The Enduring Enchantment of Italian Composers’ Dramatic ‘Library Music’

One day in the summer of 2011, Lorenzo Fabrizi and a friend drove to an abandoned warehouse far outside Rome. The building’s manager, who said he bought it for around $ 100, let her in to see the contents: 10,000 vinyl LPs, according to Fabrizi’s estimate. They were allowed to take as much as they wanted, said the owner; he brewed beer in the room and had no use for it.

Fabrizi was just beginning his career as a lover of rare records. This collection, previously owned by Radio Vaticana (the station owned by the Vatican), was undesirable by almost everyone in Italy at the time. But Fabrizi found something he’d never seen before: “library” music – obscure records with songs written directly for radio, television, or ad placement, in this case the lavish, string-laden, funk and jazz-informed arrangements Italian composers trained in classical music.

“When I started there was no interest in this stuff,” Fabrizi said recently on a Zoom call from Rome, where he has been running the reissue label Sonor Music Editions since 2013. “They had printed 200, 300, 500, 1,000 copies, but they weren’t intended for stores or dealerships. They were only given to internal circles of music supervisors, journalists and people who worked on television. “

Sonor is one of several labels that have revived Italian classics from the European library genre in recent decades (in July, Nico Fidenco’s lost soundtrack for the 1977 film “Emmanuelle in America” and Sandro Brugnolini’s “Utopia” will be released). From the 1960s to the 1980s, there was a lot of money to be made with topics: TV and radio producers needed music for opening credits, action or love scenes, game show sequences or advertising. Well-trained composers had access to large ensembles and budgets, and the Italians in particular swung for the fences.

“You listen to a lot of this stuff and laugh because you think this was recorded on extremely expensive equipment, and there’s no way they thought this topic would work in a movie,” said Mike Wallace, a Collector in San Diego who produced a compilation of the works of the Italian composer Piero Umiliani in 2017. “It’s just too outside.”

The most recent album by producer and composer Adrian Younge “The American Negro” contains similar orchestral flourishes over crisp backbeats. “It was like asking classically trained musicians to do modern black music, but for Europe, so you have these crazy orchestrations, but it still gets funky,” said Younge. “They had a lot more leeway because they weren’t making this music for a specific audience,” he added. “So if they needed something dramatic, they could just do the weirdest [expletive] and wouldn’t have to deal with someone who says, ‘This is not pop enough.’ “

Since it had no commercial life, the work of many talented composers was hidden for years. But in the late 1990s, labels like Easy Tempo began to reissue soundtracks and compilations of the Italian works. By adding these decade-old nuggets to the Venn diagram of hip-hop producers, record collectors, and fans of the short-lived lounge revival, it created a wave.

Ennio Morricone, the composer best known for his dramatic scores for the so-called “spaghetti westerns” such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, was the greatest of this era of Italian music. But as collectors started digging up the recordings of Umiliani, Brugnolini and Alessandro Alessandroni, the source of talent from Italy seemed much deeper.

The rampant experimentalism of the Italian library catalog must also be examined in the context of its epoch. The late 1960s to early 1980s – known as “anni di piombo” or “years of leadership” – were full of turmoil between left, right-wing and neo-fascist protesters in Italy. “It was devastating,” said Fabrizi. “There were people who shot in the streets, clashes with the police.” While these composers were locked in studios, the fantastic sounds they made were like portals to another world.

In this tense atmosphere, Italy’s composers also listened to the music of black Americans. Classic rock of the era was influenced by innovators like Robert Johnson, Howlin ‘Wolf, and Chuck Berry; Boundaries were pushed by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus; and funk and R&B simmered on labels like Stax and Motown. And then of course there were Blaxploitation movie soundtracks like “Shaft” and “Superfly”.

Join The Times theater reporter Michael Paulson in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, see a performance of Shakespeare in the Park, and more as we explore the signs of hope in a transformed city. The “Offstage” series has been accompanying the theater through a shutdown for a year. Now let’s look at his recovery.

“In the late 1950s to early 1970s, black music moved to the fore in cinemas. European composers, Italian composers took this sound and synthesized it with their classical teachings, ”said Younge. “And that created a musical palette that generations later inspired hip-hop producers trying to find the coolest samples. For many of us it became a treasure trove. “

For the character-based narratives of hip-hop, a genre built on finding loops from records few had heard, these compositions were practically begging. The prolific producer Madlib was one of the first to try an Italian library record for a large audience on his 2000 album Quasimoto “The Unseen”. Cut Chemist used a track from Alessandroni’s most famous release “Open Air Parade” on his 2006 LP “The Audience’s Listening”. When the Italians became known, a collectors arms race began.

“I was very obsessed with Morricone and started buying a lot of his records and then you find guys like Bruno Nicolai, Alessandroni, Riz Ortolani,” said Sven Wunder, 37, a musician from Stockholm, whose new album “Natura Morta “, Which appears on Friday, is one of the closest modern equivalents to the Italian library work. “It feels like every record freak ends up in the library at some point.”

Wunder’s first two albums, “Eastern Flowers” ​​and “Wabi Sabi” from last year, reflect the influence of Middle Eastern composers and Japanese jazz, but “Natura Morta” is a clear nod to the Italian library pool. It was mainly written during the pandemic and contains the sluggish rhythmic pulse of these 1970s classics, crowned by a 15-piece string section. (“It should be 16, but we didn’t get the right number of meters between all the players,” Wunder said of the socially distant recording session. “The double bass players had to leave.”

“Natura Morta”, which is sold and promoted in the USA by the Rappcats webshop by Eothen Alapatt (owner of the reissue label Now-Again Records) and the label Light in the Attic, is full of sensual flute, clinking Fender Rhodes solos and long melodies doubled on a 12-string guitar and harpsichord. It’s delicate, stirring music – and also something most independent artists would find difficult to afford in 2021. (It was created with the help of a grant from the Swedish government.)

Alapatt praised the album as an innovation: “They were trying to figure out how to make it so that it is both an homage and not sounding derived.”

Most of the composers whose works Fabrizi has presented to new audiences are no longer alive and more music is being discovered; Sonor will release another Alessandroni soundtrack this summer. A major challenge, says Fabrizi, lies in the business area. When larger labels consolidated their catalogs in the last few decades, the library works got lost in the mess.

“It’s insanely difficult” dealing with the major labels, he said, implying that library music is not a priority for them. “The problem is, they don’t know they own it. They don’t know because they don’t have the documents. They don’t have any original contracts. “

But collectors like Wallace find a thrill in the hunt for what’s buried in these vaults. “One thing that is very frustrating about this, but also really fun, is that we learn new things every day,” he said. “We know more than we did five years ago. We know more than last year. “