Eclectic Simplicity: An Interview with Library Music Composer Janko Nilovic

Max Bell interviews the man who was an accessory to the death of autotune Janko Nilovic
By    November 25, 2014



Max Bell rewrites history without a pen

You’ve heard library music. Though you may not have known it at the time. For the unfamiliar, library music (also known as production or stock music) is essentially music of any genre or style composed by work-for-hire musicians and owned by library record labels. Those labels then lend that music to various TV shows, films, radio shows, etc. So, if you’ve heard the theme for “Monday Night Football” for example, you’ve heard a portion of Johnny Pearson’s “Heavy Action”, which was released in 1974 on library music label KPM. However, more often than not, records like these serve as sample material for producers cut from the same blunt wrap as Madlib and Alchemist. (For more on library music, see this fantastic piece over at Pitchfork written by our friend Nate Patrin.)

 Of all the innumerable musicians who’ve composed library music, 73-year-old Janko Nilovic ranks among the most prominent and prolific. Born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1941, he moved to Paris in 1960 and has since recorded upwards of 60 albums and dozens of 45s. His work spans countless genres – everything from classical and jazz to psychedelic rock, funk/soul, and Latin – and has been sampled by both Jay-Z and the Beatnuts.

 Though much of Nilovic’s oeuvre has been relegated to dusty crates and eBay auctions, independent labels like Light in the Attic Records have reissued several of Nilovic’s albums. This year, Parisian record label Underdog Records reissued two of Nilovic’s albums, Pop Impressions and Super America. Deft and engaging experiments in disparate sonic templates, the former sounds nothing like the pop music you might expect, and the latter features rhythms far removed from America. If you’ve enjoyed any of Madlib’s Beat Konducta series, then both records were made for your mushroom mind.

 Below is my interview with Nilovic, where he discusses his career, his composition process, sampling, and, of course, library music. Though he can speak several languages — French, English and Turkish — our interview was conducted via e-mail in the latter tongue. (This interviewer only understands English, Wu slang, and the dun language.) With Nilovic’s blessing, some of his answers have been slightly altered for clarity. – Max Bell

Did your parents play instruments? Who exposed you to music?

My father used to play the gusla, a popular Montenegrin stringed instrument, and all kind of flutes. He was singing at the same time.

Which genre(s) of music did you hear most often growing up?

Ethnical (Balkanic, Slavic), Classical, Italian, Rythm’n’blues & Rock’n’roll (Fats Domino, Elvis Presley), and Folk music.

When did you begin playing music? Were you self-taught?

I can say I was self-taught in the beginning. My older sister (I have four) offered me a piano when my father died. She knew a very good teacher named Marthe Papazian, so I started to learn. Before that I played pan-flute, harmonica and violin — I learned by myself.

How many instruments can you play today? Which are they?

I used to play just the piano. But I also play oboe, percussions, double bass and guitar. Singing — all American Standards (Jazz) and Brazilian songs (Bossa Nova & Samba).

You were a dancer in your youth. How did you become interested in dance? What kind of dance did you practice? Did you win any competitions?

I love dance, especially tap-dance (I’m a fan of Gene Kelly), rock and Latin dances. I got first place on ‘Salon Dances’ in 1956 in Istanbul with my partner, my sister. Music and dance inspired my love of musicals (Broadway and Hollywood). I still have my tap-dance shoes. I’ve kept them since 1957.

You studied music at the Istanbul Conservatory. What was your area of focus? Did you stay long?

I studied just one year at the Conservatory in Istanbul. I never loved the school of music, like Stravinsky, Bartok and many others. I can say that I am an autodidact player and composer.

When did you first hear American music? Which artists did you hear? How did those artists influence your thinking about music at the time?

I first heard American music when I was 13-years-old — Nat King Cole, Franck Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and some other jazz-singers. I also heard Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and Stevie Wonder, named ‘Little Stevie Wonder ‘ back then. The list is not exhaustive…

After hearing all those kind of music – Balkanic, Slavic, American, Latin — I became a real eclectic musician. Some people wonder if I am black, Latin, or Slavic. That’s what I would like to know. I am a true ‘world citizen.’

When did you move to Paris? How old were you? Did you study music there as well? What did you do to earn a living at the time?

I moved in Paris in 1960. I was 19-years-old and just beginning to become serious about music. So I studied musical writing, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, analysis, and composition with one of the best teachers, Julien Falk. I was forbidden to write in pencil and gum! Just ink directly! I still continue this way. At the same time, I worked in different places in Paris: as maid, worker, washer, and giving a few lessons (piano and singing) in my little room.

What was the local music scene in Paris like at the time? Were there a lot of jazz clubs? Did you ever see any American jazz musicians perform? If so, who? Did you befriend any musicians that American music fans might know?

All kind of music: pop, jazz, classical. From 1960 to 1966 there were a lot of jazz clubs, so I played in a few. When I was In Turkey, I met the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1957. They were on tour, preparing their famous record, Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. Extraordinary record! Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond discovered Balkanic music! Oh my God, it was genius! We both visited Istanbul with Turkish jazz musicians and my American friend John Faddis (trumpet), Urbie Green (trombone), Ron Baron, (trombone), David Chamberlain (trombone), Mel Culbertson (tuba), Ralph Gomberg (oboe), etc.

For those who are unfamiliar, how would you define “library music?”

Library music may be serious, but I define it as an alimentary music. It is allowed to live correctly for about eight years (thanks God). Anyhow, I assumed it very seriously, composing in different styles with professionalism.

When did you begin recording music that fits that description?

My records began in 1964 (songs and arrangements/singers), about 20 records. I began recording library music in in 1969.

Is the business of recording library music as big as it once was?

The business of recording library music was very big between 1965 and 1975. After that, anybody and everybody took advantage of this kind of music for profit from their home studios. Actually, this business is not prosperous.

You founded a record label while in Paris, correct? What was the name of the label? What genre(s) of music did you release? How did you finance the label?

Yes, I founded Ju Ju Records in association with Eddie Barclay and Davy Jones in Paris in 1969 We realized some records (i.e. VooDoo Ju Ju Obsession and Tinka Bell’s Spiritus M) Davy Jones and I financed the label with our small savings. It was a big fiasco, an unsuccessful attempt!

I read somewhere that you’ve recorded roughly 60 LPs. Is that true?

I think I recorded about 70 records (or more), plus the single 45s, of which there are about 40.

What were the years in which were you recording most frequently? What was your work schedule like then?

My best years were from 1964 to 1981. My works were very eclectic: classical, jazz, library, singers.

Was there ever a period of time when you stopped composing music? Why?

I stopped a little bit between 2005 and 2012, but nevertheless I always continued different pieces: classical, jazz, etc. I stopped a slight extent because I didn’t know where to file all of my records and my scores. Just joking!

Your first record was Psyc Impressions, correct? What instruments were you playing at the time? How long did it take you to compose the record? Who were some of the other musicians involved with the recording?

My first records of library music were as follows:

  1. Eelemusic/ Sforzando ( 4 records / 25 cm )
  2. Travel Music (5 record 25 cm / Spots)
  3. Neuilly (8 records / 25 cm + LPs)

Then I released Psych Impressions on Montparnasse 2000. I was conducting and playing piano on all those records. I composed and arranged this first record in five days. I selected the best musicians from Paris; they are very popular now.

How did the public receive the album at the time?

It was a very big success because library records at the time were too basic (read: industrial). I came up with a new conception and ideas based on classical, funk, groove, jazzy, etc. So two or three years later, a lot of semi-professional musicians copied this new way to compose for library music, not for the art but just to get money!

Montparnasse 2000 released Psyc Impressions. What was your relationship like with the label? Do they still own the rights to the record now?

Montparnasse 2000 released 0% of my records. The first one was Psyc Impressions. The company made a contract with me for 20 records renewable. I still possess rights on all my records. Montparnasse 2000 sold the publishing company, first to a Belgian company, then to Belwin Mills (USA), then to EMI International, then to Crea Sound, then to Kapagama, and finally to UNIVERSAL! You can imagine my situation actually. I don’t know who is who on my music!

Did you take psychedelic drugs like LSD or mushrooms when making the record? Have you ever experimented with drugs when making music?

No drugs or sedatives in my life. I also haven’t smoked since I was 30.

Do you like to be in a certain place when you’re composing? Do you have any rituals?

The best place to me is when I am sleeping or taking nap after lunch. I get up from bed, take my partition, pencil and compose until I’m exhausted. I have no rituals.

Do your songs come to you all at once or do you find ways to fit the different pieces together as they come to you?

All songs and different pieces come anytime, anywhere: when I am driving, sleeping, on vacation, on the beach, when I am swimming… I always complete my works at once. I don’t want to lose my ideas. That’s why I always keep some scores on me.

What or who are/have been some of your biggest inspirations? Do you draw on them frequently?

My biggest inspirations come from different boards. When I am on my table or my piano, composing goes very fast. Sometime I compose ten or twelve titles in the same day. For example, I finished Super America, the composition and the arrangement both, in the same day. Sometimes I can’t stop my hand!

Your wife painted the album artwork for Funky Tramway. How did that come about? Is your wife a painter by trade? Did she paint any other album covers?

My wife painted about six albums (e.g. Un Couple Dans La Ville, Funky Tramway, Violin Cartoons) She is a painter, giving expositions in Paris. She studied at the Art School in Paris and Versailles. I seized the opportunity to ask her to draw some of my album covers.

You recorded Rhythmes Contemporains with 45 musicians, correct? What was it like recording that album?

I composed Rythmes Contemporains with 45 musicians (Paris All Stars) in 1970 and recorded in 1972 (two tracks directly to Stereo). At the beginning it was the creation of my Big Band named Giant, but MP 2000 said, “It never works like that!” They changed the cover and put it on the library music version of Rythmes Contemporains. However we gave several concerts in Paris at jazz clubs and concert halls. The original cover is a double album named Giant.

How often do you listen to music that isn’t your own? What genres do you enjoy the most?

I don’t listen music often (twenty minutes a day). In the morning and during breakfast: Rachmaninoff and Bill Evans. During the day: all kinds. During the evening and at night: not at all. I love all genres, but particularly good music.

If you had to pick five musicians to listen to, who would they be?

Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck (piano), Arturo Sandoval, Maurice André, Miles Davis (trumpet) Michel Becquet, Miroslav Withous (trombone), Jimmy Giuffree (clarinet), Billy Cobham, Max Roach (drums), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Ron Carter, Paul Chambers (bass), Alexandre Lagoya (guitar), Rostropovitch (cello), John Coltrane, Paul Desmond (saxophone)…

Have you ever visited the U.S.? When did you visit? Where did you go? What were your impressions of the various music scenes that you encountered?

I visited the U.S. on the following dates:

  1. In 1976 I went to The Roosevelt in New York to attend the world premiere of ‘Suite Balkanique’, performed by the Ensemble de Trombones de Paris, the Manhattan Percussion Ensemble, and Musique Pour 4 Trombones et 2 Harpes.
  1. In 1978 I gave world premiere of ‘Concerto for Tuba and Piano’ (Mel Culbertson, tuba) in UCLA in Los Angeles.
  1. In 1982 I presented my project “Un Piano Dans L’espace ” (Film, Musical, Comic book, Cartoon). In New York, I pitched it to TV stations: ABC, NBC, and CBS. I also pitched to Marvel, RCA, and Warner Bros. In L.A., I pitched it to all the major film studios: Paramount, Warner Bros., Walt Disney, Capitol, MCA, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Hanna-Barbera, Polygram Pictures, CBS, Universal, and MGM. All the presidents and vice-presidents welcomed me very warmly, but it didn’t work!

How many bands have you been a part of? Which was your favorite? Did you ever tour with any of those bands? Where did you tour?

My bands:

  1. Giant / Janko Nilovic Band (Big Band, 25 musicians). We played a few concerts.
  2. JNT / Janko Nilovic Trio (piano, bass, drums). We played jazz clubs and festivals.

Did you listen to funk music in the ‘70s? How did that music influence your own work?

I love the 70’s Funk Music, both from England and the U.S. I composed a lot of songs under this influence (i.e. Power, Vocal Impressions, Chorus)

You created your own publishing company in the ‘80s. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

I created my publishing, Symphony Land, in 1980 in Paris. This company devoted to classical and jazz music. But it was a mistake! I am not on top with business, not commercial at all! I retired from this company and turned it over to my friend Maurice Cevrero (trombonist). We published some good pieces: Maurice André (trumpet), Michel Becquet (trombone), Ensemble de Trombones de Paris, Michel Legrand, Georges Delarue… This company still exists.

You wrote a novel called A Piano in Space. What is it about? Was it ever published?

At its inception, A Piano In Space (Un Piano dans l’Espace) was a script (with music). I have 84 pages for the screenplay. I went negotiate this work in Hollywood in 1982. I wrote it as a novel six years ago and have been trying to publish it in France or anywhere else. I haven’t had any success at the moment.

The Bible inspired me, particularly books like Genesis, Isaiah, Matthew, and Revelation. The critics in the U.S., Japan, and Europe said, absence of wars, blood, violence, aggressive scenes, sex, etc. The music is based on my typical style: classical, jazz, funk, groove, rock, R&B, etc. This work can be treated on different ways: 1. Novel 2. Film. 3. Musical. 4. Comic book 5. Cartoon. I hope to release something in the U.S. because people are much more open-minded towards modern fiction there than in Europe.

Have you ever heard Jay-Z’s “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)”? If so, what did you think of it?

Of course I’ve heard “D.O.A.” I bought the record in Paris. The new arrangement and sound are special, based on mine. It’s very original, it’s pleasant, and I like it.

Have been contacted for consent, or at least made aware, each time a rapper/producer has sampled some of your music?

Sampling: Jay-Z – “D.O.A.” and Beatnuts “Contact” = OK. But about twenty singers have never asked for any authorization. I just looked and to listened all samples and contacted those singers, but no responses!

How do you feel about hip-hop producers sampling your music? How do you feel about sampling in general?

I am particularly proud of hip-hop samplers because my songs are dated. I like the rhythm and arrangement on my basic compositions. I don’t understand the lyrics very well, but I geneerally appreciate the whole job.

Would you ever consider making hip-hop beats for rappers to record over?

I love it! I already recorded an CD with Paul Godfrey from Morcheeba. I’m waiting for the issue and release of this record in the U.K. I am in touch with a composer in Hamburg, Germany, one in Belgium, one in London, and one in Italy. I think 2105 will be a renewal of youth and rich different sectors. The principal appreciation is the drums and bass. I am trying to re-form a little bit the main of the songs.

Have you ever collaborated with any American musicians? You recorded a song for Beyonce, correct? Can you tell me about how that came about? Do you know when it will be released?

I composed about ten songs with Davy Jones’ lyrics. I haven’t heard from him in twenty years. We recorded two LPs and eight single (45s). After that I composed the Concerto for Tuba and Piano for Mel Culbertson. We created in concert at UCLA, but the record has never been released because of a problem with the publisher. Then there is my Triple Concerto For Trombones, created in Boston by Ron Baron, 1st trombone (World Premiere). And of course, “D.O.A.” in collaboration with Jay-Z (Shawn Carter).

Actually, I composed a song for Beyonce named “Days After Days”, but I’m still waiting for a response as whether or not they’ve accepted sing and record it (total silence at the moment!). If it doesn’t work, I will propose this song to Adele or any other American singer.

Has your music been licensed to any American TV Shows or films? If so, do you know which ones?

No shows or films licensed in U.S.

You’ve recorded under several aliases throughout your career, correct? How many aliases do you have? What are some of your favorites?

Alan Blackwell. Emiliano Orti. Johnny Montevideo. Philippe Gray

Do you have a favorite album in your catalogue?

My favorites: Rythmes Contemporains, Soul Impressions, Un Couple dans la Ville, Jazz Impressions, Funky Tramway.

Are you still recording today?

My actual projects (recordings):

  1. Terre Des Hommes (Brass / Percussions / Choir )
  2. Concerto For Trombone & Orchestra
  3. Concerto For Tuba & Piano
  4. Suite Balkanique (Symphonic version)
  5. Janko Nilovic + Paul Morcheeba
  6. Janko Nilovic Trio (Jazz )
  7. Janko Nilovic Band (JNB/BIG BANG )
  8. Janko Nilovic /Piano Solo (Beaucoup d’Amour )
  9. Kontakion (Janko Nilovic ) + Etudes En Stereo (J.M. Defaye).

As you can imagine, I will never stop working and recording new projects as long as I live! Some of my friends say that I will die on stage or on my piano!

Your music has touch on so many different genres – jazz, funk, soul, classical, rock, and more. Is there a genre you still really want to explore?

I’ve always impartially explored all genres and I won’t change.

Do you think musicians will always be able innovate, or will we reach a point where everything has been done?

Yes, as long as man’s spirit is not exhausted. The artist needs unceasing work. Each day I work intensely on my piano and my desk, hours and hours, but never forget my family. That allows me to think to advance and reflect on the future. Tristan Keuris said, “You may certainly want to make it a little bit different but it still sound the same.” That’s what I want to avoid. It’s a serious challenge!

Do you listen to any contemporary music?

Contemporary music? Yes, some of them are interesting (go back to Tristan Keuris’s words). I always put sensibility and humanism on my compositions even when if they are very modern (atonal).

Do you feel your music has been appreciated?

I was very surprised of that. I never thought people could appreciate my music. Why? I don’t know. Things, ideas and notes suddenly appear in my head and I immediately I put them on the score. Sometimes I don’t need to be on the piano, just on my desk.

What are your plans for the immediate future?

My great plan is the Concerto For Piano And Orchestra. It takes a long time! Hard work! A long, long work, but it’s very exciting. I love that! It may be my last classical serious composition. I will give all my soul to it.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a simple, but eclectic composer.


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