The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was the creation of classically-trained British guitarist, composer and arranger Simon Jeffes. Jeffes and cellist co-founder Helen Liebmann were core members throughout its life. A number of other musicians joined the collective as the band grew and developed, many of whom appear on the PCO's six studio albums. The PCO toured extensively during the '80s and '90s, and two albums, "When in Rome" (1988) and "Concert Program" (1995) captured the sound of the live ensemble. The Penguins' sound is not easily categorized, but has elements of exuberant folk music and a minimalist aesthetic occasionally reminiscent of composers such as Philip Glass.

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra recorded and performed for 24 years until Jeffes died of a brain tumour in 1997.