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Penguin Café: Handfuls of Night: Track By Track

The group's leader Arthur Jeffes takes us through the songs on the band's highly praised new album

Posted on Jan 25th, 2020 in Features and Interviews, {REL[25210][artist]8ig9VAV9REL}, Erased Tapes / By Richard Lewis
{REL[25210][artist]9BKE7BXdREL} Handfuls of Night saw storied ambient / minimalist outfit Penguin Café return in October with one of their most acclaimed discs to date. The fifth album by the group led by multi-instrumentalist Arthur Jeffes, the set utilizes using violins, viola, cello, bass, percussion, upright and grand pianos, synthesizer, and harmonium to match the songs' breathtaking sonic vistas with poignancy and emotional depth.

Initially starting as a clutch of tracks written about the titular bird in the band’s name, specifically the native four Antarctic species, the album’s origins lay in the mid-2000s. Invited to take part in a recreation of Scott’s final Antarctic trip in 1911, the voyage was to be undertaken using Edwardian-era equipment. As Antarctica is now a protected environment, the journey was switched to the Arctic circle where the company spent 3 months on the Greenland ice sheet, dog-sledding and then hauling almost a 1000 km at an attitude of 10,000 feet, across ice fields and glaciers. The project also had a familial link as Scott was originally married to Jeffe’s great grandmother before she remarried.

Producer/composer Jeffe said of creating the pieces, “I realised that even in the most remote silent places, music can still be a huge part of one’s internal world and imagination. Whilst on the expedition. I spent days playing things back in my head and also writing new things, which I would then try and write down at the end of the day.”

Fresh from wrapping up their European tour which saw them playing concert halls from Latvia to France, Café proprietor Arthur Jeffes gives us an insight into the songs on the LP.

Winter Sun: An introduction to the landscape of the Antarctic, winter sun in this sense is a northern-hemisphere-centric idea as December is high summer down there. The granular synthesis of the piano notes evoke both the wind and the idea of ice sheets and glaciers moving imperceptibly yet unstoppably.

Chinstrap: Chinstrap penguins (or “Stonebreakers”) are very social, very busy and very numerous. They communicate by calling, waving, head-bobbing, bowing and preening. They can swim up to 80 km offshore in a single day to dive for food. While among the most social, they are also among the most aggressive penguins — returning to the same nest and partner year after year.

Chapter: Here I started to develop ideas beyond the simple species’ differences. A story started to cohere in my mind, involving a penguin detective, tasked with solving a crime that led to something bigger than anyone could have imagined.

Adelie: Adelies are the smallest and most curious of the Antarctic penguins. They can dive down to 180 meters and are incredibly beautiful in the water. This piece describes a dive surrounded by krill and bubbles — catching the sunlight that manages to make it down into the deeper water…

At the Top of the Hill, They Stood…: Another scene in daily life, our protagonist penguins have been on a journey across vast landscapes and just before they arrive back home they pause at the top of a hill, to look down on the familiar rocks and sealines.

Pythagoras on the Line Again: This piece is a re-visiting of one by my father (Simon Jeffes, leader of avant pop outfit Penguin Cafe Orchestra) . It recalls the story of Pythagoras passing a blacksmith and noticing two anvils chiming sonorously together. He goes in and realises that one is exactly twice the size of the other — thus discovering the principles of harmonics and by extension some of the founding principles of modern physics. The repeating tones from an engaged tone on a BT telephone line in the UK are mapped on a keyboard and repeat according to their pitch and also their relation to one another in time, so you hear both the musical and empirical relationship between the notes.

The Life of an Emperor: Emperors are the largest and in many ways the most easily anthropomorphised of the penguins. After the egg is laid, the female heads off on what can be a many hundreds of km journey to get food for the chick, while the male stays behind with the egg on its feet. When violent storms come with temperatures dropping to -60°C, they huddle together, taking turns to go from the inside to the outer edge. That way they can survive together where they would die on their own.

Gentoo Origin: Gentoos are the fastest penguins and also the deepest divers — diving 200 meters or more, up to 450 times a day. They’re the only species whose numbers are increasing and their dominions expanding. The males give gifts of rocks as romantic gestures and sing to impress their prospective mate

Midnight Sun: Throughout the Antarctic summer the sun never goes beneath the horizon, though it will hang low in the sky before coming back up.

Handfuls of Night is out now through Erased Tapes