by Neville Davies
Icehouse In Other Ventures
"I can easily become bored."
This statement has been attributed to Iva Davies by a number of his interviewers on a number of occasions. It has usually been made in a context of explanation of his frequent essays, either individually or with Icehouse in whole or part, into various ventures apart from the straight production of rock music. In fact, the explanation often seems to have been made defensively in the face of many members of the popular music industry with a fixed belief that the role of successful rock musicians is the constant repetition, in the same form, of the sort of product which earned their initial success.
Whether or not, Iva Davies is simply too versatile and naturally exploratory to be harnessed to the one last forever. The relatively narrow medium of writing, recording and performing rock songs was insufficient mental stimulus for him to continue contributing to the world of music at the level established by the brilliant Icehouse debut album of 1980. Hence, Icehouse, and Iva Davies in particular, have never been loathe to allow the constant flow of rock albums to be interrupted by other interesting ventures.
Music and Machines
The ironic outcome of most of these interruptions is that, in the longer and broader term, they have made significant contributions to the rock music, not only of Icehouse, but of many other practitioners. This was never more so than in the propensity of Icehouse to explore, experiment with and use the full range of new machinery for producing musical sound. Not that Icehouse members have been inventors of this technology, but they have always kept in the forefront of the Australian industry in its application and modification to practical use.
This commenced with Iva Davies' employment of the latest synthesizers and rhythm composers to write and record the music for the Primitive Man album in 1982. This lead into his acquisition of a Fairlight computer and its use in music composition, recording and, to some extent, in supplementing live performance. The Fairlight inevitably lead into the use of a further range of computer interfaced musical instruments and the ultimate integration of these with personal computer based software. Icehouse kept abreast of all these developments. This was assisted by the recruitment to the band, in 1984, of Simon Lloyd with his great interest and skill in computer usage.
Just Musical Instruments
To Iva Davies all these innovative technologies are just another sort of musical instrument, whether the medium of playing it is the breath, the fingers or a computer keyboard. From an early age, all musical instruments are said to have been a great source of fascination to him. As a child, he tried all instruments of all types that the school band and orchestra could make available, so it is not surprising that, in his subsequent career, he has demonstrated such capacity to come to terms with any new methods of creating musical sound. His own comments in reference to his use of the Fairlight Computer fully express his attitude to modern musical technology:
"As far as I am concerned, all instruments are machines the product of some kind of technology. Even when there were only two sticks, it was an actual invention, the latest technology.
"All composers all the way through history have always written on or used whatever happened to be just invented. When Mozart was writing he had strings and French horns, and oboes and flutes, but when Beethoven was writing which was only 50 or so years later he had trombones and clarinets, because they had just been invented. When Wagner wrote, he had the tuba and a whole bunch of percussion that hadn't been used before.
"I see the Fairlight in the same way. It's just another instrument. Whether it's a computer or not doesn't really concern me very much. I'm not actually into computers and stuff so to me it's not any different to a guitar."
But Where's the Humanity?
As with all technological innovation, the advent of new methods of making musical sound has always been greeted with its share of critics decrying the replacement of the "human element" by a machine. Icehouse, at times, has been involved in this criticism for its use of mechanically produced musical sound, but has neither relented on its course of keeping up with technological advance, nor abandoned the use of the more established and traditional means of making music.
From the outset Iva Davies has held the view that music is a product of human imagination. Thus, the more tools available for making musical sounds and the easier their use is, the freer the rein given to the expression of musical ideas. As long ago as 1982, he made this point in these words:
"I don't have any fear of machines limiting my imagination because in fact they make it easier. I can't play drums, no way in the world, I just don't have the physical coordination, but I can think drums and I can think drums a lot better than a lot of drummers. If the machines can cope with delivering what my imagination has, there's no reason on earth why I can't have the same effect as any drummer."
As for the human element, the comment "Machines can express a musical idea more precisely than any human, but the ideas still have to be sought," seems to provide an answer.
The first use of the Fairlight computer in the Icehouse context represents a further deviation by Iva Davies from the straight and narrow path of rock music. This was his composition of the musical score for the first full-length feature film to be directed by video clip wizard, Russell Mulcahy.
Mulcahy had already produced video clips for three Icehouse songs and, so, was well aware of Iva's musical ability. The film, a story centred on a giant carnivorous feral pig wreaking havoc in the Australian outback, was entitled Razorback and has become well known in cinema, video and television since its premiere at the State Theatre, Sydney on 18th April, 1984.
The Fairlight was well adapted to the task of producing the atmospheric music to match the supernatural story and the startling and horrific images filmed under Mulcahy's direction. Iva Davies closetted himself in his home studio for an intensive course of learning the ins and outs of the computer and then settled to the job of composing the score in quick time. Just how quick is demonstrated by his own account:
"Normally a score can take months and you can't hear what you've been writing until you get into the studio with the orchestra.
"Any changes that have to be made then involve further time and expense.
"The first 26 minutes of the film were recorded in a day and a half. Twenty three minutes of The Year of Living Dangerously, by contrast, took three and a half months to record."
Although the film was not an outstanding box office success, the musical score was well received and was included among the nominations gained by Razorback at the Australian Film Industry Awards in October, 1984. A selection of music from the soundtrack was released on a 12" LP by EMI and has received steady airplay over the years since the film was first screened. In fact, in 1986, the music from Razorback received the award for the Most Performed Australasian Music for Film at the annual A.P.R.A. Music Awards.
Iva on the Loose
The only other ventures entered by Iva Davies outside the context of Icehouse have been in the field of rock music. None of these has been of a major nature or of long duration, because priorities, particularly in regard to rock music, have had to favour the band.
The first of these emerged later in 1984 when Iva was the one Australian among a number of rock musicians to receive an invitation from Japanese rock star, Yukihiro Takahashi, to participate in the production and promotion of his latest solo album.
The second was a brief foray into record production for other bands, when, in 1986, he produced a couple of the tracks of an album by Scribble.
Yukihiro Takahashi, formerly drummer for the famous Japanese group Yellow Magic Orchestra, is a major rock star in his own right in Japan, and has released a number of solo albums. In fact, by 1984, such albums were becoming a highly anticipated annual event.
Iva commenced his association with Yukihiro Takahashi with the pressure production of a new song for the album. His description of this episode is a startling commentary on the Japanese way of doing things:
"I literally got off the plane and was confronted with 'Hi! I'm Yuki. We are going to write songs.' It was intimidating because I didn't know what he expected that I was like. Then the interpreter said, 'Yuki says it would be a great idea if you wrote lyrics.' 'What sort of thing does he want?' I asked. 'Something you can dance to. Not too serious.' ' O.K.' I said, 'Let's call it "Walking to the Beat".' I went and wrote and sang three lines. Then we went out to dinner and over dinner the interpreter said, 'Yuki thinks it would be a good idea if you finished the rest of the lyrics tonight.' So I stayed up all night writing reams and reams of lyrics. I sang it twice convinced that it was only a guide vocal... but it's my vocal on the record. That was all in the course of three days."
Iva wrote "Walking to the Beat" in a brief stopover in Tokyo at the beginning of September 1984 on his way to Europe to join the rest of Icehouse for a promotional tour for the Sidewalk album. He returned to Japan some six weeks later as a member of the supergroup of international invitees formed by Takahashi to tour Japan.
During this six week period the album entitled Wild and Moody and including the track "Walking to the Beat" had been finalised and released and the tour was for its promotion. Besides Yukihiro Takahashi himself as lead vocalist, the band consisted of Steve Jansen (of the group Japan) on drums, a New York bass player named Rodney Drummer, two Japanese instrumentalists named Sawamura and Hajame from the Japanese group Plastics, and Iva Davies as lead guitarist.
Iva found this role rather ironic as he had not been playing lead guitar for some considerable time. Bob Kretschmer had taken over this role with Icehouse some two years earlier. So, perhaps it was something of a balancing up when, three years later, Takahashi asked for another song, and both Iva and Bob went to Japan to write it.
Icehouse Goes to the Ballet
The most significant venture outside the realms of rock music resulted from the collaboration of Icehouse and the Sydney Dance Company in the creation and staging of the ballet Boxes.
Artistic Director Graeme Murphy had already established a strong reputation for enterprise and originality in the works presented by the Sydney Dance Company. It was a further step in this progress for him to mix the talents of a rock group and those of his dancers in a matrix of his own inspired choreography.
Murphy, Iva Davies and Bob Kretschmer conferred during the earlier months of 1985 and laid down the underlying concept and general ground rules for the ballet. Then, while Graeme Murphy pursued other activities overseas, the two Icehouse musicians set to the task of developing a scenario and composing the music.
When Murphy returned some weeks later, these two items awaited him, together with the formidable job of matching the choreography to the hour-long piece and translating the whole onto the stage.
Murphy claimed this to be a much less onerous task than it might seem, because of the assistance given by the disciplined musical score. This, in turn, was doubtless aided by Iva Davies transferring his film score composition experience in matching music and action, to the exercise of providing music for dance.
The result, as described by Graeme Murphy, was more than adequate for his purposes:
"He's given me a score that is so strong, that is so precise... This scene has this, and this is that person's theme, that's their motif that comes back at the point it's almost like having a road map to work with. He's worked the storyline into the music the way I want to integrate the dancers and the musicians."
Boxes within Boxes
The essential theme of the ballet concerns the psychological barriers or compartments with which human societies tend to enclose themselves, and the possibility of individuals or groups of people transcending them into wider, brighter worlds.
Graeme Murphy's words again describe it:
"It is basically about being brave enough to get out of the box that you've been put into by society, or by yourself, or by peers, or by pressure.
"It's about those people who are brave enough to get out and those people who want to get out and those people who don't want to get out. You're pretty compartmentalised and it can be comfortable and there are few of us, so few in our society, that say, 'Okay, there's something I see that I want to aspire to...'
"It's about the boxes within boxes within boxes. It's also about the fact that sometimes when you've got to where you're going you realise you are just in another box."
A Giant Video Clip
Boxes opened at the Sydney Opera House Opera Theatre on November 7th, 1985.
The action takes place within and above a large square scaffolding structure (the box) mounted on the revolving stage. The box houses an amorphous group of dancers called "the Insiders," while another group, "the Outsiders," composed of the musicians and other, more distinctively clad dancers occupy a platform topping the scaffolding walls.
As the ballet develops, some individuals begin to emerge from the throng of Insiders and lead the interchanges with the seemingly superior creatures above. The whole of the action is punctuated by spectacular lighting effects (designed by John Drummond Montgomery) and accompanied by the music of Icehouse performed on stage by Iva Davies, Bob Kretschmer and guest Japanese drummer/percussionist Masaki Tanazawa.
The Icehouse musicians, as members of the group of Outsiders, provide an integral part of the dramatic action of the ballet. In one striking example of this, Iva Davies descends into the box in a circle of light and engages in an interplay of dance and song with leading ballerina Janet Vernon, performing the role of one of the outstanding Insiders. This integration of musical performance and theatrical action tended to identify the ballet with the medium of music video clips, even if on a somewhat larger scale.
Something out of the Box
Although Boxes was hailed as the theatrical event of the year, there were some interesting variations to the general reaction of acclaim. This ballet was such a mixed media production, such a combination of so many and varied forms of expression, that it posed some distinct reviewing problems, especially to critics with specialist knowledge in one particular form.
The dance purists found difficulty in accepting the possible subjugation of the dance to the many spectacular mechanical and lighting effects and the unusual musical score. They generally opted for the safer ground of the pas de deux "Shimmering," a delightful pure dance piece which occupied the earlier part of the programme.
The music for Boxes defied easy classification. Because it was provided by Icehouse, it was assumed by many from the outset that it would be quite definite rock music. When in the event, this expectation was not met, even the rock music critics found difficulty in deciding how to respond to it or, even, describe it. Many attempted, with one review even referring to the "score of heavy metal rock music," hardly an appropriate description for any Icehouse music. Perhaps the most accurate description of the Boxes music was given by Tim Toni in the Sydney Morning Herald, in stating that "it bravely runs a course through the largely uncharted waters of technological avant garde, occasionally pulling into the safe port of pop."
Notwithstanding the few misgivings of some of the specialists, those who were able to see and enjoy Boxes for what it really was an innovative, spectacular piece of theatre employing an unusual combination of visual and audio effects were loud in their praise and acceptance.
Packaged for Perpetuity
There has only been one short season of the ballet Boxes, that at the Sydney Opera House in 1985. The difficulties of staging and the other commitments of the participants prevented an extension of performances to other locations. The filming of the Sydney production by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the release of this as a commercial video was, therefore, a very fortunate move. As a result, Boxes has been, and will be in the future, viewed by television audiences both in Australia and overseas.
As to whether Icehouse will perform Boxes again or whether any more ballet involvements will eventuate, only the future will tell. As one rock music critic's review of Boxes says, it may well be a case of:
"Win or lose, lose or win, Iva Davies will keep going off on these tangents. So what's next?"
© 1992 Neville Davies