Cam Deas: ‘Any restrictions on the movement of touring artists are problematic’

Cam Deas is a musician and sound artist based in London. His practice employs abstract sound, polytempos, irregular tuning systems and stochastic and computer generative systems to create immersive environments of sound and music. His work is not subject to straightforward categorisation, with output ranging from solo acoustic guitar exploration, through live electro-acoustic performance, to pure synthesis and computer generative music. In 2018 he released Time Exercises on The Death of Rave, followed by Mechanosphere in 2019 on the same imprint.

A few days ago, the UK government announced that EU artists/musicians would require visas to tour the UK. The implications of Brexit for musicians – especially those without large budgets – might be devastating. How do you see this affecting musicians like you?

I’ve been touring around Europe since 2008, and those initial tours, the people I met then, and the sense of community across the continent were about as inspiring to me as the music itself. It’s upsetting and hard, but not surprising, to see the UK continue to move so far in the wrong direction, and to think that musicians, especially the younger generations, might be restricted from contributing to and being a part of an international music community. But these issues are nothing new and it continues to be far worse for artists from outside Europe; there are countless stories of cancelled performances by artists from other continents who are unable to satisfy the requirements of the UK border to perform. How it will affect musicians like me is impossible to know yet, it’s all so complicated and unresolved still. But any restrictions on the movement of touring artists, especially when based on one’s economic and geographic situation, are problematic and a step backwards.

Do you feel affected by politics as an artist in general? Some artists implement politics in an implicit, some in explicit way, some refuse to do so, rather focusing on abstraction and art for art’s sake (feeling constrained by the over-politicisation of art).

Well, the work I make is usually not political in itself, other than some collaborative work, but the spaces I perform in are often politically-minded and that’s always been something I want to be a part of and contribute to. The communities built around underground music, the inclusivity and openness, can be amazing and are something I always want to be a part of.

Can you talk about some of these spaces and communities that you are part of?

For me, it’s that you can go across countries and find groups or individuals organising events in all kinds of places – clubs, squats, galleries, and basically any room with a sound system. And it’s just out of passion for the music, usually for no money, out of a desire to build a community based on something creative to share and experience.

Your first fully electronic album, Time Exercises, was released on Death of Rave in 2018. What led you to the decision to only work with electronic/synthesised sounds?

With Time Exercises and the new album, Mechanosphere, I wanted to explore rhythm more, especially working with multiple tempos at once across different layers. I became interested in multiple lines of motion, rhythmically drifting, getting pulled in different directions but also interlinked and somehow moving together. It was something I couldn’t make on guitar or improvising with electronics like I had been doing, it needed more precision to not become a total mess. So I started sequencing synthesised sounds with the computer, imagining they were different instruments, like strings or percussion, and building up webs of individual lines, all flowing of their own accord but also interconnected.

The album that preceded it, String Studies, sort of “deconstructed” acoustic guitar as a sampling source. Was this a step away from guitar as such, or a step towards bigger abstraction? (somehow it also reminds me of BBC Radiophonic Workshop stuff)

Both, I think. I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t have anything new which really interested me with acoustic guitar on its own. I knew I wanted to work more with electronics but also didn’t want to make purely electronic music at the time, it was too much of a step away from having total physical control over your instrument. So I started to make this kind of real time electro-acoustic music, which still had wood and strings at the root of it, with everything else reacting to and being triggered by the guitar, making it gestural and playable in a way I knew, but in an entirely different sonic space.

Aside from your solo work, you have also collaborated on art-related projects such as Black Ocean, Liu Yujia’s film exploring the oil industry in the Gobi Desert. How do you approach these projects from the sonic standpoint?

The sound on these projects is always totally inspired and driven by the visual aspect, I need to see the imagery to try and imagine what it should sound like. With Black Ocean, we found what worked quite quickly; it’s so bleak, with these long scenes of endless desert filled with oil wells as far as you can see. There was also no ambient sound recorded so the music had to fill the space. It needed to be slow and expansive, full of nostalgia and memories from before the environment there was destroyed by the oil industry. Generally, my approach is to get into the feeling of the work, how the artist wants you, as the audience, to react emotionally, and try things out to find the right atmosphere and emotion through sound to enhance that feeling, as music has huge power to do. It can be slow and frustrating before you find it, but eventually something just clicks with the imagery and how it’s affecting me as a viewer and I work to build it from there.

What is the role of unpredictability and generative creation in your music?

I like to come up with sets of rules, or some simple logic or structures to apply to sounds, or how multiple sounds will interact. It also often relates to some kind of non-musical concept to make things move and change in ways I wouldn’t choose. I’m just setting the parameters within which they act and adapting the sound or motion until it’s doing something interesting to me. I’m not using these methods because I want to make generative or random music or something like that, it’s more as a way of finding ideas and inspiration that I otherwise wouldn’t.

Can you talk about some of these non-musical concepts, ideas and inspirations?

I got really into mid-20th century composers, like Xenakis and Messiaen, and was fascinated by how someone like Xenakis took structures from architecture or mathematics and implemented them with sound. The problem for so many musicians is habit and finding ways to get away from it; everyone has different methods, whether it’s Derek Bailey collaborating with DJ Ninj or Min Tanaka to find new inspiration, or Xenakis following formulas to construct harmonic movement. Recently, I’ve mostly been thinking about time and the experience of time, how everything moves individually on different scales and is constantly being affected by its surroundings. There’s a Messiaen quote about composing with rhythm I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from: “… an awareness of time-scales, superimposed on each other which surrounds us: the endlessly long time of the stars, the very long time of the mountains, the middling one of the human being, the short one of insects, the very short one of atoms, not to mention the time-scales inherent in ourselves – the physiological, the psychological.”

Interview by: Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: CON TROL club