Friday, 28 September 2012

JAM Today

John Armitage Memorial
This month JAM (the John Armitage Memorial) opens its annual call for pieces. An open entry competition whereby composers can submit works and, if chosen, receive performances. The works can be any format but must use choir, organ and brass quintet (or a selection of these). JAM is relatively unusual in that it not only performs composer’s works but likes to develop relationships with them. JAM was the brainchild of John Armitage, a retired advertising executive, but he died before the idea could develop into anything. His family set up JAM in his memory in 2000. I met up with Ed Armitage to talk about JAM’s forthcoming season and other new activities.


This year, as well as the call for pieces, JAM is launching Writing for Voices. The idea is that each of six emerging composers will be paired with a writer/word-smith and the resulting six creative pairs will be allocated a choir. Under coaching from a distinguished panel of composers, writer and conductors, they will create a work for their chosen choir to be performed in Oxford in May 2013. The idea being that the young composers and writers will be coached into writing something extraordinary, learning to write well for voices. The six choirs involved in the project are all different and the composers will be challenged to write idiomatically for the skills of the choir that they are involved with.


It says something for the high regard in which JAM is held that the panel of experts for Writing for Voices includes Judith Bingham, Nicholas Cleobury, David Harsent, Ruth Padel and Giles Swayne.

Composers submitting works to JAM’s regular call for works will have their music assessed by a panel which includes Judith Bingham, Nicholas Cleobury, Eric Crees, Michael Emery, Timothy Jackson, Robert Jones and Sarah McDonald. The selected pieces will then be performed at JAM’s March concerts.

JAM tends to concentrate on two groups of concerts each year. In March the repertoire is purely contemporary, mixing pieces from the call for works with JAM commissions and works previously performed. The Summer concerts mix more familiar repertoire with the newer pieces.

In March 2013, there are plans for a performance at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, with Judith Bingham’s My Heart Strangely Warmed, Julian Philips’s Body of Water and Rory Boyle’s Tallis’s Light (for brass and organ, based on Tallis’s O Nata Lux). Judith Bingham’s piece was commissioned by JAM in 2006, Rory Boyle’s in 2011 and Julian Philips piece in 2012.

Ed Armitage is rather pleased with the way audiences have strong feelings about Body of Water, either loving it or hating it. Based on one of the JAM trustees swimming the Hellespont, the text uses the swimmer’s testimony, recorded straight after the event. Written for tenor, brass, organ and choir, the work explores what it felt like to make the swim, starting quietly and ending with a huge wave of sound. Ed Armitage comments that in St. Bride’s Church, the piece comes over as distinctly unnerving, dramatic and discomfiting.

The performers in March will be regular JAM collaborators, the choir of Selwyn College, Onyx Brass, conductor Nicholas Cleobury, organist Daniel Cook, with tenor Andrew Dickinson. The programme will include around 30 minutes of music chosen from the call for pieces. A remarkable investment in contemporary music, and one which elicits a loyal response from JAM’s regular audience. Audiences clearly trust the JAM brand, as even without any familiar repertoire they can expect numbers in the 170 to 250 region.

Ed Armitage is concerned that the music they perform be good, and be exciting. He is always pleased to get strong reactions from the audience. He finds that new audience members who have not experienced contemporary music before, can have very positive reactions to JAM concerts. People try it, love it and stay. 

Later in 2013, the concerts will mix JAM commissions with other music. Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados and Paul Mealor’s Farthest Shore will be performed at the St. David’s Festival, and the City of London Festival. Mealor’s piece being premiered in St. David’s. Mealor is an example of the way that JAM stays with composers. They first performed Mealor’s work as a result of the composer submitting music to the call for works, well before his fame developed. Mealor’s piece is a co-commission between JAM, the St. David's Festival and the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, which means that the work will receive four or five performances involving a total of 250 people in the first 12 months of its life.

JAM also tends to work with the same collaborators over the years, developing loyalty in their performers. The result is that the JAM brand is spreading, many choirs perform music associated with JAM outside of the JAM umbrella.

Composers being performed by JAM don’t just get one performance, they get multiple. And as JAM’s repertoire for next year shows, JAM happily revisits commissions. Paul Patterson’s 2005 piece for JAM has now received over 30 performances. In 2013 there will be 16 concerts in total, in Wales, Kent, London and Scotland - the four geographic areas that JAM concentrates on.

Also in July 2013, Daniel Cook will be conducting the Mousai Singers, a remarkable group of 18 to 19 year-olds. Their programme will include David Hill’s arrangement of the Faure Requiem, Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem and some Jonathan Dove and William Matthias. The idea behind all these summer concerts is that they will tempt audiences into exploring the music available at the March concerts.

All this comes at a cost, Ed Armitage admits that organisation is always treading knife edge financially. But he clearly feels strongly about what JAM does and ensures that the organisation is able to continue its remarkable mission.

Further details of the JAM call for works and the Writing for Voices project from the JAM website.

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