The weird and wonderful world of the Jeffes family and Penguin Café

A big penguin sits in a downtown busy, urban city, silent and puzzled. It is an image Arthur Jeffes recently gave birth to in his head.
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Arthur Jeffes in Shanghai

A big penguin sits in a downtown busy, urban city, silent and puzzled. It is an image Arthur Jeffes recently gave birth to in his head. Inspired by it, he acquired a big penguin head for one of his suits and posed in it with his Penguin Café musicians for their latest album "The Imperfect Sea."

"I like all those productive activities," says the 39-year-old English composer. "I hope that our music can help lead audiences to a magical world, and every part of our performances on stage will support that."

In an old-style yellow suit and orange tie, Jeffes led his Penguin Café onto the stage of 2017 Music in Summer Air (MISA) last week.

The Penguin Café Orchestra, its predecessor, launched by Simon Jeffes, Arthur's father, in 1972 was a popular music group in late 20th century with hits such as "Music for a Found Harmonium." But Simon's passing away in 1997 saw 10 years of silence and inactivity for the orchestra, until Arthur created a distinct successor band simply called Penguin Café in 2009. No original members of the Penguin Café Orchestra are included, yet the same music landscapes remain.

At the recent MISA concert in Shanghai Symphony Hall, the Penguin Café presented some of Simon's most popular pieces, as well as its latest works, leading audiences into a surreal world through music.

"My father and I have similar music approaches. It is a lovely way to regain a connection with my father, who passed away 20 years ago," says Arthur.

It is hard to define the exact music style of the Penguin Café Orchestra in his father's time, said Arthur, as it is an eclectic mix of everything. Simon loved contemporary composers like Stockhausen and John Cage, but he believed that music could be more interesting and emotionally connecting than that.

"He held a punk philosophy and playing chamber instruments. The philosophy is that you do not have to train for years, but just do what you want," says Arthur. 

So, Simon opened up casually between different music types like rock, pop, classical and world music, and set up the unique music landscape for the Penguin Café Orchestra.

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Arthur Jeffes (on the piano) and his Penguin Café

The whole idea of ??Penguin Café was originated from one of Simon’s daydreams when he was suffering from food poisoning in south France in 1972, reveals Arthur. It was a vision of a near future. Everyone lives in a disconnected world where they just look at screens and musicians wear headphones.

"It is a cold existence. But you can reject that. You can go further forward to where you will find a café, noisy, chaotic and full of talking people. At the back of the café, there is the orchestra, playing music that you will either feel familiar with or do not know where it comes from. The café is labeled the Penguin Café while the owner is a magic penguin," says Arthur. “When he woke up, he set up the Penguin Café Orchestra and composed for it in his dreams from that day since."

Arthur's musical education was largely based on his father's music. When he was a little boy, he believed that half of the world’s music was created by his dad. As an amateur, Arthur played music with friends while studying archeology at university. A three-month expedition to the North Pole in 2005 occasionally triggered his interest in becoming more involved in music.

“During those three months, it is all about ice and white, which gave me sufficient time to think about what I wanted to do," recalls Arthur.

The ball started to roll and he dreamt of bringing back his father's dream of the Penguin Café. On returning to London, he completed a master's degree in composition, played his father's pieces at a number of memorial concerts and founded the Penguin Café in 2009, following his father's steps.

The new band features many Penguin Café Orchestra pieces in its live repertoire, records and performances, while Arthur also composed new works, while intentionally keeping them consistent with the old pieces.

Both the father and the son were interested in creating something fun in music. Simon once made a musical piece based around a tape loop of a telephone ringing tone intersected with an engaged tone and accompanied by the twanging of a rubber band. It is the famous "Telephone and Rubber Band," collected in the soundtrack of "Malcolm" in 1986 and Oliver Stone's "Talk Radio" in 1988.

As for Arthur, he also collected sounds of salts stirred in jar and floorboards being knocked in his music. In his latest album "The Imperfect Sea," he replaced electronic layers with real instruments ─ pads with real string sections, synths with heavily effected pianos, and atmospheric analogue drones with real feedback loops ringing through a stone and a piano soundboard.

"I like to experiment. Anything can become an instrument. You do not have to buy the expensive ones," says Arthur. "The sounds are so cool."



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