Experimental Music: Zhang Jian (FM3)

Virant (Nebraskan-born, but living in China since the late 1980s) and Zhang (born in Sichuan, but based in Beijing since 1995) anchor their ambient orientation to music in improvisational use of loops, drones, and sound collages created from traditional Chinese instruments, electronics, field recordings, and digital manipulation via laptops. Instruments such as the guqin, zheng, erhu, sheng, and the morin huur [Mongolian horsehead fiddle] served as the basis for their compositions pieced together from snippets of recordings they made—they do not use anonymous ‘samples’ of these instruments, but rather draw on recordings of themselves playing the instruments. Running these recordings through analog or digital effects enables FM3 to create texturally rich soundscapes, as they loop the instrumental passages and layer them over each other.

It is from this improvisational/experimental practice that the Buddha Machine emerged. Now available in two versions, the Buddha Machine first appeared in 2004 with nine loops contained on the internal memory chip. These loops were primarily of Chinese instruments, and were staples of live FM3 sets prior to the emergence of the Buddha Machine. A partial inspiration for the group to put a selection of loops into a tiny plastic box and ‘release’ the collection was the ubiquitous prayer box found in the gift shops of Buddhist temples in China, Taiwan, and elsewhere across Asia. These devices generally play a continuous loop of chanting or prayer (or a selection of prayers), and can sit uncomfortably on the cultural landscape of spirituality—some people have no problem with them, while others view the boxes as symptoms of laziness, corrupting forces of modernity, or a combination. FM3’s Buddha Machine embellishes this tension, among others, by explicitly engaging the passive/active dynamic of music-as-art. Their musical practice begs questions about the meanings,  roles, or goals of music. In an interview with the ChinaVine team, for example, Zhang Jian succinctly answered a question about the goal of FM3’s music with one word: “Sleep!” That is, he sees a core intention behind his music as helping people relax enough to simply drift away into deep sleep.The answer is a mischevious one, however, and provides only one among many levels of “meaning” for FM3’s music and art.

Listen to a set of remixes drawing on questions that the ChinaVine team asked Zhang Jian during a 2009 interview with him. The tracks also feature loops from version 1 and 2 of the Buddha Machine (available under a Creative Commons license here).