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The Ghost in the Buddha Machine:
 An Interview with Christiaan Virant of FM3

FM3 is American-born, expat musician, Christiaan Virant, and Chinese keyboardist and computer musician, Zhang Jian. For the past six years, the Beijing-based duo has been making meditative, quietly minimal music, employing a mix of electronics, computers, and traditional Chinese instruments. Although FM3 has published a smattering of enticingly soporific releases on CDrs and compilations on Western labels, such as Staalplaat and Bip-Hop, and have toured Europe, the group has retained a somewhat enigmatic air, which was only heightened by a general ignorance in the West of the electronic music scene in China.

This year Virant and Jiang released their most unusual record to date, a portable, hardware loop-player containing nine short loops of FM3 music called the Buddha Machine. This fetching little lo-fi electronic fetish-object has become something of a mini-mini-rage among those seeking sonic enlightenment, fueled at least in part by the ardor of some bloggers and online music critics. Yet, in spite of the attention paid to the box itself, the musicians behind the machine remain a bit of a mystery. I spoke by phone with FM3’s Christiaan Virant on Tuesday, November 1, while he and Jian were on tour in Berlin, and he shed some light on FM3, electronic music in China, the Buddha Machine, and more.

This is the transcript of the interview (with minor edits at the beginning), which aired on Thursday, November 3, 2005 on WZBC 90.3 FM Newton.

Your most recent release is something called the Buddha Machine. I imagine that most of my listeners have not seen it, heard it, or held one in their hands. Could you explain what one is exactly?

[laughs] The Buddha Machine is really nothing more than a small, plastic box. I guess about the size of a cigarette package in the U.S., which I think fewer and fewer people are familiar with in the U.S.; but it’s a small, plastic box that comes in six different colors and inside the box are loops that my band made over the last six years that we edited down, compressed into six-bit audio, and burned onto a chip that’s at the heart of this box. As I said, it’s about the size of a cigarette pack and it also contains a speaker, much like the transistor radios that we grew up with in the seventies before digital media became the new wave. But you turn on the box with two AA batteries inside, it’s powered, and the loops start to play, so essentially it’s a portable, go-anywhere, loop-playing sound system.

And these are also things, I understand, that are sold at Buddhist monasteries, hence the name Buddha Machine?

Yes, yes. The original Buddha Machine—we actually gave it the name Buddha Machine—the original box was used at Buddhist temples to chant, or play prayers and there are a number of different explanations of why they invented this box in China. Some people say it’s because modern people are too lazy to go to the temples to say the chants to the Buddha like they used to, so they invented this small machine to do it for them. Other people say it’s because there are fewer and fewer Buddhist monks out there. In the old days, the number of Buddhist monks was much higher, because that was considered a very high-class profession, and now more and more people are going into business or whatnot, so there are less monks to do the chanting for the Buddha, so they made a small box to do it in the place of a human.

What attracted you about using such a machine?

Actually, that’s a really good question. My group, FM3 or FM “tsan”—“tsan” is the Chinese pronunciation for the number three—my group has been working in China for a number of years with the concept of minimalist, repetitive sounds. We’ve played either with Chinese instruments or with electronics entire sets of single loops playing over and over, generating essentially one or two hours of music. And it was about ten years ago that I first saw one of these chant boxes at a Buddhist temple in China and for the past ten years, I’ve been interested. I thought, “Wow, what an amazing release that would be, if I could put my music into that box and then release it as a cd, or a cassette, or an album.” It took a few years to do it, but we eventually found a factory that agreed and that’s why we have the Buddha Machine.

The people at the factory must have been rather surprised by the proposal? I imagine you were the first person to propose such a thing.

At first they were annoyed by us, because of course the factories that make these things make tens of thousands of them for Buddhist temples around the world and we came to them and said we wanted to make about a hundred fifty to two hundred of these little boxes and they said, "Oh, go away, go away. Don’t even bother us with this." But after they heard the music and realized that it was actually quite a fun project for them for them because they never thought of turning what they saw as a sort of a Buddhist product into essentially what’s become a piece of sound art, or a portable piece of sound art, the factory kind of took to the idea and then they helped us with it. It took a couple years’ of convincing, but now they’re pretty much on board and they’re quite tickled with how popular it’s become.

I want to back up a bit, since you alluded to when you talked about the origins of FM (san), is that how it’s pronounced?

FM tsan, or FM3 is fine.

My Chinese pronunciation is probably pretty appalling. You mentioned that you come from the States originally, from Nebraska, I believe. I was curious how you ended up in China, because you’ve been in China for 17 years now, which is quite a long stretch.

Yeah, well, I was born and raised and grew up in Nebraska, and then in my teens, I was from a very young age studying music, classical mostly, violin and piano; and then, in the 1980s, I became a young punk and was playing in punk bands in Omaha. And, at that time, I also became interested in Indian music, mostly the sitar, and also Chinese music—basically anything that was weird for Nebraska, I was into at the time. I ended up applying for and receiving a scholarship to go study in China and this was in the 1980s, and I went to a wonderfully beautiful coastal city in southern China. It was warm year round, had great seafood and it was just beautiful. It had palm trees and green everywhere and coming from winter in Nebraska, I thought it was the best place on earth. So, I eventually just got stuck there and by the time I realized what I was doing, it was ten years later and I was still in China. It just kind of became my home.

And how did you get involved in making electronic music? Was there an electronic music scene that you just plugged in to?

Really, in effect, I, or my band, started the electronic music scene in Beijing. When I was very young in Nebraska, in the early eighties, I was working with electronics—I think a lot of people were at that time—using electronic keyboards and any second hand gear we could get our hands on. And that side of me kind of stayed dormant for many many years in China, because there was just no access to materials and no interest. Mostly, in China, I was playing in punk bands again. I was essentially playing the same kind of music that I was playing in my teens, but I was in my thirties. At one point, I said, you know, I used to do a lot of electronics, I should really start a band in Beijing, because at that time, there was no one doing it and so I got some friends together from different bands that I had been in and we just went for it. The idea was that we would try to do live computer improvisation on stage and, fortunately, the people that I chose to work with were all really good musicians and at first it was a bit sketchy, but over the years we started to make it happen and became quite a popular group in Beijing and spawned a bit of an electronic music craze around the nation.

Now FM3 is just you and one other musician or is it more fluid?

That’s correct. Originally, the band was three people, and very shortly after we started in 1999, very shortly after that, one of our members became a solo artist and is now one of the top dj, laptop performers in China. FM3 is myself and my partner Zhang Jian and he’s a keyboard player from down south and he also does a lot of film and theater composition, he does a lot of classical scoring. That’s one reason that our music has a very Chinese folk and Chinese classical influences, because he brings this background to the group.

Did you start or did you begin to develop this very minimal, ambient sound with the group right away?

Actually, when we started out our first gigs were minimal techno gigs. There were three of us and we were playing mostly clubs in China, we were playing the back rooms of clubs, where we played much more minimal—in China the dominant club music is very fast trance or very, very fast techno and we played a bit slower, much more minimal, stripped-down music and, then, eventually, we just started leaving out the beats entirely. And that’s when, and this was probably in the year 2001, when we went entirely without any—some would say “groove”—I would say, “rhythm” and became an ambient band.

How big is the scene in China now—can you talk of a coherent electronic music scene, or are there more discrete pockets of activity?

Well, you know if you had asked me this question just two years ago, I would have been able to tell you every single band that was active in China, but in the past two years, it’s just exploded and now there are just hundreds of kids all around the nation, in really far-flung places in China, that are experimenting with electronic music. And it’s mostly because, in China, access to computers is very easy. Of course, most of the world’s hardware is made in China and, as we all know, most of the world’s software is cracked in China, so you have, for young kids, easy access to hardware and free access to software and, as we all know, most music is made using software. So you have millions of young kids with free musical interests. Literally, in the last couple of years, the electronic music scene in China has gone from a handful of people based in Beijing or in Shanghai, to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kids all around the nation. It’s really hard to give you an accurate picture of what’s happening, but one of the newest trends in China currently is breakcore, or the very frenzied, kind of punk rock computer beats that you’re hearing in Tokyo or in London or in New York.

I was curious also, is there a lot of crossover between experimental music, breakcore and more commercial dance music, you mention the sped-up trance music, between these different activities or are these very much separate now?

Well, it’s always been very separate. And I, I come from a musical background, a punk rock background, so I’ll play any gig, any time, anywhere, because I love to play. But the dance scene and the electronic music scene in China have always been very separate and FM3 was actually one of the few groups that was able to play any club gigs. I don’t think we’ve played a club gig in I don’t know how many years now and there are still very few Chinese electronic artists playing in clubs. The clubs are still dominated by djs playing vinyl or playing cds and you rarely see a live Chinese dance act or Chinese techno act. Most of the electronic music artists play in what in the U.S. would be considered rock bars, where mostly the programming is rock and roll and then one night a week is given over to electronic music. And the breakcore kids tend to avoid the commercial clubs, because they’re targeting a much younger, grittier audience of college kids that doesn’t really have the money to go to the commercial clubs and doesn’t really want to be associated with that scene. So, the breakcore kids have built their own scene and they’ll just rent their own bar for the weekend and they’ll just have their party there.

And are there Chinese record labels? I noticed that you have releases on labels like Staalplaat, and on the French label Bip-Hop’s compilations, but do you also release records on Chinese labels?

There are a number of very small Chinese labels, because China is still very much culturally under the control of the Communist authorities. Economically and politically, China is liberalizing a lot, as I’m sure people in the United States know, but culturally it’s still very, very strictly controlled and performances and record releases and newspapers and news media are all much more controlled than would be in a free media market, which means there are a lot small Chinese labels, but they’re not able to come up above the underground. Usually what happens is a couple of kids will start a label, they’ll make a compilation, they’ll make one release and that’s it, that’s as far as it goes. So there are hundreds of these CDr or, what I call, one-release labels that release one disc and that’s it. But most of the official labels like the recognized government labels don’t deal with this stuff at all, because they only deal with mainstream pop music or mainstream classical music.

Are there any compilations that are available, say, if listeners are interested in finding out more or listening more to Chinese music? Do you have any suggestions?

One label that I can recommend is run by a friend of mine, his artist name is Panda Twin, and he runs a label called Shanshui Records. And I believe if you search for Shanshui.com or Shanshui Records in Google, you’ll be able to find this label and it’s a very small Beijing-based label and it does excellent compilations of underground, breakcore, ambient and electronic musicians from all around China.

I was curious, since you mentioned the cultural restrictions that still exist in China, was there any resistance to—is the Buddha Machine even something that’s available in China, or would something with name “Buddha” on it raise some kind of flag?

No, not really. The Buddha Machine is available in China and if people are interested, they can order it from us in China. We don’t have distribution for it in China, because it’s hard to distribute things like this in China, not because of any government regulations, but just simply because there isn’t a distribution network for small things like that that aren’t mainstream and aren’t like one million, two million units a day type distribution. There isn’t really a small type of network to distribute this. So there is no problem at all with that. Of course, you know these Buddhist machines exist as Buddhist chanting devices already in China and there’s not a problem with that, and our music is much less sensitive, or offensive than that, so there should be no problem with it at all.

I understand that there’s going to be a series of Buddha machines with various different artists. Are there going to be any Chinese artists or international electronic musicians?

You know, I don’t—there is not going to be a series of Buddha Machines for other artists in the future! [laughs] I don’t know how that became kind of a common—I see it in a lot of reviews and a lot of mentions on the web about the Buddha Machine. No, we made the Buddha Machine as our release for 2005 and in 2006, we’re going to go back to making regular music for regular record labels in Europe and China. This is essentially a limited edition idea for us and there aren’t any plans to release any other artists on the box.

You are currently on tour in Germany and the Netherlands?it’s just you solo?

No, no. If I can, I tour with the other half of FM3, Zhang Jian. Last year, we did a very long, six-month tour in Europe and, then, I also came out on tour solo for four months and then this time, we are on tour as a duo for just over a month in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and, I think that’s it. Yeah, that’s it, just Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands this time.

Are there any plans to possibly come to the States anytime soon?

Well, I’d love to. I played solo last year in Chicago of all places and had a really good time and now that Buddha Machine has really taken off in the U.S., and our current live set consists entirely of Buddha Machines, that’s all we play now, we don’t play with laptops, we essentially play with mixers and Buddha Machines, I think the U.S. audience would really like this set. The plans are, if we can make it work, sometime early next year. One of the problems would be getting a visa for Zhang Jian, and he’s travelled a lot in Europe and the UK, so it shouldn’t be much of an issue, but there are occasional visa problems to work out.

One other thing, which is sort of a side issue, I understand that you were a curator/compiler of the Radio Pyonyang release (on Sublime Frequencies).

[laughs] Ah, yes, yes.

Did you actually travel to North Korea, or is something using radio broadcasts, cassettes…

No, no. I was actually in North Korea, but I didn’t go to North Korea to do that disc. It would have actually been quite nice to go to North Korea specifically to do that disc. The way that worked out was that we did the Tibetan field recordings for the label Sublime Frequencies in the U.S. and we released that earlier this year. While I was working on the Tibet disc, I mentioned to the head of that label, “Well, I was in North Korea about ten years ago, and I have a bunch of recordings that I made from then.” I didn’t know if he’d be interested, but he said, “Yeah, go for it.” So, the way that disc came about was essentially many, many years after I’d been to North Korea already. So, what I had to do was I had to rely on friends that were recently there or archive material or radio intercepts and whatnot and kind of build a sound collage of my impressions of North Korea from I guess it would have been the early 1990s

Had you been there just that one time? Or have you been there…

No, I’ve only been to North Korea once. It’s very, very difficult for U.S. citizens to go to North Korea.

I would imagine so. I was surprised—I thought you had been there, but just how you had done it….

Yeah, it’s very difficult, because North Korea doesn’t really want you there and the U.S. doesn’t really want you to go, so you have pressure from both sides. I have a number of friends from Beijing, who go quite often to Beijing either for their jobs or because they’re just kind of extreme, adventure-seeking weirdos and they’re able to bring me back sound recordings on almost a monthly basis, so those are the people I relied on mostly for the trip. I’d love to go back, but it’s actually very, very expensive. You can do it, if you’re a U.S. citizen, but you have to go through an approved tour operator and it’s kind of like going to the Soviet Union back in the days when it was the Soviet Union, it costs many thousands of U.S. dollars and they only take you for a couple of days or so.

Well thank you very much for doing this interview. With that I will conclude the interview.

Well, thank you, yes.

 

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Comments

do you know how I can get a free chant box?

Yes, an excellent question! You can get a Buddhist chant box by emailing a request to the following Buddhist centers (there are others I’m sure). You’ll find you get a slightly different version of the box, depending which place you contact.

Amitabha Buddhist Society of USA 650 S. Bernardo Ave., Sunnyvale, CA, 94087 Tel: 408-736-3386 Fax: 408-736-3389 Email: info@amtb-usa.org Website: www.amtb-usa.org

Amitabha Buddhist Library in Chicago 2753-2755 W. Maple Avenue, Lisle, IL 60532 Tel: 630-428-9941 Fax: 630-428-9961 630-416-6175 630-416-9488 Email: library@amitabhalibrary.org Website: www.amitabhalibrary.org

Amitabha Buddhist Society of NY Inc. 41-60 Main St., Ste. 211, Flushing, NY 11355 Tel: 718-961-7299 Fax: 718-961-8039 Email: amitabha_ny@yahoo.com.tw

Best, Susanna

I’m looking for contact info for the members of FM3; their website appears to be down. Is there an email address I can reach them by?

Thanks! Tim

Hello,

I have recently set up a website devoted to the FM3 buddha machine. Please feel free to take a look at www.buddha-machine.com

Thanks Harry

I too have a web page about Buddha Machines: www.jetcityorange.com/BuddhaMachine

I’m looking for a way to make my own digital loop gadgets. Anyone out there have any leads or confess to being a wires’n’pliers whiz?

TIA

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