In the couple years since they've been introduced, iPods have become ubiquitous. I work on a college campus, and when I happen to be strolling outside when there's a break between classes, the number of people wearing them ranges from between 10-30%. It's a crazy phenomenon, partially fueled by a unique product and at least somewhat by the hipness factor itself. I mean, who wants to be seen with a clunky old CD player when you can identify with all the other converts with their white earbuds?
You may be wondering what the above has to do with The Buddha Machine by FM3, but once you see the contraption, you will understand. You see, The Buddha Machine is not a CD release, or even an LP release. It's a small plastic box (that runs on two batteries) made in China that has not only an integrated speaker, but a volume control and an 1/8" output jack. To control the box, you simply turn it on, and a single switch on the side of the box toggles between nine different loops that are stored within the onboard memory.
While some may simply see the box and wonder why the group didn't just release their music in a traditional format (where it would be made into digital files and put on iPods anyway), that isn't really the point. Instead, it's the ultimate, self-contained ambient music box, suitable for setting a mood wherever you are, whether you have headphones or not. In writing about ambient music, Brian Eno once said, "Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."
Keeping that above statement in mind, The Buddha Machine succeeds admirably considering the limited capabilities of the hardware involved. The lo-fi loops are all pastoral, and range in feel from light to dark tonally, and the quality of the hardware actually adds to the feel of the short pieces themselves. In some ways, the work reminds me of the looped pieces by William Basinski and at times even Philip Jeck, and yet part of the beauty of The Buddha Machine is how it fits into your everyday routine.
For example, I usually listen to my iPod (yes, I have one) while commuting to work. I have a short ride (15-20 minutes) each way to work and I usually have something particular that I want to hear, whether it's on the way to work or coming back home again. Even if I play my iPod at loud volumes, other sounds inevitably seep into what I'm listening to, and depending on the degree to which they intrude upon my listening, I tend to find myself somewhat annoyed (which isn't really a good thing in either starting or finishing the workday). As an experiment, I instead listened to The Buddha Machine several days while commuting and the difference in how I perceived outside noise was quite different. Instead of being annoyed, I found my brain slightly focusing on the loops themselves, but also listening to how the sounds of the outside environment filtered in over and alongside them.
One could argue that I should just listen to straight ambient music on my iPod and arrive at the same conclusion, which I suppose is correct. Still, despite its slightly strange smell (kind of like the faint whiff of a firework), I think that FM3 is really onto something by releasing their music in this format. There's a slight anti-iPod feel to the box, as if it's an old AM transistor radio gone haywire (it certainly caused some second glances when I paired it with my iPod headphones). Because of that, retro, gadget, and ambient music freaks will want to get their hands on this pronto. Constructed by monks and with no menus to navigate, the little efforless box is truly a bit zen.
Please note that The Buddha Machine can only be found a few places right now, including the always-excellent Forced Exposure.