CLASSICAL MUSIC / Playing at the very edge: The composer Nigel Osborne has just returned from a visit to Sarajevo. Here he pays tribute to the art that has sustained a city under siege

The Sarajevo winter festival has a few more days to run, but it has already been overtaken by spring. There is bright sunshine and the fizz of the champagne air that blows through Bosnia at this time of year. The peace is fragile and a little unreal: I am awakened by heavy automatic fire early in the morning on the Feast of Bajram, and a nearby mortar sends my coffee spinning. But the city is transformed since I visited it last year in the darkest days of the siege. The streets and squares are full of people, couples are necking, and children and dogs race around.

The evenings are still impenetrably black, with electricity only occasionally in certain parts of town. I stumble through broken masonry and find the home of the artist Edo Numankadic. The family is crowded into a dim room. The flat has been damaged by mortars several times, and embedded in a pine cupboard is a lump of shrapnel which flew through the window when my friend Zlatko Lagumdzija, then deputy Prime Minister, was badly wounded by a shell as he passed by.

Edo is from a 'Muslim' family and his wife is a mixture of 'Croat' and 'Serb', but people in Sarajevo despise these labels, and are sick of claptrap about ethnicity and nation. 'In the war we have become disciples of Duchamp,' Edo tells me, 'living our lives like art. We have learnt to exist at the very edge of things: of our resources, inventiveness and mortality.'

We take a small gas lamp to look at some of the pictures: there is a war diary of small abstract paintings, posters printed on the back of old Yugoslav Army maps for lack of paper, and a superb polyptych. In the flickering light, the background seems a grainy white-grey, like karst. The figures remind me of the mystical marks on the standing stones of Herzegovina. 'I think art did quite a lot for the city. Art gave people some energy, the feeling of still being civilised, and perhaps a little bit of self-respect.'

Edo is one of the artists of Galerija Obala's Witnesses of Existence exhibition. He tells me how important support from Edinburgh has been. Richard Demarco's messages of encouragement and invitations sparked off the idea of trying to tour the work. Then there were the visits of Edinburgh Direct Aid. He remembers meeting Christine Witcutt. They had parted, saying they hoped to survive to see each other again. The next day Christine was shot dead by a Serb sniper as the convoy drove past the PTT building on the road out of Sarajevo.

The most vivid role in the war has fallen to my fellow musicians. After the bread-queue massacre, in May 1992, the cellist Vedran Smailovic put on his white tie and tails and played the Albinoni Adagio in the middle of the street. According to many, this marked the start of the civil resistance movement. The image of Smailovic playing among the ruins, and in the graveyards under sniper fire, became an icon for a city that chose to see itself as dignified, cultured and European.

A number of musicians left early in the war, and there have been fatalities in the profession, but Faruk Sirajic was still able to organise the War Philharmonic, there is an excellent children's choir, music education has gone on despite everything, and the Sarajevo String Quartet (Dzevad Sabanagic, Hrvoje Tislerr, Dijana Ihas and Miron Strutinski) has given concerts throughout the siege, predominantly matinees and ad hoc events. Dzevad proudly shows me the programme of the first evening concert of the war, for 9 March 1994, as part of the Sarajevo Winter Festival. There is the Mozart Divertimento in D major, Grieg's Op 27 quartet, a recitation of the text Planet Sarajevo by Abdulah Sidran and Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet.

I bring some strings and spare parts for instruments donated by the Scottish orchestras and a gift of bow hair from Withers in London. I am shocked that this small gesture becomes an item on Bosnian TV news alongside the visit of Vitaly Churkin. Only in Sarajevo . . .

The musical miracle of the war is how the composer Josip Magdic managed to create electronic music in a city without electricity. Magdic is in his fifties, and has gentle, humorous brown eyes. His voice is quiet, and there are the long pauses of someone who has learnt to conserve personal energy. He lives near the top of a burnt-out skyscraper, and some days he has 3,000 steps to climb to bring water. He also carries his Revox tape recorder and Yamaha CX5 computer to find electricity to work with when and where it becomes available.

Back in Edinburgh, I play his piece Indoctrination to my students, glad that the tape has survived all the magnetic fields and electronic surveillance systems on the way out of Sarajevo. The work is both complex and minimal: rhythmic patterns interlock and defy comprehension like an Escher staircase. The surround is sharp-edged, the colour constantly modulated. Some sound envelope problems become apparent when the tape is played on good monitors, but the piece is technically impressive, and I know it will enter the canon of electro- acoustic music as a challenge to the aesthetics of preciousness and the answer to the question of what happens when the plug is pulled out.

The story of Obala is worth telling. The Obala Theatre was destroyed by shelling early in the war. The ruins became a public short-cut to avoid the snipers, so Miro Purivatra, director of the theatre, decided to turn it into an exhibition space. The results were extraordinary. Often objects and images were created from the materials of destruction, like Mustafa Skopljak's stalagmites of shattered glass and dolls' faces buried in sand, or Ante Juric's installations of debris, mud and water. Here, it is as if the legacy of Joseph Beuys has become a dark prophecy, but the processes of the work are modernism in reverse. This has nothing to do with fragmentation, deconstruction or the atomic blast that scatters meaning and reference. It is integrative and reconstructive: an almost sacred act of nurturing and healing.

From this beginning came the Witnesses of Existence exhibition. Sarajevo-Edinburgh, the group formed to support Richard Demarco's invitation, sparred for months with the Foreign Office to bring the exhibition to Britain. John Smith, Paddy Ashdown and senior Conservative MPs supported the invitation, but the Government dithered and stonewalled.

In the meantime, Witnesses of Existence was wrecked by mortar fire on Christmas Day 1993. Purivatra narrowly escaped with his life and, as part of the same macabre gift from the hills, the Youth Theatre and the eccentric, bohemian Cafe Ragusa (one of the very few cafes to have stayed open throughout the siege) were shelled.

But art is long, and fascism and feebleness short-lived. The exhibition was rebuilt, Purivatra won the support of the UN, and Witnesses of Existence has just opened to ecstatic notices at the Kunsthalle, New York, and will soon travel to Scotland.

It seems to me that something very strong has come from my colleagues in Bosnia. While the world stood by and watched a holocaust on television, and while Western art floundered in a colossal imaginative recession, the artists of Sarajevo were the frontline of European civilisation, creating a new inclusive art, refined in hell-fire, tough enough to deal with anything, and absolutely necessary.

I salute you, artists of Sarajevo. The future is yours.

Nigel Osborne is professor of music at Edinburgh University. His new opera, inspired by civil resistance to the siege of Sarajevo, will be premiered by Opera Factory at the South Bank in August

(Photograph omitted)

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