skzzz! [dispatch 002]: FM3

Manufactured on a lark (and a two year struggle) by Beijing noiseambient duo FM3, the Buddha Machine is an unobtrusive little plastic box that plays nine programmed loops from a tinny speaker. From a clinical two-second micropulse to a marathon 40-second suite, the lowest-fi loops find bliss, transgression, freedom and sophisticated novelty in a clunky bit of technology. Subsequently, the mysterious little monolith has hit the record geek nerve center in spite of (or probably because of) its $23 list price and complete uselessness to such contemporary interactive mediums as iPods and turntables.

Although he's one of the most progressive voices in modern sound design, with eardrums as steady as a glasscutter's etching hand, FM3's Christiaan Virant still does most of his listening with a beat-up Discman purchased in Hong Kong six years ago. The tranquility-sculptor was born 37 years ago in Omaha, Nebraska to a mom who sang Buddhist chants around the house and a dad who studied Zen. Virant moved to China when he was 20, studying literature, history and philosophy, and formed FM3 in 1999 with Chinese keyboardist Zhang Jian. FM3 built a rep around China and Europe (they've yet to play a show America), for the most still and quiet performances around, so tense and risky that people are afraid to roll cigarettes, shift their weight or even breathe at risk of disturbing the duo's spider-web-thin trickle of sound. Only the tiniest of drones come out of the Buddha Machine but, as Virant explains, so much went into it.

How did the Buddha Machine come about?
I had wanted to do this little box for many, many years. China is a bit of a weird market. You can be famous but not be rich. People know FM3 but we don't really make money, so we never really had the capital to make the little thing. We had a dinner with [Dutch boutique label] Staalplaat in Amsterdam where I sketched out the design of this box. Literally, within the first 10 seconds of our description he said, "Do it. I'll fund it. Just do it." Staalplaat agreed to buy 300 of them. Those 300 are completely gone. The very original one was black and we won't repress them, so now the only ones available are the six colors—white, red, green, this kind of orangish-yellowish thing, blue and pink.

Where did you get the idea for the machine?
It was about 10 years ago-but my mother tells me it was earlier than that. I was in a temple in South China. In temples they're always playing chants over and over and over, and I always thought this music was being piped in. Then I noticed this little box on the altar, and it was pumping out lo-fi, dirty, digitalized-sounding Buddhist chants. I was thinking, "Is it just a tape recorder just on perma-loop?" Then when no one was in the room, I checked it out and it was just a dedicated loop player. This was 10 years ago! So I went to the gift shop-every temple in China has a gift shop where you can buy little Buddhist icons and all this stuff-and I asked about it. They had two, so I bought them both. At that time they were quite expensive—80 Renminbi, which is about 10 U.S. dollars. I could have dinner for a week on that back then. I bought one for me and sent one off for my mother.

There are ones that light up and glow and play different chants, some will go for loops as long as 120 minutes before they recycle, other ones take AC power, some have like 140 different loops in them. The factories that make these products are actually attached to the temple, physically or economically. So when I started tracking down how to make one of these boxes, they didn't want to have anything to do with me. First of all they don't really "do business"—they're not set up to have customers and take orders. And then the second thing, when they do take orders, they deal on the volume of 200,000 of these things. I went to them and said I wanted to make 300 and they laughed and said, "Go away, little boy." I don't know if you've seen any of these old kung-fu movies where the guy wants to train in the Shaolin temple and they say "Go away, you're not worthy," and he just keeps going back and finally they let him in. So I just kept pounding at the door of these companies, took these guys out to dinner, slowly befriended them and chatted them up over a two year period. It was a fun band project to do… a little bit different than putting out another CD with a four-color booklet.

And it's not even some brand new technology, it's pretty prehistoric as far as digital mediums are concerned.
Well [FM3's] music is traditionally very, very quiet, and even though we originally used computers, we were always working with really dirty lo-fi samples or sounds. The music really fits with that medium. If we were a noise band and had done this same box, we don't think it would have the same reception. The music is kind of soft and quite pretty, even the jarring noise that it creates adds to the music. The early prototypes had even more noise, they were really dirty because of the way the circuit board was wired, and I was a fan of that earlier generation. Now we're in the fourth generation and it's evolved in to a bit more clean device. And a bit louder too.

The free loops on your web site are very clean.
Those may even be WAV files. Those were the original files given to the factory, so you can hear the difference in what they sounded like when we gave 'em to the factory and what they ended up like on the little 8-bit audio chip inside the box. One thing I tell everybody is that one reason that I made the box was because I was lazy. I wanted to make sound installations easier and quicker to do. One of the ways I used to make money in Beijing was doing sound installations for various art openings or gallery openings. I got really tired of having to wire up all these installations all the time and I thought, "Gosh, if I can make this box, I could literally walk into a gallery with a piece of double-sided tape and stick my boxes on there, turn them on and walk away. It's like an instant sound installation!

What are some of the more unexpected reactions to the box?
One of the major things we didn't expect is that people would buy more than one. When you're an artist and you have a CD, if you can get your friends to buy even one, you're lucky. But when we took these things to Mutek [Festival in Montreal], first they would come up and buy two, then they'd come up the next day and buy six. Our very first customer was Brian Eno. I popped it out at dinner and instantly he said, "I want six." And when I went to his studio in London he bought more. So from our very first customer, people would buy multiples of this, especially now that people see the whole color series laid out. As an artist you would never ever run into someone [wanting] to buy six copies of your CD. Or even three. Unless you're some type of Duran Duran pop idol and a teenage girl buys two copies of your album. It's just unprecedented for an underground independent artist to be selling multiple copies of their music.

A CD has a set of implied rules, but the Buddha Machine forces the listener to cater it to their own desires—deciding what loop to play, how long to run it, whether it should be ambient or a deep listening experience.
That's something we didn't think about. Maybe because it's something new, it forces people to look at music in a different way. The first buyers were our musician friends, and they took it not as a playback device, but as an instrument. A lot of our friends, big household names in the electronic world, are using this as an instrument, or as a sample bank to create their own music. There's a project with a Berlin label that will be a number of other artists doing music using the Buddha Machine in their own compositions.

I haven't lived in the U.S. for so many years. Living in China, you're really outside a lot of the dialogue of pop culture that goes on in the West, you're kind of off in your own little world. What we didn't think about was the impact of the iPod on American culture and how people would relate this to the iPod—especially when the white one came out. So one of the interesting things is how in the U.S. it's really hit this cultural nerve of people so awash in digital selection that they're happy to have some kind of reductionist solution to their digital problems. This is something we didn't think of because in China, we're not really awash in iPod culture yet. The U.S. has been the most interesting for me because it shows me how out-of-touch I am in what's going on over there. But it's also really satisfying because people have ascribed a lot of importance to this little Buddha Machine that I didn't even think about. A few reviews have said it's the ultimate answer to the iPod generation. And that it's lo-fi and it's retro, but at the same time it's very modernist. So, I have to thank all these reviews in the U.S. for making me sound like I'm a much more thoughtful and creative inventor than I really was!

How about in Europe?
In Europe, people like it because they like the simplistic, minimalist design. And I think there's less analysis about the music industry and downloading. People here just like it for purely the whimsy concept: "Oh look it's a cute box that plays music." Japan is really interesting. When I was originally trying to get it distributed in Japan, they wanted to pay me a really low wholesale price. Their argument was that, in Japan, things made in China are considered really cheap and low quality. I said, "Well, look. It's a CD, but better!" Their argument was that it was worth less than a CD.

Do you have a recommended way to listen or the Buddha Box or do you like the democratic nature of it?
These nine loops are all taken from earlier FM3 works, so people who know us will recognize some of the bits of songs. These were our favorite bits of our music over the last two years and had a lot of thought on how to arrange them. The order of the loops is the recommended listening pattern.

The way we perform live with the Buddha Machines is Zhang Jian and I have devised a sound art card game, where we sit across from each other at a card table where there are six Buddha machines lined up. We each pick three Buddha Machines where I throw down-well, I don't "throw down"-I place down a Buddha Machine with a loop, and he can add to that or take away that "card." We build up the music based on these simplistic card game rules. We even break down our own order and it become a sound art game. We just came up with his game in Amsterdam last month. It's very visual, people get to see that we're doing something. We play completely unamplified as well. No wires, no mixers, nothing. Just a table, us and the Buddha Machines. Since we know the music pretty well by now, we're able to build really nice songs out of these nine simple loops, with an ebb and flow over a performance.

How long is a typical performance?
You know, it really is a game that someone can win or lose. It has some really basic rules. In future generations of the machines we're gonna include a piece of paper on how to play. Whether I win or he wins, it's usually about 35 to 45 minutes depending on how fast we play.

So really the best way to listen to them is to buy a bunch?
[Laughs] Yeah, it's nice to have about three. Robert [Henke] from Monolake bought [a bunch] at Mutek and the way he listens to them is that he turns them all on, puts them on different loops and then puts them around the house in all the corners. So as he's walking around his house in the morning, going from the kitchen to the bathroom to his bedroom, he's walking through different loop soundscapes. When Zhang Jian sells them after shows, he always tries to sell two at a time. He holds up two to each side of your head, so you get a stereo Buddha Machine effect. He's really into the idea of people should buy more than one.

Maybe we should throw a Buddha Machine party.
[Laughs] That would be so cool! I was just in the Ableton Live [music software] office in Berlin and, as a joke, I took a Buddha Machine into their cafeteria, turned it on, and walked away. I came back an hour later and there were 15 engineers surrounding this machine like it was something out of 2001. They were just loving it. I was saying to Robert [of Monolake], I should come to your cafeteria, perform for 30 minutes and sell the Buddha Machine over the lunch hour." How cool would that to do a tour of only geek software companies? I'll give a free performance in your cafeteria as long as I can sell Buddha Machines.

How do other people listen to it?
Someone told me they use the number nine loop, the jittery two-beat fast-recycling loop to annoy their cat with. God knows why anyone would want to annoy their cat.

Have you heard of anyone having sex to the Buddha Machine?
[Laughs] No. No one's told me about that yet. One thing I can say on the record is that, so far, the Buddha Box is not a groupie magnet. It's more of a geek magnet.

Check out the nine loops in clean, safe digital form here

Text originally from cmj.com


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