about Simon Jeffes

Rede von Tommy Bodmer, gehalten am 9. Mai 1998, im Rahmen der Gedenkveranstaltung für Simon Jeffes in der Kirche St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

Dear Helen, dear Arthur, Simon’s family, friends,

first of all I have to apologize for my accent, but as it is, I do not come from these parts. I have been asked to say something as somebody who started out as a fan of Simon’s music and ended up loving Simon as a friend.

It all began with a very strange record called Miniatures which came out in 1980 and comprised 52 pieces of music, none of which were longer than one minute. One of these pieces was a string quartet which lasted only 45 seconds. Its title was Arthur’s Treat, its composer one Simon Jeffes.

It may sound like an exaggeration, but these 45 seconds changed my life. Here was a piece of music, which was serious and silly, yearning and lively at the same time. Moreover it was the kind of music I would always have wanted to hear, had I but known it existed.

Thanks to Miniatures I found the first record Music from the Penguin Cafe, and looking at the titles two things struck me: Here was a tune with the very strange title The sound of someone you love who’s going away and it doesn’t matter, and there was another especially lovely tune, Giles Farnaby’s Dream, which had two composers. Their life span was indicated in brackets: Farnaby 1560 dash 1640; Jeffes 1949 dash nothing. I found it very odd that a composer should allude to his own mortality in such a way. We now know that Simon went away in 1997, and it does matter.

Years ago Simon told me that after a concert in Japan a young Japanese girl gave him a letter in which she had written something along the lines of: „Your music feels familiar, as if I had heard it a long time ago, before I was born.“

Simon was not interested in Cajun or Venezuelan or music from Zimbabwe as such. He wanted to get beyond the cultural stratum to the common root of the different kinds of music. He could go on and on about the multiplicity of notes hidden in a single note. He said: „I am not interested in cultural things, in what, why or who. What I am interested in is the sound, and the fact that this sound is speaking human spirit. When I first heard that tape with music from Kenya, I could tune into it because it was the sound humans make when they got their feet on the ground and are in a state of harmony and not overbalanced with their minds.“

Simon’s music it not at all cerebral, and it does not hit you over the head, overwhelm you like the music of Wagner and other heavy metal composers. Simon’s music is about space, and it speaks to the child within us. I think it is very significant that children and visual artists respond to his music especially strongly.

What Simon had in common with his heroes John Cage and especially Erik Satie was what I would like to call „sophisticated simplicity“. Often musically educated people would, upon first hearing his music, say it was banal, but then after a while it would click, and they would catch onto what was going on. Simon has written music which opens up spaces for us to live in, he has changed the soundtrack of our lives, because he teaches us to listen.

He heard the polyrhythms of the leaking tap in his kitchen in Ellingham Road. We can hear them at the end of Union Cafe. He said: „People tell me how visual my music is, but for me it isn’t. I am dull on words and colours. My hearing is the most cultivated.“ It certainly was: I distinctly remember Simon during a holiday in Switzerland in the Engadin valley. We had this espresso machine in the kitchen, and Simon would say: „This machine makes wonderful espresso, but unfortunately there is nothing nice about the sound it makes.“

As you can see, I have been jumping ahead, because it was only in 1985 that I met Simon for the first time. Now, there is always a risk involved in meeting a person whose art you like, because some wonderful art has been produced by people who are actually anything but wonderful. With the Penguin Cafe Orchestra this was different: That band was already a joy to watch, because it was such a whacky assortment of very special characters. And in the middle of them was this tall, friendly looking person, who did not so much look like a 36 year old, but rather like some kind of Peter Pan figure and who was obviously enjoying himself.

What I found in the human being, was the wonderful silliness I so much liked in his music: Who but Simon would write a tune with a title like The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas or compose a piece like Telephone and Rubber Band and then lug a chair around the world because he believed the rubber band would only produce the right sound around the back of that particular chair?

It was the same person who would fool around in front of the house the grave philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used to live in, or describe the imagery of a typical music video as: „a white knight on a white horse, followed by a thousand crocodiles and a red indian smoking dope“.

But together with the wonderful silliness came his interest in spiritual matters, about which he did not talk a lot. But it would come out on a walk in the Engadin, when Simon talked about the sound of the wind in different trees – he wanted to make a whole record of that – or when he said he would like to sit on a mountain and watch a glacier move. It was his desire for stillness, for listening to what was going on inside him. I remember Simon last summer, how he would be sitting in front of the studio in his favourite chair between the two wind chimes, whose sounds were different, but complementary, and the delight with which he would listen to their sounds – and the sounds of the wind in the trees.

After the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s tour of Japan in 1982, Simon staid on for another four months to study meditation. During one of his walks in Kyoto he saw a pile of wood and on top of it a harmonium, which nobody wanted, but which was in perfect working order. Every day during the four hours he was allowed to leave the temple, Simon would go to a friend’s place, where they had put the harmonium, and play it. One of the Zen like exercises he did with it, was to leave one finger on the key of G and only play the notes he could reach to the left and right of it. This is how Music for a Found Harmonium came into being. Written by an Englishman in Japan, this tune is now part of Irish folk music. I think that says it all. Thank you, Simon.