“I quite like decorating and colouring things in quite a sparkly fashion, and I think that’s what gives some of my work that zinginess, and life and energy; because it’s got that bright colouration.” -Cameron Biles-Liddell
Cameron Biles-Liddell is an award-winning composer and pianist based in north Wales. Cameron’s music takes influence from a variety of sources including the environment, artwork, and the relationship between temporality and music. Cameron is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and his work has been performed by ensembles including the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and Psappha, among others; he is alumnus of schemes and initiatives such as Cheltenham Composer Academy, RSNO Composers’ Hub, and Dartington Advanced Composition Course. Cameron spoke to PRXLUDES about his approach to staticity and momentum in his compositions, temporality in music, his collaborative approach to working with performers, his influence from environmental factors, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Cameron! Thanks for chatting with me today — how are you? What have you been working on recently?
Cameron Biles-Liddell: Hi Zyggy, it’s great to chat with you after finally meeting at the Cheltenham Composers’ Academy this year. So life is good at the moment. I’m in between starting my final year of PhD-land, at the University of Manchester. I’m currently having a break before that goes on full-pelt, because I’ve got a few projects lined up for September-December, that first semester.
That sounds intriguing — what projects are coming up for you?
I’m writing a flute concerto! It’s a 20-minute project for chamber orchestra and solo flute, to be premiered in March with a joint RNCM-University of Manchester flautist, Charlotte Ballard. So that’ll be fun. As well as that, I’ve got an orchestral commission, which I can’t really talk about much at the moment; but it’s for a chamber orchestra in Wales, [who] are hoping to premiere it in December, as well.
Tell me a bit about this flute concerto; how have you conceived it, and how closely are you working with the soloist?
So it’s a university opportunity — but I did propose it to my department. Normally, with such things [at Manchester], you do an orchestral piece at the end of your PhD, and that’s that. But I wanted to explore something a bit different, actually involve someone else in the picture, and make it properly collaborative, rather than “I’m in a room, writing a orchestral piece, screaming at Sibelius (or whatever software you use), and then it’s done” — and then you get grilled by the conductor afterwards. For this one, I wanted to try and involve an “in-between” person [to] bounce ideas off of, and try things out, rather than just hope for the best with an orchestra.
How collaborative would you say your relationship with performers is?
Very! Through [schemes] like Psappha — the ‘Composing For…’ scheme — that was a luxury in terms of how far you can take a collaboration. But personally, I adopt the mentality of “it doesn’t start with the professionals”, or whatever workshops you have — because [when] you have a “one workshop and one recording” kind of thing, it’s quite difficult to sort things out if things go wrong. So for me, collaboration actually begins with discussing parts with your mates, and actually having [input from] performers you know. Say, you’ve got a cello part you’re needing to look at, and you’re not sure about… That’s another form of collaboration, because you’re actively sharing ideas, and solving problems before they hit the floor, as it were.
I’m the type of person [where], in the moment, I won’t be able to think of a quick solution that I want. -laughs- I’m much happier, I’m much more comfortable, if I go into a workshop or commission setting knowing exactly what could pose questions, and have potential solutions for that [ready] if I’ve not done it already. I wouldn’t say [I’m] a control freak, but I’m a person that prepares a lot. I take things seriously!
Of course! That’s something, as composers, we all have to learn. It’s all fine and great if it’s your pal, but not everyone has that privilege of time in the professional world.
It’s a different ball game. I think really, as composers, we undervalue and underestimate the resources of having our mates as performers. We sometimes get very caught up in our own world, sitting at our desk, and looking at whoever’s scores. It came up at Cheltenham Festival, as well as [with] Psappha: when you write something for a long period of time — even if it’s just a month — you kind of embody the work so much, [that] anything that is difficult, you will see as simple. Because you’ve either heard it a bajillion times in your head, or on playback, or you’ve looked at it so many times and you’re like “it’s just dah-der-dah, what’s your problem?” -laughs- When actually, in the moment, for someone that’s learning it and having [their own] opinion on it… It gives you that new perspective. To know that I could have solved this if I went to my mate and [asked] “can you glance through this part?” solves a lot of time and stress in the workshop or rehearsal setting.
In a way, it’s the kind of ‘pre-collaboration’ before the ‘professional’ collaboration, where you’re cutting down the number of questions that they can ask. You can get to the core benefit of working with a seasoned professional musician such as Fenella Humphreys, or Psappha. You cut out all the simple, obvious mistakes, and you actually learn something from [the] workshops. We’ve all experienced them — whether as a developing composer in an pre-arranged workshop or professionally — where you go into a workshop and you go “I could have prepared better for that, I could’ve gained a lot more if I just tightened up the notation, or had a proper proofread…” – I think every composer has had that kind of workshop. You just wanna curl up and cry.
I can absolutely relate. -laughs-
It’s one of those things of almost putting yourself in the perspectives of the performers. They’re gonna be good, but they’re only gonna have an hour and a half at best to learn it, and polish.
To talk about my piece [for] Cheltenham Festival — that’s why I wrote fast music, but also kept the rhythms reasonably simple. The way it relates to what I’m broadly doing as an artist, now: finding ways other than using rhythm to create aspects of energy, and movement.
Let’s talk a bit about ‘Clockwork Mechanisms’ — what was the concept behind the piece and how did its melodic and harmonic contours evolve?
For that piece, I used all the other parameters to decorate this very simple musical idea of a 6/8 “gigue” structure. It was fun to do that, because you have a musical foundation, and then you go: right, I’ve got this, how can I make it not boring? -laughs-
It does feel like you’ve got a lot of rhythmic variation in the piece, despite the rhythm remaining somewhat static.
Yeah. Rhythmically, it remained consistent — it remained in compound time all the way through — however, I explored how you can subdivide 6/8; for example, 6/8 can be subdivided into 2/4 or 3/4. That’s what gives it that push and pull; if you treat 6/8 as if it’s in 2, it feels automatically a lot slower than the 3/4, 3-crotchet underlying pulse. I’m not original – John Adams and all the minimalists have done this, [as] did Brahms and Sibelius — but I had these two really simple layers, and that’s what created that wobbly feeling, [and] that push and pull. That was my main solution for keeping it interesting.
In the process — in June — I was hammering it, and I was like “why is this not working, why am I getting bored two minutes through?” -laughs- And it was because it didn’t have that polyrhythm; that rhythmic structure to give it an extra layer of interest. Similarly, the harmony [consisted of] four chords, and explored how the sonorities and the resonance worked throughout the piece, through different voicings and densities of the chords.
What were you trying to achieve using this compositional process?
Basically, a way of creating perceived motion where there isn’t any. There’s one bit where it is, just, [the] D above middle C for a minute… But because I keep introducing and taking away the E — it’s just a Dm9 chord I used — it creates this interest, this anticipation of an arrival, to another place. Because it’s always placed in an unpredictable way, you maintain the listener’s anticipation and sense of change where there is none.
It’s the same thing in ‘The Rippling Tide’, as well. I wanted to explore the idea of something evolving over time — so the obvious one is, there is a flute melody and accompaniment — but that’s only half the story. Whilst this line evolves, the chordal structures and harmony used is largely the same; it’s only through the use of different registers, and parameters such as bisbigliandi and timbral combinations, that it creates a sense of evolution and ebb and flow in the piece. I don’t want to say [it’s] minimalist, or new tonalism, but [it’s] approaching it from: let’s sit on a chord, but I’m gonna create a way of articulating a sense of progression, or movement.
Do you see these pieces as static, or things that are moving?
I’m not really clinical about [it]. Say, for example, I’m writing a piece and I go “the line is going to be the static element, and this is going to be the movement element”… it helps, sometimes, if I’m really stuck on creating a piece; however, for me, it’s more about allowing the music to breathe, and go in the direction where it wants to go. Particularly in the way I write — some people call it “sparkly”, and focused on enjoying timbral resonance, and sonority — the only way I’ve found to really enjoy that is to have this hyperfocused [process]. If you’re sitting on one thing, or you’re controlling very [few] parameters, the listener’s focus then moves on to something else. And that’s what creates the interest. So it’s working around the idea of: rhythmically, it’s not going to be necessarily complicated — in workshop settings, that’s the way it’s gotta be — so how do I create a sense of interest?
I always put myself in the listener’s position. I don’t want them to be bored. So then I think of all these solutions [and] ways of decorating a sound, or colouring a sound. To go back to your question: I don’t really see [them] as such finite things. I mean, Birtwistle did — he always said that listeners perceive the ostinato as the motion thing, that’s driving [the music] forward. But actually,it’s an illusion, because they’re the ones that are static. Ostinatos are based on cycles. So really, I took that idea and went “how do I incorporate it into my own language?”
The weird thing is, you wouldn’t necessarily Birtwistle as a heavy influence on me, stylistically — you [wouldn’t] really think Birtwistle and I would sit in a room, because of our musical language — but for me, he’s a huge influence. His use of lines, and the way he perceives how time is articulated through his music… It’s something that, as a Master’s student, really had a profound impact on me. It made me start thinking of the structural implications. I’ve grown out of that, and found my own musical-aesthetical interests, but fundamentally, that’s still at the core of what I’m interested in.
I guess it’s like, when you keep one thing static, you give the other parameters more freedom to move. How else have you explored these kinds of temporal fluctuations?
So [my] piece ‘Clockwork Dances’… was written in my second year of my PhD, where previously I’d written a lot of predominantly slow-ish pieces, and I kinda wanted to challenge myself, and write a piece that is fast, and never stops being fast. There’s this really big trademark fast-slow-fast, or slow-fast-slow [structure] in new music. I mean, it works, and I’ve got nothing against it, but I wanted to go “no, let’s try and create a sense of excitement and energy throughout a piece, without letting it dip that much.” Obviously, there are moments of repose — if you go guns blazing all the way through, the listener doesn’t get a chance to draw a different perspective, or comparison — because you can’t really tell [if] something is fast unless you have something against it that’s moving slower. That was my way into creating fast music.
How did you play with the idea of “fast music” in ‘Clockwork Dances’?
So ‘Clockwork Dances’, interestingly, gets faster… but you don’t feel it. I went in going “right, I wanna get faster”, either rhythmically or through BPM — it did both — but as the piece progresses, you lose the sense of momentum as it goes. I’m still satisfying my itch of writing “fast music”, but the listener gets the sense of something gradually fading away. I guess this is more how I articulate creating something with energy [and] motion, or something as static; it’s looking at it in a broadstroke way, rather than aligning parameters all the way through a piece. I’m quite an impulsive writer, so I don’t like being chained down to such decisions. I’ve done that in the past, and I’ve just junked it immediately. -laughs-
So, ’Clockwork Dances’ starts off quite slow-ish, BPM-wise. But because of the rhythmic propulsion and the surging energy of it — I use changing dynamics and harmony a lot — it creates a sense of movement while the BPM is fairly moderate. And then it speeds up again into a middle section where I move into compound time — that’s where the “dance” form comes into it. At the end, I create this harmonic oscillation, which was a breakthrough for me… -laughs- I set up this idea of something dissolving into a more spectral harmonic field, where the strings are oscillating on a simple chord, voiced through natural and artificial harmonics; [the] piano gradually joins them through piano harmonics at the end. It maintains energy, but it fizzles out — the idea dissolves into nothingness.
The way you describe it kind of reminds me of a sheppard tone.
That’s a great example of it. You perceive the movement of the sheppard tone, because it’s going up, but actually it’s not; it’s just an oscillation.
You’ve given me some examples of this approach in a chamber setting — how would you say your approach differs, or doesn’t, when a larger ensemble is involved?
It’s one of those things. You can really successfully do [it] with a large ensemble, but particularly with my orchestral pieces, where I’ve explored static and momentum in orchestral settings with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Very lucky to have worked with such high calibre professional orchestras over the year or two!
Particularly in [my piece] ‘Aftershocks’, for the RSNO — that one was a big challenge. I told myself “I wanna write a piece that is nuts”, because I’d never really done that, and I [wanted] it to be unpredictable — hence its title. Whilst it still has that trademark colour that I [use], it was [realised] more through the instrumental combinations, rather than doing specific techniques to make the colour pop out. The piece was more tightly organised. I did say I am spontaneous, but I planned out ‘Aftershocks’ a lot more; probably because of the size of the ensemble, but also because when you’re writing at 120BPM and it’s a 10 minute piece, that’s a lot of bars to fill.
Of course — you’d need to have some sort of formal structure at that scale.
The problem with fast music — I’ve always got this in the back of my head — is that too often, it’s directionless. Even canonic pieces do this… I’ve sat in concerts, whether it’s new music or canonic, and you’re sat there going “where is this going?” — and you can hear whatever composer’s noodling, and filling space, and then [it’s like] “Oh! Then you land.” For me, I’m always trying to cut that out, and have this sense of purpose in every bar and colour. That’s why ‘Clockwork Mechanisms’ is so successful for me, personally — because every bar has a purpose. I don’t feel that there’s any bar that I’m noodling on, or filling in time.
Isn’t that the greatest freedom you can have, artistically? The freedom to trim the fat, and see that bigger picture in advance…
A little bit. I don’t really go into the nth degree of everything articulated and meticulously planned. But when I pre-plan stuff, I do sketch out structures and possibilities; I like to explore different ways of exploring a structure, rather than just settling on one. I’m lucky that I’m a fast composer when I get going — I can allow myself the time to rewrite ahead of the deadline, I can chuck stuff out and fill in the gap quite happily. Some people can just pop out a piece and it’s right first time, and I just can’t do that. -laughs-
Tell me a bit about your relationship with harmony — does your compositional process tend to begin with harmony, or a melodic line?
It’s a little bit of both. I land on a gesture I quite like — normally on the piano. I’m a pianist, [and] I can happily improvise, it’s just what I do. Normally, the gesture informs some of the harmony — but in particular now, I’m moving away from the piano and looking more closely at colouring harmony with timbre. That’s more just at a desk, unfortunately; in my head, once I know what harmony I’m gonna use, I’m like “right, how can I colour it, give it a different shade?”
Figuring out how to fluff something up, essentially.
Yeah. I guess you could call it new music paranoia that we all get, where it’s like “oh god, I can’t put a C major chord in, I’ve gotta do something weird with it!” — but I think what I’m doing is a bit more earnest than that. I quite like decorating and colouring things in quite a sparkly fashion, and I think that’s what gives some of my work that zinginess, and life and energy; because it’s got that bright colouration. That’s the way I work. I see harmony and timbre as a bit intertwined, or rather: the voicing of my harmony is informed through timbre.
So you’re currently in the finishing stages of a PhD — tell me about how your research relates to your compositions…
Some composers take their research topic very seriously, and it’s at the heart of everything they do as a composer, and they live and breathe that topic. I’m not like that; I’m the opposite. -laughs- For me, the music I write informs the topic, not vice versa. Largely because it’s so integral to a lot of music we consume and write — and it’s the reason I quite like this research topic — I can really allow myself to find new connections in different, inter-subject [ways].
A few of my pieces use natural imagery, and use environmentalism, to create imagery. ‘Frozen Plains’ is a great example of that. It was the first piece I wrote for my PhD, for the BBC Composition: Wales competition. I decided “I’m gonna write a piece that’s largely static, what would be a great image to help the listener get what I’m going for?”, so I decided “why not glaciers?”. ‘Frozen Plains’ was the [first] piece where I was properly “this is going to be static” — [and] I made a real point of controlling everything, with minimal changes, to create the maximum impact. That was the first time I thought of colour as a way of creating movement. I learned a lot from that. So I feel like for me, the music comes first, [and] the research comes after.
Is there any reason your research and practice take that kind of form?
You’re just gonna get better the more you write. I’m quite a hands-on composer; [but] composition’s a craft, at the end of the day. You learn through doing, rather than looking through articles and texts. I’m not admitting that I don’t look at scores — I do, and I do a lot — but personally, I’ve got to work on the piece alongside it, rather than treat it as the pre-stage. Some composers spend a month absorbing scores and then produce the piece — which is really cool! I wish I had that self-restraint, but I don’t. -laughs-
It’s interesting how you see ‘Frozen Plains’ at the first step of that “colour-as-movement” approach, particularly as it’s so heavily inspired by nature. Would you call your music environmental?
Considering, there’s a huge wealth of composers doing environmental music now. A clear example is Electra Perivolaris — she articulates the structures of [a] river in Scotland in a few of her pieces. Similarly, a good friend of mine, Lisa Robertson, is also really environmentally clued in. And also, you’ve got Laura Bowler, who’s doing a better job of promoting climate awareness than I am, really showing the impact of what we’re doing to our planet through music.
Where does your influence from the natural world sit for you?
I grew up in the countryside, in north Wales. It’s quite mountainy — lots of trees, and lots of greenery. It’s something I discovered in lockdown, when I’ve been like “I’m surrounded by nature, but I have never used it. Maybe I should use it.” -laughs-
The life cycles of nature [are] a lot longer than a human lifespan; if you think of a tree, for example, a tree can outlive many humans. That’s a point of fascination, if you think about different temporalities and different life cycles. They’ve seen a lot more than we will ever see in our lifetimes. I haven’t done it yet, but it would be interesting to see it mapped onto a composition, and how that could inform the rate of development, or something. But moving onto that… It ranges from nice imagery to draw inspiration from, to something the audience can relate to. We’ve all been out on a walk, and by a river — hopefully. Even in cities, you’ve got canals. We interact with nature in a microscopic or larger form, depending on where we are. It’s quite interesting for me to have this big juxtaposition of being someone who’s born in the country, but studying in [the] massive city of Manchester, where it’s just [a] concrete jungle — full of red bricks. So for me, it ranges from something that’s just a nice inspiration, to being [an] integral part of the piece at the moment.
How has this juxtaposition played out in your work — particularly in something such as ‘Aftershocks’?
I did look at the idea of an aftershock as something that’s weaker, in seismology — so it’s weaker than an earthquake — but is more deadly and more impactful, because it’s the aftermath of the main tremor. So the way I approached ‘Aftershocks’ as a piece was to have these rises and falls that are kind of like ripple effects. But they’re unpredictable ripples: like, one ripple’s quite small, but then the [next] one is ginormous, like an orchestral tutti. From these elements, I think it’s [becoming] more integral to what I’m doing, and how I’m deciding parameters.
For the next few projects I’ve got… The orchestral commission is based around nature — particularly north Wales nature — and for that, I’m doing something based on a historical aqueduct, which is local. I live in Llangollen, and it was one of the main trading routes back in the day from the north [of] Wales to Birmingham, and the Midlands. That’s how they did it back then. For me, the more I’ve been thinking about it — they’re a great example of how humans worked with nature, rather than against it, which we’re doing nowadays. Sure, [we’ve been] harnessing nature through water, and building these things that levitate off the ground, but you’re not really doing any damage, and you’re not long-term killing a planet doing it.
Yeah. You’re just harnessing natural forces, without impeding on natural forces the way we do now.
Yeah, through cars or whatever. You could support a habitat through a canal — fish can live there — you’re not killing coral reefs just so you can harness oil.
It used to very much be a symbiosis.
Yes! Exactly. I’m quite glad I’ve got it. It’s become quite a personal project for me, because it’s simultaneously me approaching my Welsh heritage, and tackling environmentalism. I haven’t really tackled my Welsh side very much. It’s was just one of those things you put in your bio… But going forward, it’s becoming a nice opportunity to explore my own background as a composer in north Wales — who’s family are from south Wales, interestingly! So I’m looking forward to exploring [my] heritage a lot more in my music.
Let’s talk about your Welsh heritage — do you feel like that’s something you explore more outwardly or more inwardly?
I think it’s more of an inward thing, for me. I mean, there’s great things in Wales with communities that support music — Tŷ Cerdd and the Welsh Music Guild, for example. Being in the north of Wales… I feel like up here, it’s kind of fertile ground to go “we’re gonna do something different.” And I feel like going forward, I hope to build a lot bigger connections with the north — both in the north-west of England and north-eastern Wales, where I am. It’s quite interesting for me, being someone who’s got the double-hit of being from the north-east of Wales, and studying in Manchester, in the north-west of England; both of which are quite removed from the cultural capitals of both places!
Do you feel like there’s going to be this outpouring of culture in the colloquial “norths” you’re involved in, and where do you see yourself as part of that?
For me, it’s always been there. -laughs- It’s just that now, people are starting to take bigger notice through digital technologies. In Manchester, we’ve got the Camerata, the Collective, the [BBC] Philharmonic, the Hallé, Psappha… suddenly people are going “ooh, Manchester’s pretty cool!” — but all of those ensembles (the Hallé, Camerata, Collective, Psappha) have always been there. Through the dawn of Twitter, and social media age, we’ve realised that there’s a lot more ensembles out there, outside of London and Cardiff. Not to discredit both capitals — they’re both lovely, and both have a lot of things going for them — however, as a northerner: we do cool things too!
What other projects do you have on the go at the moment?
I’ve had a premiere with the National Youth Percussion Orchestra! That one was a good one for me, because I was working with a youth group. They’re all great players, but to actually have the opportunity to work with a lot of young people… It was quite refreshing to work with them. They bring a lot of enthusiasm and enjoyment of learning something new — because [a lot of people] think of composers as “dead white men”… to have the opportunity to say “people still write music” is something I’ve begun to feel a lot more strongly for.
At university, I’m a Widening and Participation Fellow. So with that, I’m engaging with all sorts of communities and schools from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds in Manchester. It’s not the private and grammar schools we go to; it’s the schools [where] many of their cohort may not consider university. It’s been a real joy to do that, and it’s something that I’m hoping to do more of with different organisations, to make them realise: music is for them; it’s not just a dead-white-person thing; and it’s not just playing classical music. If you make beats and soundscapes on Logic Pro, that’s creative and amazing.
It’s all composition, whether it’s with notation, a DAW, or anything else.
Completely. As an undergraduate, I did electroacoustic music as a major, and then I switched to instrumental music. It’s really important for our generation to go into these places and give them that space to [be] creative. From my view, it’s a way of giving back; it’s even more important to promote diversity and inclusion, because of my background. It’s enriching to open doors.
Check out more of Cameron’s work at the links below: