Classical: Rich Sound of a pro-am JAM

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ONCE again, Aberdeenshire is bracing itself for its annual jamboree of contemporary music. The whole concept of Sound is extraordinary: around 60 events parcelled into a three-and-a-half-week festival, ranging from city venues in Aberdeen to the further-flung reaches of Fraserburgh, Portsoy and Banchory, and featuring such major artists as the Hebrides Ensemble, the Smith Quartet, and composers Sally Beamish and Aberdeen University-based Pete Stollery.

• James Macmillan, chairman of Sound, will present three new works Picture: Neil Bennett

Three thematic strands run through this year's festival, which starts next week. Less is More picks up the thread – deliberately and strategically – of this weekend's minimalist celebrations in Glasgow, and includes a community performance of Terry Riley's In C. An Electroacoustic Fair – including the intriguingly titled Dirty Elelctronics Workshop – highlights the particular strengths in that genre prevalent within Aberdeen University's music department; and DanceLive@Sound adds a tantalising physical dimension to the music that otherwise predominates.

But the most refreshing thing about this bold North-east initiative is its propensity to initiate lively interaction between the amateur and the professional artist. One event that epitomises this takes place in St Machar's Cathedral on Sunday 31 October.

It's a concert featuring three of Scotland's university choirs (performing together, it is thought, for the very first time), and promoted under the auspices of the John Armitage Memorial (JAM) Trust, whose main thrust is to stimulate performances of contemporary music among amateur choirs.

It's an event that should interest anyone connected with Scotland's busy network of choral societies – especially those choral directors who feel that contemporary music is a non-starter in their own artistic programming, given the cost of commissioning and performing such music, never mind selling it to their members and, ultimately, an audience.

It was these precise issues that led Ed Armitage – a London-based recording engineer – to found a trust in his father's name that would encourage composers to write new music for affordable forces, and of a quality and style that would lend themselves to amateur performance.

"JAM was set up in memory of my dad," he explains. "He played the trumpet as a youth in the dance clubs of the 1950s. His own father – a precentor at Wetminster Abbey – said to him, 'My boy, we must get you a proper job,' so he went into advertising and had a successful career."

When John Armitage retired, however, he decided to return to his first love and study music at Christ Church Canterbury. It was there that he realised how difficult it was for composers to get themselves known.

"Finding opportunities for a first performance of their works was hard enough; the likelihood of further performances seemed to him little more than a pipe dream," says his son. "With me being a sound engineer and him being in advertising, he came up with the idea that maybe we could do something together to help the situation."

Unfortunately his father was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, and died in 2000, so the original joint conception never took off.

But Ed forged on and set up the trust in his father's name, hitting on the idea that to encourage works for chorus, brass quintet and organ not only addressed the economic issues facing choral societies (no need to hire a full orchestra), but also recognised the musical interests of both his father and grandfather.

Initial projects centred on St Bride's Fleet Street, the London church where his grandfather was rector, and which he largely responsible for rebuilding after its partial destruction during the war. But these were just "faffing around", says Ed, and he soon established the trust as a serious effort to promote new choral music throughout the UK.

Composers were invited to submit works for consideration, and some works were specifically commissioned. "Ten years on we have a back catalogue of 60 new works, including 13 specific commissions, all for brass, choir and organ."

Some of these works feature in the forthcoming Scottish tour by the massed university choirs, Thistle Brass Quintet and the organist Tom Wilkinson under Michael Bawtree's direction, which visits Holy Trinity Church, St Andrews on 28 October and Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh on 29 October prior to Aberdeen.

The programme, entitled Sing a New Song, features three works by Sound chairman James MacMillan, as well as the Scottish premieres of Gabriel Jackson's The Spacious Firmament I & II and Tarik O'Regan's The Night's Untruth, both out of the JAM commissioning stable.

The one brand new JAM commission comes from Paul Mealor, composer and lecturer at Aberdeen University, whose long association with JAM influenced the Trust's presence at Sound.

"Paul first came to the Trust's attention in 2002 when, as a young nipper on the block, he submitted a score," says Armitage. "We though he was an interesting voice, but he seemed to disappear off the map, until I discovered he was working up in Aberdeen. Ten years on, I phoned him about a commission for our 10th anniversary and performances in Scotland, and he effectively yanked my arm out of my shoulder, saying let's try and get to Sound as well."

Mealor's new work – he was recently one of the composer's commissioned to write a mini-opera for Scottish Opera's Five:15 project – will also be performed in London next year, which is the real merit of JAM's commissioning initiative: the fact that new music gets played more than once, and that it is promoted widely and made accessible and available to choirs who are keen to explore adventurous new musical paths.

Such practical vision has a natural place among Sound's punchy, ambitious and unpretentious programming.

• The Sound Festival runs from 20 October until 14 November in various venues in and around Aberdeen. The John Armitage Memorial Trust concert is at St Machar's Cathedral on 31 October. For more information visit www.sound-scotland.co.uk