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Buddha Machine

Artist: FM3
FM3 - Buddha Machine Now
Label: Staalplaat
Price: $22.95 
Year: 2006


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2nd edition now available. A unique 'soundbox' from China, which is causing senstation worldwide. A totally dazzling item which causes jaw-dropping delight everywhere -- Alan Bishop bought twenty-four of these on sight, Brian Eno bought eight (how's that for apocalyptical math?). FM3 are a duo of Christiaan Virant and Chinese keyboardist and computer musician Zhang Jian -- based in Beijing. The Buddha Machine is a hardware loop player, built kind of like a little AM radio (available in 6 different colors, shipped randomly), but without all the nonsense -- total genius from out of nowhere. More info/pictures at: www.fm3.com.cn [there's also a definitive FM3 interview at: www.rarefrequency.com]. Comes with 2 x AA batteries. "The Buddha Machine is a small soundbox made in China which comes with an integrated speaker, a volume control, mini jack-out and a switch to choose between nine different loops which are stored on a small chip and can be directly played by this mini soundsystem."

A review:
FM3 is an electronic act based in China, an act known primarily for its minimalist bent and their tendency to subdue live crowds into absolute silence. As such, it only makes sense that they be the act to introduce Staalplaat's Buddha Machine series.

The Buddha Machine, then, is a little plastic box that plays music. Specifically, FM3 constructed nine drones, varying from two seconds to 42 seconds, which repeat endlessly in the listener's ear until the "track" is switched to the next drone (or the two AA batteries run out). The machine has its own built-in speaker, in case one would like to fill a room with the drones, but there is also a headphone jack for more personal meditative experiences. There's a switch on the side that allows for traversal of the tracks, and a DC jack (though an adapter is not included) for those who would like the Buddha Machine experience be truly endless. In a way, it's like the cheapest pre-loaded IPod you'll ever be able to buy. It even comes in a number of different colors, for the fashion-conscious experimental music aficionado. Mine's a very stylish magenta.

At its heart, however, the Buddha Machine is actually a counterargument to the onset of the downloading age. For one, the entire point of the release is to have the little box. Sure, you could theoretically download each of the drones (which are actually available in mp3 form on FM3's website), push "repeat" in your media player of choice, and have something close to the original effect, but you lose much of the aura of the work that way -- evaluating these drones purely on the basis of their musical merit is entirely different than evaluating them as an aspect of an odd little artifact. For two, the sound of the drones via the machine is very, very lo-fi, creating an audible buzz in the speaker as the volume gets higher, not to mention the fair amount of hiss that accompanies the drones at any volume. An argument could be made that the constant hiss and crackle is a part of the music (much as the point of John Cage's 4'33" is not the silence, but the sounds surrounding that silence), lending a bit of entropy to the largely static drones.

All of this is not even to mention the idea that in an age where "how much have you got?" is at least as important a question as "how good is it?", an entire release that contains just under three minutes of unique sound is quite the rarity.

The drones themselves are largely wonderful, whether carefully studied or relegated to the background. Most of the drones are (if my online translation skills don't fail me) named after animals and musical instruments, with a couple given the nondescript names of "b1" and "b2", and the final drone named after the verb "To Dance". The first drone, translated "Horse", is particularly lovely, two repeated organ-like tones that last about fifteen seconds each, which after a while create a lovely, moody, minor-key atmosphere. "Sheep" actually features a melody, which when repeated for a couple of minutes, becomes one of the most peaceful of the drones for its simplicity and use of empty space. Even "b1", composed with a single, decaying chord only six seconds in length, could slow your heartbeat with its insistence on never, ever moving.

Sure, the Buddha Machine is more than a little bit novelty. That's part of its charm. You can have a little pink (or red, or black) box that plays music. You can display it openly. People will ask about it. It's an icebreaker. But what's truly special about it is what FM3 has done with a tiny bit of recording space on a little speaker. It's mesmerizing. It's portable relaxation.

And if you've read this far, admit it -- you know you want one. — 1 November 2005

FM3: Christiann Virant and Zhang Jian
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