Friday, January 12, 2018

English suites no. 19

No title could possibly sound duller and more academic than Four Pieces for Orchestra by Simon Jeffes. It's the kind of title you'd expect on some horrifying chunk of atonal modernism from the Second Viennese School. But nothing could be more unlike what you are about to hear.

Though Jeffes was classically trained, he wasn't really a classical musician. He was a free spirit who tried all the established forms of music, both classical and popular, of his time, and was dissatisfied with all of them. One day in 1972, in a delirium from food poisoning, he dreamed that he heard the words, "I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café. I will tell you things at random."

Inspired to perform the kind of music that he thought would be heard at a venue with such a philosophy, Jeffes founded a scratch band called the Penguin Café Orchestra, to play little experimental pieces of his own composition. Its membership was variable, but a typical PCO lineup included a few violins and cellos, guitar and ukulele, perhaps some winds and a trombone, a drum kit, and a portative organ. It made quite an impact in the odder and more eccentric circles of British music before disbanding on Jeffes' early death from cancer in 1997.

Anyway, the Four Pieces for Orchestra are simply arrangements for full conventional orchestra of four of the PCO's greatest hits. There's a bit of "world music," a bit of pop, a bit of minimalism, a bit of a lot of things. If the minimalist repetition of the first movement gets to you, don't give up: the two slower movements that follow are quite different.

At least two of these pieces have achieved further life. I was reminded of Jeffes' work recently by hearing "Perpetuum Mobile" as the music closing the fourth episode of the HBO Handmaid's Tale. And "Music for a Found Harmonium" has actually entered the folk process. The title tells what it is, some noodling that Jeffes improvised on a harmonium he found abandoned on a street in Kyoto, Japan, during a PCO tour there. But what Jeffes didn't realize is that his tune was ideal for adaptation into an Irish reel. The all-star Irish band Patrick Street so adapted it: listen to this, it's hot stuff!

Since then it's been picked up by Irish and Irish-style folk musicians everywhere. (These guys have got a little surprise for you just after four minutes in.) Or, if you want to know what it sounded like when the Penguin Café Orchestra played it:

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