A Bluffer’s Guide to Italian Library Music

"A week before that, I was out in Italy. Italian heart throbs could not get rid of me"
By    October 11, 2018

Evan Nabavian is Marcello Mastroianni’s grandson. 

Hidden from all but the most obsessive collectors are these slight and idiosyncratic works of music that blare, pulsate, creep, stab, echo, and bounce. They quickly and efficiently distill a feeling or atmosphere before fading back into obscurity. Library music is a fount of dazzling sounds at the nexus of jazz, psych, ambient, and noise, but its treasures are reserved for those willing to go back forty years and sift through inconspicuous LPs filled with indistinct tones and generic lounge music. Unlike other genres coveted by connoisseurs, library music has no casual audience because its format and function consign it to Discogs Marketplace and the occasional boutique reissue.

A primer: library music is a sort of generic soundtrack music. It isn’t made for mass commercial release; rather, a studio making a documentary or a network with a new show can contact a music library label for a theme or some tonal ambience. The famous example is the Monday Night Football theme, which comes from a 1974 release on the KPM label. Also, a certain Muppets coda comes from a 1968 documentary soundtrack by library stalwart Piero Umiliani. (See Nate Patrin for a proper introduction to library music.)

Despite its inherently mundane function, library music takes weird and fantastic detours. There are garish drum machines, seedy guitars, synthesizers gone haywire, and fractious brass sections. Perhaps the lack of an audience to please gave composers the latitude to experiment. The genre’s 70s gonzo instrumentals augured the 2010s beat scenes of Los Angeles and London. Library music walks apace with the newest sounds from Boxed and Brainfeeder and serves as perfect sample fodder for dusty-fingered producers.

To my ears, the best stuff comes from Italy. Italian composers from the 60s to the 80s seemed boundless in their experiments and endlessly colorful. The scene’s big names included Alessandro Alessandroni, Giampiero Boneschi, Egisto Macchi, A.R. Luciani, and Bruno Nicolai, not to mention Ennio Morricone. Today, rumors of great records circulate on dedicated blogs, message boards, and YouTube.

Despite a spate of reissues from labels like Sonor Music Editions and Four Flies Records, many gems remain inaccessible to everyone except Milanese crate diggers and members of the most privileged file-sharing circles. Then at one point in 2017, the licensing gods smiled and put the discography of publisher Leonardi Edizioni and its sub-labels on Spotify. So now I can share a two hour playlist of heady and challenging Italian library music as a decent cross section of the genre in all its fuzz, grit, and spectacle.

And yet for every record uploaded, tagged, and digitally preserved, there are ever more on the margins, of which we’ll only hear tantalizing snippets.

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