A few years ago I wrote about the Buddha Machine, a charming little plastic box that emits ethereal music. It is an interesting object, mostly because the nine loops that it can play are so other-worldly and, despite their brevity, infinitely fascinating. Which is just as well, because they will repeat endlessly. Well, until you switch it off or the batteries run out.
It was dubbed the anti-iPod, because despite the fact that it bears a similarity in design and concept to the famous Apple gadget, it in fact rejects the entire ethos of the slick iPod. The Buddha Machine reminds many of medium wave radios for the poor, crackly sound quality that comes out of its large circular speaker. And instead of boasting several gigabytes of storage space to put on whatever music you want, you are stuck with the nine loops. Essentially, it is what the iPod would be like if it was cheap and made in China. Instead of, er, expensive and made in China.
My post about the Buddha Machine became a bit of a landmark for this blog, as I ended up speaking about it on Radio Scotland. On the radio with me was a local Buddhist, who was understandably rather bemused about being asked about what she (politely) saw as a cheap piece of tat.
Ostensibly it is a piece of pure tat. It looks like the sort of thing that might plop through your letterbox a few weeks after you collect your twelfth Weetabix token. But there is something oddly engaging about the Buddha Machine.
It is an interesting statement about the position the entertainment industry finds itself in. This is an age when physical music formats seem more and more redundant. But contrary to this trend, the Buddha Machine — the ultimate physical format — has become a cult fetish object for music and gadget geeks.
Plus, you cannot help but be captivated by the music, which you can imagine being transmitted from outer space, or a hitherto undiscovered dimension. Or perhaps an anonymous exotic location on the other side of the world. Mind you, that last one is kind of true. The music, like the box, is made in China. You see, the Buddha Machine is the brainchild of the Beijing-based electronic music duo FM3.
It is true that, unless you are new to the Buddha Machine, there is not much so mystery about the second iteration. To an extent, once you’ve seen one Buddha Machine, you’ve seen them all.
But there is enough that is new about the Buddha Machine II to justify the purchase. Of course, there are nine new loops. The music is as fascinating as ever, even if these new selections don’t quite seem to match the other-worldly qualities of the original loops. While the first Buddha Machine was based more on electronic sounds, a lot of the new music is more guitar-based — though it is still firmly of the ambient persuasion.
My personal favourite loop of Buddha Machine II is #3, ‘Piano’. It is a decisive but quizzical riff that, in a fairer world, could be the Windows startup sound.
Overall, Buddha Machine II feels like a more mature version of the original. Although the designs of the two machines are very similar, there are some subtle changes. The first Buddha Machine came in a variety of bright, almost childlike colours. The new version comes in deeper, more adult hues: burgundy, brown or — my choice — grey. Even the “summer edition” comes in a curious teal-like colour.
Buddha Machine II also comes with a new feature — a knob that allows you to control the pitch at which the loops play. At first, this new addition feels like a failure. Controlling it while the Buddha Machine is switched on produces a rather unpleasant, disorientating effect. It sounds like a malfunctioning tape player — a noise that made me feel sick when I was a child.
But a more careful use of the new control brings more pleasure. It unlocks infinite worlds hidden inside this tiny box. Instead of just the nine loops, for each one you now have a choice of a slow and low-pitched version, or a fast and high-pitched version — and everything in between. Each loop is now massively variable. Exploring different speeds of each loop reveals new elements, elicits new emotions and brings new experiences.
This will bring a new dimension to the past time of Buddha boxing. This is where two or more people experiment with a number of Buddha Machines, allowing the drones to weave themselves among one another. On first listen to such an experiment, the loops may seem to match up poorly. But it ends up being a fascinating ambient creation, like some massive imagined Brian Eno installation.
The Buddha Machine has come on a long way since its original release four years ago, having spawned a number of other projects. Robert Henke remixed the Buddha Machine to create the album Layering Buddha. FM3 themselves encourage such remixing by offering MP3s of the loops to download for free, available under a Creative Commons license.
And despite originally being the anti-iPod, you can now buy an iPhone app that apes the original Buddha Machine. Of course, it doesn’t quite have the same charm as the real thing, but there is nonetheless something novel about these wonderful sounds coming out of your phone.
All-in-all, this unassuming little box packs a lot of punch. It is roughly the price of a CD album. But as an object, you will get far more pleasure out of a Buddha Machine.