Reinventing the Music Box (Again)

Buddha Machine II

I can’t do Twitter. I’ve been invited to try it out numerous times, but my reaction every time I look at a friend’s page is, “maybe you ought to keep it to yourself?” Livecasting every waking moment is an intimidating advance in technology, made only more stressful by the knowledge that the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) tools for documenting and sharing one’s life are yet to come. The promise of the information age was supposed to give us videophones, but we never bargained on being inundated by the slog of crappy memes on YouTube. Without descending into Luddite rhetoric, I’ll say this: If you feel overwhelmed by the idea that following trends on the Internet is now a full-time position, you aren’t alone.

FM3 feels the pain of the modern technology-addict, and its Buddha Machine is one of the better remedies for information fatigue. When it originally appeared in 2006, the Buddha Machine was received both as a new kind of instrument and as an anti-iPod. Minimally designed, the monochrome boxes allowed the listener to cycle through a series of nine instrumental loops, all under a minute in length. Loops could be played through a 1/8” jack, or through a tiny, lo-fi speaker build in to the box. The only controls provided were a volume wheel and a clicker for skipping through the loops. In an age when a device roughly the same size can contain hours of music, not to mention scores of photos, videos and games, the prospect of having the choices made for you was pretty Zen. That Brian Eno purchased over 20 of them only added their credibility.

The Buddha Machine, like the million-dollar pixel site, is one of those deceptively simple ideas that every media-savvy person wishes s/he could have come up with. Inspired by portable boxes available in their native China that featured recordings of Buddhist monks chanting, FM3’s Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian put themselves on the map and sold a surprising tens of thousands of the novel machines. Further establishing the pure intent of their work, all nine loops were made available for free download in high-quality format from FM3’s website. Purchasing the box, however, gave the listener the full experience in the form of the sleek physical object with the crappy speaker and hidden circuitry. FM3 managed to subvert the flashy gadget by crafting a paragon of simplicity to market to frustrated Blackberry users.

The original Buddha Machine

Touring in support of the original Buddha Machine, FM3 performed live circuit bending of the boxes, precipitating the Buddha Machine II. As could be expected, there are nine new loops and three new colors. The Pandora’s (Buddha) Box is opened, however, with the inclusion of a new pitch controller. Billed as a “whammy bar” for the Buddha Machine, it allows the listener (or is it the user now?) to bend the pitch of any loop in real-time, by moving a wheel. On the one hand, it’s a brilliant move, and opens up new possibilities for elaborate harmonization between multiple boxes. The new loops are more instrumentally layered, making the pitch wheel a tool for discovery — it’s fascinating to hear tinny percussion and gentle whistles tighten and loosen on a loop like “Dui”. See the video at the bottom of this article for my short demonstration of the joys of this new pitch wheel, particularly when another Machine is involved.

But the addition of the pitch bend feature forces us to ask: where does it end? There are a plethora of little changes to be made to future Buddha Machine models: effects, play-order randomizers, a mini sequencer to scramble the material in a loop, etc. Frankly, why not bestow future Buddha Machines with the ability to play user-loaded content? As big a seller as its been, it only makes sense for FM3 to keep adding on little control presents for each new generation.

The bigger question, then, is when does a Buddha Machine stop being a Buddha Machine? The original model was a work of philosophically stimulating and minimalist art, prone to make users think about their lives while enjoying the sweet, untampered-with sounds of FM3’s loops. Sure, the tiny speaker would sometimes distort while playing a loop at a louder volume, but this was a phenomenon outside of the user’s control. Even as simple an addition as a pitch wheel opens up complicating questions for this model. Is there a “correct” pitch at which the loops were composed, and thus at which to play them? When I play the loops at a lower pitch to relax, is this how the music was intended, or am I listening to FM3 chopped n’ screwed?

Once again, I’m starting to sound like a Luddite, so to clarify, I’m one of those who spends a shameful portion of his life online. As such, I took great comfort in the original Buddha Machine as an exercise in what I couldn’t do. For similar reasons, I still enjoy putting on the radio, instead of mining through my 100+ gigabytes of music to find nothing of interest. The availability of so much information in private settings has discouraged collaborative appreciation of art. How many people check the hottest blogs for truly new music, rather than the same hype they could get from an unlimited number of other sources?

The Buddha Machine is a break from that, and while the Buddha Machine II is still just as serene and enjoyable as the original (and the increased complexity of the loops is a lovely development), I can’t help but wonder whether it’s at a dangerous precipice. If FM3 continues down the road of updating the Buddha Machine with new user-controlled hardware modifications in each generation, how is it any different from an iPhone or Facebook profile, overflowing with applications that users are likely to use a couple times and then forget about? (Coincidentally, the Buddha Machine is now available in virtual format as an iPhone app.) Then again, looking at it from a practical standpoint, it’s not exactly easy to sell the same hardware with five new minutes of music for $27, particularly when the loops continue to be available as free downloads.

Revising a statement I made earlier, the heart of the Buddha Machine is its preset loops, which, hopefully, are not due to be replaceable any time soon. The inability to go and download hours (or even minutes or seconds) more music to replace that which you might be growing bored with forces the listener to reckon with the box on its own terms. It’s still an admirably stubborn piece of technology, even with the new pitch controller, and the new loops are beautiful. It’ll also be interesting to see if people really take to home circuit-bending of the Buddha Machine II — it’s a relatively expensive piece of equipment to risk damaging, but the possibilities are intriguing. In the meantime, I’m crossing my fingers that FM3 maintains the one-thing-at-a-time restraint for the next installment.

RATING 9 / 10