While the West sweats over China's rapidly expanding economic power, Beijing-based ambient experimentalists FM3 radiate an air of calm acceptance over the changing world order. They’re also a model for diplomatic East-West relations. FM3 was born in 1999 when electronic musician Christiaan Virant, having moved to China from Nebraska to study music, joined forces with multi-instrumentalist Zhang Jian to make long, slow-moving drones. If their music calls forth ideals of Zen placidity and stereotyped images of the Orient - they have also put together a live show as audaciously restrained as a tea ceremony - the Buddha Machine, their latest 'album' presented in the form of a hand-held loop-playing box, is more indicative of the booming China of today. Its runaway success (Brian Eno alone owns dozens, for example) transformed them from starving artists into production-line capitalists. It may well be the most financially successful Buddhist trinket ever invented, not to mention the highest-selling drone release.
FM3 are as surprised as anyone at the Buddha Machine's popularity and, like true Buddhists, put it all down to happenstance and good fortune. "When we first started making them, I was so poor, I had to borrow the money from a friend," says Virant. "We made 500 originally and we thought that would last our lifetime. Now I make 500 a day, and it’s not enough!"
The Buddha Machine is a small plastic box the size and shape of a packet of cigarettes, with a built in speaker and headphone output, a dual volume/on-off switch and a button to switch between loops. It runs on two supplied AA batteries and has a jack for AC power (for those after seriously long drones). And that's about it. Much of its appeal derives from its lo-fi, self-contained status: you can't flood it with your own MP3s or download extra features. It is what it is. Consequently, it’s been cunningly labeled an “anti-iPod”, although Virant denies any such plans when devising the machine.
"First of all, if you’re a smart geeky kid in your bedroom you can tamper with it, and people do. On YouTube, if you search for “Buddha Machine hacking” people can show you how you can alter it. But no, it wasn’t conscious. When we made it, I didn’t own an iPod. Zheng Jian didn’t own an iPod. I'd never even held an iPod! I had no idea. We both live in Beijing, China. Apple will probably disagree with this but, I'm sorry, people there just don’t use iPods."
This despite their obvious similarities – iPods are the size and shape of cigarette packets, too. "We weren’t looking to oppose this thing consciously, but it was only after they started selling in the USA, where that country is awash with iPods, that it stuck. And I mean, come on, it is a great marketing tool – we have co-opted iPods marketing team and we've made it cool!"
"I think of the Buddha Machine as 100% Beijing." - Christiaan Virant
The first time you lay eyes on a Buddha Machine, you are struck by how plastic, mass-produced and, well, crappy it looks. But the Buddha Machine revels in this, challenging the high-end electronics market by flaunting its 'Made in China' assembly-line plasticity. "What it was actually based on, design-wise, was machines found in Buddhist temples," explains Virant. "We found one that had a similar look, a big chunky one, like something Run DMC might have around their neck. And they play actual Buddhist chants. The factory needed a design, there were deadlines, so we made that design in about three minutes. We found one we thought was cool, turned it over, changed its dimensions, faxed it over, and it was done. It really was an afterthought. We're just lucky to have hit on this trend of anti-technology; and it's not necessarily a gimmick but it's the packaging, the design, it really worked for us so you can't argue."
Indeed, most reviews have tended to focus on the design of the machine itself rather than the music it contains, which is rather like reviewing a CD and discussing the shape of the disc. This posits FM3 more as conceptual artists than musicians, an assumption Virant again laughs off. And the music? The nine loops vary from thick, mono-tonal washes to rapid, blurred flurries, everything deliberately, and beautifully, obfuscated by cheap speaker hiss. Each repeat point is hard to spot, making it difficult to determine the length of individual loops and consequently easy to keep listening. Neither violently abrupt nor insipidly bland, each loop functions perfectly as background noise or aural wallpaper. The loops are dark and grey but somehow non-threatening; it’s no surprise that Monolake produced an album of remixes.
"The loops were specifically designed to function as such. Everyone focuses upon the Buddha Machine as a design object, as an anti-iPod. But the real success of the Buddha Machine, the backroom success, is that these sounds were specifically designed to do that. They were designed over many, many years. I made the loops in the Buddha Machine as parts of different songs. Each is made with a different Chinese instrument. Nothing electronic – but of course, heavily processed. I would make a loop, maybe a two or three tone progression, and play it 24 hours a day, for two weeks, in my house. It would be constantly going. And if at any point I got annoyed by it, I'd turn it off, and that loop would be dead. It was a really brutal process, I would make a hundred different loops before I'd get one. And the loops that stuck with me, those were pretty strong because they fade into the background in such a way – it’s almost magic."
Like Erik Satie's 'Vexations', a two-line piano piece designed to be repeated 840 times, FM3's loops hang suspended, avoiding any resolution and making no demands or statements. They are so UN-expressive it's easy to overlook the human agency involved. "They're captivatingly…blank. The first loop on there I made in around 2002 on an old piece of music software called ACID. I took a Mongolian violin, I took a two note melody and pitched it down, and no one got tired of it. So I knew that was on the machine." It turns out Virant's friends played an equally important role in quality control. "If after two hours anyone said, ‘Dude, turn that off!’, that loop was over. So when it came time to choosing what loops to use for the Buddha Machine it was actually really easy; we knew by then – in performance, in our life – which ones to use."
Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian face off over a chessboard of Buddha Machines at Sonar 2007. Photo courtesy of Sonar
Having these expressionless drones revolving around your living room is one thing, but playing them to a large crowd at a festival? Their performance at Sonar had the audience divided between annoyed incomprehension and rapt...confusion. It was almost aggressively silent. “You know, a review early on of our music in 2004 or 2005 talked about us as being aggressively silent men. But you don’t really make silence for aggressive reasons," explains Virant. "The idea is you draw the audience in. With performance you are spoiled now. In Berlin, London, in any big city, you can see ten or twelve bands you like every night, every week, and we’re bored. So the idea of the performance, it should be hypnosis. I don’t want to use the term trance because there's trance music, but it should be a way of drawing the listener into something else, like when you watch a film and you come out of the theatre and you forget you are in Brussels, you forget you are in Barcelona, you think you’ve just been in some 007 spy film. That’s the idea of performance for us.”
'Buddha Boxing', their current performance of the Buddha Machine, has Virant and Zheng Jian seated facing each other over a card table, each armed with a mass of Buddha Machines. A number of microphones are positioned around the table, with each player taking turns, making one "gesture" each round - either placing a new Buddha Machine on the board, or adjusting Machines already in play. "That performance you saw at Sonar – of course it’s a big festival with thousands of people – Buddha Boxing was designed for an audience of perhaps 50 to 100, and we wanted to be in the middle of the room, the audience looking over our shoulders, like two old men in a park playing chess. The beauty of it is that I am 40 now, Zheng is 37, and we can play this set until we are 60 and only look cooler. That’s the trouble, if we were a metal band by the time we’re 60 it would look really lame. Instead, we’ve devised a set that we can play until we’re dead."
With the Buddha Machine, FM3 have unwittingly unleashed a real phenomenon: a unique and acclaimed album, a personal stereo, a musical toy, a Buddhist souvenir and a conceptual commodity offering valuable lessons for our consumption-obsessed times. "That’s the beauty of the Buddha Machine, it's really...serendipity," says Virant. "We made this thing on a lark for our own amusement and it hit a lot of cultural nerves that we didn’t even think about, because we’re free from this over-marketed, over-processed cultural environment. China is getting there, they're just starting. But it’s not as bad. I can't tell you if any big pop star has a new album out, because I live in China. But if I take the tube in London, I'm going to know if Primal Scream have a new album out. . U2 – June 23, whatever. Here, you're in a bubble. Yeah, of course it's all coming to China, and it's coming fast and big, so in five years we won't have this anymore. We're lucky to have it right now."