Carnival Folklore Resurrection in the Age of Globalization

This was a talk given at CTM Festival‘s STRUCTURES NODE 1 – Global Alchemy event. (For more talks, click here.)

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Intro

I should begin by saying how relieved I am to be here in Berlin, and to have had the chance to witness the performances of Group Doueh and Omar Souleyman last night. I’ve been writing about SF for a number of years, and in the back of my head there has always been this nagging fear that possibly Alan and Richard Bishop, those “cameo demons” .. that “box of chameleons” … those “great North American tricksters” to quote some old Sun City Girls titles, have actually been secretly cranking out the music of the entire Sublime Frequencies catalog themselves in a studio in Seattle, and making asses of people like me who believed that this music actually existed out there in the world! Now I know that at least some of it is true … and maybe that’s enough, because I think that’s an important part of what SF is about: throwing us into a situation where there are no guarantees, no experts to sort things out in advance, and where we have to make up our own minds about what we value, what we like or care about. And we have to keep our wits about us … I’d say that this is already what “carnival folklore resurrection”, this marvelous phrase that the SCGs coined for a series of reissues of some of their more obscure recordings, is about. No one goes to a carnival worrying about authenticity. You know there are all kinds of tricks, projections, illusions, fascinations and dangers at work, but you let yourself go a little, and you let yourself be taken in … and that is where what in America is called “fun” begins: monstrous, cruel, ecstatic, cheesy. But then … what if the whole world turned out to be a massive carnival like that? What would you do? Go home and get a PhD on carnivals … or take a ride?

Folk and “Sub” Cultures

I want to begin by talking about folk cultures. The German philosopher Johannes Herder coined the term “Volkslied” (“folk song”) in the eighteenth century and produced a two volume collection of folk song lyrics from around the world, but there have always been folk cultures, usually existing in the shadow of kings, churches, rulers of various kinds. The peasantry, out of necessity, out of the fact they owned little or nothing, found “unofficial” ways of making, distributing and sharing things – like songs for example, or recipes or spells. They developed particular collective techniques for producing these things – appropriating, cutting and pasting, transforming whatever came to hand, what anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called “the science of the concrete”. Then industrialization came along and with it new kinds of “official” distribution networks – the capitalist marketplace, copyright and intellectual property law, and the Romantic cult of the individual artist, who at the same time, sold his or her work in the marketplace like any other worker. At that time in Europe folk cultures apparently disappeared as autonomous entities. They were appropriated and represented as reified kitsch symbols of the nation-state. On the left such reified kitsch versions of “folk” were rightly seen as fascist manipulations, but the left also embraced industrialization and the transformation of the peasantry into the proletariat. Marx wrote dismissively of the “lumpenproletariat” – the hustlers, tricksters and others on the margins of industrial society who could not or would not work in the factories. If Mike Davis in his recent book Planet of Slums is to be believed, people in this situation now constitute a majority of the world’s citizens. Such communities of the marginalized or disaffected today appropriate industrial imagery and technology just as they did the official imagery of the church and crown back in Medieval days. Music, which is a peculiarly slippery and autonomous kind of human expression, is of great interest to such communities, and probably always has been, since it is very difficult to turn music, or more generally sound, into private property. The recording industry in the twentieth century was a sustained attempt to do this, but looking around today, one has to say that it has not entirely succeeded. And conversely, it is possible to make amazing music even if you have no property whatsoever.

In Europe and America in recent decades, we call such folk cultures “subcultures” or, in Spivak’s phrase “subaltern cultures”, but these are unfortunate words since, although such cultures may be subordinate to the dominant system, be it feudal or capitalist, they have their own value systems, their own way of doing things. The great graffiti artist Rammellzee lamented the fact that in the early 1980s, graffiti crews, who established their sovereignty over the city of New York by writing burners across entire subway trains, traded this sovereignty for “subculture” and a chance to participate in the international art market. Of course, the sovereignty of graffiti crews is a complex issue.

Today, “subcultures” including “indie”, “alternative” and “hip-hop” have allowed themselves to be appropriated into mainstream consumer culture to a point of almost total co-optation, and I think there’s good reason to resist that kind of label and the politics that goes with it. Instead maybe we could talk about Industrial folk cultures, a phrase I take from Ian Penman who, in a review of Public Image Limited’s Metal Box in 1980, observed that Public Image were making a kind of industrial folk music. In the 1970s Kraftwerk also claimed that they were playing “industrielle volksmusik”, providing one of the links to what is now known as industrial music, as well as perfect beats for Afrika Bambaataa. Henry Flynt’s vision of an invigorated “American ethnic music” in which hillbillies appropriate tricks from high culture to add to the power of their own music, or The Fall’s “prole art threat” are also part of this. A certain aesthetics of failure, indifference, idealism or perversity in relation to the official marketplace is one of the characteristics of the participants in such cultures – “the curse of the Fall” and the rest of us too. There’s nothing too pure about any of this: it’s not about authenticity or benevolence – participants in folk cultures steal other people’s styles and incorporate them. They are suspicious of art, and often see themselves as workers for hire, even when this work requires a high degree of aesthetic or technical sophistication. And they’re often tangled up with gangs, mafias, grey markets, who are pretty ruthless about the bottom lines of power and money. But so long as the current economic system exists, so will the particular forms of activity of industrial folk cultures too.

Carnival Folklore Resurrection

I bring all of this up because the Sun City Girls’ enactment of a “carnival folklore resurrection” which has evolved into Sublime Frequencies’ presentation of otherwise unheard global popular musics is also about a vision of a transformed lumpenproletariat, peasant, folk culture, punk rock, anarchist multitude. From the earliest days, they’ve been singing “folk songs of the rich and evil”, extending the analysis of global capitalism and American chaos that Beat writers like William S. Burroughs began, and which was such an important reference point for punk. Many of the current activities of the Sublime Frequencies collective have their genesis in the Sun City Girls’ travels around the world and their affirmation of nomadology as spiritual and political practice and the discovery of what Hakim Bey called temporary autonomous zones – spaces of freedom and ecstasy — through music. Highlights of the prehistory of Sublime Frequencies in this regard include Alan Bishop’s discovery of radio montage in Morocco in 1983, which led to some of the most interesting SF releases including the amazing Radio Java; the cassette Libyan Dream, reissued as part of CFR, which was originally issued as a limited edition of 50 cassettes which band members inserted into the stalls of street cassette vendors around SE Asia in the early 1990s. In a sense, SF now reverses this gesture, inserting a variety of musical cultures and practices from parts of the world that have been written off by the US post 0911 (remember that SF has produced disks from many of the “axis of evil” countries, including North Korea, Syria, Libya) into the dwindling CD racks of European and American record stores, and the post-Pitchfork mediascape. And then there have been moments of spontaneous collaboration or incongruous performance. For example,, during travels in Indonesia in 1989. In the words of Erik Davis:

“The Girls were on a boat, heading through the Strait of Malacca on their way to the Sumatran city of Medan. With nothing better to do, the trio asked the boat’s lounge act to hand over their electric instruments for a set. The band ripped through what one might could call a “typical” Sun City Girls set: “House of the Rising Sun,” “Esta Susan En Casa?” from Horse Cock Phepner, and a sun-baked skronk-jam peppered with abrupt stops and starts. The Indonesian audience clapped at the beginning of every song, and then clapped again at the end. Like nearly all Girls performances, this one was recorded, and Rick reports that at one point on the tape you can hear a patron lean over to his companion and proclaim: “Ah, this is American jazz!”

Sublime Frequencies has brought an anarchic punk ethos to their productions, but with a twist, for the gestures of negation that they make are not merely ritualized acts of dissent from their own society, but aim at producing a shock of surprise, of direct experience or apprehension of other cultures. The use of montage, of appropriated cassettes and LPs, of field recordings of radio broadcasts all involve this strategy. SF has gotten a lot of criticism for some of this since at times it’s meant that they’ve issued music without being able to credit the artists or pay them (most of the radio CDs are like this) – and they’ve been accused of repeating the colonial appropriation of traditional and indigenous cultures through their own privilege as American traveler/tourists. And it’s true that hegemonic appropriation of folk forms has been an issue from the endless theft of American Blues music by white rock groups, to the bootlegging of reggae and African music. But the other side of this is that folk cultures are continually engaged in acts of appropriation too. On the sleevenotes to SF’s “Guitars of the Golden Triangle: Folk and Pop Music from Myanmar”, we read that the recordings distributed by street cassette vendors in that country are considered public domain and duplicated at will. The blues appropriated British and Irish folk forms, as well as a variety of West African musics; reggae evolved out of distorted New Orleans radio music, which evolved out of military marching bands etc. Some of the appropriations are made from other folk cultures (for instance across the African diaspora) and others from the cultural dominant. Without the universality of appropriation, there could be no such things as folk cultures, nor could there be any possibility of cultural communication. Yet appropriation is also clearly an imperialist and capitalist modality – and a communist one too. This is the problem! As Alan Bishop said when Erik Davis asked him how to play the gamelan sitting in his studio:

“My philosophy is that there is no set way to play any instruments,” he told me. “Obviously there’s a sense of respect for how to play something like the gamelon. But to give in to that respect you don’t do right by tradition. Tradition is not about slavish imitation. The last thing I want to see is a bunch of fucking white guys playing Javanese gamelon proper. It’s disrespectful. They are being disrespectful because they are not evolving the situation. They are not rolling the dice. They are copying, just following somebody else’s rules. That’s not what you find in these situations.”

Contrary to stereotypes of the timelessness of folk creatures, you can only be true to folk tradition when you appropriate.

Ethnopsychedelia

An Indonesian guy on a boat to Sumatra calls what we’re talking about “American jazz!” I’m going to call it “ethnopsychedelia”. It’s not like he’s wrong and I’m right, or vice versa. I wonder what kind of constellation of musics he imagined when he said “American jazz”? In terms of music, there are a number of idioms, plateaus, spaces, styles or sites that make possible a global exchange between particular folk cultures. It would be interesting to come up with a full list of those styles and the way that they have been passed around. Probably the most well known one is the Afrofuturist vision – the merging of traditional African rhythm and ritual with cutting edge electronic technology cooked up by George Clinton, Sun Ra, Afrika Bambataa and others, which formed the basis of hip-hop as currently practiced in Colombia, China, Senegal, Turkey, not to mention Texas, London or Paris. Maybe this is what was meant by “American jazz”?

Less well known, but of equal importance, is Afrofuturism’s Asiatic, frazzled Other, Ethnopsychedelia. Equally reliant on the use of technologies of amplification and distortion, the term Ethnopsychedelia brings together musicians around the world, whether living in so-called traditional societies or the most modern, who share an interest in what Mircea Eliade, in defining shamanism, called “techniques of ecstasy”. Rumanian scholar of religions, Eliade, writing in the 1940s, before the explosion of psychedelia, added the word “archaic” to indicate that this was all happening long, long ago. But the presence of an Ethnopsychedelic musical culture around the world, in Morocco’s Nass el Ghiwane as much as Amon Duul I, in Acid Mother’s Temple as much as the Sun City Girls, suggests that headz around the world don’t give a damn what kind of technology it is, so long as it allows them to produce enormous, sprawling, feedback-laden resonant dronescapes and raga-like jams, that all aim at producing an altered state called ecstasy. And just as the Afrofuturists appropriated machines to turn up the funk, so Ethnopsychedelia uses machines, pharmaceuticals, light-shows to the traditional arsenal of hypnotic tribal rhythms, drones, raga-like modal repetition, and direct lyrical invocation of deities, in order to bring about these ecstatic states. The closest to a philosophical discourse about this has come from Henry Flynt’ who in his 1980 essay “Meaning of My Avant Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music”, says he wishes to hijack the tools and techniques of modernism and put them at the disposal of an ethnic music whose goal is visionary states of elevation.

I use this word ethnopsychedelia to point to the continuum between traditional trance-inducing musics, such as North Indian raga, Moroccan gnawa or Javanese gamelan, and contemporary psychedelic culture. This continuum becomes apparent when you consider the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who Brian Jones amplified and echoed into a global psychedelic experience in the late 1960s, or La Monte Young’s amplified tamboura recordings of Pandit Pran Nath, or Ravi Shankar’s extraordinary 1960s raga explorations, which sound like “Eight Miles High” period Byrds (or even Husker Du!) for the reason that Shankar must have heard lots of psychedelic music, just as the Byrds undoubtedly listened to Shankar. The more we find out about the 1960s, the more it seems that almost every geographical region of the world had a psychedelic scene that brought electrical instruments together with traditional songs, scales, rhythms: we knew about Brazilian Tropicalia or Turkish psych, but who knew about the importance of Hendrix in Burma or Benin and Togo or Chile or the Tibetan exile community? The complex narratives of migration, exile, transfer, which have been enacted often under the most brutal conditions of political violence, have also resulted in this sound. Questions of cultural authenticity, of who stole what, or where this or that originated, entirely miss the point that musicians and audiences, wherever they’re from, who love ecstatic musical experience, want that experience to be as intense and powerful as it can be, and will use whatever tools they can get their hands on to achieve this. And that this may be as good a reason for gathering together, for becoming part of a collective or community, as we can find.
I use the word ethnopsychedelia to affirm the connection and continuum of certain practices that are usually kept separate. Traditional societies, in their encounter with modern technology, often abandon their own musical forms and goals for a blandly homogeneous modern “global” sound, when there is no reason that cutting edge technologies should not be adapted to their own cultural goals and forms, aside from the dubious benefits of assimilation. Contemporary European and American musicians, who get high on indisputably potent technological quick fixes which wear out so quickly, refuse to learn from the enormously rich and complex world of traditional sound cultures, and the ways in which it allows a deepening of musical practice and experience. I use the word ethnopsychedelia to imagine some other kinds of sideways futures that seem otherwise impossible. In the words of Bruno Latour, we have never been modern, there is ultimately no separation between us and them, but rather a vast chaos of constellated human possibilities and boundaries. Not just one universal folk mythos that is endlessly the same, but “the changing same” of the human condition.

Sublime Frequencies is a gesture of affiliation which perhaps began as an attempt to preserve archives of popular musical material that no one else seemed to care about outside of the particular ethnic group that produced it, but it is evolving into something more active and future-oriented as we can see with Doueh and Souleyman. This is not just about preserving the past but about presenting some possible futures. The impasse of music in an age of endless recycling of a very narrow repertoire of European and American musical styles evokes the problem of the political today: what, other than capital, is the basis of us gathering together as a collective of some kind and hanging out together? My friend the New York poet Sparrow once told me that his Indian Marxist guru had told him that communism would collapse first, then capitalism, and then finally all the world religions. What would be left? Music perhaps … folk cultures for sure. What would it be like if music was the organizing principle of society? We don’t know, and in a sense, it’s a matter of inventing a new kind of collectivity, imagining it, as a way of helping it come into being.

Can the Subaltern Kick Out Killer Psych Jams?

The question of how different cultures communicate with each other is a major political question at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Gayatri Spivak has undertaken a rigorous critique of the conditions under which cross-cultural communication happens in the age of globalization. She is particularly concerned with the situation of subaltern cultures, which she locates in the “global south” and she describes their situation very well: that in the transition from traditional society, often without the already problematic framing of nation and state, to a global economy whose terms are dictated by the culturally dominant US and Europe, or by a nation state that doesn’t really recognize the existence of their cultures (I note that both Group Doueh and members of Omar Souleyman’s group belong to stateless ethnic groups). She notes the one way status of communication between imperial center and subaltern regions. Thus Alan Bishop writes that when he’s in Morocco in 1983 recording and editing the radio montages that became Radio Morocco, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is everywhere. Bishop’s montage subtracts the global dominant from the radio-scape to reveal what else is going on there.

One important phrase of Spivak’s is “without guarantees”. I think Sublime Frequencies would like to present the music that they are interested in without guarantees too – specifically the guarantees of academic ethnomusicology that treat music like an object of scientific description, and the guarantees of corporate/national “world music”, which are capable of turning any musical tradition into the same safe digitized slop that is the sign of a modern consumer society. But also without a guarantee of political correctness that, as Alain Badiou notes, claims to protect the rights of the Other, while in fact making sure that only those Others who are already the same as us are accorded any respect, while those who are not are dismissed in advance. How do the highly specific local folk musical traditions translate? What’s interesting to me is that Omar Souleyman makes a music in which the ability to name and sing about those in the crowd for whom you’re are performing is really important. What happens when he doesn’t know the names of those in the crowd, like last night? And when the crowd can’t understand the words he’s singing either? Apparently quite a lot can happen, as we saw last night. Of course, we should all learn Arabic and Souleyman could also learn our names. But the radical potential of music consists in inhabiting a space together for an hour or two in an intense and joyful way in a situation where it is never certain what the words mean, who it is that is performing and who is in the crowd. It takes a lot of work to set up situations like this, but what happens then, happens without guarantees, and the fact that it can happen should amaze us.

Spivak speaks of the difficulty of learning from precapitalist formations, while helping “insert them into lines of mobility”, and of allowing other pasts, other languages to arise within the global dominant. She notes that this doesn’t mean “learning about cultures”. “This is imagining yourself, really letting yourself be imagined (experience the impossibility) without guarantees, by and in another culture, perhaps. Teleopoiesis.” (52). Teleopoiesis is a term coined by Jacques Derrida. It means calling forth something, allowing it to come into being, in a place or time that is different from the one where you find yourself, without knowing in advance whether it can even happen. It is an act of making, but also necessarily involves the agency of those who might receive, who could understand, or who will appropriate that which is made and sent without guarantees into an unknowable future. Spivak observes that perhaps all poiesis, all making, is teleopoiesis. Music is an eminently teleopoietic medium, and contains the radical potential for being heard, being received across time and space, to a degree that is hard to imagine in written or spoken words. With music one can address an unknown group of people about whom one knows nothing and who know nothing or little about us. Of course we know that this makes music a powerful affective tool for constructing and manipulating national and other solidarities, but it also opens the possibility of other kinds of universal – for example, ethnopsychedelia. In this situation, it is not necessary (or even desireable) that one word like “ethnopsychedelia be accepted by all involved, or that the same value be attached to the tropes of the music by everyone. It is necessary and desireable to “evolve the situation”.

Why is it so easy to respond to music? What is its connection to hospitality, to gift giving, to the various ways in which we are able to welcome those who we do not know? Remember that both Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh perform principally for regional weddings and that their music is involved in producing friendship, familiarity. Talk of the politics of music can get very cheesy very fast – think “We Are The World”, surely the great anthem of globalization! – but isn’t it this intimate link between music and gift, hospitality, prestige even that still makes it possible to value music in a time where we don’t find much to value? Not to mention the importance of words like “glory” or “splendor” or “ecstasy” or even “joy” – which are all connected to ethnopsychedelia and the unfolding of the potential powers of music at significant moments in people’s daily lives.

References:
Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, translated by Peter Hallward (London and New York: Verso, 2001).
Philip Bohlman, World Music, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2002).
Erik Davis, “Cameo Demons” at http://www.techgnosis.com/scg.html
Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London and New York, Verso, 2006).
Henry Flynt, “The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music” at http://www.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/meaning_of_my_music.htm
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia UP, 2003).

FM3

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.”