Giles Swayne was born in Hertfordshire in 1946. After an early childhood in Singapore and Australia, he grew up in Liverpool and Yorkshire. He began composing at the age of twelve, and in his teens was greatly helped and encouraged by his cousin, the composer Elizabeth Maconchy. He studied the piano with Gordon Green, Phyllis Hepburn, James Gibb and Vlado Perlemuter. On leaving Cambridge in 1968 he was awarded a composition scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, London, where he studied with Harrison Birtwistle, Alan Bush and Nicholas Maw.
In 1976-77 he visited the Paris Conservatoire to study with Olivier Messiaen. In 1980 CRY for twenty-eight amplified voices (dedicated to Messiaen) was premièred by the BBC Singers under John Poole. Widely hailed as a landmark, it has been performed twice at the London Proms and many times in Europe and America. In 1981 Swayne made a field trip to Senegal to research and record the music of the Jola community of Casamance (southern Senegal); these recordings are now in the British Library's Sound Archive and available online. His interest in Africa and African music has influenced his work both directly and indirectly. From 1990 to 1996 he lived in the Akuapem Hills in eastern Ghana. He now lives in London, teaches composition at Cambridge University, and is Research Associate and Composer-in-residence at Clare College, Cambridge.
Recent works include Symphony No. 1, A Small World, which was commissioned by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and premièred by them in Cardiff under conductor Jac van Steen in 2007; Leonardo's Dream for alto saxophone and piano, premièred at the Purcell Room on London's South Bank by Hannah Marcinowicz and the composer in January 2008; and Agnes Wisley's Chillout Fantasy, premièred at the London Barbican in March 2008 by the Guildhall Symphonic Wind Ensemble, conducted by Peter Gane.
Swayne has recently completed String Quartet No. 4 (The Turning Year), which was commissioned by Clare College, Cambridge, for world première by the Solstice String Quartet at the Cambridge Festival in November 2009; Zig-zag for organ, commissioned by Leeds Catholic Cathedral; The Joys of Travel, a song-cycle for voice and piano celebrating the horrors of package holidays, commissioned by tenor Benjamin Hulett; and a setting of Adam lay ybounden for the advent carol service of St. John's College, Cambridge in 2009. He is also working on an open-ended series of Bagatelles for piano, and HUBBUB, a choral setting of an especially written poem by Kevin Crossley-Holland, commissioned by Linda and Jack Hoeschler of Minnesota for the USA tour by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge under Tim Brown in August 2010.