Simon Jeffes, who died last year, founded The Penguin Cafe Orchestra in 1972. The Orchestra's whimsical eccentricity was distinctively 'British', yet the compositions all of them purely instrumental - resonate with echoes of music from all over the world. "The word amateur comes from the Latin, 'love', so as an amateur you literally play for love" Simon was to say of the founding ethic behind the ensemble. The core of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra bought together by Simon included his partner, the cellist Helen Liebmann, who joined in 1973; Neil Rennie, ukelele player and poet who played with the Orchestra from 1975 with Geoffrey Richardson joining on viola in 1976.
Of his early musical training, Simon remembered "When I was about nine or ten I had some trumpet lessons which came to nothing... and then when I was at boarding school someone bought me a guitar, that was my first day at school, and it had this incredible quality to it which really interested me. So from there we formed a school group, and I came to play in that way - I didn't study guitar at school. When I left school I studied classical guitar, and at the same time I studied music theory. Then I went to a music college in Chiswick, the idea being to try and get into the Royal College of Music; but it didn't work out too well because I just wasn't enthused." A period playing avant-garde music followed, after which in 1964, Simon worked with commercial composers. "Slowly it became apparent to me that this was what I would like to do - write music" Simon remembered of that period, "So, I became a composer; although I never set out to be one. But I didn't feel very comfortable in the pop music world so I went to Japan in 1972 - a completely spontaneous act."
While living in Japan Simon was writing about what he described as "an imaginary place conceived as a result of some rather peculiar dreams." This place was the Penguin Cafe, which had its own resident, eponymously-named Orchestra. "What it seemed to be was a place that was home, a place before our parent's home, where we all come from and the music relates to that." The idea began to be concretised on Simon's return from Japan. "Some auditions were held and we'd get together to play in this spirit of almost amateur music - it's not like a professional thing at all.'Penguin Cafe Orchestra's first release was 'Music from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra' (1976) on Brian Eno's Obscure label which was followed by a further three albums up to 1982. In 1992 Simon Jeffes collaborated with British techno-wizard Alex Gifford during a Real World Recording Week to produce music that would appear on the 'Arcane' Real World CD. Although this collaboration might not properly be seen as a Penguin Cafe Orchestra work, it certainly bore resemblances to the Orchestra's ethic of spontaneity and of commitment to the moment of musical encounter. Two days of free-form sessions featured musicians from around the world as well as contributions from world-class talents such as Andy Shepherd, Nana Vasconcelos, Jane Siberry and Bill Cobham Of the 'Arcane' project, Simon said "It felt strangely familiar, because we're always trying to relive that kind of freedom which is probably what appealed to us about playing music in the first place:'
A memorial service for Simon was held at St Martin's in the Field on the 9th of May. Sally Berris, the manager of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra for the last ten years, wanted to thank Simon "for showing me that steadfastness, stillness, courage, flexibility and playfulness are truly great qualities." The Swiss journalist Tommy Bodmer gave an insight into his friend's qualities when he remembered Simon saying "I'm not interested in cultural things, in what, why and who. What I am interested in is the sound, and the fact that this sound is speaking human spirit."
In tribute, the track 'Chinese Canon' from the 'Arcane' CD, written by Simon Jeffes with Zhou Yu and Cheng Yu, appears on the Real World Notes E-CD #6.
Copyright © Chris Drake
This page was last updated Wednesday 8th December 1999