|Creative Music in
a Plain Brown Box
"Those who compose because they want
to please others, and have audiences in mind, are not real artists. They
are merely more or less skilful entertainers who would renounce composing
if they did not find listeners."
Arnold Schoenberg, 1946.
As the music industry seems enthralled
by the shrinking circular logic of its own marketing NewSpeak few small
organisations remain pleasingly unmoved by the makeover imperatives of
packaging. As one company's name suggests, the Unknown Public shows scant
regard for audience demographics and makes little concession to the music
media's appetite for modish imagery and sound bites. If the company's 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 a loyal and growing audience of
subscribers in 51 countries, the Unknown Public (UP) catalogue spans an
enormous range of sounds and sensibilities, presenting as standard: a breadth
of frontier innovation few conventionally structured record companies could
hope to match. The UP aesthetic accommodates an encyclopaedic sweep of
compositional possibilities, whether conventionally scored, electronically
rendered or configured by some other means. As so many labels, festivals
and publications adopt elaborate territorial postures that define audiences
by exclusion, UP's open-ended blueprint seems subversive, simply by default.
In the space of six years, UP founders
John Walters and Laurence Aston have given an artistic home to more than
250 composers and performers, presenting exclusive or neglected work from
figures both known and unfamiliar. A hasty scan of the UP archives reveals
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 the featured recordings gravitate. With no underlined
sleeve-note connections to follow the listener is free to fathom whatever
associations their own listening may inspire.
The ninth collection, subtitled
"All Seeing Ear" circles around notions of synaesthesia and music's potential
for rich visual suggestion and metaphor--a personal cinema experience for
the ears and imagination. The featured pieces include the automotive agitation
of Rob Elli's "Black Bullet Fiesta", Andrea Rocca's playful cartoon cut-ups
and the gorgeously hesitant cellos of Richard Robbin's "He Meets His Mother".
Also making appearances are the Polish Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra
and a brief, febrile extract from Michael Brooks' "Albino Alligator" soundtrack.
The imminent tenth UP anthology
takes solo performance and solitude as points of departure. Linked by the
title "Naked. Music Stripped Down", thirteen pieces of audio erotica reach
from improvised jazz and classical forms to live electronica and clouds
of atomised ambience. Amidst the popular assumption of music as an incidental
soundtrack to collective leisure activity, neither warranting nor rewarding
significant attention, the pieces curated here invited a more serious and
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 Argue's gorgeously discreet
saxophones, the sense of detailed intent and introspective absorption is
difficult to resist.
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.
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 he or she should feel about the music before it can be taken home
and scrutinised. In marked contrast, the UP's plain brown boxes invite
their listeners to browse the music and to find out for themselves.