Doodles in the margin from an artist living and working in the Scottish Borders.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Music on Monday: Stuck Inside of Mobile.

If the Penguin Cafe Orchestra defies categorisation - and there really isn't another group quite like the Penguins - then that's not an accident. The PCO was founded by cellist Helen Liebmann and Simon Jeffes, after Jeffes' experiences with classical and rock music left him dissatisfied with the rigidity and limitations of both forms. There may never have been a Penguin Cafe at all, though, had Jeffes not crossed paths with a tainted shrimp.

"In 1972 I was in the south of France. I had eaten some bad fish and was in consequence rather ill. As I lay in bed I had a strange recurring vision, there, before me, was a concrete building like a hotel or council block. I could see into the rooms, each of which was continually scanned by an electronic eye. In the rooms were people, everyone of them preoccupied.

In one room a person was looking into a mirror and in another a couple were making love but lovelessly, in a third a composer was listening to music through earphones. Around him there were banks of electronic equipment. But all was silence. Like everyone in his place he had been neutralized, made grey and anonymous. The scene was for me one of ordered desolation. It was as if I were looking into a place which had no heart.

Next day when I felt better, I was on the beach sunbathing and suddenly a poem popped into my head. It started out 'I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe, I will tell you things at random' and it went on about how the quality of randomness, spontaneity, surprise, unexpectedness and irrationality in our lives is a very precious thing. And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what's most important."

This principle held up in the music. Telephone and Rubber Band arose out of a faulty telephone exchange through which Jeffes was attempting to make a call. Hearing the ring tone and a busy signal at the same time, he recorded it on his answering machine. Music For a Found Harmonium was composed on a discarded harmonium he came across in a back street in Tokyo.

If in some alternative universe no-one (Lloyd Loar, Adolf Rickenbacker, Merle Travis, take your pick) had invented the electric guitar and classical music was left to evolve pop music of its own accord, then this is what it would sound like. Melodic, charming, moving, always fearsomely accomplished and irresistible.

Mariah Carey* would have to learn the violin or shut the f*** up. And that would of course be no bad thing.

*A probably dated cultural reference to be sure, but that much annoyance from the Queen of Pointless Vocals has a half-life of centuries.

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