Anthony Phillips - Chief Librarian

Library music is that which is recorded, archived and sold by the publishers to companies who need it, such as for television, film, corporate presentations and so on.  If you're the right musician it can provide a long and varied career.  Robin Johnson met Anthony Phillips, who has produced both library music and solo albums for the last three decades.  Oh, and he was a founder member of Genesis...

Despite it being 34 years since original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips chose to leave the band, you feel for him when you see his web site features so many questions from fans about events that happened over three decades ago - and whether he's likely to work with Mike Rutherford again.  But Phillips is phlegmatic.  His view is that, as long as somebody is genuinely interested in his work, he doesn't mind which part of his lengthy career they want to ask him about.

Like many of the most talented musicians I've met, he's thoroughly down-to-earth, very self-effacing about his work and has a marvellous sense of irony.  He also makes great tea, uncomplainingly shares his chocolate biscuits and made me feel extremely welcome from the moment I stepped through his front door.

Phillips sees himself very much as a composer, not a performer: "For me the thrill is writing," he says.  "Originally Genesis wanted to be a group of composers, rather than a group of players.  But then it reluctantly accepted that it would have to go out on the road and bash around.  The difficulty then was that, because there were so many gigs, there wasn't actually any time to write new music."

He left Genesis in 1970, after the Trespass album, then spent a period studying and teaching music, along with writing material for what would become two of his first solo albums; The Geese And The Ghost and Private Parts And Pieces 1.  A few years later he hooked up with Harry Williamson (son of author Henry) to write the soundtrack for a film of Henry's book Tarka the Otter.

Trespass aside, Tarka is probably Phillips best-known piece of work.  It manages to combine the romantic spirit of Devon and wildly conflicting emotions of Tarka in a remarkably emotive, orchestral soundtrack.  It's one of those rare scores where the music tells so much of the story, you don't need to see the images to visualise the entire thing in your head.

"Tarka was very much inspired by both the book and being in Devon," he says.  "I'd often be there in the winter when it was really bleak and natural.  I'm sure that's why the music has that feeling, it literally was inspired 'in the field' as it were.  But that doesn't mean that you necessarily have any talent to describe it and I'm flattered that people might think I was able to do so.  It wasn't difficult to be inspired by the book and the surroundings."  His ability to evoke the spirit of the West Country also embraces Cornwall, infusing several of Phillips solo albums and directly addressed in the acoustic guitar duet Tregenna Afternoons.

"I had a lot of holidays in St Ives in the late 1960s and early 1970s" he says.  "I also had to read Virginia Woolf for A-level.  I read To The Lighthouse three times and kind of got the bug from that.  Later, around the time I was recording The Geese And The Ghost, I remember reading The Waves and was really influenced by that as well."

To The Library

The ability to capture the feel of a scene in music makes Phillips an ideal library music composer.  He does a lot of work for the Atmosphere label, writing and recording in his home studio.

"Normally, they're themed CDs, where different composers all chip in with different tracks," he explains.  "I've covered all sorts of styles, from drama and documentary music to ethereal soundscapes and 'English pastoral' doing Vaughan Williams style things.  With soundscapes, the brief is usually descriptive and fairly vague.  I'll get a whole CD to myself and am basically given license to come up with some pretty sounds and nice moods.  That's great fun.  For inspiration you take visual images, for example 'mountains under the sea' and have to create a piece which creates that image in your mind."

Being given this much leeway isn't always the case, though: "On the other hand, sometimes it will be a specific brief which says, 'That's an acoustic guitar, that has to be a clarinet' and so on", he says.  "That's the sort of thing where you might spend a week or more working on 30 seconds of music, whereas with the soundscapes you can literally select a synth sound, play for five minutes and that's it.  They're good ones!" he grins.

Of course, there's much more of an art to it than that, which he acknowledges: "The danger of a very specific brief is that the music will either be used a lot or not at all.  The trick with library music is to produce stuff that's multi-purpose.  The more versatile a piece of music, the better."

As well as the library CDs, he occasionally does commissioned music for television and film: "I've had mixed experiences with that." he says.  "You hear the horror stories of people only given three weeks to do an entire film.  Then you take it in, the American director says "Hey, that's wrong" and you have to re-write it over night.

"Joji Hirota and I did around 15 soundtracks for Survival wildlife programmes," he continues.  "In truth, after a while it did get a bit repetitive.  You found yourself thinking 'Oh, not another lemur being chased'.  But sadly all that seems to have gone out of fashion now.  The only wildlife that seems to be fashionable is quick quick, kill kill, thrill thrill with some sort of raving commentator annoying crocodiles."

Guitar Monstrosity

While library music is his main source of income, Phillips keeps his album career ticking along as well.  He currently has a new acoustic guitar album in the pipeline.

"I've been working on this new guitar monstrosity for about three years, off and on," he says.  "Ironically it's probably the easiest album I've ever written.  But when it came to perfecting it, I was trying to practise 4-5 hours a day and I just wasn't used to it.  I couldn't get the notes in the right order."

After two aborted attempts, he's hoping to finally get the new album recorded this summer: "My practise list is currently 44 guitar pieces," he says.  "Another problem is that I've kind of got bored with a lot of them as well, so I keep writing new ones.  And now the dear old library company has said 'Can we have another of these soundscape albums by November?'  Naturally that always has to come first."

Although he's frustrated by not having managed to finish the guitar album and he also has a few unfulfilled ambitions, overall Phillips is pretty happy with his lot: "I would like to do a ballet or a full film score but I love composing library music," he says.  "I mean, when someone says 'Write some dreamy atmospheric pieces' that's a really unpleasant brief, isn't it?  Mucking around with synth sounds, anyone would give their right arm to do that.  It's great fun.  I'm lucky in that I've developed this modus operandi which lacks the roar of the crowd or the huge country estate, but I'm able to be constantly innovative."

He pauses for a moment, looking thoughtful.  "So why have I spent three years working on the acoustic guitar album?  That's directly contradictory, isn't it?"  He pauses again.  "I think what I'll have to do is record or bust, actually.  Just get it all down, even if it's not quite perfect, do alternate takes and perhaps edit things together."

Another of those thoughtful grins spreads across Phillips' face: "Time-wise it's reaching almost Gabriel-esque proportions.  And he really has a lot of stuff on his tracks.  I've no excuses, really".

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