The Buddha Machine: Portable Ambien Music Generator, $23.00

The Buddha Machine: Portable Ambien Music Generator, $23.00

Daniel Handler
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In ninth grade I was at a party and Becky Davis put on the twelve-inch single of New Order’s “Everythings Gone Green.” Someone had a spare ticket to hear the Kronos Quartet, and they played something by Conlon Nancarrow. After reading a thing about him in the newspaper I bought a cassette of Frank’s Wild Years by Tom Waits. In college I walked by someone’s dorm room and then stood in the doorway listening to Sound Sun Pleasure by Sun Ra. I bought a used copy of the 6ths’ first album, Wasps Nests, because it looked cool. This violinist I knew made me buy a Scriabin symphony and I honestly thought there was something wrong with the volume knob at home. Morton Feldman, Piano and String Quartet, when I lived in New York, I don’t remember why. Now this thing, this marvel of a thing.

It’s not the regular musical epiphany—the first time you hear Johnny Cash, say, or Purple Rain. I’m talking about hitting the tip of an iceberg, when you hear music you didn’t know you could hear, a new genre or a combination you hadn’t dreamed of, and when your ears bonk into it, it’s not enough just to get the album. You want everything like it. I spent all my summer job money on New Order imports. I dove into Nancarrow—boy, his pieces for player piano will take your head apart— because it hadn’t hit me until that show that you could like difficult music not as a pose or an intellectual exercise, but because it rocked ten times harder than the Stones. The gypsy blues carnival of Waits was an idea I never would have dreamed up, or the noncerebral naïveté of Sun Ra’s clatter, or the way Stephin Merritt made couplets, or the way Scriabin’s drama never, never lets up or Feldman’s never begins. These were all brand-new things to me, detached from anything else I’d heard previously. They led me down a million paths, from the pile of Sun Ra albums I own—more than any other artist— to playing on the second 6ths record, to writing thirteen children’s books with the Scriabin cranked. But the real magic of this thing is that the path’s a sort of Möbius strip. I never thought of music like this, but the new thing about it is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s already arrived.

I’m trying to say what it’s like before I tell you what it is, because when I first heard about it I thought it sounded dumb, and only when I read several interviews with musicians who said they were having trouble working because of the way it made them think, that I bought one and set it up. It’s the size of a deck of cards. It comes in six colors and you don’t get to choose. It looks like a slightly campy crappy Chinatown transistor radio. There’s a jack for headphones, which I don’t recommend, and a hole where you can plug it in instead of using the cheapie AA batteries that come with it. There’s an on-off volume knob, and on the side is a little toggle switch. It makes nine different looped sounds, which change when you toggle.You take it out of the loopy packaging, set it up, and put it on.

For the first five minutes it feels maybe like ambient music, although the crappy speaker gives it a ham radio air that Brian Eno never dreamed of. (He bought a bunch.) It was designed by avant-garde sound artists who outsourced the production to a factory, so it’s high art and low product, headily conceptual and easily tangible. After five minutes the sound becomes something else—like an installation, some have said, but it’s more cozy and rickety than arty. It’s music, self-contained. It works in a way I haven’t heard music work—and it makes me work in a different way, too, with a relaxation and a focus that sounds utterly Californian to describe but feels just like a regular, good morning that’s ordinary but all too rare— just the right amount of sleep, just the right amount of coffee. Listening to it was an iceberg moment for me— I wanted everything like it—but there’s nothing like it, and I already had it, bright orange on my desk.When I turn it off and put on an album the music sounds fussy. I don’t know anything about Buddhism but it strikes me that the name is appropriate.

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