Curious offerings under plain cover

Robert Maycock samples an award-winning way of getting your new musical kicks through the mail
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The Independent Culture
We hear plenty about the alienation between composers and listeners that sprang up with the old "Sinfonietta-and-subsidy" generation. We don't hear so much about the long road back for the next generation of creative musicians and deprived audiences. At the creative front-line now, you find not a quango but a cult publication: the quarterly brown box of recordings and words called Unknown Public.

Issue No 6 has just appeared, bringing a bit of fizz to the end of January. It's a month to give seekers after diversity in new music a hard time every year, unless they can stand the frustrations of hearing bright emerging performers up against tired old "contemporary" repertoire in the Park Lane Group's annual week of young artists. A good time to stay in and investigate a phenomenon that has already won the Prudential Award for music - current issue title, "Eclectic Guitars".

Unknown Public is one element of the next generation's world, gradually falling into place alongside the rise of promoters who can put on minimalists one night and Africans the next, and the emergence of radio programmes, such as the BBC's Mixing It, which scan the field week by week. The format of the CD or tape delivers a dozen or so tracks of new work, a "scratchpad" of musical soundbites, a revived classic - currently by Frank Zappa - and a work-in-progress track. This last is a chunk of Jeremy Peyton Jones's 18 Guitars, which has so far proved intractable live, in a computerised version. "Make up your own mind about whether it might work" is the implicit question (only too easily, I'd have thought).

But then, that is the way the whole collection operates. If you don't like noise, try the spectacular first number, Associations Libres by Gilles Gobell, and see if the way it opens up to collage and rhythmic vigour doesn't bring an unexpected grandeur - which smashes like a mirror after three minutes. For me, the high points included one straight acoustic evocation by GP Hall, two lyrical adventures for retuned instruments by Billy Jenkins, and Robert Poss's violent but haunting Nagasaki Bells.

Peak moment was not a composition but a solo, Bill Frisell's wonderful electric-blue overlay to a number scored by Michael Gibbs for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. This track came from Radio 3; other sources are completely home-grown, and access is wide open compared to most recorded outlets.

There is a sense of freedom from the air of censorship that hangs over more established new-music media. Naturally this is in part an illusion: one musician's censorship is another's critical judgement. Unknown Public is actively edited, by John Walters. But the editorial stance is curious rather than prescriptive, inviting rather than carping. Listeners make discoveries in areas they can't predict, rather than knowing what to expect from the first few bars of the first track.

The content still isn't totally unbounded. According to the publishers, people subscribe from 32 countries, but the sources are not yet so broad. As is often the way with guitars, much of Issue No 6 has an earnest-male- student air - something that a more intercontinental coverage would lighten. Even so, for this listener, it opened more doors in an hour than a month of concert-going.

n Unknown Public: four issues pounds 50 (CD), pounds 40 (MC) by mail only from Freepost (RG2558), PO Box 354, Reading RG2 7BR (tel/fax: 01734 312580/2)