PHOSPHOR - REVIEWS
A clearly focused project from Berlin, Phosphor is an eight piece improvising group, including trumpeter Axel Dörner, percussionist Burkhard Beins and Andrea Neumann
(inside-piano, mixing desk). By no means a wacky free for all, this is a honed down, disciplined music, a carefully constructed group sound in which individual contributions rarely poke out.
The album's opening moments are its most extrovert - with blasts of steam and grinding metal, it's as if we are touring a steelworks. Later the group settles into creating sonic
environments with an industrial flavour. What intrigues me is how the music aspires to the status of non-musical landscapes. It doesn't sound like a lake full of geese, but it evokes that
kind of non-human organisation of sound. Recently Peter Cusack's recordings of London and the Lea Valley have had us listening to an overhead cable fizzing above a disabled electric train,
tadpoles trying to eat an underwater microphone, or the clanging made by Deptford market traders dismantling their stalls. Phosphor deploy their tuba, saxophone and electronics in the
hope of sounding as good, as inevitable if you like, as those tadpoles. There's also influence from contemporary composition on the organisation of the group, if not the sound.
One of composed music's secrets is that musicians sit for large amounts of time playing nothing, contributing at key moments. For an eight piece Improv group to adopt this tactic
has a major refining effect. Still, I confess I found the album interesting rather than exciting. Much of it is resfrained and low key, and, missing the theatre of seeing the octet perform live,
my attention drifted. Amid the hisses and textures, there's little feeling of anyone playing an instrument, or performing, or being concerned with beauty. Only an acoustic guitarist
(Annette Krebs or Michael Renkel?) offers moments of individual musical statement. But there's no doubt that, in reacting against musical bluster and expressiveness, Phosphor have
produced some remarkable ensemble sound.
- Clive Bell, The Wire -
This outing features a consortium of Berlin, Germany-based musicians who tend to explore the outer limits of abstraction via live electronics, acoustic
instruments, and subversive dialogue. Less in your face than similar productions of this ilk, the instrumentalists create an air of suspense amid
subdued moments and sparse frameworks. Andrea Neumann utilizes her stripped-down piano parts (strings, resonance board, metal frame & EFX) to
counteract tubaist, Robin Hayward, percussionist, Burkhard Beins, and others for a set teeming with sparsely concocted themes. The octet provides a series of illusory effects in concert with moments of tension and surprise due to its shrewd amalgamation of peculiar backdrops and concisely executed improvisational episodes. On Part 3 (no song titles), you will hear low-pitched gurgling noises and plucked strings. However, trumpeter, Axel Dorner's atonal
hissing sounds cast a strangely exotic spell throughout many of these sequences. Not casual listening, but fascinatingly interesting - the music or noise, depending on which way you perceive it, rings forth like some sort of impressionistic souvenir. Sure, some of us may not include this release among the ongoing rotation. Although the content might parallel something akin to an avant-garde sculpture or oil painting; thus, an artistic entity that deserves to be revisited from time to time.
- Glenn Astarita, All About Jazz -
AMG EXPERT REVIEW: In the late 1990s, free improvisation took an unexpected turn toward the extremely quiet,
replacing stamina and endurance with attention to textures and microscopic details. Even though AMM pioneered
the idea as early as in the late 1960s, the merit of developing it into an articulated form of avant-garde
expression must be awarded to the Germans. Recorded in April 2001 and released just before the year came to an
end, Phosphor introduces what could be almost considered a "microsound supergroup". Trumpeter Axel Dörner had
become a champion of the genre by this time. Burkhard Beins (percussion) had recorded with Michael Renkel
(acoustic guitar) and formed two-thirds of the trio Perlonex with Ignaz Schick (live electronics).
The latter also recorded with Andrea Neumann (inside-piano) who in turn released a CD with Annette Krebs (guitar).
Tuba player Robin Hayward had been developing his own idiosyncratic micro-language for years. This German septet
was joined by Italian saxophonist Alessandro Bosetti for this two-day recording session. The eight players make
very little noise, a music based on silence and tiny sounds we would consider accidental in other contexts.
It requires enormous amounts of attention from the listener and surely is an acquired taste, but the rewards
are plenty. Ideas bounce everywhere, caught by the other players, even though on first listen nothing seems
to be really happening - and that's what is so exciting about this music. Beins and Dörner are particularly
resourceful, but most of the time the musicians' contributions defy individualization, forming one organic entity.
Phosphor is bound to become a landmark CD in avant-garde music. Strongly recommended, although only for the most
- François Couture, All Music Guide -
Phosphor is a Berliner octet dealing in the smallest of improvisation. A mix of acoustic and electronic instruments,
the group specializes in sparse improvisation consisting of sudden noises and quiet textures. Their self-titled
debut, nearly an hour in length, finds the group mining relatively the same territory over the disc's duration,
with mixed results.
It's not always easy to discern which member of Phosphor is responsible for the sounds being made, but each contributes equally, and what results is a ensemble whose chemistry and unspoken communication are well refined. The silences that span large gaps within the group's performance are wrought with both a feeling of tension and that of unpredictable potential, as the seemingly democratic work of Phosphor guarantees that sound could emanate from any one of the group's musicians at any time. Rarely do the members of Phosphor coerce traditional sounds from their instruments. Soprano Saxophonist Alessandro Bosetti and trumpeter Axel Dörner produce long, wavering tones or hushed breaths of air from the bells of their instruments with little or none of the tone expected from them, while Annette Krebs' and Michael Renkel's guitars provide more texture and ambient background than explicitly strummed notes. Andrea Neumann's work inside the piano results in much of the same. Burkhard Beins handles the percussion, which is made up of the small, almost incidental sounds of bells and the sounds of a drumstick being rubbed on a drum head, rim, or cymbal. Dörner, Neumann, and Ignaz Schick also provide various forms of electronics, the most apparent of which are the often obtrusive bursts of static which Schick calls forth periodically. These shocks of sound, though they sometimes offer some body to the spare menagerie of sounds that his bandmates create, seem to go against the groups modus operandi, and, within the context of Phosphor's work, can soak up too much of a listener's attention by clouding over the other sounds present at any given time. It's true, however, that Phosphor sometimes need a spark, as many of the discs less abundant (and audible) moments wander for too long in near-silence without a sense of direction, however scattered, that binds the better work on the disc. Yet, it is the tracks with the smallest amounts of electronic output that prove to be the album's best. The beginning of "P1," along with "P6," offer glimpses of the group at their sparse, surprising best. Staccato, percussive attacks punctuate the air, as more controlled ambience drifts underneath. In a recording that depends so much on the volume of the sounds it contains, Phosphor find the most success when equilibrium of volume and intensity is forged, but in this outing, the group don't always find a delicate balance.
- Adam Strohm, Fakejazz -
One of the woes of so-called "supergroup" sessions - occasional encounters between musicians who, while
individually talented, have rarely worked together - is that too many languages are being spoken at the
expense of substantive communication. Those familiar with the burgeoning genre of electro-acoustic
improvisation might take one look at Phosphor's lineup and, salivating slightly, note the makings of
a post-AMM all-star band (okay, so MIMEO might also take that title but?). In fact, many of these players
are long-time associates from the Berlin improvisational scene - young talents like Axel Dörner, Burkhard Beins,
Annette Krebs, and Andrea Neumann are joined by lesser-known folks like Alessandro Bosetti, Michael Renkel
(who has duetted with Beins on the 2:13 label), Robin Hayward, and Ignaz Schick (part of the fine group Perlonex).
Many different alliances and configurations of these musicians have existed in the past and, unlike the concocted
supergroup sessions of the major labels, this ensemble seemed somewhat inevitable. And thankfully, the sound is
integrated as well.
The disc (which always seems like something of a suite to me) begins in a somewhat austere fashion, silences punctuated by very curt slashes and scraping noises that can be quite jarring. Slowly over the next two parts, the sounds circle each other and begin their interaction, coalescing into a constant gurgle of sound (most audibly Dörner's trumpet but certainly also more than that) that, by the time the disc reaches its penultimate track, has become lyrically bubbly, almost effervescent.
The suspense and the drama in this music comes, of course, from the silence, the minimalism, the attention to almost microscopic details of sound rather than grand emotive gestures. Listeners to eai will be familiar with these general parameters. But what's different about Phosphor is how they actually pull off such a unique group language, distinguishing themselves in the still-young genre. Hayward on tuba is often indistinguishable from the rubbed skins of Beins' kit, the rumble of Neumann's innenklavier, or the low farting of Dörner's trumpet. Bosetti's sax meshes with Krebs' or Renkel's scraping guitar. The sounds themselves define the piece, the environment, the expectations. Not that the music is entirely self-contained or self-referential; it communicates, albeit in obscure ways (like trying to listen to smoke signals, if that makes any sense). These later generations of improvisers continue to show that, if resisting convention is the mark of creative improvisation, they are much closer to the mark than the latest energy jazz group.
- Jason Bivins, One Final Note -
Restricting itself to group music making, Phosphor (the band) has with PHOSPHOR (the CD) created a fine disc
that offers up intricate abstractions and noises without focusing on individual sounds or players. It also
indicates how strongly the cult of collective expression has taken hold in certain Continental circles, with
Berlin as its epicentre.
Yet one should probably realize that this collection of [Austrians and - ?] Germans, plus an Italian saxophonist and a British tubaist are able to create sonic magic from these micro-events because each individual has a thorough grounding in more expressive music, be it jazz, contemporary classical, electronica or noise-rock. Singly or together, the eight have worked with almost every prominent minimalist improv musician extant in Europe, North America and the Antipodes, so that ironically the band is literally an all-star aggregation. It has certainly created another crucial document that ranks with the best work of other stillness supporters, such as Chris Burns' nonet and Wolfgang Fuch's King Übü Orchestrü, both of which number trumpeter Axel Dörner, featured here, among their members.
As well, the sounds that are revealed on this CD range from the harshest electronic static to near inaudible tones. Mixed with such "real" instrumental tones of trumpet, guitar, tuba, percussion and soprano saxophone are not only the electronics assembled by the trumpeter and Ignaz Schick on live electronics, but creations like Andrea Newman's inside piano and mixing desk, and Annette Krebs' electro-acoustic guitar.
Used without gimmickry, Robin Hayward's tuba makes the most of its distinctive appearances. Its distinctive s ubterranean reverb stands out from the sudden smashes of electronic static whacks of electric guitars and ringing bells that surround it on the first track. However it's probably also the brass bass that creates what could be only be described as how a toilet in a long tunnel would sound if it exploded as it was flushed. Additionally that's probably Hayward's instrument in one section of the final track, or someone has recorded in stereo a full- grown rhino snoring. Strings, probably from the guitars or piano rubbed in some way, join with Beins' accented percussion and reverberating cymbals to give a human dimension to more electronic whooshes and static here and there's even an identifiable horn bleat -- is it soprano saxophone or trumpet though? -- that appears. Of course when sounds turn to aviary whistles, someone (Beins?) bangs away on what sounds like metal garbage can lids at one point, and the suspicion remains that some of the lower-pitched pounding is someone's knuckles or a string instrument's wooden body.
There's even some (inadvertent?) humor on track 3, when the silence is shattered by what appears to be a ping pong ball being hit. Did the group take time off for a quick set of doubles in the studio? Certainly the sound remains there even after what appears to be an old tugboat leaving the harbor moves past the ping pong table. Still tracks two and five, the longest at 12:48 and 12:59 minutes produce some genuine, prolonged excitement. Managing to overcome self-imposed sonic limitations, the former transforms whizzing static, microscopic percussive sounds and the saxophone's flutter tonguing into an aural picture of a tropical rain forest. Saxophone ghost notes and key pops figure on the later, with electronic thunderclaps and percussion seemingly hit at random giving way to string clicks that suggest they're jumping from one guitar to the other. Later a just-out-of-earshot guitar melody can be heard.
This disc goes a long way towards convincing anyone that sonorous micro sounds can be created selflessly. But the band's achievement may be sowing seeds of its own destruction. As just one of the many projects that's raising the profiles of the musicians in this octet, it's adding to their renown as individuals. History has shown that leaderless collectives rarely last -- ask anyone who was around in the 1968 in France or as part of the 1970s Peace The Movement in North America. Or look at the experience of King Übü, which is definitely woodwind player Wolfgang Fuch's group, or the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra which has always been led by bassist Barry Guy. With these examples before you, it becomes even more worthwhile to seek out this sonically adventurous CD. This particular purposeful grouping may never exist again.
- Ken Waxman, Jazzweekly -
Phosphor make some of the most abstruse music which this writer has heard for some considerable time. It's
an anything-can-happen environment in which musicians work in very short, sometimes rather weird bursts,
and the Webernian tendency to allow a "phrase" to be defined by single sounds from a variety of musicians
is one of its defining qualities. This strategy is, indeed, one of the defining qualities of much that is
tough-minded and non-linear in European free improvisation, and it's interesting to hear it deployed in such
a thoroughgoing manner here.
The electronics -- courtesy of Dorner, Naumann and Schick -- are far more rough-edged than Hamilton's. They combine shortwave radio whines, bursts of static and raw noise, and little is sustained for long. This kind of music moves quickly, and often without purpose. Indeed, it is this very aimlessness which seems to distance it from so much other music. Although there is always a lot going on, it seems more in the nature of a static block of sound -- even an uncarved block, for there is something of Cage's Zen in all of this, too.
Whether this kind of music will stand the test of time -- or whether we care about the test of time any more -- is a moot point. It does, however, feel very contemporary in spite of all those nods to the past, and these are young musicians at its cutting edge. What is slightly amusing in the context of this review is that the use of electronics is so completely assimilated as to be almost irrelevant. Indeed, which instruments are being played is largely an academic matter, so abused and unconventionally manipulated are they.
That's part of why electronics have proved so popular with this field of improvisation; when your music is built from sounds which are far distant from those which your instrument was designed to produce, why not discard the crusty old thing and work with sound in the raw instead? The very fact that this has not been done so widely -- and that five of these eight play acoustic instruments, only one being an electronics specialist -- is a thought-provoking thing in itself.
- Musings -
The music of Phosphor, an eight-piece Berlin Reductionist All Star line-up (Axel Dörner, Annette Krebs,
Andrea Neumann, Beins, Ignaz Schick..) is a fascinating milestone along the road German improvised music has
travelled since the early days of FMP. It's an interesting assemblage of sonic rubble but an intensely
problematic one: traditional notions of interaction, virtuosity and structure seem at times to have gone out of
a window thrown wide open to reveal a view out onto a stark and desolate landscape. Though not wishing to appear
churlish or old-fashioned (especially since my own activities as a performer often lead me into the selfsame musical
territory), it somehow seems too easy to append pseudo-intellectual liner notes and pass this music off as some
kind of illustration of or comment on the post-modern, post-minimal, post-everydamnthing culture we find
ourselves in. A more honest approach would seem to be to let the music speak for itself and leave listeners
free to come to their own conclusions, my own being that I prefer Beins and Schick in the group Perlonex
(I recommend their two excellent albums on Zarek), Neumann and Krebs as a duo ("Rotophormen" on Charhizma)
and Dörner either solo ("Trumpet" on A Bruit Secret) or in the outstanding trio with Xavier Charles and
John Butcher ("The Contest of Pleasures", also on Potlatch).
- Paristransatlantic -