One day in the summer of 2011, Lorenzo Fabrizi rode with a friend to an abandoned warehouse far outside of Rome. The custodian of the building, who said he had bought it for around $100, let them inside to look at its contents: 10,000 vinyl LPs, by Fabrizi’s estimate. They were welcome to take as many they wanted, the owner said; he was brewing beer in the space and had no use for them.
Fabrizi was just starting his career as an aficionado of rare records. This collection, which had previously belonged to Radio Vaticana (the station owned by the Vatican), was unwanted by pretty much everyone in Italy at the time. But Fabrizi found something he’d never seen before: “library” music — obscure vinyl records containing songs written directly for radio, television or ad placement, in this case the lush, string-laden, funk- and jazz-informed arrangements of classically trained Italian composers.
“There was no interest in this stuff when I started,” Fabrizi said recently on a Zoom call from Rome, where he has run the reissue label Sonor Music Editions since 2013. “They had pressed 200, 300, 500, 1,000 copies, but they were not destined for shops or distributors. They were only given to internal circles of music supervisors, journalists and people who worked in television.”
Sonor is one of several labels in the last few decades that have resurrected Italian classics from the European library genre (in July, it will release Nico Fidenco’s lost soundtrack to the 1977 film “Emmanuelle in America” and Sandro Brugnoli’s “Utopia”). From the 1960s well into the 1980s, there was a lot of money to be made in themes: TV and radio producers needed music to accompany 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 you laugh because you’re like, this was recorded on extremely expensive gear, and there’s no way whatsoever they thought that this theme would work in any movie,” said Mike Wallace, a collector in San Diego who produced a compilation of the Italian composer Piero Umiliani’s work in 2017. “It’s just too out there.”
The producer and composer Adrian Younge’s recent album “The American Negro” incorporates similar orchestral flourishes over crisp backbeats. “It was like classically trained musicians asked to make modern Black music, but for Europe, so you would have these crazy orchestrations, but it’ll still be funky,” Younge said. “They had a lot more latitude because they weren’t making this music for a particular audience,” he added. “So if they needed something dramatic, they could just do the craziest [expletive] and wouldn’t have to deal with somebody saying, ‘It’s not pop enough.’”
Because it had no commercial life, the output of many talented composers lay hidden for years. But in the late 1990s, labels like Easy Tempo started reissuing soundtracks and compilations of the Italian works. By dropping these decades-old nuggets into the Venn diagram of hip-hop producers, record collectors and fans of the short-lived lounge revival, it created a ripple.
Ennio Morricone, the composer best known for his dramatic scores to the so-called “spaghetti westerns” like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” loomed largest in that era of Italian music. But as collectors started unearthing the recordings of Umiliani, Brugnoli and Alessandro Alessandroni, the well of talent from Italy started to seem a lot deeper.
The rampant experimentalism of the Italian library catalog also has to be examined in the context of its era. The late 1960s until the early 1980s — known as the “anni di piombo,” or “years of lead” — were full of turmoil between left-wing, far-right and neo-fascist protesters in Italy. “It was devastating,” Fabrizi said. “There were people shooting in the streets, clashes with police.” While these composers were locked away in studios, the fantastical sounds they made were like portals to a different world.
Within that fraught atmosphere, Italy’s composers were also keeping an ear on music made by Black Americans. The classic rock of the era was influenced by innovators including Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry; boundaries were being pushed by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus; and funk and R&B were bubbling on labels like Stax and Motown. And then, of course, there were blaxploitation film soundtracks like “Shaft” and “Superfly.”
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“Unapologetically Black music came into the forefront for cinema in the late ’50s through the early ’70s; European composers, Italian composers took this sound and synthesized it with their classical teachings,” Younge said. “And that created a palette of music that inspired hip-hop producers generations later that were trying to find the coolest samples. It became a treasure trove for many of us.”
For the character-based narratives of hip-hop, a genre built on finding loops from records few had heard, these compositions were practically begging to be mined. The prolific producer Madlib was one of the first to sample an Italian library record for a large audience, on his 2000 album as 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.” Once the word got out about the Italians, a collectors’ arms race was on.
“I became 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 Italian library oeuvre. “It feels like every record geek 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 pool. Written primarily during the pandemic, it features the languid rhythmic pulse of those 1970s classics, topped with 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 double bass players had to go.”)
“Natura Morta,” which is being distributed and promoted in the United States by the Rappcats web store run by Eothen Alapatt (the owner of the reissue label Now-Again Records) and the label Light in the Attic, is full of sensuous flute, tinkling Fender Rhodes solos and long melodies doubled on a 12-string guitar and harpsichord. It’s delicate, sweeping music — and also the sort of thing that most independent artists would have a hard time affording in 2021. (It was made with the help of a grant from the Swedish government.)
Alapatt praised the album as an innovation: “They’ve tried to figure out how they can do it in a way that both pays homage and also doesn’t sound derivative.”
Most of the composers whose work Fabrizi has presented to new audiences are no longer alive, and there’s still more music being discovered; Sonor will release another Alessandroni soundtrack this summer. A major challenge, Fabrizi said, lies in the business side of things. As larger labels consolidated their catalogs over the last few decades, the library works got lost in the shuffle.
“It’s crazy hard” to deal with the major labels, he said, suggesting that library music isn’t a priority for them. “The problem is that 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 the hunt for what’s buried in those vaults. “One thing that’s very frustrating about this stuff, but also really fun, is that we’re learning new stuff every single day,” he said. “We know more than we did five years ago. We know more than we did last year.”