Regard: an unassuming colored plastic box about the size of two cassette tapes stacked on top of each other. There’s a little switch on one side, jacks for plugging in adapters or headphones and what looks like a volume dial on top. In the middle of the box is a circular pattern of holes not unlike a speaker.

Morgan Morel
An interior diagram of the Buddha Machine. (MIKE HULSEBUS/Daily)

So what the hell does this little plastic box do? Does it release little puffs of freesia-scented powder into the air? Does it keep roaches from scurrying across your kitchen counter? Is it the gray-market answer to the iPod?

Sort of, actually – but it’s about a million times cooler and more imaginative than a supercharged MP3 player could ever be. The device is called the Buddha Machine, and if you give it a chance, it can totally change the way you listen to music.

Yes, it plays music, but nothing so outmoded as tunes or songs or even tracks; while its sounds are mysteriously basic and its mass-produced, plastic parts almost toylike, the music that issues from the device is nothing like anything you’ve heard before. The machine plays nine tape loops of drones, pulses, wobbly glissandi and sonic fog. The sounds are difficult, if not impossible, to attribute to the instruments that made them; this is due in no small part to the almost-too-cheap-to-work speaker. I was introduced to the singular gadget by Ian Fulcher, an LSA lecturer and a core member of the experimental music group Drafted by Minotaurs, upon whom I now bestow infinite cool points. Schoolkids Records on State Street is where I picked up my machine, but you can also find them online. The device will set you back about $23.

It might sound like a novelty, and in one sense of the word, that’s what the Buddha Machine is – a new gadget for the aurally inclined, something that’s so alien to our world of multimillion-dollar beats and career-spanning boxed sets as to be at once momentarily intriguing and easily dismissed. But here’s where the device sheds its status as a novelty and enters the realm of cultural text. Inside its hard-plastic shell, resting beatifically amid wires and connectors, is a tiny statue of the portly, smiling deity. As an avowed atheist and devotee of camp, how could I not love a cheap piece of plastic imbued with such spiritual significance?

For those of us who follow release dates like some follow draft picks, for whom the occupation of listener initiates one into a world in which a maze of sub-subgenres, side projects, b-sides, live DVDs and the like must be navigated and assessed, the experience of relinquishing control to the Buddha Machine’s randomly selected, muted ululations can be liberating from the connotations of popular music.

At its best, the machine allows the listener to become a participant, drawing meaning out of the endless stream of random, dark pulses and birdlike flutters it amplifies.

Of course, the Buddha Machine’s loops aren’t completely random. They range from loosely rhythmic pulses to sonic impacts that bear a resemblance to the slow, methodical tempo of crashing waves. One of the more spirited themes sounds like it might’ve been made by a piano, but there’s too much fuzz and fog surrounding the core tone to figure it out.

As a classically trained music student (tuba – eight years and counting), the device’s mechanized randomness represents to me a sort of forbidden hedonism, a respite from the formal discipline and strictly imposed guidelines that are built into interpreting the compositions of others.

The Buddha Machine even goes a step further, removing the opportunity for manipulation by an artist entirely. There’s no author to these sounds – the only ownership can be claimed by Fm3 (www.fm3.com.cn), the Chinese company that makes the machine and the meaning of whose website’s text I’m blissfully ignorant.

While I’ll champion the significance of the three-minute pop song just as heartily as any other music lover, there’s something to be said for hookless, riffless, wordless, unbranded sound. Free from the connotations of major and minor, key signature and time signature, you’re free to meditate, zone out; the sounds are fuel for the listener’s imagination. You can actually hear yourself think.

Even to those of you who already have an ear for the avant-garde or just like really weird shit, the idea of turning your ears over to the Buddha Machine might seem pointless. But if you want to know what it’s like to hear music that doesn’t end until the batteries run out, that doesn’t tell you what it’s “about,” that is the germ, not the product, of inspiration, ditch that other plastic musicmaking box and open your ears.

– Find the Buddha Machine as useful enlightening as charming as Jones? Share the love and spiritual enlightenment with her at almajo@umich.edu.

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