The only people I’ve shown the Penguin Cafe Orchestra to are Diana and Stephen. 

Both had vastly different reactions. Stephen has really taken to it. I’m sure that Dianas forgotten about it by now. I didn’t expect Stephen to become so preoccupied with their final studio album, Union Cafe. I only played one song for him out of its countless instrumentals, but in just 10 days I’ll be teaching him how to play “Silver Star of Bologna” on piano. 

I know he’s right. There’s just something about their music that also leaves me so at ease. Currents of musical pacification are what decorated my mid-teenage years, after all.

*          *          *

It’s nice to call back to that time. Specifically the early mornings Diana drove me to school down her chosen dirt roads, trading traffic on the paved route for an ever-morphing collection of potholes that thumped under our tires. A slow hollow wind always pierced our ears — something you only ever hear in a passenger seat. Maybe sounding from the tires. Probably from the speed. On top of that was whatever I was making us listen to on our way. Sometimes my face would grow hot with embarrassment if it was something particularly intense. A song by Animal Collective. A music video played off of YouTube, added sound effects still intact. She always had a limit to what she would let me play. A quick press of a button would skip the song or turn the volume down to negligible levels. She’d make a facetious remark as she continued to stare out at the back of a car in front of us. This was a quiet ritual. We were both half-asleep. Even though she had run that morning. Even though she’d already had two cups of coffee. 

I had my eyes closed in the darker months. There wasn’t much to look at, with a stray streetlamp or harsh headlight blinding us from behind. I wanted to grasp a couple last moments of rest before the day really began. The early autumn months were different, though. Rays from the rising sun would pierce through a deep, multicolored foliage. They shined through the thick fog that lamely hovered over the soccer fields, on the huge grass paths beneath electrical lines that cut through a small patch of forest. I would look out the window and just sort of dream, imagining myself following those power lines all the way, wherever they’d guide me.

A classic adolescent fantasy.

*          *          *

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra has always been an instrumental band. Their melodies give me peace. They give Stephen peace. Diana never skipped their music. “Cutting Branches For a Temporary Structure” always played unabated. We’d sit in silence. Like Stephen and I do now. I know she had work on her mind, what was important for that day, where she needed to be. But it was a found harmonium, a solitary piano that those thoughts rested on.

No sleep aides in emptying a mind. Formless. Thoughtless. “Penguin Cafe Single” carried me in my daydreams of escaping into nature. It’s like being a child, lifted to bed by large arms after falling asleep on the downstairs couch.


It’s nice to pass it on. Or maybe just the new memories attaching to a band that’s like a forgotten friend. Maybe he’ll play “Vega” at his wedding. Maybe when I see her at the park again I’ll ask her if she remembers “Perpetuum Mobile”. All the sounds made by a band that ended by the hand of tragedy stay with me, tracing small slivered visions of my mid-youth. It’s easier to remember now than ever. 

I’m penning a story. It’s personal and vulnerable and slightly obtuse. All the good makings. There’s so much safety in the past. A seemingly concrete set of events. On the page. Trapped in ink. When a distant past melds with the present, however, that’s when the future loses its fearsomeness. My indecipherable journal entry is floating now. I wrote it all by myself. Please don’t land. 

Daily Arts Writer Vivian Istomin can be reached at

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