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Jamie xx composes in code

The music for “Tree of Codes”, a new ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor, required an innovative approach

Hazel Sheffield | July 15th 2015

Jamie Smith, better known as Jamie xx, will remember 2015 as the year he released his first solo album, “In Colour”. It was also the year he wrote music for an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, started writing a third album with his band, the xx, and premiered his first ballet, “Tree of Codes”.

“Tree of Codes” wasn’t his idea. The concept came from the choreographer Wayne McGregor, who wanted to create a ballet based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Tree of Codes” – a story cut from the pages of a 1934 book by Bruno Schulz, “The Street of Crocodiles”. Foer took the original book and sliced words out leaving rectangular gaps in the pages to create both a new narrative and what the publisher described as a “sculptural object”. McGregor worked with Olafur Eliasson, a Danish installation artist, to create a set made from screens, mirrors and light that similarly cut up the stage.

Smith became involved at the suggestion of Alex Poots, the artistic director of Manchester International Festival, where the work premiered on July 3rd before transferring to New York this September. “When Alex Poots gave me a copy of ‘Tree of Codes’, the book, it was the physicality rather than the content that interested me,” Smith says in the programme notes. “I could immediately see patterns and rhythms in it, even melodies. Instantly.”

He spent two years creating the music for “Tree of Codes”. “I didn’t want to purposefully do something that didn’t sound like me, but I’ve been able to do things that I would never put on a record,” he said. Some of the most exhilarating passages don’t sound like him at all. The piece starts with chaotic clopping that falls into a rhythm, nodding to Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”. The lights glow on the crowd rather than the stage, and the dancers emerge in darkness, visible only by the fairy lights sewn into their costumes, so that their movements appear as shifting constellations. Another passage, sung by the Norwegian singer Okay Kaya and danced in multicoloured costumes, could pass for Depeche Mode in the 1980s, with its pneumatic drums and guitar lines soaked in delay.

There are snatches of calypso rhythms and steel pans, now so familiar to Smith’s work that the one song featuring steel pans on “In Colour” is titled “Obv”. He draws on the four-to-the-floor of house music that he likes to dance to. One particularly beautiful moment, danced by a man and woman surrounded by a semicircle of mirrors, is scored with jungle breakbeats, a kind of urban dance music that often appears in his work.

Smith is a master of the mix of melancholy and ecstasy of the dancefloor, which translates well to ballet. He is also a sensitive and gifted collaborator, turning out remixes for everyone from Adele to Gil Scott Heron to Radiohead. “Tree of Codes” demanded something more. So he invented a computer algorithm that replicated the words and spaces on the page in rhythm and structure. It’s a trick he may have learnt from McGregor, who often uses algorithms as a basis for his choreography.

“Time passes so differently in space when you add the movement,” Smith said about working with dancers. Unlike “In Colour”, which takes the reader on a journey through a night out at a rave, “Tree of Codes” carries no discernable narrative. Instead, the audience is captivated by a dialogue between Smith, McGregor and Eliasson that speaks for itself.

Tree of Codes Park Avenue Armory, New York, September 14th-21st

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