Sorrowful waltz in a ghost town

It's entirely apt that the premiere of a new work by Giya Kancheli is being given at an abandoned village on Salisbury Plain. The composer Gavin Bryars looks at its genesis
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The appearance of the music of Arvo Pärt in the mid-1980s was a startling thing, as though one had walked into a strange but parallel musical universe, one which seemed quite unrelated to the pattern of contemporary Western musical practice. It was a particular album, Tabula Rasa, one of the first of ECM's New Series, that had such an impact. Here was a music that was deeply spiritual (although all the works on this recording, unlike the vast majority of Pärt's output, are instrumental works with no connection to the liturgy), moving at a reflective pace, and using an approach to tonality that seemed almost to ignore the previous three hundred years.

Not long after came the huge commercial success of the recording of Gorecki's Third Symphony, and suddenly the world seemed awash with a kind of music that was lumped together somewhat arbitrarily (though memorably, in the CD bins at Tower Records in lower Manhattan, as "faith minimalism"). Other composers in this perceived territory, such as Peteris Vasks and Giya Kancheli, found themselves in demand, with new recordings being issued, many of them on ECM with its stable of remarkable house performers such as the Hilliard Ensemble, the violinist Gidon Kremer, the violist Kim Kashkashian and the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and with new works being commissioned.

All these composers are of a similar generation and background. All lived and worked in the former Soviet Union or its satellites: Pärt in Estonia, Gorecki in Poland, Vasks in Latvia and Kancheli in Georgia. And although there are musical specialists who were aware of these composers from earlier times, their emergence into a more general consciousness in the West came about initially through glasnost, and more substantially after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Since then, Pärt and Kancheli have moved to the West, and they find themselves being taken up by performers of the highest quality.

Like Pärt, whose ear for musical subtlety was helped by his many years as a producer for Estonian Radio, Kancheli is a supremely practical musician. For more than 20 years he worked as the musical director of the Rustavi Theatre in Tbilisi and, like many composers in the Soviet Union, wrote music for film. His experience of writing for theatre and film has given him an extraordinarily sure sense of musical dramaturgy; of how the music should be paced, how long something needs to be in place before interruption or change.

This is almost impossible to learn by study - the way in which time is allowed to unfold - but it is at the heart of music. As we can understand from the music and writings of John Cage, time rather than sound is arguably the most important of all musical parameters (and I learnt a great deal about pacing time by working in improvised music, as well as working with Cage, but probably more by accompanying stand-up comedians, singers and magicians in cabaret in the 1960s).

Duration, as Cage noted, is the only thing that the two principal elements of music - sound and silence - have in common. Kancheli has talked of the importance of silence in his work and of the different kinds of silence in performance. "There is formal silence born of courtesy. And there is silence in which the soul of the music and the souls of the people listening are connected by invisible threads."

Kancheli's experience of film and theatre may also partially account for his inserting dramatic and even melodramatic moments in his music, as well as bringing into play film-like techniques of montage, abrupt edits and sudden juxtaposition of vastly dissimilar material. This is most apparent in his later works, from the early 1990s onwards, where in otherwise reflective and almost static works there will be a sudden outburst of music of startling energy and high volume, returning equally suddenly to its previous state. Few, if any, pieces stay entirely on the one level, though the overall impression is of stasis.

In composing Simi, for cello and orchestra, written for Mstislav Rostropovich, Kancheli talks of how he was aware that his soloist was capable of "all imaginable sound combinations on the cello, but a host of unimaginable ones too, and yet [I] found the strength to withstand the temptation and write an exceedingly slow, confession-like composition, devoid of outward effects". While this is true of the solo part, the orchestra has moments entirely the opposite, giving the solo cello a quite different focus.

The fragility of much of Kancheli's cello writing in Simi, and the vocal quality of much of his instrumental writing, are paralleled by his fondness for inserting a solitary voice in instrumental works. His Third Symphony (1973), for example, opens with a section where a countertenor voice appears - sung memorably by David James in the 1997 Proms performance - like a sound from another world.

In other works he has written for boys' voices, whether chorally (as in Bright Sorrow in the mid-1980s) or as a solo voice, "to remind us of the voices of angels we have never heard". This happens most poignantly in the four-part cycle Life Without Christmas (1991/94). Each of the four Prayers is essentially for chamber orchestra but the addition of the solo voice, usually in the closing moments, takes them into other dimensions, though not simply by crude addition of the voice, but rather by the way in which this appears as a natural consequence of the solo instrumental lines.

In the first and last of the cycle, "Morning Prayers" and "Night Prayers", the breathy alto flute and soprano saxophone respectively give way to the boy's voice (on tape). In "Midday Prayers" the boy treble sings live as part of the ensemble, offset against the solo clarinet. (With "Evening Prayers", the third of the set, choral voices form part of the ensemble - the Hilliard in the ECM recording - and so there is no need for any addition.)

Using recorded voices has, for Kancheli, been one way to bring something authentically Georgian into a work where Georgian resources are not directly employed. He has spoken of how he refused a request to write a composition containing Georgian folk tunes, and of how, when he was asked to reconsider, he integrated the folk music on tape into his own music. This happens particularly in Magnum Ignotum, for wind ensemble and double bass, where he uses pre-recorded material from Georgia, one element of which is the Rustavi Choir of male voices singing a Georgian hymn. This music, being in untempered tuning, is something which, as he has said, "loses its magic" as soon as it is transcribed for instruments. Towards the end of his life Stravinsky, a major influence on Kancheli, was impressed by the "folkloric polyphony" of Georgian three-part songs more than anything he had heard for some time.

It is surely significant that, for Artangel's project at Imber in Wiltshire, Kancheli has chosen to use the Rustavi Choir, with an instrumental chamber ensemble and a solo treble chorister, this time from Salisbury Cathedral, within whose diocese Imber remains. Much of his work has dealt with aspects of loss, dislocation, reconciliation - hardly surprising given his background - and this gives the Imber project particular resonance. The ejection of 160 villagers from their homes in Wiltshire 60 years ago, initially to make way for US military training, is a small incident compared with the subjection of a country. But clearly Kancheli is investing this commission with the same devotional care he applies to all his work.

Some preliminary sketch fragments I have heard include tiny dance-like fragments reminiscent of Nino Rota's film scores. Indeed, a sentimental little waltz, like the music for Fellini's The Clowns, finds its way into Simi (and Kancheli has expressed his fondness for Nino Rota's music). I was happy to learn that I share with Kancheli not only this love of Nino Rota, but also of Richard Strauss and Gil Evans, as well as the practice of, still, using only pencil, paper and eraser in composing.

Kancheli's Georgia, of course, has a status for Russians something akin to that which Rota's Italy has for the English, with the warmth and generosity of the people allied to a rich quality of life. So it is hardly surprising that while Kancheli might have an equivalent deep sense of the spiritual as someone like Pärt (though without the northern composer's insistence on religion), any musical austerity is offset by a unique combination of both nostalgia and a deep sensuality that is completely engaging, and which is emphatically not that of the Holy Fool.

Giya Kancheli's 'Imber', at Imber, Wiltshire; tomorrow, Friday and Saturday (for details see Booking via Salisbury Playhouse (01722 320333; returns only, waiting list)