Music from the Penguin Cafe
Revisiting a musical phenomenon
This article is from 2009.
The death of Simon Jeffes in 1997 seemed to bring an end to the intriguing story of the Penguin Café Orchestra. Jeffes had founded the group in the early 70s as a vehicle for his musical concept, which – as he told me when I interviewed him in 1994 – had no obvious outlet at the time.
‘I didn’t really have a context for the kind of work I did. I was just beginning to write music, and I participated in a lot of different areas, like the avant-garde, the experimental end of rock music, more commercial music, ethnic music – but I didn’t really fit into any of them.
‘Given a free hand, I thought I would try to integrate all these different things into one work that would be my work, and that is where the idea for the Penguin Café Orchestra came from.’
The resulting hybrid became a popular phenomenon, and the band’s essentially acoustic instrumentation and eclectic mix of classical, folk, jazz and rock musicians found an audience untroubled by genre distinctions.
Jeffes led the band until 1996, when he withdrew to Somerset and began to focus on solo piano work, only to die from a brain tumour the following year. Penguin Café Orchestra’s music continued to be heard in television and film soundtracks and through the adoption of compositions by other musicians, notably the ubiquitous ‘Music For a Found Harmonium’, but the band ceased to exist.
Then in 2007 his son, Arthur Jeffes, staged a tenth anniversary celebration of his father’s music. This year, he leads a new group under the banner Music From The Penguin Café, playing both music from the original Orchestra repertoire and his own compositions.
Queen’s Hall, 668 2019, 13–15 Aug, 10pm, £15 (£13).