This was originally published in the June 2006 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

The Buddha Machine is a plastic transistor radio sized object with a built in speaker that allows the listener to switch between 9 infinitely repeating sound loops, each ambient, minimal and melodic and all under 40 seconds. Made by FM3 (“FM San” in Mandarin), the Beijing based duo of Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian, it has become one of the more unlikely successes to emerge from the global improv/electronic underground. Originally made in an edition of 500, half of which were to be used in art installations and performances, Virant and Zhang Jian have sold over 15,000 of the machines, and have been lauded by everyone from Spin to Entertainment Weekly. In a remarkable act of generic mismatching/shoe-horning, the New York Times listed the machine as one of the best boxed sets of 2005. A parade of hipster cognoscenti, from Brian Eno to the Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop have bought multiples of the machine and sung its praises, and in November, Staubgold will release a compilation of Buddha Machine remixes called Jukebox Buddha including contributions by Tortoise, Sun O))), Aki Onda, Adrian Sherwood, Blixa Bargeld and others.
Virant and Zhang Jian began FM3 in Beijing in 1999, at a time when there was no electronic music scene to speak of in the city. Virant, who grew up in Nebraska during the hardcore punk era of the early 1980s, had been living in various East Asian cities since the late 1980s, learning traditional instruments, while experimenting with minimalist loop based methods of computer music composition. Jhang Zian, who grew up in Chengdu in Szechuan province, studied piano in music school there, but dropped out to become a travelling musician. He moved to Beijing in 1995, the same year that Virant did, and became keyboard player of choice for the city’s underground rock acts like Confucius Says. In recent years, he has made his living creating soundtracks for theater, film and TV in Beijing.
FM3 began with the idea of musical performance built around a computer. The group started out making acid house-like tracks with a guitarist, but when the group became a duo, began working with folk music samples. At first the duo hired local musicians to record samples for them. But according to Virant, “we were never interested in making Chinese electronic folk music. Around 2002, we realized that what we wanted these people to play, we could do ourselves. What we were looking for were the weird things, the accidents, the pauses in between their really eloquent melodies. So we borrowed these instruments and then immediately it became much easier to make our music. At that time we performed live with prepared Chinese instruments or invented or modified ones, along with two laptops playing drones.”
This period is captured well on Ambience Sinica, a bootleg of a 2002 performance, and the more recent Mort aux Vaches disk released by Staalplaat in 2005. In fact, most of the sound loops that appear on the Buddha Machine are made from samples of traditional Chinese instruments including the gu zheng (Chinese koto), ma tou qin (Mongolian “horse head” fiddle) and sheng (mouth organ) used as loops in live performances from this period. Outside of performance, the duo split the work up, with Zhang Jian contributing an ever growing array of field recordings, and Virant cutting up and editing them.
As an outgrowth of their interest in transforming field recordings, the duo have made two contributions to Sun City Girls’ ethnomusicological label Sublime Frequencies, the excellent Streets of Lhasa, consisting of recordings of folk music and street sounds in the Tibetan capital, and Radio Pyongyang, a bizarre and fascinating edit of North Korean “commie funk” and other propaganda pop, taped from shortwave radio by Virant in Hong Kong and Beijing. Zhang Jian does not speak English, but in what sounds like more than fair Mandarin, Virant conveys my questions to him and I get brief, rather modest replies. I ask him how he relates to Sublime Frequencies aesthetic of weirdness and appropriation and he replies: “the Tibet things you can’t say are weird – actually it’s quite beautiful. Weirdness is an attraction of course, but when I start editing at home, I go for the beautiful parts, not just weirdness.”
Soon to come on Sublime Frequencies are recent recordings made by Zhang in Bangladesh, a second volume of North Korean sounds (as a Chinese citizen, Zhang can enter the country freely) and a compilation of recordings of minority folk musics from rural China, originally recorded and released by Huan Qing, an old friend of Zhang’s from Szechuan in a hand lettered and packaged 8 CD set in China.
Recently the group has been asked to contribute a sound environment for one of the parks at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. When I ask Virant whether he feels that FM3 are in danger of becoming poster-boys for globalization, Virant laughs and deadpans “Unfortunately we have not been exploited as a model for globalization!” In fact the group remains virtually unknown in China, outside of the small but rapidly expanding electronic music scene. “If you’re a really famous person like a theater actor you get invited to Germany to give a performance of traditional Chinese culture, you stay for a week and then you go back home. It’s a cultural exchange understanding of the world. Zhang Jian said recently that he’s not making more money now than he was say when we played the Louvre. If a classical musician like Tan Dun played the Louvre he’s famous and it’s a big deal in China. We played three shows at the Louvre to 500 people and it’s not in the media, nobody here knows about it – because people don’t understand what we’re doing.”
Alternative culture is emerging slowly in Beijing, and FM3 does play underground rock venues like Nameless Highland and Get Lucky, as well as “the current home of the avant garde”, a Tuesday night show called Waterland Kwanyin at a bar called Dos Kolegas, curated by Yan Jun (who also runs Kwan Yin records). There are magazines like Tong Su Ge Qu (“Pop Song Weekly”) devoted to underground rock, but FM3 is outside their radar. “With our current Buddha Boxing show, Zhang and I sit at a table and play Buddha Machines as if it were a card game. And the concept of it people don’t get – they don’t consider it a performance, so very quickly it’s not something they write about, and they ignore it.” Nevertheless, he insists that FM3 is a Beijing group, and that the Chinese and American origins of the duo are irrelevant, compared to their own particular musical tastes and ways of working. There is also a rapidly expanding noise/electronica scene in Beijing fuelled by almost universal access to computers and bootleg software. “You essentially have a nation of kids with access to free instruments and that instrument happens to be a laptop,” says Virant. In the wake of this access, a million Merzbows are blooming.
How to explain the success of the Buddha Machine? Setting aside the unquestionable beauty of the loops, there is something about the conjunction of these very abstract, brief, melodic, infinitely repeatable fragments with a Chinese factory-manufactured plastic object that really speaks to the moment that we find ourselves in. The Buddha Machine is like globalization in a box, and embodies many of its contradictions. Marx said that commodity fetishism turned a table on its head and made it dance around. Now FM3 have produced a fetish object that plays its own music to dance to – an industrial era manufactured object with an information age sound coming out of it. All the more ironic, since the original Buddha Machine, which looped Buddhist mantras and chants, related a pre-modern sound, that of devotional singing, to an industrial era object, arguably transforming it in the process into “information”. FM3’s Buddha Machine (neither of the group are Buddhists), is essentially an appropriation of the original design (sold in China as “Chang Fo Ji”), with the group’s own musical loops replacing the mantras. And their machine is produced at a Buddhist factory on the SW Chinese coast, whose primary business is making the original chanting machines for export to Buddhist temples and believers throughout the world.
Through their experiences working with the factory, Virant and Zhang Jian have become unlikely participants in the remarkable explosion of industrial activity that is happening in China today. “Every time we go to the factory we’re inspired because that area of China is where huge amounts of global products are made,” observes Virant. “You drive down the street and you see factories making this and that and we stop at every one. That’s all we really do now is weird factory tours throughout China looking for ideas! It’s inspiring being in this place that most people regard as a huge export base, making toys for the global economy — but which we see as a fertile ground for ideas.”
“Recently we were talking about making a new FM3 product,” Virant continues, “And Zhang said “OK, we’ve got to go to this city to do it,” and when we get there it’s a huge marketplace for bizarre things like keychains with LED lights. One market there is the world’s largest market for sunglasses and a high percentage of all the world’s sunglasses are made there. There are huge airline hangars where the producers display their wares – you go there and say “OK, I want 100 million of these,” — they’re not retail places. The real problem we had with the Buddha Machine is that we don’t look or talk like serious businessmen and we’re not going to buy a hundred million of anything so people won’t deal with us, because they don’t want to waste their time talking to weird musicians from Beijing. If Jeff Koons and others who deal with huge art projects started visiting these cities, eventually all global art projects would be exported from China! An installation person would just say “OK, I want this and this and this” and get it done at these factories and have them ship it over to whatever gallery he’s exhibiting in.”
FM3 have become garageland commodity producers, involved in a strange kind of DIY mass production – much like the Chinese factory owners whose initiation into the industrial capitalist marketplace dates to around the same time as the post-punk DIY ethos that spawned Virant’s interest in music. The Buddha Machines, with their tinny speakers and cheap, bright, plastic vibe are disposable, fragile, and peculiarly intimate – just like a lot of the “trashy” objects made in these factories and sold in shopping malls around the world. FM3 celebrate this aesthetic. “The first generation models were designed so you had to hold it really close to your ear to hear it properly,” enthuses Virant. “We like the intimacy of it – you have to get so close to this piece of plastic and then out of it comes this really evocative piece of music. Zhang and I have always been about taking cheap equipment to any place we can play. On the one hand we’re quite lazy and always looking for the easy way out, and on the other, we’re very devoted to this simple way of performing. With the Buddha Machine, the design of the boxes, the printing, we got it all done at the last minute. Even the speaker and the lo-fi 6-bit chip – we really like that. It gives you the idea that anyone could have done it and should have 20 years ago.”
“We were joking that if Carston Nikolai had made the Buddha Machine it would be this beautiful, brilliantly designed, hand crafted, silver 24-bit stereo amazing thing,” concludes Virant. “We play very quiet hypnotic music and the Buddha Machine is inoffensive, unassuming, made of cheap plastic. Almost like a Tamagotchi that plays music. That’s the kind of thing we’re attracted to. You have to see beyond the crass commercialization of all this stuff – and because Zhang and I are not living in a Xmas dominated economy we can. In the West maybe you see a Furby doll and it’s annoying because whatever Xmas ago Furby was huge, but what we see is an amazing speech recording device which we can then mold into any shape we want.”