Outside Edge: John L Walters

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The Independent Culture
IT'S just possible that John L Walters will look vaguely familiar to you, if you're well-versed in early Eighties pop arcana: back then, he enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame when his group, Landscape, had a hit with the hellishly catchy 'Einstein A-Go-Go' - closer to 20 minutes if you count the follow-up, 'My Name is Norman Bates'.

Since then, he has done a variety of things; he's been a producer and a journalist, and he trains other journalists to use computer lay-out software. He still composes, but only when he has a commission. After all, he's a man with financial responsibilities - he has a family and a creative music quarterly to support.

He is editor of Unknown Public, subtitled 'Creative Music Quarterly' and summed up by him as 'an audio Granta'. The aim of the magazine is to promote music that doesn't fit easily into normal categories. Where it differs from other music publications is that you can listen to it: each issue consists of a CD containing a variety of music, much of it never before recorded, as well as sleeve notes, editorials, artwork (issue 2 had a cover by Andy Goldsworthy) and letters, all wrapped up in a tasteful cardboard box.

The idea came to Walters in 1988, when he realised that many of his acquaintances in the music world were coming up with great things that nobody ever heard. They fell between too many stools. If you have a piece that isn't quite pop and isn't quite jazz or classical, or if it's too long to fit on a single and you don't have enough music to fill a CD, then it's very hard to get it recorded. And if you do get it recorded, you'll be lucky to get it released.

Together with Laurence Aston, now the magazine's publisher, Walters came up with the idea of Unknown Public as a forum for 'creative music' - their term for music that sounds different from things you've heard before, or that doesn't fit any obvious repertory. The first issue came out at the end of last year, and the fourth will come out at the end of this year, so that they haven't quite lived up to the quarterly part of their name. This is not bad going given that Walters can only afford to work one full day a week, plus a couple of lunchtimes: not only has he not given up the day job, he's actually had to increase since the project started.

The title has turned out to be confusing. Many people seem to assume that the 'unknown' part refers to the music and Walters has had plenty of expressions of interest from composers who feel they qualify because they're utterly obscure. In fact, the magazine has had some famous names in contemporary music - Steve Reich, Michael Nyman, Jonathan Harvey, Django Bates. The unknown factor is who listens to them: the thinking is that there is, somewhere out there, an audience, but they haven't been identified yet.

So far, this public has been fairly slow to make itself known, though it is growing steadily. Given the sheer variety of music on offer there's always something to please every taste, from the outright cacophonous to the daringly melodic. Buying it is still a bit of an adventure, and at pounds 50 a year, the sort of excitement that not many people can afford. At the back of his mind, Walters must know that a large circulation will not be an unmixed blessing: after all, who wants to run a magazine called 'Reasonably Well-Known Public'?

Subscriptions cost pounds 50 a year for the CD version, pounds 40 for cassettes. Enquiries to 'Unknown Public', Department 1, Freepost (RG 2558), PO Box 354, Reading, RG2 7BR.