Name: James Batty
Occupation: Composer, pianist
Current Release: James Batty's Until I Set Him Free is out via Blue Spiral.
If you enjoyed this interview with James Batty, visit his official website for more information.
Was there a particular event or experience that made you realise that there might be more outside of the realm of music we take for granted? When did you first start getting interested in the world of alternative tuning systems?
I remember hearing Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Stimmung” for the first time when I was about 17 and being captivated by the simple beauty of a sung spectral chord. The music maintained my attention for over an hour but the pitches didn’t change. The chanted names of gods and morphing overtones just made ripples on the surface.
From there I went on to learn about the harmonic series. It was only when I was working on my first album “Sanctuary (Overtones and Deviations)”, however, that I thought about using this as a systemic way of organising the pitches in my own music.
I had recently finished studying for my Master’s in music production and was feeling confused about the creative direction I wanted to pursue with my music. So I rented a small studio and began recording ideas on different instruments without any consideration of whether this was classical music, electronica, pop or something else. In this open-minded spirit, I felt the limitations of 12-tone equal temperament very strongly, so I began electronically retuning instruments—from a Wurlitzer electric piano to a balafon. I was especially drawn to a 16-note spectral scale (overtones 16-31 from the harmonic series), though I didn’t know the term “spectral” at the time!
What artists working with alternative tuning systems are you personally interested in? What approaches do you find inspiring?
I look up to Georg Vogel and his jazz trio Dsilton, for the way they have created an exhilarating new musical vocabulary in 31-tone equal temperament but with its roots in Western harmony.
[Read our Georg Vogel interview]
I am very interested in using alternative tuning systems as a way of improving and expanding upon the harmonic language we have inherited. But it is also exciting to discard that rule book and use microtonality to create dense, swimming textures—I love Taylor Brook’s piano music that does that.
The slowly unfolding meditative sound of “Stimmung” and other spectral classics such as Gérard Grisey’s “Espaces acoustiques” is something that I also adore, and alternative tuning systems such as just intonation naturally lend themselves to this style of music.
Amongst more recent artists, I admire Catherine Lamb for the way she conceives vast, evolving compositions in just intonation, and Jordan Dysktra for how he combines acoustic instruments and electronics in beautifully produced tracks that unfold gradually.
Terms like consonant and dissonant are used in school, but mostly with very limited understanding of what they mean. How has your own idea of these terms changed over time and how do you see them today?
When I am composing, the intervals that are closest to just intonation are always in my mind as being the most consonant. That is quite a different way of thinking compared with traditional tonal harmony—where the perfect fourth is treated as a dissonance, for example.
I wrote two piano duos in 19-tone equal temperament. In that system, the minor third is almost just and so I used minor thirds as most of the points of resolution. However, by this definition, in just intonation and spectral tunings, this means that all the intervals sound “consonant”, even very dense clusters. This makes me feel freed from the directionality of tonal music—in the same way Debussy was by using the whole-tone scale.
It is like writing for windchimes. But this makes tension and resolution in other aspects of the music even more important: rhythm, texture, etc.
What were some of the most interesting tuning systems you tried out and what are their respective qualities?
I very briefly tried out 81-tone equal temperament. That is a fascinating tuning, which electronic composer Daphne Oram was interested in. It works well with tonal harmony, but the intervals are closer to just intonation than in 12-tone. However, the octave can also be split up into equal parts (3, 9 or 27) to create modes of limited transposition—like Messiaen’s 12-tone ones. The other equal temperaments that allow for tonal harmony (19, 31, 53) are prime numbers, so modes of limited transposition are one fun compositional tool that you miss out on with those.
My first reaction to 81-tone equal temperament was that it had a floaty quality to it, but I have only scratched the surface.
Do different tuning systems suggest different kinds of music? Would you say that different tuning systems are capable of expressing different, and potentially unique emotional states?
Very broadly speaking, just and spectral tuning systems perhaps lend themselves to reflective music that meditates on a single sonority for a long period of time—an extreme example being La Monte Young’s “Well-Tuned Piano”.
By contrast, equal temperaments, especially sixth-tones, eighth-tones, etc., invite dazzling effects such as clusters and carefully crafted glissandos, like in Georg Friedrich Haas’s “limited approximations”. I think these two examples create particular emotional states that can only be achieved in their relative tuning systems: 7-limit just intonation and 72-tone equal temperament. But it can be fun to challenge those natural qualities of the tuning too!
For “Until I Set Him Free”, I wanted to create a tuning that was both familiar and strange. It is spectral and this gives it a weightless feel, I think. But it also allows for different approximations of major and minor chords that sound familiar and grounded. The music plays with these two contrasting qualities to, hopefully, evoke different emotions.
What challenges does playing in different tuning systems present to you as a performer? If you’re performing a piece in a different and new-to-you tuning, how will you approach this?
Besides its incredible sound, I like working with the piano because it is a fixed-pitch instrument. I work closely with piano technician Finlay Fraser, and once he has tuned the instrument, the only barrier to playing the microtonal music on it is becoming aurally familiar with the tuning, in order to play with sensitive expressive nuances.
And this is important—I like to spend time listening to different registers of the piano with and without the pedal even if all the music is written and ready to play.
How, if at all, has performing in a different tuning system changed your creative practice?
I feel that playing in different tunings has made me a more sensitive listener. It has also fuelled my interest in historically informed performance of early music, where different tuning systems like meantone tuning are regularly used to better approximate just intonation. I recently wrote a piece for soprano and theorbo and I’m planning to write for other period instruments.
So far, the focus with regards to alternative tuning systems has mainly been on harmony. But melody is affected, too. How do you personally understand melody and what changes when it becomes part of a new pitch environment?
I write melodies a lot, including when I write in microtonal languages. Although there are long passages of broken chords in “Until I Set Him Free”, which are about being immersed in a harmony or sonority, there are also many melodies. Because melody goes by so quickly, I think listeners hear it and naturally relate it to the musical intervals they know, even more so than with harmony. This is just something to be aware of as a composer and might affect the pacing of a melody.
On this album, I’m happy if listeners feel naturally that there are more “correct”, 12-tone versions of the melodies, and that what they’re actually hearing is a distorted version of these.
With electronic tools, playing and composing in just intonation has become a whole lot easier. Do you find this interesting?
Absolutely. I always want to work with acoustic instruments, and instruments are full of surprises: both wonderful and challenging ones (e.g. producing beautiful resonances but not staying in tune!). But I love experimenting with software instruments and it’s a practical way to work things out.
When I started working with microtonality, I rearranged all the layers of the piano samples manually within Logic but eventually discovered there were much easier and quicker ways to do this with tools such as Scala. And now I use Pianoteq, which is incredibly flexible and fun to play with.
For interested readers, what are books, websites, articles or other sources of information you recommend for them to educate themselves on the topic?
I would highly recommend the Now&Xen podcast that Stephen Weigel presents, where he interviews a whole range of interesting musicians working with microtonality across different genres. Kyle Gann’s book “The Arithmetic of Listening” is an accessible and comprehensive introduction to different tuning systems. And the Xenharmonic Alliance Facebook group is an excellent community—it can look a bit intimidating at first, but all the members want to encourage people to explore microtonality. They’ll give detailed answers to any questions you want to ask, and share some great music!