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Electronic Peristyle: James Seawright

On view at 155 Wooster St. NYC, July 16, 1997, prior to permanent exhibition at the New Jersey State Museum.

Reviewed by Flash Light

I would be hard pressed to think of a more prescient work than Peristyle. Created in 1968, it appears to be the first use of digital circuitry to control a musical synthesizer. Robert Moog and Seawright were at Columbia, and Moog agreed to install his analog circuit boards in Seawight's digitally controlled installation piece.

Twelve electronic columns form the peristyle surrounding a transparent globe mounted on a circular base. The base emits 12 light rays like spokes on a wheel. A different ray strikes a sensor mounted on each column

A spectator entering the circle breaks one or more beams, which changes a digital number (represented by lights) at the top of the sphere. This digital number, in turn, controls Moog's analog synthesizer, and the piece reacts, both musically and visually, as tiny neon bulbs in the base of each column respond to the changes in sounds.

Seawright determined the control algorithm by trial and error. Musical complexity increases in proportion to the activity of the spectators. The result of moderate activity is a series of low frequency drones with melodic riffs superimposed. "Peristyle" was commissioned by the Performing Arts Foundation of Kansas City in 1967, and first exhibited at the William Rockhill Nelson Museum as part of a show called "Magic Theater."

Moog became famous by marketing his analog synthesizer as an avant garde musical instrument, but ironically his company was soon surpassed by competitors who controlled their analog circuits digitally (in order to mimic the sounds of traditional instruments). Seawright sees this as only one of many layers of irony in the piece.

Presaging the electronic revolution in music, as well as environmental and interactive art, Peristryle will be an invaluable addition to the museum collection, and a "must see" for anyone interested in the Techne movement.

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