The Second Coming of the Buddha Machine
by Kevin J. Elliott

Since the release of FM3’s first generation Buddha Machine, the small, portable, prayer bell cased in a cheap plastic box, in 2005, there has been a growing subculture of people who regard the object as next to sacred. Perhaps most of the intrigue lies in the Buddha Machine’s dual perception as an “album” created by Beijing-based duo Christiann Virant and Zhang Jian and an “instrument” produced en masse. There are musicians (Brian Eno and Alan Bishop are two devotees) known to purchase dozens for performances, electronic artists dabbling in remix, and noise destructionists taking it apart to find new sounds. Hard to believe a tiny speaker with nine perpetual loops at the user’s control could be functional as both and interactive tool and home entertainment. From experience, it’s hard to just own one when you start experimenting with box placement and loop combinations. FM3’s “album” has even led to Buddha boxing, playing a sort of sonic mahjongg with each user’s personal collection.

Even today, three years later, my first Buddha Machine (bestowed to me by my brother who discovered them one day) has yet to gather dust, a testament to its continuous powers. So there’s no surprise that when FM3 announced the release of version 2.0, there was no hesitation in the purchase. In a recent interview, Virant has suggested that the second Buddha Machine is an “evolution” and “revolution” of the last, where its new sounds will both coordinate and complement the predecessor. In tandem with version one, the loops do in fact introduce another dimension of FM3’s music. The first thing you’ll notice is the human element that suddenly appears, one loop includes notes thumbed on a dusty piano, the next the pluck of Chinese string instruments amplified through distortion. Adding room noise, breaths/coughs, and even whispered beats gives extra flesh to their minimal tendencies. There are a few bells similar to the first batch, but here hyper-focused, brighter, and built with velocity. The best enhancement is the attachment of a pitch control, making the possibilities even more endless. Every time it’s turned on, it becomes another meditative psych journey. In an era where consumption of music is nebulous in format, the FM3 and their Buddha Machine have forged a new path, blurring the line between musical commodity and participatory art.