And there's not a marching band in sight...

The ghost village of Imber has been used for military excersises since 1943. Now, writes Louise Gray, a unique music project is to restore some spirituality to its blasted streets
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The Independent Culture

It is surely one of the more striking ironies of mistranslation, that, when, on 21 August, composer Giya Kancheli's Warzone gets its UK premiere at the Proms, the audience may be thinking about conflicts, turmoils and exiles. Not without good reason: hailing from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Kancheli (who is now based in Antwerp) is a man who's witnessed violent change. But Warzone - a transliteration of "varzone" from Ossetian, one of the languages abutting Kancheli's native land - actually means "love". Whether the composer will be present to hear conductor Valery Gergiev lead the Rotterdam Philharmonic through it, is another question.

Not least because for three late August evenings Kancheli will be in the deserted village of Imber, Wiltshire, employing Georgia's Rustavi male voice choir, the Matrix Ensemble and a soloist from Salisbury Cathedral in a project that is highly unusual - even by the standards of Artangel, the body which commissioned it. Situated in the middle of the army's firing ranges on Salisbury Plain, Imber is a war zone of a different making. The 160 villagers were evacuated in 1943 to provide a place for troops to train for the invasion of France. Following the war, the army sequestered the land and, although Imber's displaced inhabitants petitioned to return, the ensuing public enquiry found against them. Since then the ghostly village has remained a military training site, opening for just one day a year to enable villagers to attend a service in the 14th-century church of St Giles and tend to family graves.

Artangel negotiated with the army for two years to obtain a ceasefire at Imber, so now visitors will experience Kancheli's music as they walk around the village and in the church itself (the Bishop of Salisbury has also given his backing for the project). If Kancheli's monumental Imber music is designed to lay the past to rest, then the 68-year old composer is uniquely placed to do so. Not because he is, like Arvo Pärt, a holy minimalist (Kancheli, who speaks through his interpreter daughter, knows enough English to roll his eyes at the description), so much as a composer interested in a kind of secular spirituality. "There is a difference between religious and spiritual music," he insists. "My music is definitely not religious."

For Kancheli, whose music was first introduced to the west by the groundbreaking Munich-based label ECM, which also championed the Estonian Pärt, spirituality is more connected with the human capacity to endure. There is, in both his precisely structured orchestral and vocal works, a sense of a purpose that moves towards some unstated numinous ideal. Although restrained, its emotional content is undeniable; while never sentimental, the music's structures are as subtley systematic, as say, Bach's contrapunctualism. It is as if Kancheli attempts to inject humanity into the fabric of musical harmony. And while Kancheli's compositional style could never be anything other than late 20th century, there is, when listening to earlier works such as Exil or Magnum Ignotum, a timeless feeling, a sense of a lineage that harks back to early music before moving forwards.

"This is not necessarily music about memory and the past," Kancheli says, "as a way of looking at the future. They're both things I view with equal pessimism. I would be very happy if I could be reassured that everything that happened in the past and is happening now could not be repeated in the future."

If by this he means the violent ruptures in human life that conflict and displacement causes, then Kancheli speaks from personal experience. Imber, which he first visited in 2001, has a a parallel in Georgia, where, in the wilderness outside Tbilisi, the Soviet army until recently used the 10th-century monastery of David Garedji for its target practice, doing irreparable damage to its extraordinary frescoes in the process. "In Georgia, it was a violent story," he says euphemistically. "The difference is that in England it happened in a slightly more civilised way."

Now a world heritage site, the monastery will feature in Artangel's second instalment of the Imber story, a documentary by Mark Kidel commissioned by the BBC, and it's this dual focus that appeals to Kancheli. Growing up in Stalin's Soviet Union, at a time when art was an instrument of totalitarian control, the Imber event is a way of making reparation to Georgia's own history.

The years following Stalin's death in 1953 were ones of great upheaval. Kancheli, then a student, recalls the reaction to Khruschev's denunciation of the dictator. "We'd go to Stalin's monument in Tbilisi and demonstrate against Khruschev. We'd been brought up to think of Lenin and Stalin as gods. We really had no idea. Later, I asked my parents why they hadn't told us the truth. They replied that it had been safer not to."

Stalin's death ("Yes!" Kancheli says suddenly; his only word of English has the force of an eruption) made the USSR a safer place, but there were still dangers. "Demonstrators were shot," he says. "By 1959, I understood what had happened. I don't know if it was good or bad to have lived through this period, but maybe it was my destiny to have passed through this change. I'm often asked why there are such dynamic contrasts in my music. It's possibly because of this experience."

He's less certain of the ability of music to communicate hidden meanings - something many Soviet composers tried to do. "Because of the abstract nature of music, it's very difficult to talk about this. Everyone knows that Solzhenitsyn was the first writer who wrote the truth about that period, but I think that Shostakovich told the same truth, and he did it much earlier. Shostakovich got away with it because his language was abstract. Solzhenitsyn's was literal, and so he didn't."

Unsurprisingly, Kancheli is clear about the duty - and limitations - of the artist. "I don't think art can conquer darkness or ignorance. If music had been able to do anything against it, Bach would have been able to do it better than any of us - high art will always exist and never be able to do anything against the darkness" - the more pessimistic his pronouncements, the more animated he becomes - "in which case you may want to ask me why I continue to write."

So?

"Only because of hope - everybody has hope."

'Imber': by Giya Kancheli: Salisbury Plain, Wilts, (Box office 01722 320 333, www.artangel.org.uk). 'Warzone': Prom 43, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212) 21 August

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