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Felix Ookean interview

This interview with Felix Oookean appeared in Antipodean Geographic, 6 August 1985.

Q: You’ve just aired Monoliths From The Heavens – a controversial documentary series that suggests that ancient Australians were visited by extra-terrestrials. What lead you to embark on such a project?

FO: Unfortunately I am unable to talk about Monoliths due to a pending court case. Next question.

Q: Really? Can you describe the nature of the case?

FO: The indigenous peoples of central Australia, for whom I have immense respect, may I say, are unhappy about the central thesis of my series and are hoping to redress this in a legal setting. That’s all I can really say at present.

Q: Can you tell us about your earlier projects then, what precisely were you trying to get across with your documentaries? They always seemed to be just a little left of centre.

FO: Well, if I may begin at the beginning, let’s talk about Southern Oceans, my first series. I wanted to show a side of the ocean that is so ever-present and yet so infrequently focused on. The invertebrates. This is the most significant portion of our marine fauna and yet everybody seems to want to focus on sharks or seals or that sort of nonsense. Anybody can film a dolphin and get a response from an audience. I wanted a challenge – I wanted to try and reveal the charm of the mollusk, the verve of the echinoderm. So we got the most high-tech close zoom cameras of the time and filmed around the Victorian coast and a couple of days in Tasmania. For the abalone footage.

Q: What was the highlight for you during these shoots?

FO: Probably the elephant snail shoot. Did you know that we were the first people to ever film mating elephant snails? Even today I meet malacologists who, once they find out who I am, are just overwhelmed with gratitude for what we did on that shoot. The amount of times I’ve been approached by marine biologists of a certain vintage saying ‘Oh, you’re the guy who filmed the mating elephant snails!’…you know, it still happens today.

Q: And how did you go about producing the soundtrack?

FO: That was my first soundtrack, so everything was a learning experience back then. I was just rather fortunate to have a lot of very talented people on board from the Melbourne jazz scene. I had written a lot of melodic themes but without very much structure and just sort of threw them to my players and we all worked it out in the studio through improvisation and modification. It evolved.

Q: There’s a great sound on that album.

FO: That was brought about more by coincidence and necessity than by design. I didn’t really have an overarching aesthetic for the sessions, it just kind of coalesced through the idiosyncrasies of the players and the equipment we had access to at the time. For example we had a very adventurous young guitarist by the name of ‘Savage’ James Bell who used an early precursor to the wah pedal – he had constructed the thing himself, as he had most of his effects gear – which lent the soundtrack a very distinctive watery sound. Also my old friend Rob Teal, who is strictly speaking a marimba player by training, found an old vibraphone, which he was eager to try out with us. It provided a great exotica sounding, beachy vibe to the whole thing. No pun intended.

Q: None taken. After Southern Oceans, you moved on to the birds of Australia.

FO: Yes, I had been doing bird surveys at the time and was struck by this country’s amazing birdlife and the connection that so many Australians feel with these animals. I wanted to delve deeper than the superficial portrayal of our native birds that was so common on TV in the late sixties. I wanted to show the public what it really meant to be a bird. What they felt, how they saw the world. What life is like on two wings – or flippers in the case of penguins. We had a wonderful time filming it and the public was kind enough to turn the series into a rousing success. It was a great experience. We were probably single-handedly responsible for raising the profile of the Ruddy Turnstone – everybody talks about them these days but before we made Feathered Lives they were really only known by ornithologists and hardcore twitchers. And the music was some of our best and was also really successful which is always gratifying.

Q: It’s definitely the album of yours most commonly seen around these days.

FO: Well it sold quite well. Very well for a documentary soundtrack. I had a much bigger budget allowed for the recording sessions but I didn’t actually change the process much because I was so happy with the sound of the Southern Oceans sessions. Many of the same players were involved and so it has a very similar sound but I was able to procure the services of a rather sterling string quartet, which gave it a soaring, orchestral quality. Particularly on Twelve Apostlebirds, I don’t think that tune would have worked without them. I think also we were being very obviously influenced by some of the more avant-garde musicians in the Melbourne music scene at the time. That looseness of structure that was being employed by some of the jazz players was actually perfect for soundtrack music because it flowed more naturally and organically and suited the non-standard movements of the animals. And then of course on Australis we got even looser and avant-garde. That double LP is considered by some as a fine example of early Australian ‘prog rock’! [Laughs].

Q: Well, the 24-part Antarctic Suite certainly springs to mind.

FO: Yes, I suppose that one is certainly befitting of such a description.

Q: Australis – The Other Half was probably your most ambitious undertaking, but it wasn’t as well received as your preceding series. Why do you think that was the case?

FO: I think the whole thing was just too ambitious. Basically we were trying to document the entire natural history of the Southern Hemisphere, which in retrospect is just crazy. It turned into this Behemoth of a juggernaut and I simply had to see it through because there was so much riding on it and so many people involved… It was probably just too big, really. Perhaps Australis just wasn’t quite ready for television. Maybe it was too big a series for just one hemisphere. The music was good though, and people appreciated it. I must say though, it was rather a perplexing response. People will speak to me today and tell me how much they respect the music and I feel like demanding, ‘Yes, but what about the series?’ – nobody approaches me and compliments the series itself. But a small dedicated clique of clandestine record collectors have put the soundtrack up on a pedestal and I suppose I can expect some sort of obscure accolade when I’m a half-dead octogenarian honouring my contributions to music that no one listens to. Frankly, I’d rather have the money [laughs].

Q: Do you think perhaps that there is an inherent disconnect between music and nature? Is it possible that most people just find the combination incongruous?

FO: I couldn’t disagree more. Listen – music and the natural world are not mutually exclusive magisteria; they’re two sides of the same coin. What could be more in synch with nature than music? Birds were singing long before we ever did. All I’m trying to do is to illustrate the music that is already present in the natural world. To highlight it and bring it into the foreground. If I have managed to achieve that – if only for a moment – in any of my films, then I consider that to be both a scientific and musical triumph.