On Sven Libaek

A Survey Of His Works

Anyone that has spent more than two consecutive minutes in the same room as your present correspondent is aware of my abiding love for the music of Sven Libaek, a Norwegian-born, Australian-based lite jazz composer.  Known for his soundtrack and library work in the late sixties and early seventies, Libaek has experienced somewhat of a cult revival since the inclusion of some his music in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.   In a nice instance of glib self-referentiality, the soundtrack for the nature films-within-a-film made by the Zissou character consisted of tracks Libaek had recorded for the classic Australian underwater documentary, Inner Space.  So, as part of my official jumping on the Libaek bandwagon, I thought I’d provide a service by outlining the core works in his oeuvre.

Note: Because I’m too cheap to shell out for the “space upgrade” for this blog, I unfortunately cannot upload any music samples of Mr. Libaek’s work.  As such, I will have to rely on whatever I can link to on The Internets, primarily The YouTube.

* * *

1965 – Nature Walkabout

An early soundtrack for a television nature documentary about the Australian outback.  Not as lush as Libaek’s later work, this record is a minimalist, largely piano and flute driven affair — a perfect musical match to the stark loneliness of the Australian landscape.  On the other hand, the “Main Theme” is a lively exchange between some punchy brass and the ubiquitous vibes.

1966? or 1968? – To Ride A White Horse

A surfing documentary soundtrack, now we begin to see the emergence of the trademark Libaek sound.  Here Sven offers his own unique jazzy take on surf rock as evidenced by “In The Wave“.  This is his most drum-centric album as many of the tracks feature a prominent Mersey-ish back beat.  “The Big Ones” stands out as probably the heaviest thing he ever recorded, a stark contrast to the beach-lounge of “Bikini Girls”.  Elsewhere, the staid Libaekism of lolloping piano and silky woodwinds is beautifully exampled by the all-too-brief “Bush Fire“.

1969 – Australia Suite

By far his most, for lack of a better term, “classically”-oriented work, the usual assortment of leading lights from the Sydney jazz scene are augmented here by a full orchestra.  Proclaimed by Sven’s own liner notes to be — at the time — possibly the most expensive record ever made in Australia, the Suite’s extended and multi-parted tracks offer an unusual opportunity for Libaek to flesh out his musical ideas more fully than in his soundtrack and library work.  Traditional orchestral figures are juxtaposed with proto-electronic experiments such as the treated harp towards the end of “The Isa”. Still, for all the compositional prowess on display here, the record lacks the catchy hooks of some of Libaek’s other, less complex work.

1970 – The Set

For his soundtrack to this film about the Sydney swinging scene (it is 1970 after all), Libaek recorded some his funkiest material with a rawness that would become a little too polished by the middle of the decade.  With much less piano than its predecessors, the texture of the record is a lot “warmer” and “softer” than the previous works.  It’s also by far his jazziest record.  The more upbeat tracks on The Set are driven by swirling organ and a punchy rhythm guitar and make excellent use of the aforementioned antipodean jazzcats.  Featuring a nice array of different paces, in places the record strips its driving rhythms down to the delicate solo guitar of “That’s Peg’s Affair” and the baroque chamber jazz of “Opus 13”.  Out of all his works, The Set most stridently demands a contemporary reissue.

1970? or 1973? – My Thing

The first of two library records Libaek & His Orchestra recorded for Peer International, My Thing features what is probably his masterpiece, the oft-sampled and shorts-sprayingly brilliant “Misty Canyon”.  Propelled along by its ominous droning low brass and a slinky vibraphone melody, “Misty Canyon” does more in its two and a half minutes than some composers could hope to do in their whole careers.  Derek Fairbrass’s drumming is a tour-de-force of percussionary wizardy as he somehow turns his snare into a melodic instrument with the array of different timbres and textures he is able conjur up at whim and arrange into intricate syncopations.  The good folks at Votary Records who have reissued his classic Inner Space soundtrack (see below) have made a video for the track for their (supposedly) upcoming 45 re-release of the track.  Watch it here.

The rest of the record is pleasant enough, but can’t quite live up to the impossibly high standard (ie. perfection) of “Misty Canyon”.  The song titles (“Sydney Revisited”, “Highway No. 1”, “Kangarootine”, etc) reveal the inspiration of Australia itself, a recurrent theme throughout Libaek’s career.  Like new converts to religion, it is often in immigrants that one finds the most fervent declarations of national pride.

My Thing also presents somewhat of an anomaly for musical trainspotters.  As far as I can tell, all the versions of this album available (illegally) online ultimately stem from the same vinyl source, a source that is unfortunately in mono and suffering from a not insignificant amount of wear.  However, I managed to find a version of “Misty Canyon” on some obscure compilation that was not only much cleaner sounding (hinting that unlike most of Libaek’s available work, it has been taken from a studio master tape rather than a vinyl source), but is also mixed in stereo — the stereo separation really brings out the spectacular drum part.  The question logically follows over whether the whole record is available in stereo.  Given that this was a library record not released to the public, “Misty Canyon” would not have been accorded a separate single release, so there must presumably exist somewhere a stereo mix of the album (which evidently was recorded in stereo).  But where?  These things keep me up at night.

1971 – Nickel Queen

A soundtrack to a movie that seems to be about some type of mineral bonanza in rural Western Australia, perhaps with comedic shadings.  Anyway, this is one of Libaek’s more vocally oriented efforts. The songs “Look (Every Day)” and “Go Anywhere” that reappear as leitmotifs throughout the album are somewhat schlocky with their overpolished vocals and kindanaff lyrics, but they still work.  Partly because I have deemed Libaek to be cool and am willing to see his work in the rosiest of glasses, but partly also because he uses the singers like any other instrument in His Orchestra: purely as a vehicle for his beautiful melodies.

1972 – Boney

A series about an Aboriginal detective, judging by the soundtrack this must have been the most chilled-out cop show of all time.  For example: the track titled “Action Theme” which would presumably have been used during, um, action sequences seems more in place as the theme for the grooviest current affairs show ever.  Still, the unfortunately titled “Boney Titles” has the spidery tautness of the best of DeWolfe‘s 1970’s work and the closing theme has a relaxing lilt to it, but this is mere holding pattern for…

1974 – Inner Space

While “Misty Canyon” may be his best track (in my humble, well let’s face it, not so humble opinion), as a whole this record is his magnum opus.  It was recorded as the soundtrack to a series of underwater documentaries made by husband and wife diving team Ron and Val Taylor (who would later go on to advise Steven Spielberg on the subject of Great White Sharks during the filming of Jaws) and, as stated above, took on a second life as an ironic score-within-a-score in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.  Here’s the opening theme.

It’s a bit of a difficult record to talk about since it is the musical approximation of immersing oneself in the warm, colourful water of the series’ setting  which leads any writer to employ ridiculous oceanic metaphors to describe its light waves of flutes, dark brass undercurrents, and surface glimmers of vibraphone.  Johnny Topper’s liner notes to Votary’s reissue are an unfortunate example of the record’s ability to extract borderline self-parodic musical-marine comparisons from its reviewers as he describes the “haunting, soggy sounds” with their “neptunian organ”, “damp drums”, and — in its most purple instance — “bathyspheric brass”.   Ignore this nonsense: listen to “Music For Eels“, you’ll get the idea.

1974 – Solar Flares

The second library record, this one is themed around outer space making it Libaek’s most (relatively) psychedelic record, complete with its own custom made synth.  Less jazzy and more funky than Inner Space, the album does sometimes drift a little close to elevator music territory in places, but is more than redeemed by some well-placed melodic excellence.  Squelchy synths and fuzz guitar noodlings along with some more brilliant Fairbrass drumming make outer space seem a thoroughly groovy place.  Make no mistake, this is the dictionary definition of Space Age Bachelor Pad music — from a time when we would all have jetpacks and place olive-pills on the sticks in our space-martinis.  For fuck’s sake, “Destination Omega 3” is so goddamn happy, it makes me cry.

1974 – Grass

Next, our intrepid genius provides the music for the dubiously named Avatar Linden’s gonzo “rock musical” about marijuana.  Obviously this is going to be awesome.  Actually, it’s fucking awful. Granted my reaction is influenced by the huge disappointment gap between how good this could be on paper and what it actually is, but nonetheless this album makes for terribly frustrating listening.

The tunes are decent enough — admittedly, this is a more rock-ish work which doesn’t exactly play to Libaek’s jazzy strengths — but the listener cannot really experience the music properly due to the omnipresence (there are no instrumental breaks at all) of oversung histrionic warnings about the dangers of smoking weed.  Oh yeah, did I mention it’s an anti-pot musical?  Think Reefer Madness more than Cheech & Chong.  Anyway, if anything this record illustrates by counter-example the genius of Libaek’s use of vocals on Nickel Queen which I didn’t particularly care for until I heard Grass.  So, there’s that.

1976 – Bill Collins’ Favourite Movie Themes

I don’t know who Bill Collins is, but apparently he’s got enough cool capital to get Sven Libaek & His Orchestra to record some lite-jazzed-up versions of his favourite movie themes which, as it turns out, include Emmanuelle 2.  Unlike the previous works so far, this one uses a full string orchestra with mixed results.  This is definitely getting into dodgy territory, but the opening track, the splendidly Britishly spelled “Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing” has a beautiful enough trumpet led melody to rise above the borderline muzak backing.  Elsewhere, we get a litely funked up rendition of the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street” that recalls the arrangement from Solar Flares‘ “Destination Omega 3”.

1979 – Soft Lights … And You

I would pinpoint this as the place where Libaek’s hot streak of making brilliant music in what most people regard as a questionable genre ends.  The first problem might be the lack of irony in the title, as this is an album designed to be played in the background as middle-aged lovers try to gloss over the tired decay of each other’s bodies.  Musical anaesthesia to numb the pain of aging.

1994 – Neil Diamond, Instrumentally

Best avoided.  Sure, you might think that it could work on some kitschy level — after all Neil Diamond may be awful, but he can write a tune and that tune can only be improved with the replacement of his smarmy presence with the pleasant musical stylings of one Mr. Libaek and His Orchestra.  Nope, sorry;  it just blandly disappoints.

* * *

So that’s pretty much it.   There’s a lot more Libaek out there, but, judging from the album covers I’ve seen on eBay, it seems to be more of the muzak of his later period  that sullies the delicate beauty of his early 70’s heyday.  He has an unofficial fan-created MySpace page where you can hear some more of his work that I couldn’t otherwise link to in the survey.  In particular, I highly recommend “Inner Space”, an extended, brass-less version of the series’ opening theme (linked above) that would later become, in an edited form, the “Shark Attack Theme” from Steve Zissou. [Whoops!  Seems that particular track is now “unavailable” — presumably some copyright quibble with Votary? Still, Solar Flares‘ “Quasars” is worth checking out…]

Anyway, if you’re looking to further immerse yourself in Libaek’s bathyspheric world, both Inner Space and Solar Flares have been reissued on CD and are available from online retailers such as Movie Grooves and Dusty Groove AmericaTrunk Records recently released a compilation confusingly titled Inner Space: The Lost Film Music of Sven Libaek which, to add the confusion, features the same cover image as the Inner Space soundtrack proper.  While not a proper overview of Mr. Libaek’s career, it does feature selections from Nature Walkabout, To Ride A White Horse, The Set, and Inner Space.  For the rest of his catalogue, some of his classic records (as well as a host of not-so-classic) are available for collectors’ prices on eBay.  If you just want the music and not the vinyl artifact, pretty much everything can be downloaded from various blogs and torrent sites scattered around the grey market areas of The Internets.

Dive in, it’s wonderful.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on June 22, 2009.

One Response to “On Sven Libaek”

  1. Great post!

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