“Until I Set Him Free” is the first solo piano album from London-based composer and pianist James Batty. In these emotionally charged pieces, James modified the conventional tuning of the piano’s 88 notes to present an entirely new musical language. His sensitive performances of these 11 original compositions coax listeners into a surreal sonic landscape where familiar tones are refashioned to form something fresh and new.
The album was inspired by the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo, whose famous ‘David’ statue was the result of the sculptor glimpsing a vision of an angel in the marble and carving until he “set him free”. In James’s words: “For me, the creative process is a lot about listening and asking questions. Whether it’s a wisp of a melody or the bare bones of a chord progression, I try to set the ideas free and allow them to morph into something whole. I don’t like to force the music.”
To develop the tuning system, James collaborated with piano technician Finlay Fraser. Following a creative retreat in Poznań, Poland, where he sketched out his ideas, James returned to London and worked with an upright piano to explore the intricacies of its resonance and craft the final pieces. The album was recorded and produced by Haydn Bendall, former chief engineer at Abbey Road Studios who also began his career as a Steinway piano tuner: “When I first met James, I became fascinated with his project. The music is so unusual, interesting and beautiful. I’m thrilled to have been involved in this great album.”
We met the artist for an exclusive interview that you can find below.
Welcome James and thank you for this interview.
When did you start composing – and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started improvising and writing my own music as soon as I started playing the piano—when I was eight years old. I was easily distracted practising my pieces and usually preferred playing around with chords and writing my own melodies. I wrote songs and pieces with friends and performed some of those at school concerts and around Cheshire. When I went to music school at age of 16, I started composing more seriously and had my first lessons. I had a lot of different influences. In terms of classical composers, I loved Debussy and Messiaen and went through a phase of being obsessed with Stockhausen, but equally I loved jazz and Top 40 pop music.
What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?
When I finished studying my Master’s in music production, I felt quite uncertain about the direction I wanted to pursue as a musician. In addition to my classical training, I had directed musical theatre, studied jazz piano in Moscow, produced pop records and composed film soundtracks. So I rented a studio for three months and just allowed myself to be creatively free. The result of that was my first album, “Sanctuary (Overtones and Deviations)”, and that was the point at which I developed my fascination with microtonality—going outside of the normal 12-tone Western musical scale.
Can you tell us something about your last release “Until I set him free”?
What interests me most about microtonal music are the possibilities for making music with the “pure” sounds of the harmonic series. With that principle in my mind, I devised my own system for retuning the piano with the help of piano technician Finlay Fraser. I wanted a soundworld that was both familiar/comforting maybe and strange/challenging. Using that musical language, I wrote a set of pieces that tried to capture a range of different moods. I was fortunate to work with Haydn Bendall, former chief engineer of Abbey Road Studios, to record the album. Haydn had a unique understanding of the music. As well as being an incredible producer, he is a pianist himself and began his career as a Steinway piano tuner.
How long did it take to prepare the album?
It developed over a period of two years. Initially it took a lot of conversations and experimentation with Finlay to get the tuning right. I composed my first ideas for the pieces on a trip to Poznań, Poland. Back in London, after a long search, I found a studio and upright piano where I was able to try the tuning out for real. I recorded some first versions with violin and cello parts, but for the final recording, I played on a lovely Yamaha grand and chose to stick with the intimate sound of solo piano. We are publishing the score with the string parts in though, and I might reintroduce them for a live performance sometime.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
My musical ideas always start out through improvisation. It is composing that then allows me to realise the full potential of an idea, how it should develop and grow into a bigger structure.
The role of the composer has always been subject to change. What’s your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I think composers have a responsibility to give people a new experience through the music they create. The beauty of music is that these experiences can defy words—it is often abstract and open to any number of interpretations. I believe art needs to evolve to survive and that classical composers are a vital part of the ecosystem of classical musicians, amongst performers, conductors and others. Composers can also use their music as a powerful vehicle to make people reflect on social and political issues. There are many things that I care passionately about, such as equality and climate change, but this is not something I have explored overtly in my music yet.
What equipment do you use to compose your music?
I still prefer to begin with a pencil and manuscript paper. This was how all the tracks on “Until I Set Him Free” began. I then use Sibelius notation software, which enables me to further play around with my ideas in a quick and easy way. Logic Pro and PianoTeq are also invaluable tools for me when I am experimenting with different tunings and working with electronic sound, as well as when composing for films.
How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience?
There is so much potential for collaborating with other art forms, such as dance, film, spoken word and theatre, to create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts and reaches new audiences. I recently collaborated on a piece with an accordionist and a dancer-singer—that was a wonderful experience and it is being performed in Helsinki next year. It is also important to take music out of the concert hall and into exciting new venues.
Could you tell us something about your future projects?
At the moment, I am writing a piece for the Carice Singers to perform at the Cheltenham Festival, which combines Old English and Old Frisian poems. I also have a recording coming up of my pieces for two retuned pianos and I can’t wait to share that!
Where can our readers find more information about you?
You can visit my website at: https://www.jamesbatty.com/
We thank you for your time!