FM3 in Shanghai

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  • Beijing-based artists Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian are best known for their internationally popular Buddha Machine, a small plastic speakerbox loaded with ambient loops inspired by similar devices found at shops by Buddhist temples. Earlier this month, the duo played a small concert at On Stage, one of Shanghai's best live music venues, performing the calming, beatless sounds contained in the device's fourth incarnation. The event was a welcome reprieve from the incessant noise of Shanghai. Virant says he sees their music as more classical than electronic, which you could tell from the prevalence of cello samples in the pieces they played. The performance was in some ways like a classical concert, with Virant conducting Zhang, who stood opposite him. Simple loops were cued up through a dual iPad and midi-controller setup, with warm basslines occasionally coming from an old Moog, cultivating a meditative state for the seated audience. At the end of each song, the pair would bow to each other and clink their whisky glasses. It felt like a chess game loaded with playful antagonism. Although they deny their work has any substantial connection with Buddhism, Virant and Jiang acknowledge that music can inspire religious reverence. The Chinese characters for "father" and "mother" appeared often in their projections, suggesting Confucianist philosophy, and the banners hanging around the venue created a temple atmosphere. The concert as a whole, however, felt rather limited. Without a support act, it lasted only 50 minutes, undoubtedly leaving some of the audience disappointed. It was interesting to see the artists who created an arguably groundbreaking device work in such a detached way, without seeking to align themselves with the various genres of electronic music slowly emerging from China. FM3's steadfastness is still admirable though. The contained nature of the Buddha Machine is a large part of its charm, and so perhaps the family-friendly music (the young children in the audience seemed to be enjoying it too), did not need to be pushing boundaries to be successful, with its tranquility enough to transport us, for a moment, away from the aural interference of the metropolis outside.