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Various Artists: Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music

Chris May By

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Library music—aka stock or production music—was first marketed in the 1920s, to be used by "picture palaces" showing silent movies. Its golden age came during the 1960s and 1970s, when it provided off-the-shelf incidental music for radio, television, film and advertising. Ever since Quentin Tarantino included recordings by one of that era's most prolific British library-music composers, Keith Mansfield, on the soundtracks for Kill Bill: Volume One (2003) and Grindhouse: Death Proof (2007), the genre has acquired a collectable retro-allure. And while a truckload of library dross was recorded back in the day, the best of the music—some of it often shot through with jazz elements—repays investigation.

Quality library music fascinates for several reasons. The "live" feel of the productions, which were usually one-take affairs with no overdubs, chimes with renewed appreciation of and nostalgia for real-time analogue culture. The music itself was made solely to evoke moods, situations and emotional responses, doing what music does best. Above all, despite being a no-frills commercial endeavour, library music could be singularly inventive—its creators were encouraged to find new and unexpected textures, effects and instrumental combinations, and recording sessions were typically supervised by the composers themselves, allowing them unfettered freedom in the studio. In Britain, electronic-music pioneers Basil Kirchin, John Baker and Ron Geesin paid the rent with library music, as did several prominent jazz musicians. The rarity today of the original pressings, which were produced in small numbers and never put on sale to the general public, is undoubtedly a further attraction for collectors.

Thousands of library albums were produced during the 1960s and 1970s and collectors are presented with a daunting range of choices in mostly uncharted territory. As a rule of thumb, anything originally released on the KPM Music and Music De Wolfe labels is worth checking out. So too is this twenty-track compilation Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music, which opens with the aforementioned Keith Mansfield's "Funky Fanfare."

Unusual Sounds is by no means a jazz album, but jazz is one of the threads running through some of the tracks. Anyone wishing to delve deeper into British and mainland European jazz-informed library music of the 1960s and 1970s should make a beeline for three albums. Top of the list is Basil Kirchin's Abstractions Of The Industrial North (Music De Wolfe, 1966; reissued on Trunk Records, 2005). A contemporary of saxophonist Ronnie Scott, and a largely forgotten godfather of modern ambient music, Kirchin began his career in the late 1940s as a drummer in London dancehalls. In the late 1950s, recovering from a broken relationship, Kirchin, Beat-generation style, took to the road in India and the US, exploring classical raga and jazz traditions at source. By the mid 1960s, back in London, his approach to music had been transformed. Motor rhythms continued to be important, but were woven into impressionistic, multi-layered and, later, electronic scores. The elegant, wistful Abstractions of the Industrial North, an acoustic suite made with modernist jazz musicians including saxophonist and flautist Tubby Hayes, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and vibraphonist Alan Branscombe, is among library music's most magical moments.

Number two on the list is Barbara Moore's Vocal Shades And Tones (Music De Wolfe, 1972; reissued on Céleste, 2003). A jazz and Latin-based oddity, the album features Moore's own wordless vocals. Even without lyrics much of the music oozes sex, and "Steam Heat" (re-released as a 7" single by London's Soul Jazz label in 2011) is one of several tracks which would not have sounded out of place in a period porn film. Elsewhere the album inhabits a more chaste, Swingle Singers-esque domain.

Third up is Le Jazzbeat! (Jazzman, 1999). Subtitled Jerk, Jazz And Psychobeat De France, the disc is a various-artists compilation of 1960s and 1970s lounge and soul-jazz-derived tracks originally made for the French label Sonimage. Paris-based Camerounian saxophonist Manu Dibango fronts "Wilderness," but most of the tracks are by the composer / bandleaders Claude Vasori and Eddie Warner, little known outside France. A second volume is almost as good.

Happy hunting.

Track Listing: Funky Fanfare (Keith Mansfield); Running Fast (Stefano Torossi); La Dimostrazione (D. Patucchi); Survivor (Klaus Weiss); Xenos Cosmos (Janko Nilovic); Ophis Le Serpentaire (V. Geminiani); Tropicola (Stringtronics); Feeling Tense (Stefano Torossi); Soft Wind (Gary Pacific Orchestra); Half Forgotten Daydreams (John Cameron); Night Breeze (F. Micalizzi); You’ve Got What It Takes (Les Hurdle, Kathleen Poppy & Madeline Bell); Fancy Good (Electric Machine); Quips and Cranks (C. Cordio & F. Vinciguerra); Dissolves (Les Hurdle & Frank Ricotti); Fairy Tale (Joel Vandroogenbroeck & Walt Rockman); Weeping Eelgrass (Mladen Frank); Mild Maniac (Peter Patzer); Group Meditation (Joel Vandroogenbroeck & Marc Monsen); Dream Number Two (Roland Hollinger).

Personnel: Keith Mansfield; Stefano Torossi; D. Patucchi; Klaus Weiss; Janko Nilovic; V. Geminiani; Stringtronics; Stefano Torossi ; Gary Pacific Orchestra; John Cameron; F. Micalizzi; Les Hurdle, Kathleen Poppy & Madeline Bell; Electric Machine; C. Cordio & F. Vinciguerra; Les Hurdle & Frank Ricotti; Joel Vandroogenbroeck & Walt Rockman; Mladen Franko; Peter Patzer; Joel Vandroogenbroeck & Marc Monsen; Roland Hollinger.

Title: Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Anthology

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