With James Batty: an interview with the artist of "Until I set him free"


James Batty is a composer, pianist and sound artist based in London. The soundworlds he constructs in his music combine the familiar and the unusual to evoke the full spectrum of human emotions and tell stories in fresh new ways. He has been exploring microtonality for several years and in his latest album "Until I Set Him Free" he channels this passion into a series of compositions for retuned solo piano. James's debut release "Sanctuary (Overtones and Deviations)" fused together piano pieces and spectral electronic soundscapes, and received critical acclaim and radio play worldwide. James has composed for a wide range of other musicians, including Huw Watkins, Mark Simpson, Zoë Martlew, the BBC Singers, CHROMA, the Riot Ensemble and Opera North (UK) and the E-MEX Ensemble (DE). His music has been performed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Sweden and the UK and his multimedia projects have been shown at the Shanghai Biennale and BAFTA. James is currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London as a postgraduate.

You are an emerging artist but with different results already achieved, can you tell us briefly what artist you are?

The music that I write to perform and record myself is quite different from the music I write for other musicians and ensembles. The first kind is more instinctive and driven by emotions, whereas I often deal with broader themes in the second kind - musical themes and non-musical themes. But both are linked by my interest in microtonality. I also write for film and multimedia projects.

What are your influences and your musical references?

I love the music of Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds, and other piano-led minimalist music from recent years. I also love the French school of composition from the last century, from Debussy and Messiaen through to Gérard Grisey. I admire the attention to musical colour and timbre in their music. In a lot of my own music I am trying to find common ground between these aesthetics.

I try to hear everything in my head before I play it though, and often ideas will come to me as I'm out walking or travelling too. I write my ideas down using pencil and paper first, then transfer them to notation software to refine them and craft the composition.

How do you compose? Do you feel a musical theme in your mind or is it more based on creating from sensations?

I usually begin by improvising at the piano. I try to hear everything in my head before I play it though, and often ideas will come to me as I'm out walking or travelling too. I write my ideas down using pencil and paper first, then transfer them to notation software to refine them and craft the composition.

How was your latest album born?

It started with a vision I had for a particular way of retuning the piano. I wanted to use the natural notes of the harmonic series to create a soundworld that was both familiar and foreign. I was lucky to work with a brilliant piano technician, Finlay Fraser, to help me develop my ideas for this into something practical that wouldn't break any strings! I wrote the first versions of the pieces on an electric piano in Poznań, Poland. Back in London, I had an upright piano tuned to test them out. It was a wonderful experience hearing everything resonating in an acoustic space for the first time. I adapted the pieces I had written and was inspired to compose some new ones. With this full set of pieces, I worked with master producer Haydn Bendall to record the album at a church in South London.

At what time of the day do you like to compose? Is it an expressive urgency due to an inspiration or do you meditate and plan everything with scrupulous criteria?

I like writing in the morning, but I think the more important thing is for me to plan my creative time in advance. The structure works well for me. It's best for me to keep composing for a certain number of hours - even if my inspiration runs low - and to make any changes I need to later. When I wrote these pieces in Poznań, I worked for eight hours a day and spent the rest of the time exploring this beautiful city I was visiting for the first time.

What would you answer to those who ask you why you should listen to your music?

Try out some new microtonal music and see if it speaks to you.

What is the meaning of music for you?

Without sounding too dramatic, I think music is like the breath and rhythm of human life.

Could you kindly anticipate us something about your upcoming projects?

At the moment, I am writing a piece for the Carice Singers, which they will perform at the Cheltenham Festival in July and I have a recording coming up of my pieces for two retuned pianos, both of which I'm incredibly excited about!

"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."

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