other permanent member.
The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was born in 1972, after Jeffes suffered through a bout of food poisoning, and had experienced odd dreams while recovering. By the time he got better, he’d written the first lines of a poem: “I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe and I will tell you things at random”. With that established, Jeffes took his experience in classical music composition, and his interest in rock music and world music, and decided to meld them with the idea of capturing the idea of randomness along with it.
By the time he recorded this piece after a tour of Japan in 1982, he’d built up a track around the sound of a harmonium, with a repetitive, and yet distinctly melodic musical motif. The song gathers in ambient music, classical music, Celtic folk reels, and a dash of jazz percussion, and makes it into a piece that suggests movement. But in a similar way to Steve Reich‘s music, it isn’t driven by event-oriented musical structures. The thing that really makes this piece of music exemplary of Jeffes’ approach is that it seems to tell the story of the object itself.
That’s a common thread that runs through a lot of his music; it captures suggested micro-narratives, unspoken stories of small events and objects, suggested not by lyrics, but rather by sonic patterns, chord structures, and contrasting tones that are often not derived from traditional instruments, but by things like ringtones and other technological noises.
This song, like many others in the PCO canon, captures meaning at a sort of musically and experientially molecular level. But, even if a listener doesn’t appreciate it on that scale, the music remains to be melodically compelling, even if those melodies are also on a narrower tonal spectrum than most pop songs, or even classical compositions are.
The Penguin Cafe Orchestra endured into the 1990s, with their last official release being 1993’s Union Cafe.
Simon Jeffes died in 1997. But, music from PCO albums has been featured in commericals, on movie soundtracks, and on television since Jeffes passed away. More recently, the project has been taken up again by his son Arthur Jeffes under the name Penguin Cafe.
To learn more about Simon Jeffes and Penguin Cafe Orchestra, why not visit penguincafe.com?