Penguin Cafe Orchestra – Perpetuum Mobile

Signs of Life
Year :
Philip Glass / Max Richter / Dosh

Instrumental music, in general, can be difficult to talk about. It’s easy enough to describe the instruments being played, or maybe even the overall genre, but how do you capture the intangible qualities of a great piece of music in writing? Short answer: You can’t.

Classical music, in particular, is an extreme challenge for us lowly pop music fans. Aside from engaging in a purely academic exercise about its technical merits, what can really be (or needs to be) said about “Perpetuum Mobile”? A nod to the classical form of the same name, it is exactly what it purports to be. Namely, a steady stream of continuous, repetitive notes calling to mind perpetual motion. Knowing that tells you absolutely nothing about the song itself. And, actually, that technical definition makes it sound kind of awful–which it decidedly is not.

It’s a song that many of us have heard in countless forms. It was most recently featured in the documentary Project Nim, but it’s been used in a handful of other feature films, countless television spots, commercials, This American Life, podcasts, and so on down the line. It’s one of the most ubiquitous, unidentifiable pieces of classical music that there is. And, even calling it classical seems silly. Sure, it’s in the style of classical music, but we’re talking about something recorded in 1987.

So, what about it then? “Perpetuum Mobile” simply needs to be heard. The dozens of uses it’s had in popular culture suggest that it’s something of a music Rorschach test. But, for me, it’s the closest thing to pure optimism musical form. It’s a delight to start the day with and it sends you off with not only energy, but a sense of wonder at what’s out there in the world waiting for you. It’s playful and warm, but at the same time has a wonderful, understated contemplative side. There’s a place for “Perpetuum Mobile” in anyone’s record collection.

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(@YahSureMan) is the Founder of The Daily Soundtrack and Bark Attack Media. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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