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Monique diMattina composes beauty
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Monique diMattina composes beauty
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Conversations
6 July 2021

Monique diMattina composes beauty

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Gregory Lorenzutti

In my first few weeks of working at Dumbo Feather, seven years ago now, I was flung out of the nervous cocoon I’d built around my desk over to the workplace piano, where the team was gathering for its inaugural choir session. As I walked over, the most dazzling music was playing – notes and trills that took me out of my head and into my body. We were asked to lay down and soak it up, a rare invitation to let the senses come alive and bathe in beauty. The woman sending us into this rapturous state was the leader of the choir, Monique diMattina. Every Monday afternoon thereafter she’d have us humming and thrumming and slapping our cheeks, before taking us through a four-part arrangement of Edith Piaf’s, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” We’d leave the place soaring, lighter than clouds, bonded in this feeling of ecstasy. It was the best initiation to a job one could ask for.

Monique understands how music casts spells, how it engulfs us on a whole-body level. A pianist, singer-songwriter, composer and educator, she spent 10 years in New York on a Fullbright scholarship in her twenties, observing and learning from the greats while fine tuning her own style, which today swings from jazz to classical to roots and pop, depending on her appetite at the time. Her most recent album, TIDES, which she made during Melbourne’s 2020 lockdown, between home-schooling her two daughters and tutoring her VCA and Monash University students online, is an exquisite collection of piano miniatures. It is the perfect soundtrack to pursuits of beauty and poetry, or for merely cleaning the house – if what one seeks in that moment is to be enlivened and stop time. Monique is sass and joy and love and sophistication, wrapped up in a clever quip and a yearning to connect. For her, global fame isn’t the pull, it’s playing at the local jazz bar for the bread-maker up the road, and knowing that her music lands somewhere, like sunlight reaches a plant.

This story originally ran in issue #67 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

How are you going there with the lockdown?

Fine. I can’t complain. The girls take care of themselves with the homeschool these days – we’re all better at it. I’m just lucky I haven’t got little ones. And I’m into a routine now. Getting some work done.

Oh you did good then. I really struggled with this one. I’ve been resisting all of the good things that I was doing last year. I couldn’t get a routine in my day. I didn’t want to meditate or exercise. I’ve just been working and waiting for it to be over. And I really suffered as well. It made me realise how important those things are. I felt that my wellbeing diminished because I’ve been so sloppy about it.

It’s really tangible isn’t it? Day to day. And it’s a slippery slope. You let one thing go and then you let other things go. I mean we’re all different. Not everyone needs to be so calibrated. But I really need those routines and quite disciplined systems to feel great. Probably a lot of it is just what my mind believes too.

Well, that’s pretty powerful though.

Like last night was a big win. ’Cause I’ve got this thing where I wake up in the night. Last night I was awake between one and five. It’s not that I’m churning over things madly in my head. I’m just awake. And it was just such a big win that I didn’t do any screen. I read. I’m so happy with myself today because I didn’t make that mistake, which is a regular one I make if I’ve got insomnia. So, you know, little steps.

Indeed! And actually, I was playing your new album, TIDES, a lot before lockdown, when it first came out. Absolutely loving it. I think I had it on almost every morning. It was so beautiful to have in the background of the house. It just worked with the spirit of what we were feeling and doing, and it elevated everything. Then lockdown hits and I couldn’t put the good music on, not just yours, none of the music! Couldn’t do any of the things that bring me joy and lightness and beauty. I was so surprised by that because I knew that they were the things I had to do.

Do you know what though? I reckon you need those bits too. It’s like your shadow saying, “Hey, I’m here! I want to be a dick for a while. Let me be a dick.” I think it’s important to let that out as well. It’s acceptance of it all. ’Cause if you let it out and do that gradually, big brother comes in and sorts things out. Mother hen sorts things out. And you come back on track. If don’t let yourself have those naughty times, there’s not as much spice or something.

Yeah you’re right. We’ve got to let our inner teenager have their tantrum.

It’s like, we all believe that a big screen binge is bad. We’ve got that narrative going on. I had a day without the kids last week and I just let myself flop on the couch and be a potato and do that. And I think it’s kind of impossible for me to do that without recrimination. But I really did experiment with doing it without recrimination ’cause I was trying to explore that space of just being and not judging. Then I got sick of it and got up and went for a walk!

[Laughs]. I thought you were going to give me full permission to watch Netflix 24-7 there. Not that I want that actually. A little bit of me wants that.

A little bit of us wants it. I think it’s good to just let the kid grub out on the candy. And then the kid feels sick and then does something else.

Yeah exactly! So what was it like last year making an album in lockdown? I hear about two narratives for creative people in that time, I’m sure there are others. Some didn’t produce anything at all, others went into overdrive and created a lot with the kind of parameters being forced on what we could and couldn’t do. You managed to produce an album. Does that mean your creative superpowers were soaring? Or was it hard discipline?

Parameters is the word in there for me. With both the kids in primary school, there was lots to do in the supervising home school department. And just keeping house as a single parent. And I was Zoom teaching. So I was really busy. I was teaching in three different institutions. Oh my god, the logins, the portals. It was just a very busy time of interfacing. The kids would go to bed and that’s pretty much when I had my time. It had to be quiet because I’ve got neighbours on this wall. Inner city Melbourne. So that set the parameters for the album in a couple of ways. The album is 10 three-to-four-minute piano compositions. And they’re all in the quiet palette because the situation required it. But also that’s what I needed at the end of those busy days. I made the music that I felt like listening to. Which was calming, elevating. It’s not meditation music. But it’s music that gets me where I want to be. It’s what I wanted to feel. And it was contained. I didn’t have the energy for big works.

This story originally ran in issue #67 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #67 of Dumbo Feather

I love what you’re saying – that it was the music you needed for yourself, first. You sat down at the piano and listened to what you needed and let the music emerge.

Yeah. Absolutely. I’ve got systems around how I compose and the parameters I need. Some pieces start with a very specific emotional intention or inspiration. For example, “She Reads Me” came out of me playing some Scriabin, the Russian composer. There’s nothing specific you could hear in my piece that is his, but the chromatic palette is informed by his soundscapes, and the emotions his work evokes in me are in there. It’s a lot easier if I have a strong idea as the focus for the piece. Otherwise I’m at sea, what am I doing? That idea might be entirely musical, like a melodic motif that I stick with and keep returning to. The beauty is in the discipline of staying on topic. Without that discipline there are so many notes – on what basis do you chose? One gets option paralysis.

Interesting!

Other ideas might be programmatic – a specific life situation or dramatic scene. “Serafina Lucid Dreamer” is the imaginative playful feeling of my kid at the beach. “Filament” was the beauty and majesty of a spider weaving her web. “Wish It Full” is the yearning sadness of two people entwined in a dysfunctional dance. “RIP” is what it sounds like: a benediction, a farewell upon death. To me it’s not sad – solemn maybe. I love the video clip Jemma Donovan made for this piece – it’s simply a dead leaf lying in a creek, the water rushing over the leaf. It looks beautiful, and it captures my intention. Rest in peace. No tragedy, just the cycle of life.

I love that there’s imagery. There’s feeling, there’s imagery and then you give us the music. I find that really exquisite. I mean all of this is new to me, how you compose! I’m so excited by it! I don’t know if this is how everyone composes, and I’m intrigued as to whether this is your particular way?

I don’t always work this way. Sometimes I’ll smash sounds together and just see what happens. “Superfluity” is an example of that on the album. It’s the most complex one, compositionally. But it was the hardest one for me to write because I didn’t have an emotional intention. I was just messing around with sounds and finding the sounds I liked. But because I didn’t have any guiding intention I was flapping in the breeze between musical ideas – A, B, C or D?

It’s easier for me to have a beacon drawing me through the process. Great music comes all the ways and everyone works differently. I think for this album, from the intensity of lockdown, bringing children up into this troubled world, I did need redemption in these sounds. I wasn’t just looking to smash sounds together like I was in my twenties. I was looking for truth and beauty and transformation and all the things that bring me hope.

Mm. Well that’s certainly what I felt listening to the music, which is awesome, how it transpires. I was really interested to read that you wrote sheet music for this album. And it was the first time you’ve written sheet music. You would improvise, but this process meant that you could capture and share the music with other players in their homes.

Yeah. It was a time that a lot of people were playing their instruments that perhaps hadn’t played them for years. Everyone was stuck at home. It was like “Okay, I’ll pick up the saxophone,” or, “I’ll sit down and play the piano that’s been gathering dust.” I was playing more off sheet music too because of the situation. It’s something that gives me a lot of joy. It’s like sitting and reading a book, you’re entering this world through language. It’s calming. It’s a journey. Especially at a time where no one’s getting on planes or trains, going anywhere. Reading sheet music is a way to travel. So as I was working on the album, I thought it’d be a good idea to share this music with others at home and their pianos. To connect with them in that very particular way. I think also it’s just good for my brain having things to do. It keeps me off the streets.

[Laughs]. And what does it look like, that process of getting it all down?

I like to do it by hand first. Then I put it into the program that spits out the PDF and looks professional and pretty. But I just love a piece of paper and pen and scribbling. I will have the initial idea, there’ll be a main page. Then there’ll be tributaries which are different pages exploring possible directions. I’ll go to a few different places first – the brainstorming phase. Then I take all of that and make some decisions, . consolidate it into one written version. What was interesting was I took the originals to the piano store to do my album recording, which I did in one sitting. I left the recording session at 10pm, got in my car, drove home and never saw the book again.

Oh no!

It had all my masters in it. I don’t know what happened. Guess it ended up under a semitrailer on Dudley Street. So to make the sheet music I had to go back and listen to what I had just recorded and transcribe myself. Which was a bit labour-intensive and I don’t think I got all of it right.

Wowser. You know, listening to you talk about writing music and composing, I am really quite awe-struck. I am the classic music hobbyist, I need it in my life, but I haven’t dedicated my life to it. So it’s hard for me not to put you on a pedestal, as this artist who is doing something like sorcery. And I’m saying this because I know you care a lot about everyone accessing music and creativity in their lives. Yet what you’re telling me feels so unreachable. And I kind of love that as well. I love that you are doing something so far beyond what I could do with my life that I just get to be in awe.

I think it absolutely is accessible to all of us but the product doesn’t look the same for all of us. The principles that I lean on to help me thrive in my creativity are often the same principles I’d lean on to help me thrive as a friend, or as a mother. They’re cross-discipline ideas. If you’re writing a story you need to know what it’s about. That idea of parameters that we talked about applies. Even to the way we go about trying to thrive in lockdown and not turn into blobby gel masses. Having a process that we commit to, not judging the outcome, having some kind of discipline. I’m drawing on these things whether I’m composing something or just getting through my day in a productive way. I’m trying to calibrate the Monique machine so that it’s available for good stuff to channel through it. For some people that means they’re going to make fantastic pancakes. For others it’s a great piece of writing. Or being a great teacher. And then there’s some mystery to it. There’s always mystery isn’t there.

 

Yeah. I mean that’s a beautiful proposition, that the creative process is present in so many more parts of our lives than we would imagine.

There’s a fantastic book that I’ve leant on for years. It’s called, Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger. Nadia Boulanger was the composition teacher of the 20th Century. She taught Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Philip Glass and a lot of the great Hollywood composers. They came from far and wide because she was the yoda of the western composing tradition. This book has so many insights into the creative process and a life in pursuit of the flight that we have in music. She talks about awareness, and it’s being in the moment, of course. And she says, “I remember a cherry I had. It was about 30 years ago. I will never forget that cherry. It was so sweet and succulent and it just washed over me.” Then she talks about the attention to detail of the gardener across the street from her apartment in Paris – the artistry in this woman’s daily oeuvre, caring for the plants and having that connection with the soil. Her idea is that when you are connected with that creative energy that is in everything, it doesn’t matter what the discipline. It’s about being fully present to the moment.

And also as a listener, especially seeing a live show when you’re forced to be fully present to the art, it brings you into a deeper place of connection. I mean, that’s the reason why we’re doing this whole issue I would say, music as an antidote to our hyper-stimulated, busy lives – to our short attention spans and fast-paced, reactive ways of communicating. I wonder if it’s a certain kind of music that has this effect? Or is it all music?

My grandmother used to say, “What is life without music?” But she also would get cross at me when I would practice my, like, avant-garde works. She’d say, “Monique, music should be a sweet sound.” It is a matter of taste – the music that is going to help us find that flow of being in the moment and feeling a release from the tyranny of time. We don’t want to be aware of time. We want to forget time, to feel timeless. That’s when we are buzzing with the insects and thrumming and alive. We all want to feel, like Joseph Campbell said, the rapture of being alive. But for my grandma that was not Miriam Hyde, which is what I was vibing at the time. This big booming crashing piece. No, no. Much disapproval. But I loved it. It made me feel alive. It’s a personal thing.

Yes! I was just calling back to our choir days actually. I remember when we’d have our choir sessions together how elated I felt after them. This really light feeling, and buzzing. I think it’s an effect of being in the moment, that rapturous feeling of aliveness as you say. Is that something you get every time you’re making music?

Yeah, as long as I’m all in and not just pushing down notes. I mean, singing is another level again. It’s so physical. It’s got the breath, you’re getting a workout in a way as well. And you’re circulating oxygen, constantly taking in great gulps of air and refreshing the oxygen in the body. Also you are melding sound vibration with the others you’re singing with. So that’s like next level flight and connection. And you’re all vibrating together, which I think is tremendously exciting for us because we are humans that thrive in togetherness. So that’s a special experience in and of itself. Daniel Levitin has done fascinating research on how singing has been a vital ingredient in survival and evolution. Then there’s just that good feeling of playing music with others. There’s nothing else quite like it. It’s fun to sit around a table with friends and drink wine and have a meal. But playing music together is another kind of communion that to me is just magical. During lockdown I said to myself that I was relieved to not have to go out and gig all the time, it was nice to stay home. But as soon as it lifted, boy was I out there on every stage like a seagull to a hot chip. It actually is a high. Fun to do.

So I’m keen to know a bit more about your family and your story to becoming a musician. You mentioned your grandmother was musical or loved music?

Yeah she loved music. She always had a piano. She grew up in Wagga and her parents ran the pub there. There was a piano in the pub and a piano at their house. And she taught herself. She would play the songs of the day. Both my parents played piano but neither had the opportunity to study it and put it front and centre. In high school, I played drums, bass, the harp, the saxophone, bands, orchestra, choirs. I took it for granted that it was a big part of my life. I studied law after high school but after two years I realised, Oh hold on, there’s not a lot of music going on and this feels really dry and arid as a life. The plan was to be a human rights lawyer. I said, “Oh well I’ll just put the law on hold. I’ll go off and do some music for a while so I can juice myself up. Then I’ll go back to the law and feel happier.” Never did get back to that law degree. I started out more in the classical world, then I moved into jazz, roots, blues. Then when I was 26 I got a Fulbright scholarship to move to New York and study. So I lived in New York on and off over a 10-year period.

I want to know about those years! The New York years.

First thing I did was get a job at the Village Vanguard waiting tables because it was expensive to pay the door fee there and sit. No student could afford to go and hear all the players that I was there to hear. So that was my cunning plan. I worked there for a year and got to hear most of my heroes as they moved through. Tommy Flanagan, Clark Terry, Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, Maria Schneider. It was a beautiful education in what I loved and in what I didn’t love. I  moved there with this far-flung culture cringey belief that anything American was good because it was famous and I’d heard about it. So that got deconstructed. When you’re waiting tables you really get in touch with how the music feels in your body all night for six nights a week. That was really powerful.

So the bubble was popped?

Yeah absolutely. It was like, “Oh, I really hate that shit. I’m not going to listen to that again!” Or, “Yes.” One big yes was Tommy Flanagan who played in Ella Fitzgerald’s band, a masterful bebop piano player and beautiful melodicist. Working the room when he was playing was like tiptoeing through a field of tulips. Everyone was happy and upbeat. Then there was this more modern serious young insect who played the week after Tommy and exuded a colder, starker feeling. More complexity, more darkness. Less tips. New York was an education in life. It’s fantastic if you can do that in your twenties – go away and find yourself somewhere else without your history and your family and all the people who’ve known you being close. A chance to just be that adventurer with a swag on your back heading out into the world.

Incredible. So in terms of refining your personal musical style, you mentioned you started off learning classical. Then started to explore jazz and roots. Did you land somewhere specific? Or are you constantly evolving as an artist and the genres you dabble in?

It’s definitely an ever-moving feast. I’m very greedy with my musical tastes. I want everything. So I’ve got a few irons in the fire. TIDES represents my contemporary classical alter ego. Then I’ve got a band called Monique and The Dopamine, which is my inner New Orleans jazz gangster. We do Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Lil’ Hardin, Bessie Smith. I write songs in various genres and there are a couple of singer-songwriter albums – more pop/roots – in the works. I also really enjoy just being part of someone else’s band.

Oh yeah?

That’s just lovely fun. Pure musical engagement without the stress of ownership – no phone calls! I play in Alma Zygier’s band, and with Harry James Angus a bit. I love that space as a musician. To participate in someone else’s vision. I think it changes your playing too when you’re not the leader. Wynton Kelly, the guy I did my master’s thesis on, is a great example of that. He was a fabulous jazz pianist in a similar stylistic pot to Tommy Flanagan. He played with Miles Davis and Hank Mobley and all the greats of the time. He was everybody’s favourite pianist. But when you look at his recorded oeuvre, he played on about 200 albums and about ten of those he was the leader. For the rest he was a foot soldier in someone else’s band. And his work is much more exciting to me when he’s a side man.

Does it involve shifting how you play when you’re on someone else’s band?

I think it gets down to how you shine as a personality. Some of us are natural-born leaders. Your Thelonious Monks and your Miles Davises. They’re born with a distinctive leadership hat on. I don’t think that was Wynton Kelly’s strong suit. He really shone as a team player. He helped make other people sound great. I’m very aware of that as a teacher. I teach in the jazz departments at the Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne and at Monash University. It’s important for upcoming musicians to understand that there are so many ways to be a musician. You don’t have to be the person on the poster to have a fantastic life in music. That can be a great revelation and relief to students who might be labouring under the idea that they need to be the “best” on their instrument to find their place or carve a career. Fame isn’t always required, not everyone is a leader, not everyone thrives that way.

It’s so interesting that you’ve deconstructed that for me because I hadn’t even thought that they weren’t one and the same. You’re a musician, you’re up front and centre. I assumed that a big part in the journey to becoming a musician was being in the spotlight.

Yes, some of us are completely fulfilled and happy as second violin and that’s a wonderful thing. We need second violins.

So what about the experience of performing – do you get joy out of it? Is that a place where you thrive? Or do you prefer to be in your studio making music on your own?

That’s one that I’m still trying to understand. I love performing. I feel like I should explore being more comfortable not performing. Because I don’t seem to be terribly motivated to practice if I’m not performing soon. I think that that’s probably a character defect.

[Laughs]. So I make sure I’ve got gigs in the book and that motivates me to keep on the instrument and practice every day. Because I want to keep my skills at a certain level. I know myself well enough to know that that’s how I do that. Through lockdown I kept on the instrument by having the goal of doing this album. I do need to have those external goals of communicating it to someone. But it’s an interesting forum for questioning your motivation. Is it because you’re wanting some adulation or you need the feedback? Is it an ego driven thing? For me first and foremost it is a connection thing. Hearing you say that you listened to TIDES a lot, that goes really deep for me. It makes me feel that it’s worthwhile when I know the music has arrived somewhere. That you want to listen to it more than once means a lot to me. I think I would be just as happy if I could only record into a microphone and get it out there as long as I knew it was landing. I don’t know if I am Zen enough to keep on making the music if it’s never going to other ears, if it didn’t mean something to others too.

Well I had this question written down, where does the drive to keep making music come from? You’re saying it’s the ability to meet someone with your creation.

Firstly, I play a lot at home, to myself, for myself, and that’s something I need to do to feel good, to feel juicy and alive. There’s a zing of presence and connectivity I get in that space that is intrinsically motivating. The motivation to make music with others and publicly is more complex. Performing has always been fun and a natural extension for me.  Maybe there’s a survival instinct to share and collaborate, because we are social beings. Then there’s the financial aspect – as a professional musician you have to make at least some projects pay for themselves. Promotion and social media engagement drains my powers though – I’m not very good at that bit. At this point, I’m at peace with that. As long as I’m reaching a few, I don’t need to reach many. I get a lot of satisfaction playing at the jazz club two blocks down the street. The guy I buy my milk from comes along to the jazz gig and it’s got a village feeling to it.  Local and live.

Which bar is this?

The Uptown Jazz Cafe on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. Playing music at my local helps me make sense of the whole project. Some of us make bread, others make music. If I can share that same zing I had in the practice room, either at a gig, or hearing it listening back to recorded tracks, I know I’m on the right track.

It’s such a healthy relationship to be able to do that, to listen back. A lot of the things I put out there, in terms of writing, I find really hard to re-read.

Well it wasn’t like that in the beginning. I recorded three albums and didn’t put any of them out at the start. It was excruciating to hear things I had made. So I’m happy with that as a trajectory. That now I’m at the point where I listen to TIDES and I’m happy with it. I enjoy listening to it. That’s a huge leap from then to now, but that leap happened incrementally. I’m improving daily as I go. And I expect that I will enjoy my next album more than “Tides”. That’s the plan.

Mmm. I was thinking before, in terms of the drive, I wonder if it’s the same as the drive that made you pursue the piano as a child?

It’s a good question. I was a real bookworm as a kid and I understand my musical leanings in my childhood in that way. That it was to do with having a degree of introversion. I certainly need to take time out and read and create and think. I need to do those things on my own with some space around me to feel myself. Playing music served that aspect of my personality. It was instinctive.

Just finally I wanted to ask about the role of the arts for us going forward, how we create systems that appreciate the vital role arts play. What do we need to reimagine for our culture so that artists are valued for their enormous contribution?

I don’t know if I’ve yet found an example of a society that values the arts as I would like to see them valued, as I think they actually are valued in our hearts and lives. I’m picking up a piece of paper and a pen right now and writing that question down. Because it’s important for me to get that straight in my head. I haven’t done the work of imagining what I want there. I’ve just had a lifetime of whining about how the sports sector gets all the funding. I think the answer might be in restructuring everything. A new economy that solves the problem of our children potentially not having a habitable environment. That solves the problem of the gap between rich and poor and the problem of displaced persons globally, and of course the conflicts that are happening on our globe. Can we fix all of that at once and have that new economy systemically support the arts in our lives? It would mean slowing the pace, less flogging of the workhorse. And more time for being in everyone’s lives. There’s too much work and not enough play. And because there’s too much work, the play that people fall into is often not enlivening – not the kind of play that makes them feel like heroes and heroines of their tales. It just makes them feel like blobs on the couch. I’d like to see more communal singing as a routine, music being a part of people’s lives in a much more dynamic way like it is in Africa, like it is in a lot of Indigenous societies where it’s integrated into daily life. Not just something that happens occasionally in leisure moments.

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan is the editor of Dumbo Feather magazine, and a great lover of language, poetry and storytelling.

Photography by Gregory Lorenzutti

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