Arts: Where new music boxes clever

Unknown Public offers `Creative Music in a Plain Brown Box': sophisticated, original work of radical diversity. By David Thompson
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The Independent Culture
As the music industry seems enthralled by the shrinking circular logic of its own marketing NewSpeak, one small firm remains pleasingly unmoved by packaging makeover imperatives. As its name suggests, the Unknown Public shows scant regard for audience demographics and makes little concession to the music media's appetite for imagery and sound bites. If its motto "Creative Music in a Plain Brown Box" qualifies as a sound bite of sorts, it's also a perfectly reasonable summary of what the Unknown Public does.

Conceived as an irregular audio journal of contemporary music, and with loyal and growing audience of subscribers in 51 countries, its catalogue spans an enormous range of sounds and sensibilities, with frontier innovations few conventional record companies could match. UP's aesthetic takes in an encyclopdic sweep of possibilities, whether conventionally scored, electronically rendered or configured some other way. Small labels often limit themselves to generic expectations or seem confined to their own history, endlessly repeating their "label sound", UP might best be defined by its radical diversity.

At a time when so many music publications adopt territorial postures that define their tribal audiences by exclusion, Unknown Public's open- ended blueprint seems subversive, simply by default. In just six years, UP's founders, John Walters and Laurence Aston, have given an artistic home to more than 250 composers and performers, presenting exclusive or neglected work. UP's archives reveal contributions by Gavin Bryars, Sheila Chandra, Steve Reich, Trevor Wishart and Frank Zappa. Each subtitled issue offers a loose and often abstract theme, around which featured recordings gravitate. With no underlined sleeve-note connections, listeners are free to devise their own associations.

Walters explains: "Though I've always maintained that UP is wider than my personal tastes, I guess it is defined by my personal curiosity, which extends to things that I may not `like', but want to know about. I think there are some timeless, non-genre, non-sound aspects that I look for: elements of innovation, musicianship, craftsmanship, structure, melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, humour, ambition and vulgar showmanship - not necessarily all at once..."

The tenth and latest UP anthology takes in solo performance and solitude under the title Naked: Music Stripped Down: 13 pieces of audio erotica reach from improvised jazz and classical forms to live electronica and clouds of atomised ambience. Amid the popular assumption of music as merely an incidental soundtrack to collective leisure activity, neither warranting nor rewarding significant attention, the pieces curated here invite and repay more intimate consideration. From Helen Chadwick's slow, sparing rendition of Osip Mandelstam's poem Words to the data glove-directed electronics of Walter Fabeck's Les Astronautes, and Julian Arguelles gorgeously discreet saxophones, the sense of detailed intent and introspective absorption is difficult to resist.

Despite modest budgets, Walters and Aston continue to tack against the cultural tide, releasing work that is by turns subtle, sophisticated and strikingly original. Winning the Prudential Award for the Arts in 1996, UP have touched on an unrecognised public appetite for new and unfamiliar musical forms, supplementing their eponymous CD journal with live showcases and, in 1997, publishing Gramophone Explorations, a 100- page overview of contemporary music, produced along with Gramophone magazine.

Recent collaborations with the acclaimed pianist and composer, Joanna MacGregor, and producer, James Mallinson, have resulted in the launch of a second subscription-based label, SoundCircus. As conventional high street access to music becomes ever more streamlined and categorised, with in-store marketing campaigns occluding evidence of diversity, neither label sees any point in the ugly scuffle for shelf space.

Instead, mail order service, live performance and on-line interfaces connect the Unknown Public and SoundCircus with an international audience which, more than ever, seems neglected by the mainstream's narrowing focus. That the CD packaging used by both labels doesn't fit high street retailers' standardised racks is, of course, symbolic of the predicament now faced by many innovative artists.

Rather than adopt the conventional strategy of reinforcing boundaries and generic familiarity, the diversity of the UP collections quietly encourages the audience to investigate each piece with little of the prejudicial baggage that is fostered elsewhere. This freedom from reflex and received association calls to mind a famously existential line from an old Charlie Chan movie: "Theory, like mist on eyeglasses, obscures facts."

Irrespective of size and musical orientation, many record labels now employ marketing to prescribe an audience response that is more or less uniform, typically patronising and entirely premature. In effect, the listener is told how to feel about the music before it can be taken home and scrutinised. In marked contrast, the Unknown Public's plain brown boxes invite listeners to browse the music (and not the package), and find out for themselves.

`Private View/Public Hearing', a collaboration between the Unknown Public and the South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London, SE5 (0171- 703 6120), opens tonight with saxophonist John Butcher and the battery- driven electronics of Live Batt! The series continues until 6 July with performances by Joanna MacGregor, Walter Fabeck and Helen Chadwick.

Subscriptions to Unknown Public cost pounds 55 for four issues. Write to PO Box 354 FREEPOST [RG2558], Reading RG1 5ZZ (No stamp required if posted in UK). Tel: 0118-931 2580 Fax: 0118-931 2582 e-mail: