Sixty years ago the sleepy Wiltshire village of Imber ceased to exist. Last orders were called at the local pub, the surrounding farms stopped work and St Giles' Church, which had sat at the heart of the community for 700 years, closed its doors. It was 1943, and desperate times called for desperate measures. Requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence, Imber had been chosen as a site to train Allied soldiers in street fighting in preparation for the push into Nazi-occupied Europe. The 160 villagers were evacuated and sent to stay with relatives, allegedly with the promise that they could return to their homes as soon as hostilities had ended. The troops moved in and Imber, having slumbered for centuries in the folds of Salisbury Plain, was rudely awakened by the stench of conflict.
Following the end of World War II and its segue into the Cold War, the army continued to use the settlement. Any hope the villagers had of returning to their homes was lost. The community, however, was never completely broken, and a sustained campaign calling for reparations to be made to those displaced by the military's war-gaming was begun in 1961 by local councillor Austin Underwood and continued in later years by his daughter Ruth.
To travel along the isolated and usually inaccessible path towards Imber through the militarized zone of Salisbury Plain (now one of the biggest training areas in Europe) is to pass through a Britain seldom seen. Wiltshire's ancient barrows and burial mounds are echoed in the forms of shattered military hardware. Burnt-out tanks and crushed vehicles litter the barren hills like dying beasts. Miles away from main roads a deathly silence hangs heavy with threat. Aside from the church, little remains of Imber itself. The streets are lined with the shells of buildings - two-up two-downs each with four windows and a door, structures hinting at the basic form of a traditional house. Back gardens are heavily overgrown, and the site bristles with barbed wire. This is a glimpse of state-of-emergency Britain. It is a landscape that hints at unthinkable future possibilities, prompting nervous speculation about the extent to which governments can seize day-to-day life for the preservation of sovereignty. I can recall anecdotes told by members of my family who had served in the army about participating in training exercises here - bullet-ridden cottages, the boarded-up pub still with all its fittings inside, grown men playing dead or running through the village at night shouting 'bang! bang!' These stories surface alongside unsettling memories of 'Protect and Survive' public service films, and Cold War-influenced episodes of Dr Who set in an England under military rule, besieged by invisible alien forces. It's a country I hope never to see. Salisbury Plain is steel and ordnance grist to a paranoid, fearful mill.
After years of negotiation with the M.o.D., the arts commissioning organisation Artangel, broadening their map of ghostly spaces and long-forgotten locations, recently gained access to Imber. The Georgian composer Giya Kancheli was commissioned to create a work in response to the village's story, along with artist and stage designer Jeremy Herbert who provided a visual interpretation. Born in Tblisi in 1935, and now resident in Antwerp (according to a fellow composer, on account of his fondness for the cakes there), Kancheli is now one of the most highly regarded contemporary composers - although his work, which draws on Georgian folklore and music, was seldom performed in the West until the Glasnost thaw began. Imber village was mineswept and opened to the public for three evening performances, one of which fell on Imber Day - the sole annual date on which the surviving villagers and their relatives are allowed back to tend the graves at St Giles.
Kancheli's elegy began with a clarion call. Outside a barn at the edge of the village the seven powerfully sonorous male voices of the Rustavi choir (Georgia's best-known traditional vocal ensemble) signalled the start of a procession that led through Imber and up to the church. Subtle interventions by Herbert transformed the village. It was dusk, and light glowed from the interiors of the houses as if the spirit of the village had sprung to life to guide the procession along its scarred streets. A driverless Morris Traveller (identical to the one used by Austin Underwood at the first Imber protest in January 1961) circled the village square in silent vigil. The crunch of gravel underfoot beat an almost martial rhythm to accompany the melancholic tones of the vocalists.
The singers created a complex polyphony that seemed at once medieval and utterly modern, as if a 15th-century monastic choir had been given a brief insight into 20th-century Modernist composition. As they reached the church, the crescendo of voices fell quiet. Just as their sound had been rousing, so their silence thickened and fed the poignancy of the moment. Inside the church, Kancheli's composition, performed by the choir along with a small chamber ensemble, seemed fundamentally driven by a dramaturgical impulse, and as it unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that any attempt to dissociate the music from the story of Imber itself would be overwhelmingly difficult. Unusual instrumental contrasts formed delicate textures, of which silence was as definite a presence as any timbre. Fragments of English pastoralism inflected the score's Eastern European characteristics, and leavened the sombre subject matter with an optimistic humour. Kancheli's Imber teemed with hope as much as with sadness. For the members of a small audience in a remote church far from home the event almost had the air of a requiem held by survivors of some unnamed catastrophe, attempting to reconcile an uneasy past with an uncertain future.
It was hard to distinguish the pathos of visiting Imber from the effect of the work. Music can sometimes over-labour an emotional point. Too much shrieking dissonance can overstate anger or distress, stripping the expression of its sincerity, just as a surfeit of silence and slowness can turn sadness into a sentimental dirge. There is a tendency too, especially within contemporary art, to conflate reference with content. Stories, places or objects perfectly fascinating in themselves are often requisitioned by artists in order to bolster thin ideas. In the absence of content, proximity to a place or person, or mere reference, becomes the stand-in, even the very point of the exercise. I had wondered about the relationship between Kancheli's music and Imber's tragedy, and whether the sheer emotional impact of visiting the wounded village actually needed ornamenting with the extra pathos of art and music, but immersion in the performance soon melted wary cynicism away.
Recently one Sunday, I decided to take a walk through the City of London towards St Paul's Cathedral. I soon discovered, however, that on this particular Sunday large parts of the area had been cordoned off for a training exercise simulating a terrorist attack involving chemical weapons. Helicopters buzzed in the sky above. Walking along the edge of the cordon, through the deserted alleys and lanes, glimpses could be had of large groups of police and firemen in biological protection suits. Like some nightmarish sci-fi film, the scenario was an uneasy reminder of Salisbury Plain and its atmosphere of foreboding. The following day contingency plans for the mass evacuation of London were announced. I thought of Imber's history and the disruption of civil life. The historian Theodore Zeldin once noted that history is nothing but a sense of community. If this is true, then to engage with history is to desire a place in that community. To hear Kancheli's Imber was to listen to the voice of community warning that nothing is certain or solid, but reassuring us that history might have a home for us all.