On a hot February afternoon, Forest Collective Artistic Director Evan Lawson sat down with Diimpa over Forest Collective’s Instagram Live to chat about Diimpa’s rich creative practice and his upcoming collaboration with Forest at Heide Museum of Modern Art on February 28. For the very first time Diimpa, whose everyday name is William Cooper, will combine his mesmeric synth grooves with 15 other musicians from Forest’s core ensemble, including strings, horn, trombone, four wind players, percussion and harp. Diimpa himself will be playing the synth, glockenspiel and music box.
“It’s the largest group of people I’ve ever had playing my music. It should be a really big sound!” Diimpa says with his characteristic half-smile. “It’s really exciting that I get to work with such a large group of musicians. It’s kind of daunting as well – definitely a learning curve.”
This large-scale collaboration with Forest’s musicians, whose orientation is more towards Western classical music, has presented fascinating new opportunities and challenges. “In my creative process, I often have a synth sequencer playing then improvise over the top of that,” Diimpa explains, “but for this gig, I’ve learned that people don’t have the same internal metre. They don’t have the same improv style as me – so that’s been a learning process!” Evan recalls a recent rehearsal of one piece called Night Gone, where Diimpa instructed the ensemble to improvise over a synth loop. But what works for three or four instruments doesn’t work so well for 15! “It’s hard for classical musos to groove in that way!” Evan said. “We are much more comfortable in schmalzy, beautiful and lush, but the groove is tricky to set up!” Diimpa has embraced these challenges, developing ways to transcribe his improv in a more formalised way. “It has made me much more aware of the patterns and tools I always use, and how they can translate to a chamber orchestra,” he said.
The concert at Heide will feature new tracks from his upcoming as-yet-untitled third album, which is due to begin recording in July. Rather than the acute introspection of his previous album these new, epic, sprawling tracks have been inspired by external factors: climate change, the struggle for justice and the way industry is affecting the world.
Taking in and playing with natural rhythms and sounds has formed part of this creativity, and is closely connected to Diimpa’s Gubbi Gubbi Aboriginal culture. “I’m just trying to find the natural rhythms of a place, which are related to songlines. I’m trying to find the sound of a place.” he said. In particular, Diimpa draws on his connection to Gubbi Gubbi country around the Sunshine Coast, but particularly his childhood home in the hinterlands around places like Nambour, Yandina, Cooroy and Eumundi.
“I’ve recently been relearning to love the place where I grew up,” Diimpa explains, “I went through a rebellious stage where I tried to be not-country and stuff. But I have been learning to love the place again, which has been replicated in my music.” A big step in this rapprochement came in 2018 when Diimpa performed his first Queensland show in Meanjin (Brisbane). “I was also meant to go up this year for the Horizon Festival, playing on Gubbi Gubbi country up there in the hinterland, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to Covid.” he said.
When asked about bringing the sounds of Gubbi Gubbi country down south, Diimpa responded “I enjoy my influences of place and my country, where I grew up, and how that translates down here on Kulin Nation land. I enjoy finding the similarities and differences, I like to play with the differences a lot.”
“I think finding the sound of a place has been the interest of a lot of composers throughout history, like with Messiaen and birdsong.” Diimpa continues. “Replicating natural sounds has been the foundation of most music throughout time. But not necessarily a replication like Messiaen, it’s more abstract sometimes. For example, in one of my pieces the synth plays notes, but the tail of the sound goes forever. It’s like the sound of cicadas in summer in Queensland, going on and on and on. That minute replication.”
For Diimpa, these sounds feed into his music’s bigger picture – “the rhythms, sequences, ostinatos – that inspiration comes from the random sounds of the world. They just come into my head, like when I’m riding on a bus. Because of that, I have lots of voice notes on my phone of my weird hummings!”
Given this enormous world of sonic influence, what is Diimpa’s favourite sound at the moment? “I’ve been getting into squishy sounds,” he says with enthusiasm. “Like those minute, crunchy, squishy sounds that plants make when they grow. I’ve been trying to recreate that on my synth.”
But one thing you won’t hear a lot of in Diimpa’s music is lyrics and vocals. This, he explains, is partly because of his neurodiversity. As a composer with autism, Diimpa tends to shy away from vocals and text in his sound creations.
“Putting words into music is really difficult, particularly for me as an autistic person. Words and speaking, trying to translate inner feelings to the outer world is really quite difficult.” But for Diimpa, music has a power of expression that transcends language. “That’s probably why all my music is more instrumental, because it’s the best vehicle for what I feel on the inside.”
Regarding the performance at Heide, Diimpa explains that it will be a low-sensory gig for those that may have issues with sensory overload. “It’s a big field with lots of space to exit or find your own space to sit down and relax,” he says, “and because the gig is in the afternoon, there won’t be much [stage] lighting, and especially not flash lighting.” For wheelchair users, the ground is rather rocky, but Heide staff have accessibility plans in place and are ready to assist people.
Diimpa x Forest Collective is on February 28 at Heide Museum of Modern Art at 4pm. Taking place on the beautiful lawns and surrounded by the gallery and sculpture garden, the concert is family and picnic friendly. The restaurant, museum and bar will also be open through the day.
February 28 2021 4pm
Heide Museum of Modern Art 7 Templestowe Rd. Bulleen
Full price $38 / Concession $30 / Heide Member $28 / child $15 Tickets: https://events.ticketbooth.com.au/event/heide-summer-festival-diimpa-forest-collective
Hurstbridge line to Heidelberg + 30 min walk or bus
903 to Bridge St/Manningham Rd
Diimpa - composer, keyboards, glockenspiel, music box
Evan J Lawson - musical director, arranger
Flutes - Kim Tan
Recorders - Ryan Williams
Clarinets - Ryan Lynch
Saxophones - Ali Fyffe
Trombone - Trea Hindley
Horn - Phoebe Smithies
Percussion - Zela Papageorgiou
Harp - Samantha Ramirez
Violin I - Helen Bower
Violin II - Isabel Hede (guest musician)
Viola - Henry Justo (guest musician)
Cello - Rosanne Hunt
Double Bass - Ian Crossfield
Daniel Szesiong Todd is Forest Collective's Writer in Residence.