Record as Prayer Wheel
The Everlasting Sounds of Chang Fo Ji and Laurent Jeanneau
by Mike Pursley
The plastic, palm-sized boxes are Chang Fo Ji. Literal translation: "to sing Buddhism machine." These portable meditation devices repeating excerpts of Buddhist prayers inspired the popular FM3 Buddha Machine. Yet the original Chang Fo Ji remain elusive, essentially unobtainable. Without traveling to China for one, the best way to experience the enticing psychological effect of these electronic meditation tools is on a Discrepant records release from Kink Gong [the recording project and record label of French ethnomusicologist Laurent Jeanneau].
The blazingly prolific Jeanneau has done over 150 albums, predominately of Southeast Asian ethnic minority music. Along with releases on his own label, Jeanneau's documentations have appeared on Sublime Frequencies, most recently 2016's Music of Xinjiang. Jeanneau began acquiring Chang Fo Ji in the mid-2000s when living in Dali, Yunnan Province. Drawn from his collection, his release on Discrepant, descriptively titled Chang Fo Ji, contains 30 loops demonstrating the remarkable range of these sonic items. One loop might be a floating cloud of graceful Chinese pop, delicately layered. Then, to follow, a monk's graveled chanting.
The scope of the loops affirm the diverse manifestations of a human voice, with vocal deliveries refined or untrained, mumbled or melodic. With each looped repeat, the voices (if spoken, chanted, or sung), reveal more of their unique character. The process of listening, especially if you don't speak Chinese, becomes something of a phenomenological experience. The quality and grain of a voice cycles over you, the same, but somehow different, on every repeat. Language gives way to feeling. Words remain as sounds.
It can be disappointing when a loop changes after its minute is up. During these transitions, the phenomenological listening experiment stops abruptly. Yet on an actual Chang Fo Ji, loops can go basically forever, or at least until the batteries die. In preparing this album, Jeanneau faced the challenge of reconciling a record's limited surface with Chang Fo Ji endlessness. Is it possible for a record to express the music box's mystical implications that the loop is forever? How can an inert piece of grooved wax become the transmitter of living mantras?
Jeanneau's ingenious solution is the locked groove: an intentional skip in the record's surface trapping a small quantity of auditory material in a set place. A favorite of mid-20th century musique concrete composers, the locked groove is an analogue precursor to sampling. On Change Fo Ji, seven loops are locked in, a strategy making listener interactivity a requirement. To get to the next track, you need to move the needle from its lock. So, while 30 one-minute long loops suggests a total run time of 30 minutes, Chang Fo Ji's true run time is listener directed and participant determined. If left in a locked groove, a short sample of chanting could repeat for hours, just like the electronic boxes can.
This sense of over and over, even if expressed through an object bordering on religious-kitsch, calls to mind the doctrines of reincarnation and eternal recurrence. The cycling and circling of sound, a religiously significant sound event in this case, links the Chang Fo Ji to Buddhist prayer wheels, those cylindrical objects inscribed with blessings that are spun outside of temples.
The path taken by the sound material contained on this record is something of a marvel. From Buddhist text to chanting monk. From chanting monk to Chang Fo Ji. From Chang Fo Ji to Laurent Jeanneau. From Laurent Jeanneau to Chang Fo Ji. From Chang Fo Ji to the listener. Along this journey of transmission and adaptation, Jeanneau successfully captures the superficial charm and the philosophical depth of these items, residing somewhere between cheap toy and devotional object.
A speaker and circuit board are housed in vibrant plastic. They become a method to shift sound from meaning to awareness. Janneau's sound box collection reveals the sonic variety of these devices. The occasional locked grooves direct listeners toward the paradoxical heart of extended loops: simultaneous stasis and change.
Also see the Kink Gong website
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