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Composer Spotlight: Cameron McArthur

Interview conducted by Jake Adams, 24th April 2021

In conjunction with Jazz Appreciation Month, we sat down with composer Cameron McArthur to talk about his work, and the influences of Jazz in the music he writes.


Cameron is a composer and multi-instrumentalist from the North-East of England. He is a recent graduate of the University of York, where he completed both a BA in Music, an MA in Composition, under the tutelage of Roger Marsh, Nicola Lefanu, and Thomas Simaku. He began his PhD in composition at York in October 2020. His work focuses upon perception, implication, and expectation in music, and often involves interdisciplinary practice. Most recently he has been exploring the integration of ideas from contemporary jazz into the contemporary classical idiom, and means of facilitating interaction between conventional notation and computer-coded music. Beyond composition, Cameron is an active jazz performer of contemporary and jazz music, and co-runs a professional 11-piece Jazz/Funk/Soul/Groove ensemble, Paul McArthur’s Kings of Cool.


Could you tell us a bit about yourself, who you are and what you do?


I’m a composer based in the North-East of England, North Yorkshire. I do a lot of different things, I’m writing music; contemporary music, recorded music, Jazz music and I play all sorts of things. I kinda crop up in different places is how I put it. Sometimes you see me somewhere and I’m usually there.


What are your interests as a musician?


That’s a good question.


Yeah, it’s a tough question.


Most recently, I’ve been exploring momentum. Momentum as in that feeling of energy, or sense of movement, like directed motion in music that pretty much everybody has some understanding of, but often struggle to explain. So the music I write is exploring that, trying to find new ways to organise momentum and experience it. That doesn’t necessarily have to be functional harmony or some other typical thing and could be any way of getting there and working out how that works. That’s what I’m interested in at the moment, amongst a load of other things.


When you say momentum, it’s that kind of forward motion then within the music travelling to somewhere or...?


I've been trying to define this a lot recently because it’s not very well spoken about yet but it’s energy, and it has some kind of direction somewhere, some sense of heading to a place. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a story that you follow from start to finish, it could just be things slowly breaking apart or a sense of things coming together to a point where they all kind of crystalize. That awareness that something is going on and you can experience it, even if you can’t point at any part of the music and know why technically.


How would you describe yourself as a musician? Would you call yourself a composer, performer, both, or something else?


I think I do often introduce myself as a composer but largely because it’s easier for people to accept one thing than trying to say I do lots of things (I’m not trying to show off with this at all), I don’t see myself as an expert at any one of the things I do. I see myself as someone who puts on lots of different hats and does things in different places. It benefits me, it helps me when I’m doing something different. I’ve just been booked to play bass for a production of ‘Fame’ in May and I rarely even pick up my bass apart from doing gigs like this, but somehow that feeds back into the contemporary composition in a way that makes me feel more interested in it and more motivated to do it. Composing is the main strand I am a mixed thing.


What has your involvement with The Arc Project been and how have you found the experience?


I’ve been involved in a couple of ways actually. Usually as a composer, since the very first concert (from the very start) and also as somebody interested in seeing where it was going because it always sounded like a very cool thing. Weirdly, as another example of my randomly doing things, I built The Arc Project website to some extent so I’ve been involved with some of the inner workings. And I’m going to be a performer, I'm playing the piano for Beyond 88.


You also do all the naming for us, when we can’t think of a name for a project.


Yeah, I think maybe in another life I must have been a marketing executive or something. I would quite happily do that.


And how have you found the experience of The Arc Project?


It’s great. I really like it. It’s really open and it feels like somewhere I often come and try ideas that I might not feel are suitable for my PhD or things that I would like to explore but am not quite confident enough to go all out and apply for arts council funding. Arc has been a great place for me to say “yeah I can do this, let’s try it, let’s meet people who’ll “say sure let’s give it a go””. It’s a “we can make that work” attitude that’s really nice to be involved with.


Cameron McArthur - Variations on Silk (2019), performed by Rebecca Burden for The Art Project.

Could you name some musicians that have influenced your perspective on music of your style?


Yes, probably. One of the people who has had the most influence is John Taylor, the Jazz piano player, English Jazz player, who sadly recently died. He was someone who I didn’t really know much about until I was at university and then studying Jazz piano. He had this great way of finding ways through music that totally made sense to everyone. Everyone can hear it and it’s just about palatable enough for some unknowing person to still recognise it as a melodic thing but it had some unusual, impossible to pin down quality that you kind of wanted to hear again and again and work out what was going on. He was a brilliant risk taker; you could see him do things on stage or in recordings and you could hear people around him being shocked and trying to react and keep up but also loving it at the same time. Risk taking in a really great way. And that whole approach, that was something my piano teacher, but also from just listening to John Taylor, made me think I want to do that, playing and composing wise. I want to take risks like that in a fun way that sounds good and challenging at the same time.


And because your work draws from Jazz quite often, could you talk a bit about that and the relationship between the music that you write and the Jazz that you listen to?


Yes. It quite ties in with that whole John Taylor world, Kenny Wheeler, people like Nikki Iles around today. I reached a place where I was playing some Jazz one night and writing or going to a contemporary concert the next night and the stuff that I liked would often be impossible to tell apart from one another. The jazz stuff would be extending ideas into a contemporary space, and the contemporary stuff that was willing to sound nice I guess. We’ve all seen that kind of contemporary view of people who are like contemporary music must be really aggressive and horrible sounding all the time, which is not the case but often gets presented in a lot of outlets as a scary thing for people to not just enjoy. Like it’s not normal to just like a piece of contemporary music. I kept finding that I was playing the same stuff as I was writing, even though they were meant to be in two different worlds, so I started to try and see how I could melt that together a bit. How can I or can I draw on approaches from the Jazz/contemporary Jazz world and import them into my sound and my music and make it work? It doesn’t necessarily mean that the music that I write sounds like a Jazz piece but maybe some ideas are the same. This leads again into that momentum thing of finding ways to make stuff flow. I’ve found there’s a lot of potential there, that not a lot of people have explored although it's definitely growing all the time.


I will say talking about that overlap is weirdly challenging. One of the things that I’m working on a lot at the minute, as I continue to write music in that world, is to try and find good words and good ways to express what I’m doing, because it is hard sometimes to avoid very loaded language. A lot of the words that we use as lay people to describe Jazz music and contemporary music aren’t really appropriate when you try and combine them. If I say different ways of making momentum, I’m not implying functional harmony or serial or aleatoric stuff, but I don’t want to say I’m looking for non-aleatoric or non-serial. I’m not expressly avoiding them, I’m just trying to find a new kind of original angle on it and putting that into a short word or phrase is actually a real challenge.


The wording is a very challenging thing. What are your thoughts on the relationship between Jazz, given the kind of political climate at the moment, and Western Classical Music?


Jazz is definitely it’s own music and we’re in a place now where there are generations who’ve lived and died with it as part of their world. It shouldn't be unheard of or foreign to people now and that means that it’s got a lot more representation and a lot more respect as just another genre. I am not qualified to talk about non-musical issues but from my experience as a musician, I know stuff about jazz and can talk about that or I can work with that. One of the nice things about engaging with it but not trying to rewrite it is I’m not so bound to rules, traditions, issues or anything in particular, if I choose not to be. If I’m thoughtful about how I choose things because it’s a step removed from anything obviously audible. Engaging with concepts is quite a different thing to sort of lifting some nuanced rhythm from some culture and saying I understand this and I can put it in my music. That’s not what’s happening. Instead, I see these different musicians having these different responsibilities in association to their time so I could copy that concept. That’s often what allows me to work without having to worry too much about some of the stuff that you could very easily get ensnared in if you try to be too literal with your lifting.


Cameron McArthur - _a(r)ve (2020)


It is interesting that Jazz has roots in all sorts of music from all around the world but it isn’t any of those musics alone. Lots of people’s first thought of jazz is usually America in the 1950s. People think of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, swing and then lots of notes. That’s a big part of Jazz that still goes on and has informed all sorts, you can’t avoid it. But if you went and listened to a Kenny Wheeler album, it’s related. There’s a definite history there but nobody is associating the same things or there doesn’t have to be an overlap in personnel any stronger than there is with music from South-Africa or some classical piece that somebody has decided to rewrite as a Jazz piece or something else entirely experimental that’s turned into a piece of music. There’s a lot of space in the Contemporary-Jazz sphere to move beyond some of the more traditional elements like having swing rhythms and some stuff there and going it’s Jazz and not thinking any deeper than that.


You talked a bit about momentum but are there any other areas that you’re quite interested in exploring in the future?


About 18 months ago I wrote my first big orchestral piece/ I’ve done stuff for large-ish and small-ish ensemble and a lot of different sorts of groups of players but that was the first big sustained piece for a lot of people, which coincided nicely with people not being allowed to be anywhere near each other for a long period of time. I haven’t focused on that kind of world of sound as much recently but I’ve actually done a lot with computer code and things that don’t require any humans because it’s a lot easier to let them be themselves when there’s a pandemic on. I’m quite keen to get back to writing for some big ensembles. It's in my plans to keep getting bigger over the next period. Have you got anyone in mind that you would like to collaborate with in the future? Be that instrumentalists or any individuals in particular?


As far as specific people in the future, probably not, actually. I’ve done a good bit thanks to Arc (I’m doing one right now with Lizzie Knatt and Federico Pendenza) so I’ve got people I’m working with at the minute there. I find that when I’m doing something with people in mind, I don’t tend to think much about what I might do next with other people because it takes a lot of my brain to think about those people. I think I tend to just keep going forward and seeing where I’m at, who’s around and what I might be able to do next. When I’m in the middle of a project, I’m mostly thinking about that and not so much about who might follow.


Going forward with momentum you might say?


Yeah, I’m kind of just letting it go. This is the interesting thing. I’m talking about a directed


sense of energy that I experience but I don’t know where it’s going necessarily. Even though I know it’s going somewhere and I can tell it’s somewhere specific, I’m not always aware of it until I’m half-way there and then I have to go with it.


If you could perform anywhere in the world where would you go at the moment?


As it is at the minute, I’m quite happy to go anywhere! Anywhere that’s a bit different. Outside of music, one of my main other interests has always been French culture. I always liked it and was interested in French media, film and TV. I’d love to do some stuff in France but I’d also love to go and explore some more places and work in places where people speak French (I speak enough French to get by). I’d love to do some work somewhere that wasn’t France because I think I’d be able to communicate in a different way. Those who speak a different language may understand but it makes you think differently. I feel that I have a different personality when I’m in my best French-ness. You’d say things and communicate in such a way that makes you question whether you would have done that in the same way in English. I’d like to see what happens musically.


Cameron McArthur - 9127 Unfolding (2020), performed by Eleanor Dunsdon for The Arc Project: Digital Edition


What projects have you been involved with recently?


Apart from Arc, there are a few things I’ve got going on. As well as just getting on writing pieces for workshops and things that are coming up PhD-wise, I’m doing a talk soon with SoundThought. Before the pandemic, the band that I run had been doing lots of stuff and that’s growing into a business of music-related people, development and songwriting which is nearly all complete. That has taken a lot of my time, whilst we’re waiting for pandemic things to end.


Do you have any dates of any events coming up that you’d like to include?


The SoundThought thing is coming up soon at the very start of May/end of April besides The Arc Project things that are coming up, whenever those will be released. Otherwise, I’ve got a lot of stuff that is cycling, waiting for things to continue to open up.


Last one! If you won the lottery tomorrow what would you do with the money?


That is a great question. Probably panic a bit and then do something overly sensible. Spend three hours googling the best thing to do with lottery money and then do five of them and then wish that I’d just bought a big fancy sports car instead.

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