Subscribe during February and save 50%.

An Introduction to “Library Music”

Ghost Box et al. seem fixated on exploring a future envisioned by the past, a future that will never be.

Distonal has recently posted an excellent and intriguing introduction to the world of the Ghost Box label and “library music” (also known as “hauntology”).

[O]ne of the most profoundly creative approaches to recontextualization in the past decade has come in the form of “library music,” sometimes referred to as “hauntology.”

There’s still not an absolute definition for hauntology or library music. Julian Cope hasn’t written Hauntologysampler just yet, but it lies within defined parameters. For example, all artists that classify as library music source sounds and inspiration from archives like the library of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which is a large operation of sound engineers that created soundtracks for television shows, public information films, and documentaries. Utilizing a vast palette of then cutting-edge instruments that included synths, oscillators, theremins, and other esoteric noisemakers in tandem with a palpable adoration for musique concerte, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is arguably the origin point for experimental electronic music.

All these musicians embraced the possibilities of music in the future, resulting in sci-fi and galactic soundtracks that offer varying degrees of campiness. As opposed to the electronic movements within krautrock two decades later, their extraterrestrial, electronic sounds never felt angular, distant, or cavernous. Their brand of atomic-age ambience created a sort of optimistic futurism: The war is over, the era of space is near, and the coming days are looking bright, impending Cold War dread be damned. The artists informed by this hypnotic mid-century retro-futurism have, in turn, cultivated an entirely new way of conjuring nostalgia: a false sense of nostalgia.


More importantly, the idea of nostalgia becomes distilled through a new medium. Rather than reproducing the pop sound of an earlier time, library music dives into deep psychological territory, creating a nostalgic wonder of an aesthetic you were not technically around to experience. Unless you’re, at youngest, a baby boomer, you have no memories of the time in which library music was born. Yet, even without a reference point, you feel a reflexive nostalgia. Hauntology feeds on intrinsic notions of memories and reminiscence and skews them into something both past and present, dramatically transcending the typical associations within a music listening experience.

I confess, I have only a passing familiarity with Ghost Box and its related acts. Their music — what little I’ve heard of it so far — seems to be the flipside of those artists that I’ve labeled “nostalgists,” e.g., July Skies, Epic 45, Hood, Piano Magic. But whereas those artists often seem fixated on recapturing a past that may never have actually been, Ghost Box et al. seem fixated on exploring a future envisioned by the past, a future that will never be. In both cases, the music is permeated by a sense of loss and impermanence, which I find makes for an enthralling and haunting listening experience.

Enjoy reading Opus? Want to support my writing? Become a subscriber for just $5/month or $50/year.
Subscribe Today
Return to the Opus homepage