The most recent album by the Beijing-based ambient/experimental music group FM3 isn’t an album at all. In fact, FM3’s Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant haven’t put out a proper CD or LP since 2006 (Hou Guan Yin). If you want to hear the duo’s latest music, you’ll need to go to fm3buddhamachine.com and invest $25 in a small, mysterious object called the Buddha Machine.
Inspired by a device that Jian and Virant saw in a Buddhist temple that played a constant loop of chants to the Buddha, the Buddha Machine is a plastic box, roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes, that plays nine samples of FM3’s music.
Virant calls the Buddha Machine “an old pocket radio tuned permanently to FM3” in an interview with Boomkat.com. Accordingly, its design is simple: two dials, one button, a headphone jack and a single speaker. One dial adjusts the pitch and the other the volume, while the button toggles between samples.
Once you stop thinking of the Buddha Machine as a poor man’s iPod, you begin to appreciate how it holds your interest even after you’ve figured out how it works. More than just a vessel, the Buddha Machine is an instrument unto itself. That pitch dial enables you to remix FM3’s music, to transform it. You can mix the Buddha Machine’s samples with your own music or DJ sets (FM3 has published the samples under a Creative Commons license), or you can set up two or more boxes and create layers of ambient sound that move from the dissonant to the beguiling. Just imagine what Brian Eno or Trent Reznor might have done with this idea.
Personally, I use my Buddha Machine as a kind of white noise generator. Sometimes I’ll listen to one sample over and over while I’m writing, allowing my mind to sync up with the repeating notes; it’s like playing piano to the click of a metronome. And occasionally I’ll leave it on the coffee table for guests to play with. Eventually, they become engrossed with the Buddha Machine’s simple function set and stop asking, “Seriously, man, what the hell is this thing?”