The decline in demand for physical copies of music has caused a much-publicized crisis in the music industry. Creative but ill-fated attempts to create demand for a physical product have done little to curb the increasing obsolescence of the CD format. What FM3 have done with their Buddha Machine series is to add an element of physicality to the format of their releases that requires the music to be experienced through interaction with an object.
The Buddha Machine II is a small rectangular box — about the size of a pack of cigarettes — that features a built-in speaker and volume, pitch bend and track-selection controls. When it is turned on, the first of nine loops begins repeating, and it will continue repeating until the track is switched, the box is turned off, or the batteries die.
The Buddha Machine II is part toy, part instrument and part record. Much of the interest in this release arises from interacting with it as an object. It is up to the user to explore the simple controls of the machine. Immediately, one is confronted with decisions: to listen to it through the speaker or through headphones, to leave the first loop repeating or rotate through all nine tracks, to leave it in a corner and use it for background music or devote attention to it individually.
The main difference between this release and the first Buddha Machine, aside from the new loops, is the pitch bend control. This allows the listener to change the pitch of the loops, and it adds an interesting dimension to the music. Some of the loops included sound much better when played at a specific speed, and it is up to the listener to experiment with each one and find the speed that is most suitable. The second loop, “Li,” almost disappears into the background when its pitch is lowered, but it ebbs and flows pleasantly when the pitch is raised. However, the ninth loop, “Huan,” is shrill and much too fast unless its pitched is lowered as far as possible.
Obviously, the experience of listening to this record (or whatever it is) hinges mainly on the practically endless repetition of the loops. Long-form minimalist pieces are hardly a new idea, but in the past, the length of a piece was dictated by the format on which it was released. Tony Conrad’s Outside the Dream Syndicate, which could in theory last any length of time, was constrained by both the endurance of the performers and the amount of music that could fit on an album. Similarly, experiments by La Monte Young and Brian Eno were limited by the performers and the medium.
The closest analog to the Buddha Machine is William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, a set of loops made in the early 1908s and then forgotten about until the early 2000s. When Basinski found the loops again, he discovered that the tapes had aged poorly and were slowly disintegrating as he played them. As each loop progresses, it slowly changes as pieces of the tape disintegrate, and the listener’s focus changes accordingly to different elements of the loop. The Buddha Machine II is like this process, but reversed. The loops don’t lose any parts, but listening to the same sounds for hours at a time allows the listener to naturally focus on different parts. This way, the recordings slowly become richly complex, as even the subtlest sounds become noticeable.
This release may at first come across as no more than an amusing toy, but if enough time is spent with it, it becomes much more than just a distraction. The setup of the sound box is deceptively simple. There is a depth to its interactivity that is surprisingly rewarding. The Buddha Machine II may not be for more casual listeners, but fans of sound art or minimal electronic music will find much to interest them here.