Saturday, February 28, 2009

Foxwoods and the Buddha Machines

A number of weeks ago, I went to Foxwoods. I’m not a gambler, had never been to a casino, thought it would be a little odd and a little sleazy and didn’t think I’d like it at all, really. Executive summary: I had a really good time, and it wasn’t at all what I expected.

But this is not about gambling, it’s actually about Buddha Machines.

Foxwoods is somewhat hard to describe. It’s like the nicest shopping mall you’ve ever been to, except there’s no teenagers hanging out and no candle stores. There’s music everywhere, much of it live. People are working hard to make sure they’re having fun. There’s food, drinking and gaming, and Foxwoods works very hard to make sure it all looks elegant and sophisticated.

And there’s sound everywhere.

There’s echoes in the parking garage, muted footsteps on the carpet as you walk in, people talking everywhere you look. There are bars in the middle of walkways with really good bands playing. There’s music in the restaurants. You’re immersed in sound and music, but the wonder of it all is that it’s not a sensory overload situation. They seem to manage it very well, making sure the sound levels aren’t overwhelming. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a team of acoustic engineers hidden away somewhere in the complex, working feverishly in some deeply hidden control center monitoring noise levels all over Foxwoods.

We went there to play the slot machines. You’re walking down long and very wide hallways, rooms of various types all around you. There’s a poker room like you’d see on TV, there’s “typical” gaming rooms with roulette wheels and craps tables somewhere around, but just to the left is a giant room full of slot machines. As you turn into the room, all you can see for what feels like miles are millions of sparkling LEDs on what seems like thousands of machines. There are blinking lights everywhere, and quiet people sitting at the machines pressing buttons to spin or stop the wheels. The machines are in short rows and aisles, but the layout is so well planned that it never feels crowded, you never bump into anyone, and there’s plenty of room. It’s almost eerie, being in that large a room with so many people and having it be so quiet.

But although it’s quite, it’s not silent. As you walk among the machines, maybe playing one here, one there, you realize that every machine in every row and aisle all make the same sound. There’s none of the old-fashioned ratchet of one-armed-bandit levers, there’s no thunk of wheels stopping. There’s only one muted but clear note, coming from every single machine. They’re not synchronized at all, of course, as each machine plays its tones to follow the actions of the players and the results they manage to infrequently earn. It’s like a quiet cacophony, thousand of the same notes playing at seemingly random times, all around you. It’s like being in the woods while surrounded by crickets and frogs at twilight, when you can’t really see anything but you’re enveloped in their sound.

It’s like being in the middle of a new age ambient music piece. All around you are machines, all playing more or less the same note, more or less at random. It was beautiful, and I would never have imagined so much beauty to exist in a gambling casino, of all places.

It was like being surrounded by a million Buddha Machines.

A Buddha Machine, if you don’t know, is a small plastic box, the size of a handheld transistor radio, for those of you old enough to remember those. They come in various fluorescent colors, and have chips in them with maybe nine different sound loops. There are only two controls, a wheel and a button, and a speaker. The wheel controls volume, and the button advances to the next loop. That’s it, nothing else. I have four of them. What I like to do is stand them up on a table, in a rough arc in front of me, and then turn them on one at a time. This creates a small “sound environment” around me, unsynchronized, semi-random, uncontrolled and unplanned. It can at times be quite beautiful, mesmerizing even.

I hadn’t played with them in years, in fact, but finding myself in Foxwoods, immersed in that amazing sound environment, instantly reminded me. Every person in that casino, pressing those buttons which made a quiet click sound followed shortly by those magical notes, was, although unaware, creating the soundspace of thousands of Buddha Machines around us all. It was a magical moment of collective musical creation, and I was grateful to have been a part of it.

FM3 Buddha Machine
Buddha Machine - iPhone version