James McIlwrath is a participant in Sound and Music’s Composer-Curator scheme, working on his AMOK series – an experimental performance platform based in York. The first public event is on 18 September, and features work by Catherine Robson, Joanna Ward, Seán Clancy, Erika Bell, and more (information here).

We spoke to him about space, scale, and navigating the interstices of music and theatre.

The programme for your upcoming event is fascinating – tell us more about it?

Most of the composers are women – this was a complete accident, which is quite nice. A lot of the pieces were programmed by Kate Ledger, who is a fabulous pianist based in York. Kate is going to be playing a whole range of very short pieces for the Toy Piano. I’m excited about those because the space is going to be massive, and in it will be this tiny toy piano – along with hopefully lots and lots of people.

The main commission is by Catherine Robson, who I’ve worked with many times before, with The Chimera ensemble (based at York University). She had been commissioned by Chimera to write a new piece based on texts by Octavio Paz, and the piece was called Spaces. I was lucky enough to be part of the ensemble to play it!

She also happens to be my mother, which sounds weird out of context, but in the York music department you get assigned parents as freshers. She was my mother and took me into the world of contemporary music. I’ve a lot to thank her for, so it’s really nice to repay that.

The new piece is going to be interacting with the history of the Stained Glass Centre. Different parts of it are built in different centuries. So she’s working with the different spatial locations within it.

Did AMOK start quite organically, or was it inspired by some key experiences you had?

I ran the Chimera Ensemble as a student, which is the largest student contemporary music ensemble in the UK, I did that for a year – 6 concerts. I loved giving students the opportunity to compose for the ensemble or to come play in it. Then I left university and the ensemble, and felt like i had a big hole in my life. I went on a residency with Apartment House in September last year and this made me believe in my own abilities and gave me the desire to make my own opportunities. I wanted to continue producing concerts and so on, but I wanted to be more physically involved in them, as a performer or a composer. I also wanted to get a wider range of people involved, beyond the bubble of the university.

In November I officially did a call, and ended up with submissions from all over the world, 113 in total, which was great. One problem I had was that out of the 113, only 13 submissions were from women. We didn’t have any women at all programmed in our first concert, which prompted a bit of a backlash, and that was healthy for me, in that it made me realise I couldn’t just pick works without taking this into consideration.

You’re about to join the new ‘Experimental Performance’ course at Birmingham Conservatoire. And as part of your AMOK series you’re working with people, like Neil Luck, who are interested in exploring performance well beyond notes on paper. What is that you find appealing about this way of working?

A long time ago I was reading an essay by Morton Feldman, where he talks about the idea that music is theatre, and that we should do more about the theatrical elements in music.  And that really stuck with me, because before university I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to do a theatre degree or a music degree. So I chose York because it has a really good Theatre Society, but I thought a music degree would be more worthwhile. Over the three years there were lots of moments where I thought “I’m never doing music again, I can’t do this, I want to be an actor”. But I’ve never got on with musical theatre.

So performance art, or theatrical music, or whatever you want to call it, really spoke to what I could do. I wanted to be more than just an instrument on stage, more like a fully-fledged person, interacting with the audience. I think in a way this is more true to everything we do as humans – everything we do is more than just one method of communication or one way of expressing yourself.

I have worked before with the more conventional idea of – the composer writes a piece and the performer plays it and occasionally debates the meaning of mezzo forte in relation to the mezzo piano six bars prior – and it no longer interests me. When you write a piece of music and hand it to someone and they play it – I get no real experience out of that. I really love working with people. So I’m currently working on pieces with specific performers, where I don’t see myself as a composer, it’s very much a meeting of two people. I find that a more uplifting and motivating way of working than sitting at my desk and being this high-tower figure.


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