Nebraska-born musician Christiaan Virant
was in Beijing performing drone-like ambient music with his Chinese collaborator Zhang Jian, under the name FM3
(mostly in Chinese); as pioneers of the electronic movement in China, most of their money came from sound installations at art galleries, which entailed wiring up rooms with sound equipment. Mulling a simpler and cheaper way of doing this, Virant was wandering around a Buddhist temple in southwest China when he spotted a little plastic box on the altar
(one such possible example), piping out loops of the tinny, digitized chants played endlessly at such places. Intrigued, he found two of the devices in the temple gift shop and bought both. The idea of an instant sound installation was born. That was almost four years ago
Such chant boxes are commonplace around Asia, but Virant found that they were mostly produced only in volumes of 2,00,000 or more. It took him a year to persuade a factory in a village near Jinjiang in Fujian province to make them in the quantity he wanted: 300. “We thought that would last a lifetime,” he recalls. In reality, they sold out in a few weeks.
By August 2007, their factory in Beijing is churning out 500 a day.
Total sales at that time were approaching 50,000 units and still going strong.
In November 2008, the second version was released
These little music makers are called Buddha Machines
, which is a literal translation for the plastic boxes that play looping chants. Both versions are roughly the size of transistor radios
(warning: some pages are blinding due to choice of colors). Each version has a different set of nine short original loops
created by FM3, all released under Creative Commons
; the tracklist for version 1 is here
, and the second here
. Both versions have a built in speaker with volume control, and a built in line-out jack for headphones or external speakers. They run off of AA batteries or a 4.5v supply. The original version came in 7 color options (as well as a limited run encased in pressed tea leaves
, and a possibly unreleased run
in porcelain cases
. The second version comes in 3 colors, and gains a pitch-bending wheel, allowing for some fun distortion. FM3 worked with Agile Partners
to make an iPhone app
that replicates the original version, and there is a flash-based tribute, the FM3 Buddha Machine Wall
that is an array of 7 x 3 Buddha Machines, also based on the original version.
There are numerous fans of the simple little loop-box. The story goes
that Alan Bishop
bought twenty-four of these on sight, and Brian Eno
bought eight. Sasha Frefe-Jones has a good write-up and mini-interview
, discussing her experiences and thoughts on the various versions, and talking with Christiaan Viant about some aspects of the Buddha Machine. Numerous tracks have sampled the Buddha Boxes, and this music has been featured in the Jukebox Buddha
compilation which featured a track by Sunn O)))
; Robert Henke's work
sticks more to the original samples and sound.
There's a Russian fansite
, which contains good info (if you understand Russian), and a nifty gallery
(if you don't). YouTube has plenty of hands-on videos
(this one from Gearlog
, and the machine playing with others
(in this case, the mini Kaos Pad