Pick Up A Penguin
Simon Jeffes, leader of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, loves acoustic instruments...so why are we talking to him? Because we think he's got some pretty sound theories...
Simon Jeffes, of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, is an unfashionable thing — a maker of acoustic composed music; yet has some interesting insights into electronic composition. Tony Reed reports.
Simon Jeffes makes a really good cup of tea. He also makes music — acoustic, composed music in a period when electronics and 'The Riff' are the order of the day. Yet his work has none of the precious dreaming-spire avant-gardism exhibited by some of his contemporaries in the field of modern composition. The Pop sensibility that infuses his busy arrangements is mirrored in a career that ranges through work with talents as diverse as American choreographer Twyla Tharp, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Caravan, and Sid Vicious.
Latterly, though, he has directed his energies toward his brainchild, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. This largely acoustic ensemble first saw vinyl with Brian Eno's label, Obscure, and have recently had their fourth album, Broadcasting From Home, released on Editions Eg.
Despite the lack of electronic instruments — or indeed just about any instrument that plugs in — there is, in the album's complex weave of voices much that would be familiar to the fan of Jarre's or Tangerine Dream's sequenced symphonies. In fact Jeffe's involvement with electronic music goes further than initial impressions would suggest. In 1969, whilst still a member of Gilbert Biberian's classical guitar ensemble The Omega Players he became involved in the seminal Electronic Music Society, and experimented for a while with tape loop and sound manipulation techniques: "...but I didn't get much from it. Music I like tends to have a very direct 'speaking to you' quality, whilst tape loops tend toward an automated world... It isn't a bad thing necessarily..."
We were speaking in the comfortable, if compact kitchen cum control room of Simons studio, a converted mews garage in London.
Where do you draw the line, then? Don't you use an A.M.S. on the latest album?
"Yes, on The Harlequin. It was while I was working with Ryuichi in his 24 track studio. His wife was singing a pure note, which we wanted to use on the track, and the simplest way to do it was just to trap her in the A.M.S., and trigger it in the right place. I see nothing wrong in using it in that way, for particular ends, which you don't hear as an 'effect' as such."
So unobtrusive technology is o.k. Where does the Linndrum on Headwind fit into your scheme, then?
"Well, I happen to believe that music isn't written by an act of will. It just comes from fiddling about. And that's what happened with the Linn I'd hired one for a day, out of curiosity, and by lunch-time, I'd filled all its memories — covered it in mud, you might say!
"Then a friend came over, and I was showing it to him, doodling away, and I came out with the best figure of the day. I liked it so much, I wrote Another One From the Colonies around it. That's how discovering music should be — just fiddling about on a Linn, or a ukelele, until something happens."
So it isn 't the complexity of the instrument, but how immediate you find it as a tool?
"Yes — too often people are overwhelmed by electronic instruments and that leads to a certain blandness in the sound they produce with them. A while back, I had a chat with the people who developed the original VCS3 synth. They said that they felt they had done music a disservice. People were just buying this synth, getting bowled over with the first sound it produced, and that was that! If an electronic instrument doesn't have the immediacy of a Linn or an Omnichord, approach it very carefully, with what you want it to do clear in your mind. It's so hard to be spontaneous."
As you've mentioned, though, some of the tracks on the album were recorded in collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto from the Yellow Magic Orchestra — one of the most hi-tech outfits in the world. Didn't that lead to problems?
"Not really, it's obviously partly a matter of taste, but the stuff Ru had done with David Sylvian was just about the first electronic music I had liked since Switched On Bach (Walter Carlos). And he's got a tremendous understanding of the technical side of the synths and computers, so there was none of the struggle which would have got in the way if I had tried to use that stuff myself."
It seems somehow typical that surrounded by all this hi-tech, one of the most striking tracks on the album, Headwind was largely achieved on an Omnichord. Why?
"It's not a profound instrument — just a toy — my attempt to come to terms with hi-tech! Japanese schoolchildren use it to learn music on. It's got a really cheap 'n' sleazy rhythm box, auto-accompaniment for the chord buttons, and a sort of glissando harp effect you can play with fingers or a plectrum, an electronic auto-harp in fact. Yet the very first time I picked it up, it was all there — immediate. I'd already had one tune out of it, The Toy, on the previous album, and it happened again, in Ru's studio.
"Audiences love it when I turn the rhythm box on — they think it's funny. And it's given me two tunes now."
(There must be something in it as the machine's also a hit with fellow traveller Brian Eno) Can you see yourself using any other electronic instruments in the near future?
"I like the idiosyncracies of acoustic instruments too much. A Fender Rhodes on a Fairlight is never going to have that nasty buzz if you hit too too hard! I think all that sampling is a bit retrograde, in fact — you're bound to homogenize a sound, a bit, no matter how many samples you take. It's like that D.D.L thing at the moment, everyone going BOG!BOG!BOG! — a cliche, even the Eurythmics are doing it which is a shame, because I quite like their stuff. Now, if Annie Lennox was to sing BOG!BOG!BOG! that might be interesting...
"...Anyway, if you think about it, what I'm doing is electronic music. The mixer I use is an extension of electronics, isn't it? I write pieces in ways that are quite often similar to the techniques of electronic music - mixing different pure tones together, and so forth. I have thought about music in an academic sense, studying string quartets and so forth, and technically the basis of my music is a close study of the harmonic series. My bible is a book called Science In Music by James Jeans. It's something every musician — electronic or otherwise — should read, so when you play, you understand what's going on. Like this;"
At which point, I'd thought I better leave. It was obvious Simon was having some kind of fit. He suddenly opened his mouth, and began making weird animal noises. I must have looked worried, because he stopped just long enough to tell me that he was 'varying the harmonic content of a note through the shape of his mouth.' After a bit more 'Aauuwering', the human envelope filter settled down a bit, and we continued our chat distracted only a little by ESCM's photographer tripping over something expensive as he arrived.
How would you say that your technical understanding of music has helped you practically?
"Take for instance the drone on Prelude and Yodel (on Broadcasting From Home). It's central to the piece. As you probably know, playing two notes together generates a third and fourth note — the sum and difference tones. If you play an interval, say a fifth, the difference tone corresponds amazingly well to what you're playing. C and G gives C and E for example, reinforcing itself. A fourth gives a fifth below, a third, a fourth below, and so on."
Ring modulation, in fact?
"Yes, it's something I've used for ages. I've got an old Fender? Ring modulator, which is just about the only interference with the instruments that I use. There's a piece on the previous album which has ring modulated piano on it, generating a marvellously appropriate bass line, whipping around all over the place, just from the single note melody line. I wrote it like that, using a melody that would only produce sensible bass lines.
Having your own studio to work in must be a big help. How long have you had it?
"Oh, about three years. I'm very untechnical in my approach to recording."
Yet you do manage to capture some very good acoustic sounds — something that's almost a dying art these days — how?
"Quite often, I sit in the studio all day without even turning anything on, a luxury you couldn't afford in some of those ludicrous £70 a day places. Then, when an idea comes, I get it down as quickly as possible on whatever's available, maybe my guitar, an old Gretch Tennyseean. (It's a pig to tune, but I wouldn't dream of gettin' rid of it, it'd be like throwing out my grandmother!). If it sounds good, fine, if not, I try again another way. I record the various instruments straight onto the A-8, the dearest bit of equipment here. No Eq if I can help it. All of the thought goes into the source of the sound, before it even reaches the mike — very unfashionable these days! Just about the only effect I use is The Great British Spring Reverb, which I've even used on record, in preference to expensive studio effects, simply because it's quality's so good. That's about it.
Although the studio's quite small I've had up to eight people in it, myself included, running everything from a remote, although I sometimes get in an engineer to help out. Trial and error, and a bit of luck — the only trade secrets I've got."
It's hard to think of luck playing a part in your music — as it seems so disciplined and complex. Do you ever have trouble keeping track while you're playing?
"We cheat a little — Geoffry has rigged up two headphones via a lot of cable to a Walkman, so we can be thirty feet apart, and still stay in time by listening to a click track off the Walkman. But there's still room for improvisation."
So you wouldn't bracket yourself with Systems composers — despite certain superficial similarities in your sound?
"We do get thrown together, through a kind of category of exception. We all produce contemporary composed music. The trouble with Systems people like Glass and Nyman, though, is that they only ever produce that reliable, trance-like effect. If only one voice would sing out from the rest. There's an African saying that sums up Systems music for me; "Music without singing is like Sudsa without Murewo" — that is, grain porridge without vegetables — and it's the vegetables I like!"
So what do you do?
"Oh — call it Modern English Blues Music, music from the heart. That's where it should come from. It's why I do it... I love it — and it feeds me."
If music is indeed the food of love, then the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's upful frivolity is only a starter. But worth a nibble all the same.
Interview by Tony Reed
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