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Jamie xx, from nightclub to the Paris Opera

Reflections on “Tree of Codes” — By Lucien Rieul

A choreographer, an artist and a composer of electronic music have created a work inspired by a book, itself based on another book. That’s a pitch that hardly shines out for clarity, but rather for its ramifications. Commissioned from Wayne McGregor, Olafur Eliasson and Jamie xx and first performed at the Manchester International Festival*, Tree of Codes was inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer's eponymous sculpture/book adapted from The Street of Crocodiles, an anthology by Polish author Bruno Schulz, by cutting up the pages and eliminating certain words. This project, first presented in 2017 at the Palais Garnier, is back at the Opera Bastille from June 26 to July 13 2019. A unique opportunity to (re)experience a new and grandiose facet of Jamie xx's sound world.


When, in 2011, he released the album, We are New Here, Jamie xx already enjoyed considerable acclaim – that same year, the xx's eponymous album, released in 2009, was certified platinum. The rhythm boxes, the post-punk side of this minimalist pop trio (at that time a quartet), are down to him. Producer of the xx and instrumentalist, Jamie Smith made a startling solo debut when he remixed the album by the monumental Gil-Scott Heron I’m New Here. Jamie xx embellishes the phrasing of that pioneer of Spoken Word, to whom we owe The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, with tones of electronica and post-dubstep. Perhaps it was listening to that unexpected, ambitious and successful collaboration that incited the Manchester International Festival, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Wayne McGregor Studio to invite Smith, alongside choreographer Wayne McGregor and artist Olafur Eliasson, to take part in the Tree of Codes adventure.

“I didn’t know anything about ballet before this,” declared the composer in 2015 to the British daily newspaper The Independent. I get a lot of random offers from people, but this one was exciting. Everyone was super into it and super enthusiastic about it.” Jamie xx was already familiar with the work of Eliasson: this Icelandic artist is one of only a few people to have occupied the gigantic Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London, where his Weather Project illuminated the space with the burning light of a huge sun; his work can also be seen in art collections all over the world. Although he met Wayne McGregor and was a party to the choreographic research of the dancers, Smith claims to have been greatly inspired by the book Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer. ‘It’s the form more than the content of the book that interested me. This book really grabbed me.

From artists as diverse as Paul Simon and Gloria Gaynor, Jamie xx’s first album abounded in citations borrowed and worked into his own compositions; in his second album released in 2015, In Colours, this procedure becomes even more prevalent, with refrains from Idris Muhammad’s Could Heaven Ever Be Like This (1977) and Good Times by The Persuasions (1972) actually becoming the principle themes in two numbers, Loud Places and I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) - a procedure reminiscent of Foer’s chopped up phrases obtained by extracting certain words from the original text by Bruno Schulz. For Tree of Codes, it was songs by Mickey Newbury and Patrick Cassidy that provided Smith’s musical construction materials.
Tree of Codes
Tree of Codes © Joel Chester Fildes

But Jamie Smith doesn’t content himself with reworking other people’s songs; in several pieces, notably his hit-song I’ll Be There For You, Romy Madley Croft of the xx is on vocals. For this original project, the composer called on the singer Okay Kaya. Her lyrical timbre, like the arrangements by the quartet Iskra Strings that we hear in certain passages of Tree of Codes, remind us that, in spite of his modernity, Smith has been weaving links with the classical opera repertoire. “ I have been able to create pieces that I would never have recorded on an album,” he writes.

Technology, a theme dear to Wayne McGregor, is also present in Jamie xx’s sound track, whether in the form of synthesisers and rhythm boxes borrowed from House or Techno, whose beat sometimes makes the stage resemble a night club, or in the very process by which the Londoner composed his music. In an interview granted to The Creators Project, McGregor explains: “Jamie thought of a way of building an algo-rhythmic programme that in some way played the pages [of Tree of Codes], and gave him a base-line in terms of rhythm that he could then work on top of [] and write melody from.” Half way between emotion and abstraction, the music of Tree of Codes is inseparable from the scenography and the dance, which explains why it has not been released on CD. The presentation of this project until February 23rd at the Palais Garnier is a unique opportunity to experience a new and grandiose facet of the sound world of Jamie xx.    


Listen to « In Colour » by Jamie xx


*Tree of Codes was commissioned by the Paris Opera, the Manchester International Festival, Park Avenue Armory, Faena Art, Sadler’s Wells and Aarhus, European Cultural Capital 2017. Production by the Manchester International Festival, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Wayne McGregor Studio.

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