Unusual Sounds is a terrific coffee table book.
One would think that a business model that treats music as utilitarian would stifle creativity. Such aesthetic constraints could only result in turgid, cookie-cutter sounds with no personality, you might imagine. But that’s not what emerged from the library music industry. Unusual Sounds chronicles the history of the subgenre, with plenty of examples of the kind of vintage album art that help makes these records holy grails for many collectors. But more importantly—and what distinguishes this book from the excellent coffee-table tome The Music Library—it features interviews and short biographies of the industry’s largely unsung pioneers.
Production music catalogs from a variety of companies list thousands of short pieces of music, organized into useful categories for use by film and television professionals. If you were making a documentary, for instance, and wanted a music cue that evoked nature, you could just look that up in a catalog, order pre-licensed music and Bob’s your uncle. Simple, yes, but to create such music requires a vivid imagination indeed: what might a film producer need? What does the jungle, or depression, sound like musically? Library music was a response to questions you think might be asked on an exam, cramming not simply to provide facts and analysis but to anticipate moods and desires for movies that don’t even exist yet.
Feature filmmakers with a movie in hand were happy to tap such a rich resource. Unusual Sounds includes a preface from the late George A. Romero, who scored Night of the Living Dead with library music because he couldn’t afford to hire a composer. The director writes about his partnership with an audio production company that had what seemed like thousands of titles in its catalog. “None of it was specific to any film,” he explains, “but there were passages titled ‘Anticipation,’ ‘Suspense,’ ‘Sudden Shock.’”
Library music filled a business need, and it was in such great demand that label owners needed a lot of it, which meant a lot of recording sessions and inventive musicians who often found a freedom in such apparent constraints. The only limit seemed to be the language to describe the music. Gerhard Narholz (who like many sessions players recorded under a number of pseudonyms—in his case, Otto Sieben and Norman Candler) explains: “In Germany, we have over 300,000 tracks in the library. And the number of suitable words to describe music is limited. So it’s not easy sometimes.”
Unusual Sounds is organized by country of origin, beginning with British Libraries, who, thanks to the BBC, were early pioneers of the subgenre. Fans will be happy to read interviews with such luminaries of that scene as Peter Cox and Keith Mansfield of KPM, which began as musical instrument shop in London—in 1780. Capsule biographies of such figures as Delia Derbyshire (who composed the “Doctor Who” theme) and Ennio Morricone are featured.
The book’s title comes from a pair of albums released on the German Sonoton label, founded by Narholz. He also shot much of the label’s cover art. The strange images that graced the cover of the Unusual Sounds albums came from an Austrian and German New Year’s tradition. Revelers (sober, one hopes) would heat lead, drop the melted material into water and read the resulting shapes, which would predict luck or money. The resulting album’s sounds are indeed unusual—library music companies were often laboratories for musical experimentation, and it was not unusual to find avant-garde electronic composers working in the industry.
Like any collection of album cover art, Unusual Sounds is a terrific coffee table book. But author David Hollander provides plenty of vital, fascinating context to go along with the artwork. At the very least, you should borrow it from your local library, but it will be most unusual if you don’t want your own copy.