Imber, Imber village, Salisbury Plain

The lost village finds its voice
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The Independent Culture

There are few things more spooky than a town suddenly and forcibly emptied of its inhabitants: the Wiltshire village of Imber, commandeered by the army in 1943 and kept in MoD purdah ever since, lurks invisibly on the map like a phantom limb. Once a year the surviving relatives of those who lived and died there may go and put flowers on its graves; otherwise, it's where the boys in khaki play war-games. The medieval church has now been officially declared "redundant".

A ghostly presence: just the thing to fire the imagination of Artangel director Michael Morris, under whose sponsorship Rachel Whiteread's "House" - a concrete cast of the internal space of a demolished terrace house - first revealed the latent power in the memory of brutal amputation. Artangel's forte being site-specific events, it occurred to Morris to invite the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli to create a work for performance on the spot. Kancheli came, saw, and was duly inspired: Imber put him in mind of the Georgian monastery of David Garreja, whose ancient frescos had not prevented the Soviet army from using it for target practice. He would respond to the Imber story in sound.

Artangel's publicity machine always draws the crowd, so here we were, being ferried in a convoy of buses through an eerily deserted landscape towards an event entitled Imber. First we circumambulated the village, whose blank-eyed houses - not originals - looked ready to be blown away. At every corner notices ordered us to stick to the paths: "Unexploded military debris". From each building emanated a different music, nostalgic fairground stuff, while in the square an unmanned Morris Traveller sporting two giant loudspeakers drove round in circles, filling the air with the crackly sound of a gramophone needle stuck in the final groove.

The grave of a community: a forbidden place where no mobile phone could pick up a signal: as a piece of installation-art, all this worked well.

Then we processed to the barn where we watched newsreel footage of Imber as it had been in life, and then of the great evacuation, with scenes of Hardyesque pathos as farmers with ancient carts piled high with furniture said goodbye to their homes for ever. But I couldn't help remembering what a local lady had told me on the bus: while older residents kept up their "Forever Imber" campaign for decades after the evacuation, the younger inhabitants couldn't wait to get away. Kosovo this wasn't.

But then came magic: Rustavi choir - Georgia's finest - suddenly filled the air with their polyphonic chants, and led us back through the village. Their three-part harmony is one of the musical wonders of the world, and these hymns and drinking songs - Georgia's sacred and secular musics are almost indistinguishable from each other - soared thrillingly on the still summer air.

Then, over mounds of freshly cut hay, it was up to the church for Kancheli's newly commissioned work. Rustavi stood in a circle but didn't sing: what we got was a saccharine little piece for a small instrumental ensemble plus one chorister from Salisbury Cathedral choir. Kancheli's aim had been to reflect the mystical stillness that Imber and David Garreja shared, and his music did feel as though it rose out of silence - and was constantly about to fall back into it - but this was an anti-climax.

The fact is, we weren't focus-ing on the real tragedy - unmentioned in the advance publicity - which lies three thousand miles away. Though they don't hail from it, Rustavi take their name from a now-derelict Georgian industrial city, which is one of the most desolate places I've seen. Thousands of people live there, but hardly any have jobs. And the monastery of David Garreja - just south of Rustavi - is still sublime. But it would take more than a fleet of buses to ferry an audience out there.

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