Penguin Cafe Orchestra | Simon Jeffes
Obscure orchestra leader, Simon Jeffes intrigues Paul Tingen with stories of self-discovery in Japan, and finding music in one note.
Simon Jeffes, musical chameleon and founder member of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, talks about making serious music with a commercial face.
'I know this might sound awfully corny', says Simon Jeffes in a tone of voice entirely bereft of corn, 'but it all stems from when I went to Japan in 1972. It's as if I discovered myself there and became more confident, musically and personally. It all happened quite spontaneously. I was living a rather regular life here in London, working a lot with Rupert Hine on his solo albums and on some advertisement music, when something suddenly grabbed me at the side and said: "OK, now go off to Japan".'
The storyteller smiles and offers us a cup of tea. The place is a small studio in the Holland Park region of West London — just one big room, of cubic proportions, intersected with mathematical precision by a balcony halfway up the wall. On the ground floor lies a host of instruments ranging from piano to ukelele. On the balcony is a small kitchen, with a Trident Fleximix mixing desk, a TEAC 80-8 eight-track machine, a Great British Spring reverb, and an old Revox A77.
Simon Jeffes is the musical and philosophical brains behind an unfashionable hybrid of musical styles called the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Jeffes is a tall man in his mid-thirties, much given to gesticulating vividly as he speaks.
He displays the intriguing combination of an almost childlike openness and a clear impression that he knows exactly what he's talking about. Maybe it's got something to do with his Japanese experience. After all, isn't there an ancient Oriental saying that advises people 'to know nothing and to observe like a child'? But observing like a child doesn't mean being a fool, as Jeffes' story shows...
'Being in Japan was an experience of opening up. There was one incident which struck me in particular. It was when I visited a shakuhachi (a kind of bamboo flute) player in his house. We entered this small room which was typically Japanese, with small mats on the floor, paper doors and nothing else except a kettle and a little stove. We sat on the floor and he played. Just before he started to play, he put the kettle on the stove to make some tea. As you know, the Japanese do everything in a very deliberate way. So he started to play the shakuhachi, which gives a stunningly clear and purposeful sound. While he was playing, the kettle started to hiss a bit as it got hotter.
'I then suddenly had this sense of clearness and space between everything. Space between the notes, space around the notes, space between the music and the sound of the kettle. It was a feeling of lucidity where I felt I could sense the shape of the notes he was playing. The funny thing was that the sound of the kettle didn't interfere, it didn't get in the way. There was no battle between the flute and the kettle. They were both there in that empty room.
'That trip to Japan was a very formative experience which I expressed in writing. That's how the Penguin Cafe was conceived. Really it's a state of mind, but I started writing about this place where you would feel at home and just be yourself. You could meet other people and some kind of home music would be played by an orchestra or a band. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra is now playing that music.
'When I came back to England, a series of coincidences took place and a group of us came together and started to play. It all seemed very... inevitably right.'
Years before Japan, kettles and penguins entered his life, Jeffes started his musical career at the Royal College of Music in London, studying classical guitar and composition. He soon dropped out, though, to join the Omega Players, an avant-garde, 10-piece classical guitar and percussion group. In 1970 he became involved in commercial music when he started to work with Rupert Hine.
After his trip to Japan, Jeffes' musical work extended to arranging for, amongst others, Yvonne Elliman, Caravan, Camel, Murray Head and, most recently, David Sylvian (though his string arrangement for Sylvian's forthcoming album hasn't made it to the final master). He's also worked in collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, a close personal friend. As for the best-known moment in what has been, thus far, a fairly obscure musical career, that's probably a highly immemorable string arrangement for Sid Vicious' version of 'My Way'.
The main focus of the man's musical work, however, is his own compositions, as played by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.
The ensemble's music represents an unlikely mixture if ever there was one. Caribbean and African rhythms, European folk tunes, and odd bits of avant-garde, classical and rock music all find their way into the Cafe's musical vocabulary. The occasional LinnDrum and electric guitar surfaces from time to time, but strings, percussion and classical guitar dominate the Orchestra's sound, alongside such curiosities as milk bottles, a soloban, a Suzuki Omnichord and a cuatro.
'The funny thing is that my trip to Japan didn't change my music that much', Jeffes continues. 'It mainly changed my attitude, it taught me to listen to music in a different way. Now I can find music in just one note. I no longer find music in wilfully-imposed contractions, which you find in so much modern avant-garde music. They're too complex for me to understand and they don't make me feel good, so I had to decide to start again.
"We need to define categories of music because they help us to organise and communicate, but if we truly believe them, we've made a mistake."
'What I do now is take one note and just start from there. I listen to where it wants to go, for what should come next. The answer is within that one note. From it comes the next and the next, and so on. It grows out of it like a flower.
'I've got a connected musical philosophy that's based on harmonic series and proportions. Basically it's concerned with the harmonics that are in every note. If you look at them closely, like under a microscope, you discover a tremendous order inherent in them. It's a mathematical order, but it's also a natural one. Compare it with a tree, for example. You can see a principle involved, you can see it as a series of numbers if you want, yet it doesn't really look like a principle.
'The patterns and order which I see in the harmonics somehow give me a model for putting music together, which won't be exactly the same as the things I find in the harmonics, but which do give me a clue, a suggestion which I apply in an intuitive way while I'm composing.
'From the note C, for example, you find the natural overtones of G, C and E. Going up, the notes start to get a bit strange. There's an F sharp, a B flat, a D and even more. The higher you go, the weirder the harmonics get, and that's important. It's not particularly nice or tidy, but what I do is to start shoving things around in order to make them fit.
'It's not a limiting structure, though. My music does obey rules and laws, not because I'm imposing them, but because that's the way it feels like it should be. I'm working within certain parameters, which are a sort of natural confine of constructing harmonics, rather than getting into unnatural ones.'
Jeffes has a similar approach to rhythm, too. 'My ideas on that are based on Pythagorean thinking, on simple proportions, number combinations and polyrhythms. Some of the rhythms I use might sound Latin or African, but in fact they're not. They're derived from the same source as Latin rhythms, that's the point. It's just a basic human response to breaking time into patterns.
'By deriving rhythms from pitch relationships, which is quite an involved intellectual process, you get results which sound surprisingly like African or South American music.'
So are Jeffes' compositions as intricately structured and difficult to grasp as the contemporary avant-garde music he dislikes?
'Well, from a purely technical point of view my music is very simple. There's no mystery about technique in it. It's deceptive, though, something Bob Loveday, a violinist and the most recent new member, ran into when I auditioned him. He came here and we talked a bit and then he got out his violin. You know, it's always a bit embarrassing somehow, when you have to play something and show what you can do. So to begin with, while he was just limbering up, he played one note. And I said: "Fine, it's great, that one note, it's beautiful, you're on". That note was worthy of a late Beethoven string quartet, it had that kind of depth to it. So before he'd really played anything, he'd already showed me what he could do.
'Simplicity is what attracts me to African and Latin American music. In the West there are these kinds of music which are supposed to be the categories available — avant-garde, classical, rock, jazz — but to me they're all a bit unsatisfying.
"Rock happens to be the most open-minded field of music; my music is simple, the classical world likes complexity."
'In 1972, shortly after my Japan experience, I heard some music from Africa. What happened was that it immediately made me feel good, it was just lovely. So I thought: "Oh, that's what music is about, that simple, direct feeling which makes you feel good". Then somebody gave me a record from South America and it had the same impact on me. Another day I heard something from Madagascar and realised: "Ah, there it is again, that's got it".'
With a range of musical influences as wide as this, it isn't surprising that Jeffes isn't too fond of giving his music a label. The media's obsessive pigeon-holing of musical styles leaves him with a bad taste in the mouth, primarily because he'd like to leave the process of categorisation to the individual.
'To me, there are only two categories in music: music that's got it and music that hasn't got it. Again, it's the Japanese influence on my thinking. When I was there, all the limitations on my thinking vanished. I was in a truly foreign culture. In that room with the shakuhachi player, there was no force being used to make things this way or that way. I was just dealing with sound. Music is music, and it's just one thing. Classical music isn't that different from rock music, for instance. They're just games that we play. We need these conventions in order to communicate and organise things, but if we truly believe them, then we've made a mistake.
'I suppose that's one of the reasons why rock music is the area where I have my toe in the door. It could have been anywhere, but it just happens to be the most open-minded field in the music world. My music is simple; the classical world likes complexity. They listen with their minds. In rock music, people aren't too keen on complexity. They might do complicated things, but it's different because there, feeling is more important than intellectualising.
'So I see rock music as the place where I've found myself a temporary shelter. That's not to say that I feel totally comfortable in the rock area, though. To me it generally lacks the kind of internal ecstasy and depth which, for example, Bartok might have.
'Around 1977 a lot of music felt negative, because it was angry, thrashing and bawling, like a petulant child really. Everybody knows there are problems in the world, but if you sing a song about those problems that has an ugly sound, you just make another problem.
'Nowadays we get this mechanical electronic music. It's powerful because it has a certain basis and certain fundamental rhythms that affect people. But the bulk of music that uses drum computers and synthesisers sounds fairly dead to me. However, through working with Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian, and through listening to Tin Drum, a lovely album which Steve (Nye, Penguin Cafe Orchestra founder member and pianist) produced, and some of the Yellow Magic Orchestra pieces, I've found some music which in a strange way does move me. I don't feel love or compassion or direct human warmth coming from it, but it does have a kind of aching beauty.
'So I can't sit here and say synths and drum machines are rubbish — some of my best friends use them and use them very well.'
Does that mean the Penguin Cafe will be embracing more high technology in the near future?
'On our last album I actually used a Linn on the song 'Music by Numbers'. I hired one for the day. I filled the memories in no time with all kinds of knick-knack rhythms, and then a friend came round for tea and asked me how it worked. Mindlessly, I demonstrated it to him by programming something which turned out to be quite interesting. From that rhythm I built up the piece on the record in the same way that I normally find a melody in sound. Everything comes from the drum pattern.
'I'm also probably going to use a synthesiser in a small way on the new PCO album, which I hope to have released about halfway into 1986. Most likely it'll be a Prophet 5, because I like synthesisers that sound like synthesisers. I prefer the sound of a real violin to a synthetic or sampled one.
"Everyone knows there are problems in the world, but if you make a protest song that has an ugly sound, you just make another problem."
'Apart from that, sampling is terribly expensive. You can make a tape loop of any sound for 10p on a tape recorder, which might cost £300. But some of these sampling machines cost thousands of pounds, so how are you ever gonna make that money back? Right from the moment you start using it, you start thinking: "I've got to make this money back, so this music I'm making has got to be appealing, it's got to sell". And that stands in the way of your natural ability to create. It kills it a bit because you're trying to make things acceptable. You listen to what's selling, even though what's selling is already dead. So things get worse and worse because people start imitating imitations, forgetting what music really is.'
Jeffes is equally wary of technological complexity for its own sake...
'There are these huge productions which are so fashionable at the moment. But I think the PCO albums might in ten years' time sound less dated than the stuff that's being produced these days, because our records haven't got obvious signs on them like: "This is a DX7". A violin is a violin, and it's never going to sound old-fashioned. But maybe when they hear a Linn in ten years' time they'll say: "Oh, that's a very crude drum machine".
'Of course I do use modern technology whilst producing and recording, if only in a small way. I record here in my studio and usually go to a commercial studio to mix and add some bits and pieces. On the last album I used a Lexicon reverb because that's all they had in that studio. I can't say I liked it. It has too many choices. A Lexicon is a nightmare for someone who doesn't work with them all the time. First of all it says: What sort of room do you want? Big? Small? Round? Square? Then when you've made that choice, it says: OK, how round, how big, how small? Do you want the room to be a bit shorter, maybe?
And when you've made that decision it says: Right, now, the high frequencies, do you want to make them a bit longer or a bit shorter? It's just a jungle of decisions to make in order to get a very simple thing, which is a bit of reverb you want on a track to give it a bit of space.
'Basically, recording is just a tape recorder. Quite honestly, you can make an album on a Walkman with a hand-held microphone. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you can hear what's going on.
'Machines don't kill music, though. The people who use machines might, because they might think that the mixing desk and the tape recorder are what you make the music on. If they think that, then it can't go right. What makes music music is the humanity of it.
'I do go out of my way to record music well. I don't make sounds that are deliberately crude. But when there happens to be a piece which has the right feel to it and was recorded on a Walkman, and if I can't get it right re-recording it on eight-track, then I'll put the original on the record. In fact, the last piece, 'Now Nothing', off our last album Broadcasting From Home was recorded like that.
'My singing is a bit out of tune and the sound of the piano is disgusting by studio standards, but the feeling that comes from that piece is quite sweet, I think.'
The fact remains, though, that the Penguin Cafe Orchestra have not sold a record into 50% of British homes. They appeared once, by chance, on Wogan, but that's about it. For most of this country's record-buying population, the PCO are just another name on a shelf, if indeed they're known at all. So does Jeffes have any commercial ambitions, now that so many of his artistic ones have been fulfilled?
'You know, I really love this music, and I think the part of me that loves it is a very ordinary person, just like everybody else. Lots of people could buy it. That's why it's quite natural to me that there is a record company (Editions EG) that puts it on vinyl and takes it to the shops so people can buy it.
'I don't want to be obscure, though I wouldn't want to sell millions of records either. If what I write makes me feel good and makes somebody else feel good, then that's great — but it's not why I do it. I don't write this music to make the world a better place. Yet it's carried on because people like it: I couldn't write in a vacuum all my life.'
Ladies and gentlemen, a composer that writes for people, not composers.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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