Penguin Café follows up 2017’s The Imperfect Sea with Handfuls of Night (Erased Tapes, October 4).
Handfuls of Night takes its inspiration from a journey to the Antarctic, where Arthur Jeffes followed in the footsteps of famous explorer Scott. He also got to meet the penguins!
In 2005, Jeffes was asked to join an expedition which re-created Scott’s last trip to the Antarctic, in 1911, for the BBC, and using the same Edwardian equipment. Scott was married to his great grandmother before she married his great grandfather. Antarctica is a protected environment, but they spent three months on the Greenland ice sheet in the Arctic Circle. Combined with his love of penguins, there’s really no other musician on the planet who’s better placed to document these experiences and then score them to music. Jeffes went dog-sledding and man-hauling (around 1000 km at 10,000 feet), and across ice fields and glaciers.
‘I realised that even in the most remote silent places, music can still be a huge part of one’s internal world and imagination’.
Jeffes used gut-stringed violins, viola, cello, bass, percussion, upright and grand pianos, synthesizer, and harmonium to create episodes of winter beauty; a whiteout of a landscape, stark and clear-eyed. “Winter Sun” appropriately opens the album, and “Midnight Sun” closes it, so the bulk of the music takes place in between the course of the sun.
On Handfuls of Night, piano-centred minimalism engages with the strings of modern composition. The cleanly-plucked and strummed guitar of contemporary folk resides here, too.
Most importantly, though, the music carries an environmental message, which is a critical issue for this generation.
Greenpeace commissioned Jeffes to write four pieces of music corresponding to four different breeds of penguin with the aim of raising awareness for the endangered Antarctic seas. Soon after this, Penguin Café premiered the songs – all named after our feathered friends – at EartH, Hackney. The four species of native Antarctic penguin have their own characteristics and personalities, so it’s natural for each corresponding track to have a different atmosphere. The album bloomed from then on.
His music has a direct clarity – clean, with no dust particles or anything to dirty its icy floor. It’s capable of switching it up, too. Dramatic swells and sweeps showcase the jaw-dropping landscape, and it’s majestic in its focus on the melodic. But even with slices of percussion, it can also feel like quite an isolated and lonely place, a quiet and barren emptiness to look out upon…and all the more beautiful for it.
Standout track ‘At the Top of the Hill, They Stood…’ contains a dreamy five-minute piano melody which repeats a fountain of notes, picking up soft strings and a muffled, heartbeat-thumping rhythm along the way. But this track really gets across the feeling of being in awe of your environment, and respecting it 100%, and that’s something we need more of in the world. The piano has the clarity of a mountain’s apex, overlooking something pristine and incredibly precious. We are to look after and care for this planet. So let’s look after it. (James Catchpole)