If, as Goethe had it, chamber music is “four rational people conversing,” then we might define Telebossa as two people performing Waiting For Godot… in Brazil — art music, then, in the truest sense. Based in Berlin, Telebossa (Nicholas Bussmann and Chico Mello, both with connections to other experimental electronic and classical approaches) meld Brazilian forms with electronics processed through a minimalist/experimentalist approach. When I tell you that the credits on the sleeve are given for glasses and matchboxes (among others), you’ll hear me on that one.
But this is no exercise in inaccessibility for the sake of avant-garderie or alienation. Like Satie’s “furniture music,” Telebossa reward close listening, but at the same time lull the listener, with their shuffling rhythms and low-key melancholy, into forgetting to pay attention. There is something very gray about the piece (or perhaps that should be beige, after the studio in which it was produced), in the best possible sense. What we have here is a kind of mutant bossa (or samba, or choro), but not in the sense that mutant disco is disco gone crazy. Instead, this is bossa in the uncanny valley, refracted not only through strings and minimal(ist) electronica or through multiple mutations within tracks, but also, more fundamentally, in the way that the listener is seduced into a sense of recognition that is toyed with just enough to demonstrate the falsity of the listening experience, and indeed of the very nature of the ‘record’ (as Laurie Anderson, another noted experimentalist, put it: “this is the time… and this is the record of the time”).
Witness, for example, the way in which, on “Eu Sonhei Que Tu Estavas Tão Linda,” a melancholy vocal sung over acoustic guitar suddenly transforms — sustained, but just for a few moments — into an inhuman synthesized note, before we revert to the music, but continue to faintly make out that synthetic echo within the voice, as strings that at first seem comforting repeat a motif to the point of disequilibrium (and is it a coincidence that the space in which this occurs is also the only track on the album with straightforward lyrics that don’t even toy with romantic clichés?). Consider also the electronic — I can only describe them as ‘pops’ — on the opening tracks, which sync with the tempo; then, just as the ear is starting to recognise the strategy, so familiar from minimal techno and glitch, of turning the ‘non-musical’ element — the click, the tick, the crackle — into a rhythm, they disconcertingly stray ever so slightly from the beat. The combination of familiar samba and bossa tropes with this kind of Unheimliche underlay, and with prominent strings that waver, scrape, and dissonate before returning to their wonted role, provides a parallel to the auditory experience in that both are completely arresting, without being by any means obvious.
However, the absence that Telebossa paradoxically reveal in their approach to sound does not remain sonic alone, but is mirrored in the way in which they reveal the (re)invented nature of culture and lineage. Where the bossa style furnished “Meditation” (very un-Buddhist in its themes of desire and attachment), Telebossa give us the ambiguous “Samba do budista” (one of two original vocal tracks). Compositions by legends of Brazilian music such as Pixinguinha and Noel Rosa feature, and the postcolonial aspect (so central to the Brazilian and Latin American experience) of the reimagination of tradition becomes apparent on Rosa’s “Século do Progresso” with its Borgesian narrative of the intrusion of mechanized violence into the samba circle. Both Rosa and Pixinguiha are recognized masters of choro (appropriately, ‘cry’ or ‘lament’) with its origins in the Afro-Brazilian fusions of the 19th century, and while I hesitate to mention ‘globalization,’ there is a sense, on this album located somewhere between Germany and Brazil, of an unromanticised, technologized dislocation.
Speaking of traditions, Brazil has a proud history of experimental post-punk (and the combination of Brazilian traditions and minimal electronica can’t help but call to mind the underappreciated Antena), but this is an album that engages more with the experimental spirit of that movement (if such it was) than with a revival of its sounds — for which we should be thankful! We see the apparition of post-punk and minimal wave most particularly in the emotional tenor of the album. The classic, fatalist saudade is here in spades, but rather than the warmer tones of the classic Brazilian artists, it’s infused with something of the spirit of the Berlin of Lou Reed, a glacial quality that does not preclude emotion, but subsumes it. In Mello’s elusive vocals, plaintive and rough by turn, it is as if the absence of the longed-for object has been accepted, leaving an apparent emotional void — as “Amoroso” has it, “Nem a saudade ficou” (loosely, “not even saudade remained”) — but a void in the depths of which, beyond sight, contradictory currents of resignation and desire still run. ‘Blame it on the bossa nova’ trips off the tongue easily, we take it for granted — but Telebossa would turn the phrase on itself, to ask: Blame what, exactly, and how is it ever possible to know that we know?