Once upon a time in France, a musician called Simon Jeffes was brought low after eating some bad fish. As he lay in bed, possibly delirious, he had strange dreams. Afterwards a poem came to him: it began 'I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café; I will tell you things at random'.
According to Jeffes it was this which inspired him to form his orchestra, to make music which would make the soul glad. It has also been described as 'like a string quartet letting their hair down at some mysteriously-located barn dance of the future.'
The music of the Penguin Café Orchestra (PCO) was written by Jeffes himself, principally for violin, cello, guitar and piano, but using any available instrument (including the musical saw). The result is compelling, sometimes other-worldly, often irresistibly foot-tapping. The word 'unique' is debased in modern usage, but it describes the PCO perfectly.
The ballet Still Life at the Penguin Café produced by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden features many of the orchestra's best-known works including those used as incidental music in the Australian film Malcolm, most notably a piece called Telephone and Rubber Band.
The surreal nature of the music is nicely complemented by the cover artwork on the PCO's albums. These feature human nudes with the heads of penguins, a theme which was picked up (with the addition of clothes) by the costumes for the Royal Ballet's production.
So what can you expect? It is mostly gentle and lilting, although there are brisker pieces - Pythagoras's Trousers and Salty Bean Fumble spring to mind. The titles sound almost as odd as Genesis songs: 'Cutting Branches For A Temporary Shelter', 'Giles Farnaby's Dream' and 'Yodel 1' for example. It can also be very odd. It was Jeffes who provided the strings for Sid Vicious's tortured version of 'My Way'1. Not surprisingly much of Jeffes' work appears on Brian Eno's Obscure label. Funny, isn't it, how every discussion of innovative music always includes Eno's name?
Jeffes died from a brain tumour on 11 December 1997, aged 48. The world of music was impoverished by his passing.
You can still catch Still Life at the Penguin Café at the Royal Ballet occasionally, and the orchestra's recordings are all available from the official website.