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Composer Spotlight: James McIlwrath

Interview conducted by Jan Li Tan, 14th November 2021.

We sat down with James McIlwrath to talk about all his exciting projects and object-oriented ontology.

i’m an experimental composer-performer.

i live in stirchley, in birmingham. i am studying a phd. I am a composer-in-residence with stan’s cafe. i just finished studying experimental performance at the royal birmingham conservatoire. i am irish. i studied music at the university of york and i am the director of a m o k: an experimental music and performance platform based in york. i am one half of experimental music duo flxnflx with maya-leigh rosenwasser

i do things. i make things. i do the things i make. i make the things i do. i do things that other people make. i make things for other people to do.

i have made music for people to sing on their bikes, music for people in boxes after a dream about boxes, sounds without making the sounds. i have entered a void to hear tiny sound, improvised on a moving bridge, made a radio play about death, performed with fellow composer-performer neil luck live onstage at the bbc proms and i won nonclassical's 2020 battle of the bands.

Can you please tell us about yourself? What do you do? Would you call yourself a composer?

Hi, I’m James. I’m a composer, performer and I do things. I make things and I make things for people to do and do things other people make.

Can you tell us a little bit about your interests as a musician?

I like making a lot of experimental things. Things that are quite stupid or have an air of comedy through them. I really like improv; speech, words and images. In terms of listening to music, I really get obsessed with listening to one very small thing on repeat. My ideal music would be to hear one very small idea and to just listen to that for a long time. I know that’s kind of a thing with minimalism, but it changes, and I’m happy to just live in something for a while but I don’t really make any music like that. I kinda do but I don’t know. I have a couple of strands of things, I guess. I operate as a free improviser; where I have no plans and just bring all my objects. I play a lot of objects live like bottles, jars and old door knobs, viola, recorder and other stupid wind instruments like melodicas and whistles. That’s the improv way of life and then I also have this putting talking with images, sounds and other things together kind of life. And then I have a SoundCloud practice, as I like to call it, where I just make music really quickly over the course of 25 minutes and just slam it on SoundCloud really quickly. I think it’s a procrastination technique. I’m just going to make some music and see what happens. I like to have an idea of using particular instruments and then doing it which is still quite improv based in that I don't really compose those bits of music. I improvise something and won’t chop it up or get rid of it, I’ll just continue to use it and improvise more things on top of it until it turns into a new piece.

Why did you decide to become a musician?

An easy one. You know how people are having quarter-life crises now. Well I’ve definitely had a quarter-life crisis, hence the new blonde hair and things. I had an eighth-life crisis. When I was like 14, I thought, “What the hell am I doing? I’m just bumbling around with some bozos, just playing football and playing video games. What am I doing with my life? What can I do? We’re going to have to leave school at some point and do something and what’s that going to be?”. I just about badly played the viola but I enjoyed playing the viola a bit. I also had a really good time playing Guitar Hero and discovered I really liked alternative music. Either, I’ve got to get really good at video games to play video games for a living or I’m going to do some form of music so I decided, “Yeah, I’ll do music”. Which was a very easy decision because there weren't many viola players where I’m from so I was not practising that hard and still like in youth orchestras and doing okay. I left school thinking my absolute ideal would be to be a violist in a string quartet and do some amateur theatre on the weekends. And here we are doing neither of those things, I guess.

Would you still go back to that?

The issue with me not doing string quartet is I’m not good enough and I really struggle with motivating myself to practice. I love theatre and I love being in theatre but I’ve been really struggling with performance anxiety. I don’t get it as much with the stuff that I’m doing now but with theatre it’s all about lines. I have a lot of recurring dreams of being back at school and being a leading role again, not having my lines learnt and being shoved on stage. In a musical context, if I mess up a line, well most of my music doesn’t really have lines these days since there’s an improvisational safety net there, whereas if something happens when I get on stage, whether it’s me or a co-actor, that just scares me a lot. I don’t do that very much anymore.

Getting a bit off that for a little bit. What has your involvement with The Arc Project been and what has it been like for you? What’s the experience been like?

I’ve been in The Arc Project since early days.

I think the beginning.

Yeah, since before it had a name. I did a collaboration with Pip Booth for the first concert where I made a piece called “this piece isn’t about you” which was a wild ride but it was the first foray into me doing things that I want to do which I haven't done since in the same way. The whole performing and talking with music and video at the same time. It was my first foray into that and Pip was absolutely wonderful to work with and it was a lovely concert filled with lots of lovely pieces by lots of various York composers in the York Unitarian Chapel and it was a gorgeous time. And then, lovely little pandemic happened. I was also involved in the Cross-Medium Collaborations concert. I was really excited about that and got really excited making a piece with Andy Featherstone. I really wanted to work with Andy physically but unfortunately due to the whole Covid thing, we really couldn’t make it work out. I already planned on making the piece, so it was instigated with working with Andy but it ended up being it’s whole other thing that I did by myself called “look how the lens lies”, which was a wild ride of a time for an audience on Zoom but also a small audience in a room. It was my big Covid piece but also really not my big Covid piece because I had another big Covid piece that happened earlier in the year called “how to cope with how to cope”. That happened on instagram live once and didn’t get saved so may it rest in peace.

Jake Adams - Let's Play: Jim and Jim's Viola, performed by James McIlwrath for The Arc Project: Digital Edition (2020)

I think I’ve done every Digital project that has happened. I worked with Emma Walker on a piece called “table meditation”. I never really worked with pianists before and it was nice. When it comes to digital ensembles stuff, I thought it was really important to think about visuals as well as audio. Emma had this lovely, lovely table in her house so we made her play on the table, mime the piano on the table, to her previously recorded track. I also worked with Jake, director and overlord of The Arc Project. That was really good fun and stressful to do. A lot of work had to go into filming that but a lot of work went in on Jake’s end to get me to do those things and I had such a lovely time. I want to have more things done like that. It was nice to be a performer rather than a composer. It was nice for Jake to take a gamble and take a risk in doing something outside of what would happen in the concert hall so I really appreciated that from him. I also worked with Atefeh Einali and I made a video as a graphic score and we both improvised. It was mostly Atefeh but there’s one little bit where I improvised with the graphic score as well. I was obsessed at the time with things being turned off and off and time also turning time on and off so we called it “flickering”. I worked with Ashley McCauley and Micki McNie too. That was a weird one because I didn’t know either of them and they didn’t know each other either. Ashley was really into contemporary flute playing and Micki had signed up because she just moved to York and wanted to play music with people. I thought, “I am the wrong person for this”.

Well that’s the beauty of it!

Yeah! It was the hardest piece I think I’ve ever made and what I made, I’m happy with. It was really fun to go around the streets of Birmingham with images of them both and ask who they were. I only knew them through the screen so I didn’t know if they actually existed (I think I’d actually met Ashley before). I thought it’d be nice to consider if they did actually exist, so they told me some lies and they told me some truths, and I put them together and you had to work out if these are just complete fabrications of people. But also the way they tell lies actually in a way tells a lot of the truth. Micki would tell these really extravagant lies that would go on for minutes about these trips that she’s had or these people that she’d met whereas Ashley would just be like “I hit my head into a lamppost”. And it was like “Yeah, sick. Both of you really come through as who they are”. It was this nice exploration of lies and truth, and within lies, possibly even more about your true self coming life. Which sort of ties in with ideas I’m thinking of about a branch of metaphysics called object-oriented ontology (OOO). I have an experimental duo, flxnflx with Maya-Leigh Rosenwasser and we worked with Ralph Lewis. We also made a piece with Cameron Biles-Liddell. It was a really nice contrast of pieces. flxnflx had just started out at the time and we were completely online at the point so it was nice to work with other composers. Everything we’d done before that was about us making our own stuff.

I’ve been non-stop involved with The Arc Project because it’s just so exciting to meet people over the lockdown. I met a lot of people online. When Digital Edition came out, I thought it was really good to expand your contacts. Not just from a business perspective but also from an artistic perspective, and also just a living experience. Talking and working with people is always great so that’s why I love what The Arc Project does. It’s connecting people through new music. It’s a very insular part of the world, new music, so it’s nice to have people who are all about branching it out.

Thank you! And of course your upcoming AMOK concert in the festival as well.

Yes we’re very excited about that!

Can you name some musicians that have influenced your music and your style?

I feel like it’s been a meme at this point but I have to mention Neil Luck of course, Yutaka Hirasaka, he makes bedroom pop stuff; Still House Plants, Jennifer Walshe, Bastard Assignments, Cage and Feldman of course, Elaine Mitchener, Alexander Schubert, Jessie Marino and Nick Reinhart and math rock bands like TTNG, Delta Sleep and Meet Me in St. Louis

If you had to pick one of your works that you’re particularly proud of, which would you choose and why?

Me and Alexander Kaniewski made an opera recently and that was pretty cool. There was a festival that happens in Birmingham Conservatoire every year called CODA, which is stuff just made by students and staff. It was the morning of the deadline of proposals and I was like “Hey, - I’m going to finish my degree in two months, and then after I do that it’ll be a whole month until CODA, and we can make something really big in a month. Let’s just write a bloody opera about objects”. I use a lot of objects in my work and I wanted to make a piece that didn’t feature any human bodies (as in overtly human bodies) and was about the objects. Alex is a theatre maker/director and actor/dancer, although he might not call himself any of those terms. His absolute talent and skill is making things look the way they need to look (I know it doesn’t make much sense, but he would make things look perfectly like how they should look). We thought we’d collaborate by making an opera about objects where he would make it look how it’s supposed to look, we’d both sort of write the story and I would make the music. Our lead character is Oliver, who is an empty tin can, and the opera is about him rediscovering what his purpose in life is. When you talk about objects, which is coming back to OOO, if I went, “Jan, what is this?” *holds up a cup*

It’s a cup.

But what is it? What is it? Define it for me.

It’s a very pretty, earthen looking cup. Kinda reminds me of some pottery in my house.

So you’ve told me sort of what it looks like and what it’s reminding you of, but what is it?

It’s an object, a tool that we use, I guess?

A tool? How would we use it?

Well, put liquid in it, preferably.

Yeah, but I could also throw it at a cat out the window, right? It’s still a use for it.

James McIlwrath & Alexander Kaniewski - Oliver's Object-Oriented Opera (2021)

Yeah, that's true, please don’t do that. *laughs*

I won’t. Of course not. I could wear it as a hat but how we use it, doesn’t necessarily define what it is. By you saying “it’s a cup, we drink water out of it”, it’s telling me how it’s used rather than what it is. You can then go to tell me it was made out of fired clay, and it was made through this process. You’ve told me what it’s made out of and told me what it’s used for. But if I said, “Jan, you’re made out of blood and flesh. That’s who you are” but you went, “Ah no no no no. Actually, I play the piano and I cook nice food and I’m a friendly person”. Yeah, you do those things but you’re not intrinsically those things. You can’t define someone by who they are or what they do and when it comes to an object, you can’t define what it is by what it’s made out of because I could take a hole out of this cup and replace it with a bit of cork and it might be the same object with some cork in it or it might not. That’s a pretty terrible run-down on it but we wanted to dramatise that train of thought. We made it into a whole opera. It’s a bit messy, it’s a bit broken in places but it looks really, really nice and it sounds nice in a lot of places because we worked with two supreme musicians, a cellist called Matt Phillips and a harpist called Helena Bowen and they are beautiful people. They made some really lovely, beautiful music and it wouldn’t have been the same without them. So yeah, I’m very proud of that. That’s the most proud thing I’ve done recently. It’s also the most popular thing I’ve done recently too - it helps.


Validation. It’s there.

You’re doing a PhD right now. Tell us a bit about that.

My PhD is very generously funded by Midlands4cities. The PhD is a collaborative PhD, in that I’m working as a Composer-in-Residence for a theatre company called Stan’s Cafe, who are a long-running experimental theatre company based in Birmingham. I’m looking at ways to utilise a Composer-in-Residence, that aren’t necessarily just making music for their theatre productions - interventions, making music for the staff and doing some music dramaturgy. Basically, I get to do whatever I want with a theatre company other than doing what a composer normally does for a theatre company which is very, very exciting. However, because of some bureaucracy, I’m currently not allowed on the premises of Stan’s Cafe which means I can’t really be a Composer-in-Residence. So, I did a photoshoot where I got a tent, and brought all my composition materials to the tent, and then, put a sign up that says “Composer-near-Residence” so that people knew that I was attempting to do what I needed to do but couldn’t do it.

I love that. Sounds like a bit of dramatic stuff going on.

It’s a little dramatic.

Well then, Let’s move on from that then.

What areas would you like to explore more in the future?

I spoke to my good friend Barrington. He was talking about working at something a lot so that it’s supremely, very good. And this is something I lack in life - the endurance to work on something for a long, long time. Even the pieces that I’ve done that have been successful, like my Battle of the Bands performance. I did rehearse for it but I always felt like I could do more rehearsing or I could really get things a bit more right. I have some performances next week and I feel like it’s a similar situation. And I really want to work on a performance that really takes me a long time to build up, getting really, really, really right, in the same way that a violinist would really, really, really practice for a violin sonata. Not saying that there’s no technical proficiency in what I’m doing, I do feel like there is a little bit, but in the same time-intensiveness. In terms of endurance of what is happening, because I think about my work a lot. All the time. It’s just the doing of it is something I want to be able to do more of and figure out strategies for me to be doing more things. So I’d like to do more really, really thoroughly composed stuff, rather than leaving gaps for a lot of improv which I really love. I will continue to do my improv stuff but I think I want to nail down something concrete. I want to do what I do but with more musicians as well, which is difficult. It’s horrendously difficult to figure out how that works but I’d like it to happen. Not many musicians are up for being sidelined, in a way. Their role changes by being involved as performer and leading actor but also musician at the same time. It’s finding people who are fine with that.

Next question. Who would you like to collaborate with in the future? I saw Jonny Greenwood follows you on twitter, is there a collaboration in the works?

It was really embarrassing when Jonny Greenwood followed me because I didn’t follow him back. I mean I have now, but I didn’t follow him. I told my great friend Andy Blackwell, who is a really big Radiohead fan, and he was raging because I didn’t even follow him back or like Radiohead that much.

For dream collaborators, Charmaine Lee. I really want to work with Charmaine Lee. She’s a super sick vocal improviser based in New York. That’s the sort of thing I was talking about earlier with the technical virtuosity in what she does. You can tell that she spends so much time preparing, even for an improvised performance. And to just spend a couple of hours with her would be great.

I have an experimental duo with Maya, as I’ve mentioned, called flxnflx. We were originally going to call ourselves “WACK”. Which is really funny because Jennifer Walshe and Neil Luck made a duo called WACK. I think a dream, hilarious gig would be if WACK and WACK played, even though we’re not called WACK anymore. We’d change the name for the gig and it would be a mixture of things with Jenny Walshe and Neil, and me and Maya.

Alexander Schubert as well. His stuff is mad. And it’s mad tech that I haven’t got my head wrapped around. I would just love to get lost in a world of his piece in some way or form because I feel like we have similar energies, perhaps.

Matthew Lee Knowles - For James McIlwrath [Abridged], performed by James McIlwrath (2021)

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

I’d really like to perform in some form of wasteland/desert. Not even wasteland, just no sign of human life anywhere. There’s a couple of photos that flxnflx have posted on our Instagram where we did a mini residency in Wales . We went out into a big mudflat. That’s just a great place. You can’t hear anything. You have to be very, very close. But even something very, very far away would be really, really, really nice. Or some sort of desert or snowy wasteland or plain would be really gorgeous.

So wasteland with not just no human life, but no animal life? Just completely empty, barren, can’t see the end for miles and miles.

Yeah, like a big plain. Don’t know why, I just feel like it would be nice. I’d watch that.

It would be nice. I’d watch that. I’d watch you perform there.


What projects have you been recently involved in?

I’m in another improv duo with Raymond Brien called egnairio and two days ago we had our first live performance so that’s pretty cool. We also have an album on Bandcamp. Check it out. Maybe. Maybe not. I’m performing with Steven Crowe, Benedict Taylor and Linda Kemp next week in Nottingham. It’s going to be a weird one.

I recently posted a video - Matthew Lee Knowles made me a piece, wrote a score for me and I performed some of it. I wouldn’t recommend people do anything in that piece. I get a lot of questions asking me about the glass. The glass is real but the glass is pretty not sharp and it’s also glass I’m very familiar with. I’ve had that broken glass for a long, long time. I did 100 improv live streams over 100 days during the first lockdown. I had a little whiskey glass that I used to play with knitting needles and it broke. The glass that broke off that, is the glass that I used. I play it in every improv and more glass would fall off it and change the pitch of the glass. It’s a glass that I was very familiar with, so it’s safe.

I’m also playing the biggest gig in my life, of all time, in two weeks at Iklectik, put on by nonclassical, with Chihiro Ono and Bastard Assignments, which is very, very exciting and I’m very scared. I’m performing a live version of a video piece I’ve made already called “this piece isn\t about teeth”, which is a piece that is full of teeth and couldn’t possibly be about anything else. It might be. It probably is. Maybe it’s not.

I’m putting on a bunch of AMOK shows at artefact. I haven’t advertised it on the AMOK pages yet because I’m terrible. There’s also a bassoon recital happening with a baseball-related thing that’s being live streamed from Birmingham on the 13th of December as part of The Arc Project Festival which is very exciting.

I’m working on some stuff with Darragh Kelly as well. I can’t talk very much about it but it’s with Darragh Kelly.

That’s amazing!

Alright, final question. If you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with the money?

I think about this a lot because I’ve recently gotten into playing the lottery a lot. I would get a houseboat. Maybe I wouldn’t get a houseboat, but maybe I would get a houseboat. I would donate some money to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to get some scholarships for the Experimental Performance Masters. It was an invaluable course to me and more people need to do it and people need funding to do it, so I’d fund that. And then, if this was a big amount of money, I’d basically act like a secondary Arts Council. Send me your applications where you want your money to do music or art things, and I’d just probably give it to you. You don’t have to do a 4000 word application, just tell me what’s going on. Take some money. I’d probably then just not do anything else other than work on my PhD for four years and then live out a wonderful life on my houseboat.

James McIlwrath and AMOK will be performing at our upcoming online festival! Sign-up here!

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