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Little Boxes 

For a new generation of audio devices, less — way less — is more

Friday, Feb 5 2010
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Ten years ago, Nebraska expatriate and avant-minimalist composer Christiaan Virant, half of Chinese ambient-noise duo FM3, discovered chanting machines in a Chinese temple. Little vessels that house short audio loops, the simple devices were mostly designed for Buddhists who needed to rest their voices. Known as chant boxes and found in temples and religious-supply stores, these palm-size plastic objects store anywhere from five to two dozen "Old Tradition" Tibetan Buddhist chants, intended to create immersive sound environments for meditation.

Inspired by their potential, Virant and FM3 partner Zhang Jian created a version that substituted the mantras with ambient-sound loops of their own design. The first version of the Buddha Machine was as simple as those devotional counterparts. Like a little transistor radio tuned to a vast collective unconscious, the box, which comes in a variety of colors, played nine loops of minimal guitar-strumming, dreamlike string-plucking and bell-tolling. In 2008 they released a follow-up, which offers nine new loops and includes a dial by which the listener can shift the pitch. The popularity of the Buddha Machine — bought, usually in multiples, by everyone from Brian Eno to Throbbing Gristle — caught Virant by surprise, and 50,000 copies later, it's led to a series of recent flatteries. Take that, Siddhartha Gautama.

The concept of a compact personal noisemaking box is not without precedent. The late Dutch composer Michel Waisvisz's Cracklebox (€50, from STEIM) — a portable, custom-made, battery-powered noise box — premiered in 1975. To make sound, a player fingers six metal contacts on a little wooden box, and manipulates the thing to create garbled warbling. "[I]t's about becoming part of the sound," explains Robert van Huemen, keeper of the Cracklebox flame at Amsterdam's STEIM Center, via e-mail. "No touch, no sound. It's the tightest connection you can get. People always respond strongly to the Cracklebox. Most of them have never seen something like that, and it's fun to see people compete in playing it." Van Huemen says that the company is contemplating a follow-up.

click to flip through (3) Buddha Machine creators Christiaan Virant (left) and Zhang Jian
  • Buddha Machine creators Christiaan Virant (left) and Zhang Jian
   
 

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Flingco Sound System (FSS) is the label started by Bruce Adams, founder of Chicago's Kranky Records. FSS manufactures the Black Box, a device similar to the Buddha Machine but which resembles a headstone and contains somewhat sinister ambient loops by Flingco bands Cristal, Haptic and Wrnlrd. Adams says that the idea for the box originated before he launched FSS in 2007; he then shared the idea with a few artists he signed. "I discussed the idea with the label artists," Adams explains, "and we gradually put together the Black Box." He says the reaction has been positive, including a fan letter from the Buddha Machine creators and orders for the boxes from an unlikely source. "For a period of a week or two in the fall, it seemed like we were selling copies from our Web site exclusively to psychology students in English universities."

FSS is getting ready to release a new iPhone app, and when it sells out of its run of Black Boxes, it will begin work on its follow-up, the White Box.

Influential British noise artists Throbbing Gristle recently expanded on the Buddha Machine ethos. Their Gristleism — smaller than the Buddha Machine, packaged in an exquisite cut-paper shell and boasting an Industrial Records serial number — holds 13 loops drawing on songs from TG's back catalog, including "Hamburger Lady," "Twenty Jazz Funk Greats" and "After After Cease to Exist." The package reads, "A Riot of Laughter and Excitement."

TG's Chris Carter explains that Gristleism was born of necessity due to the realities of the marketplace: When Throbbing Gristle re-formed last spring to tour in support of their new album, The Third Mind Movements, they noticed something. Explains Carter: "At first, sales of [Third Mind] were very good, but by our second show hardly any copies were being sold. The reason, we discovered, was that it had been copied and posted onto a whole slew of torrent sites. And to rub salt into our wounds, fans were bringing CDR copies to our TG signing sessions for us to autograph. Almost since we began, TG has had a history of being bootlegged, but this state of affairs was just ridiculous. I personally had spent months on that album, apart from playing on it. I'd compiled, edited, produced and mastered it. Yet here it was, just being given away free on these skanky torrent sites less than 24 hours after it was on sale."

By the time Gristle landed in Los Angeles for shows, Carter had come up with a response: "I'd started formulating a notion that our next release would have to be something that couldn't be easily copied, or had some other intrinsic value, as an object or as a possession." The concept, he adds, was "a bit vague and woolly," and he didn't have a product, but he mentioned it in an online documentary, which added momentum to the idea. Soon Virant contacted him. "He'd heard we were using a Buddha Machine at our shows and wanted to tell me how pleased he was and that he was a huge TG fan. One thing led to another and I, our manager and Christiaan started discussing the idea of producing a TG edition of the Buddha Machine."

Back in England, Virant started consulting with Carter and fellow Gristle member Cosey Fanni Tutti and, recounts Carter, "over a few weeks we brainstormed this whole concept into something real and tangible." Because the Gristleism lacks an audio-output jack, an entire community — related to circuit-bending circles that prey on outdated electronic toys — has sprung up around sonic modifications of Gristleism.

Perhaps the most evolved meditation on the sound-box concept comes from German sound artist Achim Wollscheid. From his early work with his band S.B.O.T.H.I. (Swimming Behavior of the Human Infant), Wollscheid — the Brian Eno of noise — sonically translates the interactions of people with environment. His SOUND_BOX, commissioned in 2007 by Radioartemobile (RAM) in Rome, is a sleek, made-to-order wooden vessel containing a computer and speaker. Instead of passively replaying preprogrammed sounds, the box absorbs environmental audio and, via a "flexible compositional program," reconfigures it into demure, ever-changing ambient warbles. The result becomes a constantly unfolding revelation of the world at large that's neither a scold nor a spectacle. Instead, the SOUND_BOX is a narrative device approaching the poetic. However, at $1,300, until mass production blesses this beautifully curious device, the non-monied among us are stuck in the proverbial box — comforting and entertaining though that may be.

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