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Reaching back and looking forward

Renaissance Microtonality and New Music

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Reaching back and looking forward  - Renaissance Microtonality and New Music

James Batty is a Cheshire-born, London-based harpsichordist and composer. He and his newly formed period-instrument ensemble – the Picardy Players –  are picking up where Italian musicians of the 1500s left off, creating music with 31 notes per octave and rediscovering this original renaissance repertoire. James recounts to Continuo Connect how his fascination with period instruments began.

As a composer, writes James Batty, I first became interested in microtonality back in 2015. I found myself growing dissatisfied with the limitations of our standard modern Western tuning system: equal temperament, or twelve equally spaced piano keys in an octave. I wanted to explore ways of composing in a  ‘“spectral’” way, making a sound palette out of natural harmonics — the sounds a string player produces when they glide their fingers softly up and down the strings. This led me to write a number of pieces using these extra microtonal pitches for various groups of instruments, from accordion and voice (Lore Amenabar Larrañaga, Océane Deweirder) to string ensemble (Hill Quartet), and I released two albums of this music: Sanctuary (Overtones and Deviations) (zeromoon/Frozen Light, 2016) for multiple instruments and electronics and Until I Set Him Free (Blue Spiral, 2021) for solo piano.

James Batty (photo ©Jessica Hu)
James Batty (photo ©Jessica Hu)

My first exposure to historical instruments came in 2021. I had the opportunity to compose for a project called Theorbo Today, involving theorbo players Sergio Bucheli and Toby Carr and sopranos Janet Oates and Felicity Hayward. I was instantly captivated by the intimate sonic quality of the theorbo and its gut strings, the poignant human nature of the pieces by Robert de Visée (ca. 1655 – 1732/1733, a French lutenist, guitarist, theorbist and viol player at the court of the kings Louis XIV and Louis XV, as well as a singer and composer) and other repertoire Toby introduced us to, and the history of the instrument in baroque opera. But not only this: different ways of tuning the instruments – such as with pure or wider intervals and adjusting the frets to “sweeten” certain notes – were a fundamental consideration for the lutenists in their performance. So my idea for Toby and Sergio to re-tune some of the theorbo strings to achieve a wider microtonal spectrum of notes was just an extension of their normal practice, and they were completely open to experimenting with this.

Nicola Vicentino
Nicola Vicentino

Increasingly, I became fascinated by one particular system of tuning that originated in 16th century Italy: one, effectively, of 31 notes in an octave. Musicians at the time were trying to reclaim the legendary power of Ancient Greek music, as told in stories such as Orpheus and the Underworld and Arion and the Dolphin. The Ancient Greeks had an ‘enharmonic’ musical system with intervals smaller than our modern semitone. In the 1500s, several Italian composers, such as Nicola Vicentino (ca 1511 – 1576, music theorist and composer), Luzzasco Luzzaschi (ca.1545 – 1607, composer, organist, and teacher) and Luca Marenzio (ca.1554 – 1599, composer and singer), were striving to rekindle this ancient tradition by expanding the renaissance ‘meantone’ tuning into an elaborate one that divided tones up into five parts, rather than the two semitones we know today. The music the composers wrote in this system demanded incredible intonation skills from the singers, and Vicentino travelled between Italian states training choirs to sing in this way. This bold new music was a hot topic: wealthy patrons commissioned ‘enharmonic’ works and the music even appeared at the Papal Court.

Archicembalo (©studio31)
Archicembalo (©studio31)

As a keyboard player, I am particularly fascinated by Vicentino’s work in this area. Vicentino extended existing models of split-key instruments by designing a harpsichord with 36 keys spread across two manuals: the ‘archicembalo’. This, and related instruments such as the ‘arciorgano’ and ‘clavemusicum omnitonum’ (with 31 keys per octave on a single keyboard), have been reconstructed in recent years through the Studio31 project in Basel, and have spawned new acoustic and electronic variants such as jazz pianist Georg Vogel’s ‘claviton’.

But I was keen to make this music with the instruments I had available in London. So, after many experiments – and, thankfully, no broken strings! – I came up with a tuning concept for a normal double manual harpsichord that gave me a set of these 31 notes at my fingertips in a way that was both practical and musical. Another feature of this tuning was that it was well designed for playing ‘“normal’” renaissance and early baroque repertoire in its original (quarter-comma) meantone tuning.

I conceived several solo pieces for this tuning, and have been performing these alongside music by Matthew Locke, Johann Jakob Froberger and other composers over the course of 2023. At the same time, I began trying these ideas out with friends who played other historical instruments, and forming an ensemble to play this music together seemed a natural and exciting next step—hence, the Picardy Players was born. The ensemble is named after the ‘Picardy third’, where music in a minor mode ends with a major interval, a concept that underpins several of Vicentino’s musical scales.

We are currently immersed in explorations of Vicentino’s enharmonic motets and creating new instrumental transcriptions of these. The longest of these was a central feature of our inaugural concert in January 2024, ‘Birch Tales’.

Birch Tales
Birch Tales

Where the 31-tone musical language was reaching back from Renaissance Italy to the ancient world, the theme of this concert bridges the historical gap between the two. In the Middle Ages in the Kyivan empire, the birch tree played an important role in people’s lives. Not only did it provide timber and a nutritious sap, but the soft bark served as a free material that could be used as paper to write personal letters. Hundreds of these letters have been unearthed in recent decades and provide fascinating glimpses into the lives of the people of Kyivan Rus. ‘Birch Tales’ explores some of these through a programme of old and new music in a multi-sensory concert experience with the music enhanced by visual projections in a scented space.

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