The lasting appeal of the dramatic “library music” of Italian composers
One day in the summer of 2011, Lorenzo Fabrizi went with a friend to an abandoned warehouse far from Rome. The building caretaker, who said he bought it for around $ 100, let them in to view its contents: 10,000 vinyl records, according to Fabrizi’s estimate. They were welcome to take as much as they wanted, the owner said; he was brewing beer in space and had no use for it.
Fabrizi was just starting his career as an aficionado of rare records. This collection, which previously belonged to Radio Vaticana (the Vatican-owned station), was unwanted by just about everyone in Italy at the time. But Fabrizi found something he had never seen before: “library” music – obscure vinyl records containing songs written directly for radio, TV, or advertising placement, in this case the lush arrangements. , loaded with strings, funk and jazz of classical music trained Italian composers.
“There was no interest in this stuff when I first started,” Fabrizi said recently on a Zoom call from Rome, where he ran the reissue label. Sonor musical editions since 2013. “They had printed 200, 300, 500, 1000 copies, but they were not intended for stores or distributors. They were only given to inner circles of music supervisors, journalists and people who worked on television. “
Sonor is one of the many labels of the last decades that have resuscitated Italian classics of the genre from European libraries (in July he will release Nico Fidenco’s lost soundtrack for the 1977 film “Emmanuelle in America” and “Utopia” by Sandro Brugnoli). From the 1960s to the 1980s, there was a lot of money to be made in themes: TV and radio producers needed music to accompany the credits, the action or love scenes, the game sequences. television or advertising. Well-trained composers had access to large ensembles and big budgets, and Italians in particular were swinging for the fences.
“You listen to a lot of this stuff and you laugh because you’re like, this was recorded on extremely expensive material, and there’s no way they thought this theme would work in any movie,” said Mike Wallace, a collector from San Diego who produced a compilation of the work of Italian composer Piero Umiliani in 2017. “It’s just too much outside. “
The recent album by producer and composer Adrian Younge “The American Negro” incorporates similar orchestral flourishes on crisp backbeats. “It was like asking classically trained musicians to do modern black music, but for Europe you would then have these crazy orchestrations, but it will still be funky,” Younge said. “They had a lot more leeway because they weren’t making this music for a particular audience,” he added. “So if they needed something dramatic they might just do the craziest [expletive] and wouldn’t have to deal with someone saying, “That’s not pop enough.”
Because it had no commercial life, the output of many talented composers remained hidden for years. But in the late 1990s, labels like Easy Tempo began reissuing soundtracks and compilations of Italian works. By dropping these decades-old nuggets into the Venn diagram of hip-hop producers, record collectors and fans of the ephemeral. the revival of the show, this created a ripple.
Ennio Morricone, the composer best known for his dramatic scores for so-called “spaghetti westerns” like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, was the most important in this era of Italian music. But as collectors began to unearth the recordings of Umiliani, Brugnoli and Alessandro Alessandroni, the well of Italian talent began to seem much deeper.
The rampant experimentalism of the Italian library catalog must also be considered in the context of its time. The late 1960s through the early 1980s – known as the ‘anni di piombo’ or ‘years of lead’ – were full of unrest between leftist, far-right and neo-fascist protesters. in Italy. “It was devastating,” Fabrizi said. “There were people shooting in the streets, clashes with the police. While these composers were locked in studios, the fantastic sounds they produced were like portals to a different world.
In this busy atmosphere, Italian composers were also listening to the music of black Americans. Classic rock of the time was influenced by innovators such as Robert Johnson, Howlin ‘Wolf and Chuck Berry; the limits were pushed back by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus; and funk and R&B were bubbling up on labels like Stax and Motown. And then, of course, there were soundtracks from blaxploitation films like “Shaft” and “Superfly”.
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“Shamelessly, black music made its mark on cinema in the late 1950s and early 1970s; European composers, Italian composers have taken this sound and synthesized it with their classical teachings, ”said Younge. “And it created a palette of music that inspired generations of later hip-hop producers who were trying to find the coolest samples. It has become a treasure for many of us.
For character-based narratives from hip-hop, a genre built on finding loops from records that few people had heard, these compositions were practically begging to be pulled. Prolific producer Madlib was one of the first to sample an Italian library folder for a large audience, on his 2000 album like Quasimoto, “The invisible.” Cut Chemist used a track from Alessandroni’s most famous album, “Open air parade” on his 2006 LP “The Audience’s Listening”. Once word spread among Italians, a collectors’ arms race was launched.
“I got very obsessed with Morricone and started buying a lot of his records and then you find guys from there like Bruno Nicolai, Alessandroni, Riz Ortolani,” said Sven Wunder, 37, a musician from Stockholm whose new album, “Natura Morta”, due Friday, is one of the closest modern equivalents to the work of the Italian library. “It feels like every geek on the record ends up in the library section at some point.”
Wunder’s first two records, “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. Written primarily during the pandemic, it features the languid rhythmic pulse of these 1970s classics, topped by a 15-piece string section. (“It was supposed to be 16 but we couldn’t get the right amount of meters between all the players,” Wunder said of the socially distanced recording session. “The bass players had to go.”)
‘Natura Morta’, which is distributed and promoted in the United States by the Rappcats online store run by Eothen Alapatt (the owner of the reissue label Now-Again Records) and the Light in the Attic label, is chock full of sultry, tinkling flutes. solos by Fender Rhodes and long melodies dubbed on a 12-string guitar and harpsichord. It’s delicate, catchy music – and also the kind of thing most independent artists would struggle to afford in 2021. (This was done with the help of a grant from the Swedish government.)
Alapatt hailed the album as an innovation: “They tried to figure out how they can do it in a way that both pays homage and doesn’t sound like a spinoff either.”
Most of the composers whose work Fabrizi has presented to new audiences are no longer alive, and there is still more music to discover; Sonor will be releasing another Alessandroni soundtrack this summer. A major challenge, Fabrizi said, is on the business side of things. As major labels consolidated their catalogs over the past decades, the library’s items got lost in the rework.
“It’s crazy” to deal with the majors, he said, suggesting 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 original contracts.
But collectors like Wallace find a thrill in finding what is buried in these chests. “One thing that’s very frustrating about this stuff, but also a lot of fun, is that we learn new things every day,” he said. “We know more than five years ago. We know more than last year.