New Music 20×12: XX/XY

At the end of the month, a 12-minute musical battle composed by Liz Liew and Andy Leung will premiere at Trafalgar Square, marking the latest New Music 20x12 launch to celebrate the London Olympics. M spoke to the composers to find out more...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 11 Jan 2012
  • min read
At the end of the month, a 12-minute musical battle composed by Liz Liew and Andy Leung will premiere at Trafalgar Square, marking the latest New Music 20x12 launch to celebrate the London Olympics.

XX/XY was inspired by the competition of life, from the battle of the sexes to the competitive spirit of the Olympics and Paralympics. Liew and Leung came together for the PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music 20x12 initiative, which will mark London’s Olympic year with a series of musical premieres spanning the breadth of the country and covering a range of musical genres.

Liew is a composer and freelance musician, and has toured, performed and recorded with Moby, Gnarls Barkley, Lamb, Asian Dub Foundation and The Orb, amongst others. Recent projects include Time is Like Water Flowing, a soundtrack to a multi-disciplinary performance which she co-wrote with Tom E Morrison in 2008, culminating in seven shows at London’s O2 Arena.

Leung is a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, and started out in the band Introducing – a 10-piece that recreated DJ Shadow’s seminal album Endtroducing note-for-note.

XX/XY, named after the male and female chromosomes, features drumming from the Urban Youth Junk Band. Members have been assembled from communities across London and youngsters have reclaimed found objects and junk to form the drumming ensemble.

M caught up with Liew and Leung last month to find out what they’ve got in store for their premiere on 29 January.

How did the project come about?
Liz: This is the first time we’ve worked together. Chinatown Arts Space did a nationwide call for composers and suggested our backgrounds and music would fuse really well together.
Andy: Originally we both applied separately, but it turns out that our ideas were in some ways similar and in others quite different. What the guys at CAS thought was that we would complement each other really well. If you have been watching X Factor, you will know all about putting together boy bands! We are like a manufactured band!

Was it hard to start working together from scratch?
Liz: First of all we had an initial meeting to make sure it would work. We played each other music to check we were both on the right page. It can be quite a difficult thing if you don’t gel with the other person. We found that we had similar ideas of what we wanted to achieve, and have different backgrounds that complement each other. Andy was sampling electronics at the time, and I’m on the East-West fusion side of things, so Chinatown Arts Space felt that the blend would be really good.
Andy: We’ve both worked with other people before. And we got together quite a few times before we said that it would work. We needed to come up with a strong concept together, it was over a year ago now since we started.

What stage is the project at now?
Liz: It’s almost finished. We’ve got all the elements in place but we need to work on the last section where the Urban Youth Junk Band comes together.
Andy: I don’t know if you know about the Junk Band? We are working with a few local communities, including Regenerate in south London and another workshop in central London. The idea has been to get a bunch of kids together and run drumming workshops. But not with normal drum kits – these are found objects. It could be a chopstick, barrels, anything – its stomp mixed with kids and a lot of noise! During our live performance these guys will feature. They are all great drummers, really energetic and very much up for bashing the crap out of whatever they can find! That’s the bit that we’ve spent a bit more time on – training up the kids and making sure it sounds tight.

What inspired XX/XY?
Liz: When we were talking about the project we wanted to keep with the themes of the Olympics and Paralympics, so the piece is very much inspired by the competition of life. We wanted to do a musical battle; male verses female. We wanted to use traditional Chinese instruments and a small string ensemble to explore that competitive spirit.
Andy: When we came up with the idea it was about contrasting themes musically. There are areas where it is completely different. Chinese instruments mix with electronic equipment and we apply strange effects on things – it is quite a musical battle! Liz has got a theme and I have one, and both of us are trying to establish them and intervene with each other. It shifts around, the positioning is interesting.

Are there any vocals?
Liz: There are a few oooohs and aaaahs, but not a lot. We didn’t want words necessarily, but for the female theme there are a few vocals.
Andy: So Liz does oooooh a little bit and I have a vocoder part which I’m very proud of! But at the same time, in terms of spoken word, there are a lot of samples that we used.

Has the project changed the way either of you two work individually?
Andy: Yes, loads! I’ve learnt a lot. We did a studio session and it was the first real heavy project I’ve worked on; most of the time I work on a laptop with headphones. For me it’s about understanding all the instruments as well. I don’t actually play the instruments that Liz does and she doesn’t play what I play so it’s great to learn.

How important is the cultural side of the Olympics? What impact do you think it will have?
Andy: I think Britain is the best country to run the Cultural Olympiad. We are in a country with the most diverse ethnicities and what better place than London to do this huge cultural event?
Liz: I’m really excited about it! The London festival and all the amazing artists coming together will be such a great showcase, with the wide range of musical styles and the melting pot of influences.
Andy: I think getting everyone involved is the most important part. For us, going to community groups is a really good platform to engage with people. It’s about getting everyone together.

Tell me about your premiere…
Liz: It’s in Trafalgar Square at the start of the Chinese New Year, 29 January. We’ll be playing it afterwards too. Chinatown Arts Space is working on some other dates as well.

More from M on London 2012:
Howard Skempton launched the New Music 20x12 initiative on New Year's Eve with Five Rings Triples, click here to read about it.
For full details on the New Music 20×12 initiative, click here.
To read the Mind, Body, Spirit and Music: Going for Gold feature about British music at London 2012, click here.
For an exclusive interview with David Arnold, the musical director of the Official Closing Ceremony, click here.