There’s this album and it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It’s one of the most distinctive Australian soundtracks ever made. It’s quintessential underwater jazz exotica, a genre that before this album had never previously existed. Inner Space was a 1973 Australian documentary series by Ron and Valerie Taylor, focussing on aquatic ocean life, and its score was composed by Norwegian born Australian composer Sven Libaek. The music is indescribably slinky, vibraphones, percussion, woodwind, piano, bass flute, and gentle percussion all arranged in this gorgeously gentle cacophony of sublime exotic jazz. It’s safe to say that if you’ve never heard Inner Space, you’ve never heard music like this before.
“I was inspired by the depths, the underwater, the danger, the quietness and I tried to produce music that described that,” offers Libaek on the line from his home in Sydney, reminiscing about his most famous work. It’s a score that unexpectedly returned to prominence when Wes Anderson used six of Libaek’s Inner Space pieces on his 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Libaek, 78 is semi retired now, though still finds time to dabble in the odd film project that comes his way. These days however his main musical output is as the principle conductor of a Sydney community orchestra, performing the likes of Bach and Beethoven with amateur musicians.
“I’m quite happy to just relax,” he laughs, “I feel like I’ve done my best work. Sometimes I listen to some of the old stuff and I think how did I ever do that?”
That ‘old stuff’ is a remarkable body of music in multiple worlds that reads like a work of fiction. From acting and performing in the 1958 Norwegian film Windjammer, to studying at Julliard, to performing with Arthur Fieldler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, to his role as the first A&R and producer at CBS Records Australia producing legendary surf rock band the Atlantics, to numerous Australian film soundtracks in the 1970’s, before winding up in LA, hanging out with Henry Mancini, sound tracking Hanna Barbara cartoons, and being on the ground floor of the Muzak revolution. And that’s only about half of it.
Libaek first came to Australia, touring as part of the Windjammers band in 1960 to promote the aforementioned film and fell in love with the landscape and people. Though he and his wife were living in New York at the time, and they detoured quickly to Norway to do a film, they took the first opportunity to return to Australia to settle.
“Australia really appealed to me, the outback, the loneliness,” offers Libaek wistfully, “coming from Europe which was more crowded, more stiff in their attitude, more conventional. My mother wouldn’t let me go to town without wearing a suit. To go to the supermarket in a shirt and thongs was completely unheard of.“
It’s this outsider perspective that goes some way to explain why his music has proven such a unique point of difference with Australian born composers, particularly in terms of referencing the landscape, and why his style is considered so singular.
“That’s one thing that I have been told, and I sort of knew deep inside myself that I did have a definite style. I probably had the musical knowledge to write Beatles hits – without bragging, but I was never interested in copying other people’s stuff.”
Libaek peppers his story with what he considers happy accidents, and whilst you can’t discount he’s had his fair share of luck, it’s false modesty to suggest that he was simply in the right place at the right time, so many times. Except for when you consider how in 1963 as a newly arrived immigrant he managed to snare the A&R Manager position at the newly established Australian CBS Records. Just prior to his appointment with label boss Bill Smith, Smith had received a telegram from the US parent company instructing them to begin producing records in Australia like they had promised six months ago.
“So I walked in and I didn’t even know what an A&R man was. I got the job and spent four years there and produced a lot of records with a lot of famous Australian singers and I did all the famous surf stuff with the Atlantics and even classical guitar, Ray Price Dixieland Band, it wasn’t just producing rock hits, it was producing every facet of music.”
Producing the likes of Bryce Rohde, Judy Bailey, Patsy Biscoe, The Groop , The Atlantics, The Saints alongside numerous others, he was also in charge of auditioning new talent, and of course he has a tale of the fish that got away: The Bee Gees in 1963.
“They were just kids at that time. I thought they were great, but they looked awful. They looked like really scrappy people. At this time they hadn’t recorded anything, so I went to my boss and I wanted to sign them, and he wanted to meet them. After meeting them he said no way am I touching these guys, so they went to Festival and the rest is history.”
It was while at CBS that Libaek was offered his first television score, Vince Seventy’s Nature’s Walkabout, a series where Serventy and his family jumped in a caravan, drove across Australia and filmed the results, sort of like The Leyland Brothers before The Leyland Brothers. When his boss at CBS heard, he was told to choose A&R or film composition. The rest they say is history.
“I’m looking at these pictures of the Alice and Mt Isa and these places, and I immediately started thinking in terms of what instrumentation would picture it the best, and I settled on things like the mouth organ. Of course the harmonica, we had a brilliant harmonica player in Sydney Richard Brooks, he had a beautiful tone, and of course the guitar. I used the vibraphone that Johnny Sangster played so well because it had a shimmering heat type sound, and of course woodwinds for birds and animals and things like that. The series was a big hit on channel 9. That was the first chance to actually compose and I found film really excited me. Because one thing is if you’re a classical composer and you walk thru the bush trying to get inspiration, but in a film the inspiration is right there in front of you.“
Of course the personnel on this debut is quite remarkable, with Libaek accessing the cream of Sydney’s jazz scene, the likes of Don Burrows, George Cola, Ed Gaston, Errol Buddle and John Sangster, all of whom who were remarkable players, who all knew each other, played together regularly, and contributed significantly in terms of interpreting Libaek’s score and adding a touch of improvisation.
“They were all session players back then,” reminisces Libaek. “They weren’t as famous as they are now, the ones that are still alive. You just booked them you know. I didn’t know who I had actually booked, except I got advice from other colleagues in the business, and I started selecting my own people.”
“The pieces might be a theme that were scored and written and so on and there was 18 bars of solo clarinet, or solo flute or solo vibraphone and they would, as jazz musicians compose their own, and it was over the same chord structure that the theme was on. It’s typical jazz. If you listen to any jazz recording you recognise the tune up front if it’s famous and at the end, but in the middle there’s all sorts of interpretations of it.”
The success of Nature’s Walkabout led to further television work including To Ride a White Horse (1966) and eventually Boney (1972), in 1970 he was offered his first feature, the sexploitation film The Set, a controversial offering that professed to examine alternative attitudes to sexuality.
“It had nudity and homosexuality way back in the late 1960’s when it wasn’t allowed, and I did the same thing there, I wrote a very upbeat modern score for this upper class society that did this kind of thing.” With guitar organ, and prominent horns his score is tight melodic, upbeat cocktail swing. There’s a certain knowing swagger to it, the kind of music that only comes out at night.
Curiously, or perhaps rarely in the field of scoring soundtracks, these early scores were actually pieces that Libaek wanted to make, with minimal to no interference from his early directors and producers. This was something he welcomed.
“It gave me a certain kind of confidence because if they had confidence in me I better deliver,” he laughs. “With John Mcallam and Judy Withers with Boney, he was more involved, I went in and recorded a theme to Boney. He didn’t force me to rewrite it, but of course it became very famous a couple of years later, but he wasn’t sure. Some directors are more involved and some are not.”
“It’s their picture, the director is the one that gets the Oscar you know. So they have complete control over their picture. It feels good when they don’t interfere because they trust that you will do the right thing.”
Whilst he would go on to score a myriad of other Australian films, including the 1971 Nickel Queen (a bizarre outback film with John Laws as a hippie), and act as musical coordinator and orchestrator for the 1982 Peter Weir film The Year of Living Dangerously, parallel to his film music, Libaek also developed quite a niche for himself thanks to his arrangement skills.
“I have arranged quite possibly every pop song you have ever heard,” he laughs. “Back in the 70’s and 80’s there was a radio station in Sydney called 2CH that specialised in what they called ‘good music’ and all they played was instrumentals. So a lot of music publishers around Australia hired me to do instrumental versions of their hits so they could get played on 2CH and other easy listening stations. So over a period of ten to fifteen years I did four to five hundred arrangements of different pop songs. So strangely enough that has never died out, with satellite radio, the internet and all of this these instrumentals are locked in all these places like Japan, so my name is up there all the time.”
Its how albums like Emotions by Sven Libaek & The Good Music Orchestra (Channel 7 Records) exists, with these incredibly smooth and easy instrumental versions of Neil Diamond, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder tunes, or I Love Australian Movies (WEA) where Libaek covers tunes from Phar Lap, The Man From Snowy River and Mad Max and the album cover boasts a koala in sunglasses.
“I made it a business, particularly in the US, of course I moved there in 1977. They had hundreds of easy listening stations, and there was a lot of money to be made by having an instrumental version of their vocal hits, so I moved to the States. Neil Diamond wanted me to do an album of his songs, Lionel Ritchie, Billy Joel, all these top artists at the time all wanted me to do arrangements of their songs. So we blasted the airwaves of the US with instrumental versions and then of course I happened to meet, more or less accidently the guy who was recording all of the music for Muzak which in those days was really big too, and he hired me to do more arrangements for their network. Actually I thought it was kind’ve funny, the first time I went to Las Vegas I was sitting at the poker machines listening to my own music. It really took me aback.”
Of course these days Muzak has a bad reputation, but it didn’t back then and Libaek isn’t complaining, he made a good living from it, joining the likes of Percy Faith and Mantovani in a close knit easy listening club of sorts, with a gentle but healthy competitive streak pushing him to elevate the genre.
“Some of the songs were very simple musically for a classical composer, “ he offers, “I’d like to expand it into something more significant. So they turned out slightly different from the original. I didn’t try to copy the original. I tried to see what was in it, and develop it into something more substantial and it worked out very well for me and the people who hired me.”
He had come to the US to try his luck in Hollywood before he was too old. The kids were in high school, and the years 1976 and into 1977 were quiet for his film scoring in Australia, so the Libaek’s took the plunge. It was while in the US that Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound fell into his lap.
Bill Hanna from Hanna-Barabera wanted to record some music in Australia because the Australian dollar was around fifty cents. They needed an Australian composer and arranger to oversee the process. Libaek’s presence in the US and connections in Australia made him the perfect candidate. His focus was on animated features. He estimates that in total he recorded over eight hours of music over multiple projects.
“The actors were recorded in Hollywood, the film was animated in the Philippines, the music was done in Australia and nobody ever met, “ laughs Libaek. “So I would get a script from Hanna-Barbera, timed to the 10th of a second. Every movement of arms, every running down steps, everything was timed to absolute perfection. So I could actually write music without seeing the film, without hearing the dialogue, without any of the other components. It all came back to Hollywood, they edited it and put it all together.”
“I tried not to be too corny,” he continues, “and in fact, I’m not trying to brag, the music editors at Hanna-Barbera were brilliant people they could do anything. They said this is the best music we’ve ever had. They were commenting on the quality of musicians in Sydney because they had no idea what they were really like.”
Whilst a lot of the music was pretty madcap cartoon music, Libaek’s understanding of multiple genres and styles of music and his dexterity as a film composer stood him in good stead. Whilst the original themes to the Jetsons and Flinstones were written long ago by other composers, Libaek did re arrange them repeatedly, finding new elements and variations. He’s most proud of a feature called the The Good The Bad & The Huckleberry Hound, which he played it straight, as a legitimate western, his attempt to score True Grit, if John Wayne happened to be a blue dog with a southern drawl.
It was also whilst in the US that Libaek got up close and personal with one of his musical idols, Henry Mancini, someone who critics repeatedly link him with, in terms of their shared, light, melodic, at times playful west coast jazz feel.
“We were not like personal friends, but I interviewed him for 2CH radio in Sydney and we kept in contact. When computers first came in and we started writing music on computers I must have done something wrong because I wrote this long piece and when I tried to open it the next day it was gone. So I called Henry Mancini’s office and I got his secretary and I asked ‘he wouldn’t happen to be in would he?’ And she said ‘sure,’ and I said ‘I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, can I speak with him’ and she said ‘sure,’ and I told him what had happened and there was a small pause and he said, ‘welcome to the world of computers.’”
Then there’s library music. In 1970 he did a library record called My Thing for the Southern Music Publishing. It was quite successful so they asked for another. So he suggested a space theme, sensing an opportunity to use a synthesizer for a first time. The resulting album, 1974’s Solar Flares is amongst his best work, lush, dynamic and evocative, with horns, vibraphone, electric guitar, piano, and the Qasar (a prototype of the first digital sampler the Fairlight CMI) that veers between triumphant funk, wistful interplanetary coming of age, smooth moon exotica and swinging turned on electrics. As library music it travelled far and wide, in fact Libaek remembers hearing a piece from Solar Flares used as the opening theme to a religious program: Space and religion, a pairing that tickled him to no end.
Whilst in recent years Libaek scored his first ever Norwegian film, as well as finding time to lecture at Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), whilst continuing his ongoing role with the Sutherland community orchestra. When it come to his legacy though of over 500 plus arrangements, numerous production credits, as well as compositions and film scores, there are no complaints.
“I don’t think I have written or let anything past that I wasn’t perfectly happy with,” he suggests. “Maybe looking back now at those five hundred plus arrangements I would think I should’ve done this instead of that, but when it comes to the original scores I can’t imagine doing any of it again any better.”
“I’m getting to this stage of my life and I’m very happy with what I have left behind, and that’s all you can ask for. I’m just very pleased with what I have done, and if people like it, that’s fine and if they don’t that’s their business.”
Many of Sven Libaek’s soundtracks, including Inner Space, Nature’s Walkabout, The Set, and Solar Flares have been reissued by Votary Records. You can find more information here.