His KPM release The Physic Garden was inspired by arrangements of classic imprints such as Coloursound
Daniel O’Sullivan is one of the UK’s most prolific musicians in recent years, working in groups such as Grumbling Fur, Mothlite, Miracle and Æthenor, among his many other collaborations and gun for hire gigs. But his next album sees him take on a new challenge in writing catalogue music for the longrunning imprint KPM.
“There’s kind of a blankness that I really appreciate in library music,” he declares via email. “No matter how strange or atomised, the form tends to be functionality over self determinism. Not so dissimilar to writing for film but with fewer constraints.”
The album is a quickfire selection of quizzical instrumental themes, some of which are brief snatches that could be suitable for adverts or promo films. The title The Physic Garden references “a botanical garden where medicinal plants are cultivated… I’ve had many haunts over the years where I go just to be there – no other reason. From manicured gardens and follies to urban common land, overgrown and forgotten. The invitation to make library music initially triggered this thought of yellowing. Like the yellowing of a memory or a book or a film or an object as it endures time.”
Making music for library collections places unusual demands on musicians – some labels specify precise time cues or descriptions which musicians need to meet in the music they create – and creative musicians such as Tod Dockstader and Mordant Music have produced striking work within similar constraints for music publisher Boosey & Hawkes in decades past. For O’Sullivan, the brief was slightly more open. “They prefer each theme to be brief, somewhere between two and three minutes,” he says. “That’s a nice discipline in itself – composing miniatures. Something I’ve always enjoyed on my own releases is constructing those bridges. Those little transient ideas that take you from one world to another. Over time I find myself favouring the bridges over the songs themselves.”
Library music from the 1960s, 70s and 80s has gathered a significant cachet in recent years. The music of labels like KPM has become lauded, placing it on a creative par with more conventional artist-driven recordings. Albums have influenced groundbreaking artists such as Broadcast, and books on the subject have been written recently by Jonny Trunk and David Hollander. "One area that seems pretty much boundless and surprisingly adventurous is within the arrangements,” enthuses O’Sullivan. “You hear a lot of composers on the Coloursound label in particular really flexing their propensity for oddball orchestration. This is good practice for me as I’m exploring ideas in my own music which are to do with contrapuntal motion and chromaticism – where the tonal centre is constantly shifting.”
In recent decades, as musicians have become more legally savvy, sampling other people’s work has become financially risky, not to mention fraught with issues of appropriation. Library music has offered one way out of this impasse, with some hiphop and R&B artists using breaks or samples from library music collections which can be used for a simple fee rather than a percentage. In turn, this has given certain library music labels a new lease of life, and EMI Production Music, the umbrella organisation for KPM, has begun reaching out to and commissioning underground and experimental musicians to generate brand new recordings for use in soundtracks, sampling and other off the shelf applications.
Making music for library music labels thus entails the risk that someone might have a hit with some of your music. But O’Sullivan is philosophical about the prospect. “I’m not sure how I’d feel really. I see music as this omnipresent, indifferent force which travels through our antennae and takes the shape of the vessel we use to contain it. I remember watching ads as a child and totally missing whatever product was being peddled as I’d be distracted by the music.”