By ROB WALKER
Published: July 29, 2007
The crass use of the word “unit” to describe a buyable collection of music makes a certain sense in this case. The $25 Buddha Machine is the size of a cigarette pack, with one button, an on-off dial and a rather tinny speaker. Inside is a chip containing nine digitally encoded music loops. The button allows the listener to switch from one to another, but that’s the extent of user control over the experience, leading some observers to refer to the thing as the anti-iPod.
A native of Omaha, Neb., Virant moved to China in the 1980s to study music and Chinese culture. He had been playing in punk bands but was already interested in the loops and rhythmic cycles explored by composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and he describes his first electronic compositions as “highly repetitive”; friends suggested that they sounded like video-game music. FM3 was founded in 1999, starting out as “the ambient, chill-out band that played in the back room” of Beijing clubs and evolving into a “meditative” sound. Virant had long been interested in the chanting he heard in some Buddhist temples, which he discovered was coming from a plastic box. He and Zhang pondered putting some of their own music into something similar; Staalplaat agreed to release a batch, and they made their first factory order for 500 Buddha Machines, guessing that it would also be their last.
Word of the Buddha Machine traveled quickly among adventurous music consumers, says Eric Benoit, the publicist for Forced Exposure, a distributor specializing in a wide range of nonmainstream music, which peddles the device through its own site and sells it wholesale to progressive music retailers. Early coverage on Web sites like Disquiet.com, which focuses on ambient music and electronica, and other music sites, as well as a mention in this newspaper, made the 2005 holiday season seem like the peak — but sales continue thanks to steady attention online and from the press. The public radio show Studio 360 featured the device in 2006; FM3 toured Europe again with a performance built around the Buddha Machines; and bloggers keep finding it anew, attracting music fans, design fans, gadget fans and those who view it as something like a fashion item. Benoit says a recent rerun of that Studio 360 episode sparked about as many sales as the original broadcast. At nearly 50,000 sold, Virant says, “it still inhabits the world of the cult — it’s this kind of secret thing, and everyone who gets one, it feels like a discovery.”
And of course there’s the anti-iPod factor: the relief of not having to make a choice in a world awash with entertainment and self-expression options. Moreover, at a moment when the unused abilities of feature-loaded computers, cellphones and even microwave ovens pile up faster than we can keep track of them, it’s satisfying to know that once you’ve turned the Buddha Machine on, you are using it to its full capacity. “We didn’t really put that much thought into it,” Virant confesses, but he figures that the device indirectly addresses issues that haven’t gone away. “What is music in this modern age, and what is technology, and what do we want it to do?”
Although the American audience for meditative, low-action, experimental music performances is small, its appreciation for little plastic objects is robust. Virant says the majority of Buddha Machine sales so far have been in the U.S. In fact, FM3 is now planning its first ever U.S. tour for next year. Virant envisions an opening set built around the Buddha Machine, followed by the loud and guitar-driven set the duo is playing these days. “It’s the same music, essentially,” he says. “It’s just that one is turned up to 11. And the other is turned down to minus-1.”