Expat Tom Armitage will be taking place in the POW Ensemble’s concert and poetry recital from 20-22 June, at Maori in Valletta. Here is shares his experiences of moving to Malta.
How did you get into music?
My career started quite early at the age of 11 – delivering newspapers every morning on my bicycle for £14 a week in Hull, in England. Thankfully, my first meaningful musical experiences happened at the same time. I gave my first piano recital at 11 and, at age 13, I conducted my first compositions for orchestra. Looking back, they were terrible compositions but these were life-affirming experiences. And, even when I went to work in a factory when I was 16, I still continued to perform and to compose. Eventually, I auditioned for the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to study composition and piano, and I had a wonderful five years in the big city. Although majoring in composition, I became very fond of accompanying singers, so I volunteered myself to play for singing lessons. I used to play for about nine or 10 hours a week, and I would be paid in singing lessons in return. I took every additional course possible at the Conservatoire to prepare myself to accompany singers, while at the same time following the composition course. Thankfully, composition opportunities arrived at the same time so I kept myself very busy. Things haven’t changed! I still don’t take a day off and, when I do, I usually feel a little lost and thinking about the next project. Since then, my performed output includes two operas, a piano concerto, a heap of piano music and several other pieces for orchestra and various ensembles. I tend to avoid giving piano recitals nowadays unless I’m really enthusiastic about a programme but, of course, I spend most of the time working with singers, coaching them from the piano or working as a répétiteur for opera productions at the Manoel Theatre. There is a startling amount of operatic talent in Malta!
What drew you to Malta – when did you move here and why?
I’ve only been here for three (and a half) years but I feel so involved in Malta, both musically and socially, that it feels like I’ve been here for a lifetime! I was getting a little bored of the weather in Birmingham so a new climate seemed essential. I started a Masters course in composition at the University of Malta studying with John Galea, and I had every intention of returning to the UK after I completed it. But Malta is so easy to fall in love with. I have a love-hate relationship with many aspects of life in Malta, but every time I return to the UK – even for a short time – I find myself pining for my flat in Birkirkara. Even the things I moan about the most become the things I miss the most.
What are your favourite things about living in Malta?
I will try to answer this question without mentioning the sun. (It’s definitely the sun!). I love that I am drowning in work. I love that I have found a local pizza takeaway that never fails me. I love that suddenly my friends in the UK want to speak to me now that they have free Mediterranean holidays. I love that I can enjoy a great coffee in Valletta with a sea view before going to rehearsal. I love that there are some very interesting things going on in the arts right now and that I can be involved. But most importantly, I love that I still wake up every morning and feel so lucky to be here. It is a wonderful place with some wonderful people!
What are the biggest challenges about living in Malta?
After living in a very liberal, big city, there are things that feel less progressive in Malta. However, with people of my own age, I feel right at home. Maybe it is the beauty of the internet and easy travel that connects our thought processes, but many of the young people in Malta seem to be in the same place regarding forward-thinking social issues as the young people in the UK. It doesn’t transfer to all demographics of society, of course. In fact, I find myself talking less about certain taboo subjects in Malta, but then that makes me feel the urge to want to express myself even more because I feel that there is a filter that I should apply to my free speech. I’m so glad that I have my art form to explore these thoughts sometimes. But sometimes I feel the need to shout that I am a gay-marriage-supporting, pro-choice atheist, just because it feels as though I shouldn’t say it here. I could openly shout that out loud in the streets of Birmingham and the only concern that people would have is that I am making too much noise in a public place.
How would you describe the music scene in Malta?
Thriving, in many aspects. In many other aspects, there is more to be achieved. Thankfully, this leaves the door open to innovative new ideas, but sometimes the audience isn’t there for certain things. Audience attendances seem to be good, but I often feel the desire for a more edgy contemporary music scene. Without naming any names in particular, for fear of missing someone out, there are some wonderful people doing some great things for contemporary music in Malta. I just wish there were more! On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I was speaking to a few colleagues who live there and it made me realise just how much I miss the ‘anything goes’ attitude in the arts and how we are greatly lacking that in Malta. I hate that too many people are performing with a self-applied filter because the arts is such a wonderful way to discuss our society’s issues in an open-minded forum.
What drew you to the POW ensemble and to taking part in the Map of the Mediterranean conert?
Composer Luc Houtkamp moved to Malta at around the same time that I did and we immediately noticed that there isn’t a single regular platform for contemporary music and performance. We founded ‘For Your Ears Only!’, which is a (semi-)regular concert series that explores the ‘really weird’. We often give concerts of contemporary music in public places, mostly at Casey’s Bar in Gzira, who are very open and accommodating of our slightly eccentric programmes. Some of our concerts are interesting, some of them are absolutely terrible! But it is an excellent open space to offer something new to the music scene in Malta, paired with a pint of course! My favourite thing about the ‘For Your Ears Only!’ concerts is that most of the audience at the bar haven’t come to watch us and they certainly get a surprise when the music begins. But I get a lot of strength in knowing that for every unsuspecting person that we scare away from the bar, we are left with a core group of people who either tolerate our noises or are intrigued by them. We do it for people like them. So when Luc asked me to take part in this concert with his Netherlands-based POW Ensemble, I knew that, once again, we would be offering an alternative programme of music that stimulates me as a performer and, hopefully, will stimulate an audience by offering them something different and important.
Why do you think people should come along and what will they enjoy about it?
Luc and Guy Harries of the POW Ensemble are two very interesting and eccentric figures in contemporary music. The audience will hear music that has never been performed before in Malta, and the message of migration is one that needs addressing more than ever in modern-day Europe.
What’s your one biggest tip for living in Malta?
Get life insurance before buying a car.
Tom Armitage will be performing in Map of the Mediterranean – a concert with music by the POW Ensemble and poetry by Antoine Cassar. It will be performed to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, and again on 21 and 22 June. Tickets are free. This event is part of the Valletta 18 programme.