The Buddha Machine: An Expression of DIY and Spontaneity in Chinese Experimental Music



I often wonder what new possibilities the world of music holds. What instruments have yet to be invented that will shift how we interact with and produce sound in the same monumental ways that say, the first guitar did? Or, more recently, the synthesizer? More often than not, I feel questions like this are met with compromises and hybrids. Guitars which double as harps, offering the musician, whosoever might be willing to set aside the time and learn how to work the contraption, the least of both worlds. The reason why these never gain any traction is because they speak on some level to function but on almost no level to form. Not form as in shape, but how does the new instrument rework our understanding of musical forms we are already familiar with? An unlikely candidate arose as an answer to this question, and it was born out of a small experimental and artistic community in Beijing.

The experimental music scene in China is dense and close-knit. As  It hasn’t had many years to expand and doesn’t necessarily want to. In an interview with The Creator’s Project, Li Jianhong, noise rock virtuoso guitarist and major figure in Beijing’s avant-garde experimental music scene, noted that if the scene were to grow in some desperate search for self-sustainability, the spark of experimentation might be lost. “The situation as it is now is good. We should let it be,” he says. These musicians draw inspiration from whatever rock music was available to them in the 1990s and, since the internet made so much more available, they cite traditional Chinese masters, such as Guan Pinghu, a vanguard player of the guqin throughout the first half of the 20th century, as influential figures. But where do those traditional elements find a voice in such a contemporary landscape?

Enter FM3 and the “Buddha Machine.” FM3 is an experimental electronic duo based in Beijing, consisting of the expatriate Christiaan Virant and Beijing-native Zhang Jian. In 2005, a small device tucked away in a Buddhist temple caught Virant’s eye, or rather, his ear. The device, a small, simple box, with one speaker, would play on endless loop a series of monastic chants. Virant obtained a few of these devices and, along with Jian, began to tinker. Eventually, the FM3 Buddha Machine was born. Their iteration of the device contained 9 programmable loops which they themselves generated from synths, field recordings, or composed pieces. Each loop, ranging from  1.5 to 40 seconds in length, could go on forever, repeating and uninterrupted, to create a sort of drone. The box had an on/off switch, a volume control, and a button to toggle between loops. That’s all. To many in this day and age, such a device might seem borderline unusable; the kind of novelty thing you dig up in your grandparent’s basement, some mysterious and antiquated cereal box toy. But the Buddha Machine quickly gained a following amongst musicians in the Chinese experimental scene, and later would around the world.

Brian Eno, renowned composer, producer, and pioneer of ambient music was among the first to be caught under the spell of the machine. The working myth is that when he discovered the device he instantly ordered a dozen, and lauded the machine as a generative musical device. Generative music, a term that Eno himself coined, is defined as music which specifies a set of rules, and lets those rules act as a seed which give rise to an original piece of music. It’s the difference between envisioning an entire cathedral, complex and symbolic, with thought poured into every single detail, and building it exactly according to that vision, vs. simply handing anyone an easily usable set of tools and telling them to make it up as they go. Only, in this case, the tools given and the foundation laid out don’t mean that the end result will be any less sturdy, just that it may not follow a popular or familiar form. The Buddha Machine does exactly this. It asks a mind with no prior understanding of its inner workings to take it and make with it. This results in a pure, spontaneous form, and its grassroots popularity is evidence of the importance of generative music.

(http://www.smartbeijing.com/articles/community/culture-bureau-christiaan-virant)

There are a slew of videos across Youtube, live performances, and reviews of the Buddha Machine in use. Users report placing multiple machines in conversation, calling on the old tape loop methods of Steve Reich or Phillip Glass, whether they know it or not. Some have arranged machines throughout their house, set them on shelves or taped to the wall, so that music becomes a spatial experience: the shifts in sound are completely dependent on your own movements, speed, mental state, schedule, position in the home. Just being away from the machine can be a movement in a never ending piece without any constructed arc. Virant and Jian of FM3 created a kind of game they call “Buddha Boxing,” where at least two people with one machine each take turns switching loops, adjusting volume and pitch, and shifting the machines’ spots in relation to each other to create endless ambient compositions. In an interview, Jian said, “In Portugal, they’d drink and smoke as they play til the sun came up.” Virant added, “And in Israel, they played for an entire day.” This is an important moment because it demonstrates a shift in the way music is made and consumed. One way of thinking of the Buddha Machine is that it is almost like an album. Every few years brings forth a new iteration of the machine with a new set of 9 or so loops created by the band, pieces of music yet unheard by anyone else. But it becomes less like an album in that each piece of music on the machine is meant to be a rule with which to generate a larger and more abstract, completely original musical form. In handing over a ruleset to produce new music, in a completely accessible and easy to use way, FM3 has made performers out of their own audience. John Richards, creator of Dirty Electronics, a DIY electronic musical instrument workshop, writes: “The Buddha Machine is as a discrete sound device demonstrated a new model for the dissemination and presentation of music and further opened up the idea of listening ‘through’ physical objects. What is most striking is that objects such as the Buddha Machine blur the boundaries between product and artwork”(Beyond DIY, p.279). With users producing sound and enjoying the sound they produce, the Buddha Machine becomes less the work of a band and more a representation of the people and how they wish to express themselves moment to moment. And it has changed the way other performers express themselves. A compilation album called “Jukebox Buddha” was produced at the hands of a number of big-name experimental musicians, including Sunn0))), Aki Onda, and Blixa Bargeld, who were given the task of interacting with, altering, and remixing the sounds of the Buddha Machine as they pleased to generate their own original compositions. The results were surprisingly diverse. For example, as Rick Anderson wrote in a review of the album “Blixa Bargeld has rarely sounded as gentle and lyrical as he does here, on the pastoral “Little Yellow”…”(Notes, p. 928).

(co-creators of the machine Virant, left, and Jian, right, perform at a live event, improvising unique compositions before they invite members of the audience to come to the stage and make music of their own)

The Buddha Machine is important because it is departure from conventional music making, anyone can use it, and it was made by Chinese musicians, inspired by something distinctly Chinese. Frederick Lau writes on the musical forms and history of China, and in one account, delves deep into the old traditional forms that “people’s music” has taken in China. Lau writes about Jiangnan Sizhu and Xianshi music, which are Chinese ensembles that perform in public, generally by amateurs, for their own amusement. In one account from his book, “Music in China,” he writes, “I could hear from the playing that the individual players contributed tremendously to how the piece sounded by adding embellishments, altering the melody, subtracting or adding notes, and changing octaves. Even the same piece sounded differently when played by a different group of musicians” (P. 13). This is remarkably similar to FM3’s audience playing with and creating music from the given set of sounds that emerge from the Buddha Machine. Indeed, without any kind of standard notation, or for that matter clear controls, the machine does not lend itself to ever making exactly the same set of sounds twice. Each composition becomes an expression of the individual. Lau continues: “Taken as a whole, the performance of music with local flavors is more than a musical event. It is an expression of a regional identity”(P. 21). Here Lau is speaking of local amateur musical ensembles in China, but why should the same not apply to the Buddha Machine? Because it was inspired by the technology used in a traditional Chinese setting, a buddhist monastery, and was created by Chinese musicians, to be used by anyone, it is a crossover between album and instrument that bridges the gap between performer and audience. The same people that produce the music become the people who enjoy it, and they need no real skillset to pick it up and begin to make music. In this sense, anyone can become a musician, and many do; much of FM3’s live performances end with audience members quite literally coming up to the stage and interacting with the machines, improvising and testing out what sounds interesting to them, adding their own flourishes and shifting pitch as they see fit, just like the Jiangnan Sizhu musicians Lau stumbled upon in Shanghai. Thus, the Buddha Machine is an expansion upon the idea of what “people’s music” in China can be.


(a jiangnan sizhu ensemble performs in the streets)

While the Buddha Machine on one hand a reworking of what Chinese local music can be and express, it further develops the idea of what music itself can be. With the shift from audience to performer, there is a new perspective on repertoire, rehearsal, and musical ideas. Because the machine has no standardized skillset, and because of the endless nature of the sounds it produces, compositions are ongoing and, as Talking Heads frontman David Byrne wrote in his online journal: “They are merely states of being, not substitutes for narrative.” This new instrument becomes a tool with which to embody the ethos set forth by ambient and experimental pioneers such as John Cage, who insisted that every sound that entered one’s ears was part of a greater composition.

Thus, the Buddha Machine is a glimpse into the future of music. It is simultaneously art and tool, the canvas becoming the painting, the raw material for the music becoming the compositions themselves. The device propels users forward and asks them to reach out and broaden their sense of community in the same way that Frederick Lau experiences the regional amateur ensembles throughout China. The sounds produced by performers, and anyone using the machine is a performer, span a wide range of moods and tones, and by nature of their simplicity and versatility do not feel confined to the walls of the box, only about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It breaks down barriers between producer and consumer. The device asks for participation, community, and a willingness to interpret ideas through a new set of tools. It is generative and spontaneous things like this that push forward the modern understanding of what music can be and can represent. The local music of China has long stood out as regional expressions of identity, and the Buddha Machine is a distinctly Chinese device that transcends linguistic or cultural boundaries and becomes an individual expression of identity. This is a great leap forward for a country that, since its opening up and reform, gave way to a burgeoning capitalist economy, and a people that still struggle with notions and stereotypes of the collective conscious. With the Buddha Machine, an instrument with a cult following around the world and a stable hold in the Beijing experimental music scene, the people have the power.

–Nathan Malonis, 4/26/2016

References:

Anderson, Rick. Notes 63.4 (2007): 928–928. Web…

Byrne, David. “You Da Boss Collective Creation and Free Will.”Davidbyrne.com. N.p., 14 Dec. 2011. Web.

“China’s Experimental Music Pioneers Are Moving West | The Creators Project.” The Creators Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Eno, Brian. “Generative Music – Brian Eno – In Motion Magazine.”Generative Music – Brian Eno – In Motion Magazine. In Motion Magazine, 1996. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.

Lau, Frederick. Music in China: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Richards, John. “Beyond DIY in Electronic Music.” Organised Sound Org. Sound 18.03 (2013): 274-81. Web.