I first heard about the Buddha Machine from this post at Boing Boing. It certainly grabbed my attention, but at the time it was not so easy to get hold of. Then Boomkat began to sell them and their article was a highly interesting read, and I decided to get one.
If you’ve not heard of the Buddha Machine before, I’ll try and explain. It’s by a duo of experimental electronic musicians based in Beijing called FM3. The Buddha Machine is a music release of theirs — with a difference. In this age of the record industry collectively shitting itself about the internet, downloads and DRM and music fans wondering if the days of vinyl and CD are numbered in the face of more clinical MP3s, FM3 have taken the radical solution. This is not released as a shiny all-modern download, and it certainly is not a CD or a record. That is because the Buddha Machine simply would not work if it wasn’t inside this distinctive plastic box.
Inside the box are nine ambient pieces looping around for infinity. Switching it on is magical. You are greeted by a pleasant hum; the sort that you really wouldn’t mind hearing forever. You could leave this on all day and you wouldn’t be fed up with it. Like the best ambient music, it is very interesting to listen to but you could just as easily ignore it.
It comes housed in a nondescript cardboard box littered with bewildering Chinese notes. The only clue to the contents come courtesy of a sticker that’s been slapped on: “fm3 buddha machine”. Open the box and pull out the Buddha Machine — it looks like a cheap and crude piece of junk. But switch it on and you cannot help but be won over by the sheer beauty of the sounds it is making.
It has certainly caught the attention of many people. Often when you search Google for something you just get rubbish. But search for Buddha Machine and you find loads of interesting articles (even Pitchfork wrote quite a good article). Almost all of them also mention the fact that Brian Eno bought half a dozen as soon as he saw it. I’m not going to buck the trend, obviously.
Once you’re past the first impressions and the Brian Eno factor, there are two quite common things that people say about the Buddha Machine. Firstly, it is like an AM radio. That’s what my mother said when she saw me with it. The in-built speaker certainly gives that impression. The poor quality of the speaker makes it seem like the sort of tacky, junky, rip-off radio you might get for collective twelve Weetabix tokens. If you use headphones the quality of the sound is actually pretty good. But when the cheap speaker is combined with the sweet sounds being emitted from the Buddha Machine, it only adds to its charm, characteristically crackling away as though it’s humming along with the music.
Secondly, it is an anti-iPod. Well it certainly looks like it could have been a crude prototype of the iPod. It’s a similar idea — a little box plays music, plug in some headphones and slip it into your pocket. And I have used the Buddha Machine on journeys to replace my MP3 player.
The circular speaker also looks like it could almost be a cheeky nod to the iPod’s navigation wheel, acknowledging the similarity of the two boxes. It also comes in a range of different colours like the iPod Mini. They are shipped at random, so it adds a little bit of the kid-at-Christmas factor as you don’t know which colour you’re going to get. All I can say is I’m glad I got the blue one and not that disgusting earwaxy orange one!
Despite the obvious similarities between the Buddha Machine and the iPod, though, I think a more apt analogy would be something like a Tamagotchi. The iPod is a completely soulless machine. The only point of it (unless you’re shallow and using it as a fashion accessory) is to enable you to listen to music. The iPod is a cold middleman. It’s not your friend. You only want the music. With the Buddha Machine on the other hand, you turn it on specifically because you want the Buddha Machine. It’s not middleman; it is its purpose.
It’s a bit like a plant. At one point I forgot I owned it, and when I looked at it I felt myself smile. That’s the sort of function it serves. You can have it sitting there gently warbling away in the corner of your room — I’ve seen a few people compare it to an art installation. It has accompanied me when I’ve been having a rest, when I have been having a bath and even when I have been watching television. I bet it would be pretty good to study to as well (although I haven’t tried that yet… oops!). And if you’re bored of the loop (which you probably won’t be) or if it simply doesn’t match your mood, just flick the switch on the side of the box and it will play a different loop out of the nine housed inside. I love this unique little box.
But there is a danger. It could just be like a lava lamp or a fibre optic lamp — fascinating for about half a week, then forgotten about and stored away in the attic for the rest of eternity. Or it could be one of these passing fads — Pogs for ambient music fans. But the idea of the Buddha Machine is showing signs of maturing with the emergence of Buddha Boxing (scroll about two thirds of the way down). This little Flash thingy seems pretty close to the idea. What would be really cool is if a future Buddha Machine could emit generative music.
Meanwhile, my mother just didn’t understand it. She saw that it was like an iPod, but with the music already inside it — “What if you don’t like the music?”, she said. I think the best way to think about this is like a regular album (it’s the same price as an album) with a difference.
If you’re swithering and need convincing, have a listen to the mix that FM3 made for Boomkat (look in the sidebar on the left). The music in the mix (particularly ‘Zheng’ / track 2) got stuck in my head and I knew I had to buy the Buddha Machine.
Some other smart articles on the Buddha Machine
- Scotland on Sunday
- Almost Cool:
Even if I play my iPod at loud volumes, other sounds inevitably seep into what I’m listening to, and depending on the degree to which they intrude upon my listening, I tend to find myself somewhat annoyed (which isn’t really a good thing in either starting or finishing the workday). As an experiment, I instead listened to The Buddha Machine several days while commuting and the difference in how I perceived outside noise was quite different. Instead of being annoyed, I found my brain slightly focusing on the loops themselves, but also listening to how the sounds of the outside environment filtered in over and alongside them.
At its heart… 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.
- zang.org — when your mobile rings apparently it goes haywire and sounds more like Autechre than Eno!