Coming out on Washington-based web label zeromoon and Moscow-based label Frozen Light, which released a strictly limited edition of 300 copies, “Sanctuary (Overtones and Deviations)” is the debut album of London-based pianist James Batty. Grouping a really heterogeneous and very interesting interbreeding of overtones (natural harmonic sound) and deviations (as a result of the “hacking” of piano, according to author’s own words) as well as turbulent and introspective moments, let’s check the reason why this skilled musician (before immersing himself in electroacoustic research, he also wrote for the BBC Singers and won a nomination in the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year) was even endorsed by painter Jo Baer, who granted permission to use her painting “Royal Families (Curves, Points and Little Ones)” – the source of inspiration for the track “Monarchy” – as a cover artwork.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi James! How are you?
James Batty: Great, thanks. I’m in the middle of preparing a live set at the moment, featuring music from Sanctuary, and composing and doing the pre-production for a new project.
Chain D.L.K.: Before focusing on your recent release, could you introduce yourself to our readers?
James Batty: Sure. I’m a pianist, composer and sound artist, originally from the North of England, currently living and working in London. I’m a classically trained pianist and composer, but the music I create now is more experimental. I’m really interested in different ways of tuning conventional instruments to create new musical scales, as well as finding beauty and music in sounds and noises that aren’t normally thought of as musical, like electrical hiss and traffic noises, for example.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there some relevant milestone over your artistic path (omitted from any official biography) that you want to share with us?
James Batty: Sanctuary itself was a milestone for me. In the past, I’d always felt quite pressured by expectations when I was writing and producing. For instance, the need to be “edgy” or “unusual” when I was writing concert music for classical ensembles, or the need to be “cool” when producing electronic music. Don’t get me wrong, I think being influenced and challenged by other music that’s out there is a good thing – it’s essential – as is understanding your audience, but at the time I created Sanctuary, I really needed to let go of all these expectations, free up, and see what came out. That’s why the album feels like a milestone; it was very liberating creatively.
Chain D.L.K.: You defined yourself as a “piano hacker.” What do you mean by this expression? When and why did you feel the need to ‘hack’ piano?
James Batty: Well, the piano has always been my instrument, and I love playing it in a traditional way, but I also love exploring all the other possibilities. Finding new ways of making the strings resonate, muting strings, and, in particular, tuning it in different ways. I was explaining all this to a friend who’s a journalist and she said to me, “you’re basically a piano hacker.” I thought the term was great, especially since I do a lot of digital manipulation of the piano sounds too, so it stuck!
Chain D.L.K.: The opening track ‘Fantasia’ sounds close to classical schemes, while the following “Frontier” resembles the classical side of synth music…are those tracks like a calling card of your sonic strategy?
James Batty: I’m not sure if I have a sonic strategy, but I like the elements of the composition and the compositional process to be clear—for people to hear what’s going on. You’re right, Fantasia is actually a series of variations, like Pachelbel’s Canon, I guess—it’s about the tensions between equal temperament (which is the normal way we tune the piano) and just intonation (which is more “natural”), and each variation introduces one more note of the scale, with the composition gradually getting more and more dissonant. One of the things I did with the album, which was quite liberating, was to switch off the rigid tempo grid in the software and work with minutes and seconds instead, finding more flexible, natural rhythms. I think that’s why Frontier has that sound; there’s no beat.
Chain D.L.K.: What are the main limits of 12 notes-based Western music in your viewpoint?
James Batty: I feel like all of the big developments in 12-tone harmony had actually already been made in classical music and jazz well before the end of the 20th century. That’s not to say that I don’t think we should still be creating 12-tone music. I think it’s a brilliant, extremely expressive system, and I love composing and improvising 12-tone music. But, like quite a lot of musicians, I’m fascinated by the other possibilities. You can divide the octave up into more equal parts (I’m really interested in 19-tone music at the moment), look at natural harmonics, which is what I do in Sanctuary, or turn to other cultures and traditions, like Middle Eastern music or Indian music.
Chain D.L.K.: If you could transplant your hacking method from instrument to compositions, is there a classical composer that you’d never hack? If so, why?
James Batty: Not that I can think of. I think remixing, reinterpreting, quoting other people’s music—all that is really exciting. It’s not something I’ve done much of before, but I’d love to try in the future.
Chain D.L.K.: I enjoyed some of the most intimate tracks of your album a lot. Some of them remind me of some stuff by Erik Satie. Are Satie’s works a source of inspiration besides the ones you explicitly mentioned?
James Batty: Thanks, that’s a great compliment. Something I really like about Satie’s music is that stillness, that sense of inner peace and harmony it gives you. That’s definitely something I try to create with my music too, although I wasn’t consciously inspired by Satie when I was producing Sanctuary. Now that you mention it though, I can see some parallels with the stride bass I use in Fantasia and his Gymnopédies!
Chain D.L.K.: The very first source of inspiration was “quoted” in the cover artwork of Sanctuary…can you tell us more about the connections between your music and Jo Baer’ss art?
James Batty: Sure. At that time, when I felt like I needed to free up my creative process, I visited an exhibition of Jo Baer’s paintings called “Towards the Land of the Giants” at Camden Arts Centre in London. I was blown away by her paintings; they were like intricate little patchworks of different stories, different moods. I always have a notebook with me, so I grabbed it and started writing down all these ideas that came to me. It was actually two specific paintings from that exhibition that inspired Giants and Monarchy. I had prints of those paintings in front of me in the studio as I was working, and the tracks are very programmatic—they’re my interpretations of different sections of the paintings.
Chain D.L.K.: Can you explain how your music reached Jo Baer’s eardrums?
James Batty: She was one of the first people to hear those tracks! Once the album was finished, I emailed them to her. Partly because I just wanted to share the music with her – I know I’d love it if someone had been inspired by my music to create a painting, a poem or something else – but also to ask her permission to use one of the paintings on the cover art.
Chain D.L.K.: …and what was her feedback after listening to Monarchy, explicitly inspired by Royal Families (Curves, Points and Little Ones)?
James Batty: She told me that she’d been astonished to be able to recognise her paintings in the music and was very happy for me to use Royal Families (Curves, Points and Little Ones) on the artwork. That was really the best compliment I could have hoped for. I love her work and we’re still in contact.
Chain D.L.K.: What are the other items of your sonic equipment?
James Batty: I use quite a lot of instruments; acoustic ones, electric ones and electronic ones. On this album, there’s piano, violin, clarinet, recorders, guitars, a Juno 106 synth, a Wurlitzer electric piano and different percussion instruments. In terms of hardware, I also have a Novation Supernova, Access Virus TI2 and Lexicon reverb that I use. I bring everything together in Logic Pro. I like making the most of simple sound manipulation processes; things you can do on tape, chopping, stretching, reversing, those sorts of things. I do most of that using software because it’s quick and convenient, but with Sanctuary we transferred everything to tape as part of the mastering process to give it some analogue warmth.
Chain D.L.K.: Some of the more electronic-oriented tracks (particularly the bonus track “Balustrade”) seem to feature hidden field recordings or the hissing of machines, rendering that vague feeling of alienation, easily provided by urban environments…you’re based in London, where this existential dimension could be easily experienced…did London have an influence on your sound?
James Batty: I think so. I’m quite an introspective person anyway, but I think that living in a busy city like London heightens that need for us to find our own sense of inner peace and sanity. London is fantastic – there’s so much happening all the time, so many new ideas and opportunities – but you have to maintain your own identity. I think everybody needs their own “sanctuary” really, and for me that means making music. Balustrade is actually more machines than field recordings. One day in the studio, the microphone I had connected to the mixer started producing this really strange beating sound—it must have been some kind of electrical interference. I just had to capture it, so I pressed record, then it morphed into a kind of tape-hissing sound before the beating came back again. I had no idea where this sound had come from, but I liked it, so I improvised on top of this with synthesizers and manipulated it in different ways, using notes and rhythms based on prime numbers, and this is the track that became Balustrade. I love field recording though, too.
Chain D.L.K.: Your album got released by Washington netlabel zeromoon and is available on CD through Moscow label Frozen Light…it seems that music annihilated barriers once more!
James Batty: Yes! Finding the right labels to release Sanctuary on was a really interesting process for me. I spoke to lots of great people all over the world, and I’m glad that in the end it was Frozen Light and zeromoon who took on the release. It’s my first album, so I’m just starting to get to know my audience and I’m enjoying that a lot, connecting with like-minded people from all sorts of places.
Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?
James Batty: Yes: my big project at the moment is a new album that’s even more piano-centric than Sanctuary. I wanted to take the idea of tuning instruments based on natural harmonics further, and I’m retuning an acoustic piano. I’ve also become really interested in the golden ratio recently – that sense of balance that you find in so many things from plants to architecture – and this is having a big impact on the pitches and rhythms I’m using. Most importantly, though, like always, I want the music to move me and move other people. I’m hoping to finish the project over the next few months.
Visit James Batty on the web at www.jamesbatty.com.