Pianist and composer James Batty announces the release of microtonal solo piano album Until I Set Him Free
Until I Set Him Free, the first solo piano album from London-based pianist and microtonal composer James Batty, is set for release in autumn 2018.
In this emotionally-charged album, Batty modified the conventional tuning of the piano’s 88 notes to present an entirely new musical language. The sensitive performances of the 11 original compositions coax listeners into a surreal soundscape where once familiar tones are refashioned to form something fresh and new.
“I tuned the piano to the overtones of one deep, meditative bass tone, so the notes became like ‘sonic pixels’ I could combine in my compositions to recreate the ‘image’ of this bass tone. I wanted to create beautiful music that probes the boundaries between familiar and unusual sonorities.”
Until I Set Him Free contributes to a growing worldwide subculture of microtonal music—practices that explore sounds from outside the standard Western tuning system of 12 equally spaced notes (i.e. the normal piano keys). The album builds on a lineage of microtonal piano music that goes back to the early 20th century with composers such as Julián Carrillo and Ivan Wyschnegradsky. Nevertheless, piano-based microtonality remains relatively rare, partly due to the intricacies involved in adjusting the 200+ strings of a modern concert piano. While the tuning found in Until I Set Him Free is completely unique, it explores similar principles to those developed and propagated by other contemporary musicians, such as Johnny Reinhard’s “128 tuning”.
The album title was inspired by a quote from the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo, whose famous ‘David’ statue came about when the sculptor glimpsed a vision of an angel in the marble and carved until he “set him free”.
“For me, the creative process is a lot about listening and asking questions, as well as actually writing and recording. Whether it’s a wisp of a melody, the bare bones of a chord progression or an inkling about a new tuning possibility, I try to set the ideas free and allow them to morph into something whole. For example, I instinctively knew there was a way of retuning the piano based on natural harmonics that made perfect sense to me sonically, but it took months of experiments, arduous calculations and discussions with my piano technician to craft this into exactly the right configuration.”
Batty collaborated with esteemed piano technician Finlay Fraser (Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall, Abbey Road Studios) to invent the tuning system. By pure coincidence, he found he got the best results by basing the tuning on a frequency of 1.618 Hz—the ‘golden ratio’ that has been used in art, architecture and many other fields for centuries.
The album was produced by renowned former Chief Engineer at Abbey Road Studios, Haydn Bendall, who has worked on Grammy-winning albums with Chris Botti, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Pat Metheny. Bendall spent part of his career as a Steinway piano tuner, tuning for pianists such as Alfred Brendel, and he was struck by the musical sound-world Batty had wrought from tuning the piano in this way and eager to explore this new direction with him:
“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.”
The pianist-composer first presented his ideas for the project at microtonal music festival EUROMicroFest in Freiburg, Germany in May 2017, where it was met with great enthusiasm. The music was composed in several phases. Batty initially compiled his musical ideas on a creative retreat to Poznań, Poland using an electronic piano, but it was only when he was entrusted with a Yamaha upright piano to experiment on, at Samurai Studios in West London, that he was able to complete the music exploiting the full range of the tuning’s acoustic properties.
Batty’s debut album, the electroacoustic Sanctuary (Overtones and Deviations), was released in May 2016 on the Frozen Light and zeromoon labels. It is an introspective and emotive work, in which he combined traditional piano compositions with electronic soundscapes, retuned pianos, violins, guitars and other acoustic instruments. The album was critically acclaimed and received radio play across Europe and in the US, and it was through this project that Batty first developed his fascination with microtonality that has become a fundamental part of his artistic practice.
As a composer, Batty has created music for the BBC Singers, E-MEX Ensemble, World AIDS Day, Manchester Cathedral, FringeNYC, Tottenham Community Choir, the London Medical Orchestra and a short film, Blue, that received a BAFTA screening. Past competition successes include the EPTA Young Composers’ Competition (First Prize) and BBC Young Composer of the Year (Highly Commended).
As a performer, he has appeared both as a soloist and with other musicians across the UK and worldwide, at BST Festival Hyde Park, the Royal Opera House, National Concert Hall, Dublin, and at many other concert venues in the UK, Europe and South America.
You can listen to a taster of the album here:
Reviews of James Batty’s music:
“The atmosphere is absolutely enthralling. I find the sinking pitch games with the piano curiously addictive. Repeated listening is rewarded by new discoveries.” Simon Heighes, BBC Radio 3
“Batty's reflections transport the listener to a dreamlike plane, where modern flair meets more traditional elements. He manages to reach the same heights of caressing tenderness and minimalism that Jo Baer [the artist who inspired him] achieved. This is a masterful work.” Bad Alchemy (DE)
“Batty plays fragments of melodies like balls of yarn, from which strings of notes unravel and get lost in desolate spaces.” Roberto Mandolini, Rockerilla (IT)
“Against sparse passages of bare harmonic essence, the piano is quite literally transfigured, almost losing its identity in the layers of resonance that make up the grainy, ghostly ambience. An extremely interesting work.” Raffaello Russo, Music Won’t Save You
“He revels in seducing the listener into a world of surprises – where the verve of dissembled soundscapes and the upending of expectations of form work together to explode musical boundaries. Batty gives the impression of having decided to completely discard the conventions of musical structure. And yet he still provides the opportunity to bathe in a gloriously accessible type of sound.” Stephan Wolf, Amusio
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