Moral Magistrate

    This piece was commissioned by The Clock Tower Gallery for a concert series called Moral Kombat. I designed and built this piece with collaborator Chris Scully.

    The Moral Kombat series was conceived of and run by sound artist Lucas Crane and is described nicely on the Clock Tower website:
    “Moral Kombat is a bi-monthly performance series, curated by former AIR artist in residence G Lucas Crane, that pairs audio artists together in a sound battle in the Clocktower. An inquiry into the impossibility of assigning objective value to music, this series poses the questions: “Who plays the most moral music? Who’s improvisation was conducted with the highest level of moral content?” Questions answered by the equally thought provoking Moral Magistrate, an interactive light sculpture that utilizes long forgot World War I technology to interpret and communicate messages of fate.”

    I was excited to be invited to take part in the final Moral Combat performance. An appropriately epic end to the show pitting show conciever vs magistrate creator. The recording can be heard here.

    In the picture above you an see the Magistrate at work judging two performers.

    What does it do?

    The Moral Magistrate is designed to record audio data from two musicians, process that data and determine which performance (and hence performer) had greater moral content. Rather than focusing on HOW it does this we have tried to turn the audiences attention to the questions a device like this introduces. What is morality? Is our inner moral character reflected in what we do (like perform music)? Can technology quantify the intangible? How much is this technology forming our world and our conceptions of reality and even spirituality?

    The stages of the moral assessment process are represented through 3 modes which utilize sound and light cues.

    1. The first mode is data collection. During this period the musicians perform and the lights on the magistrate face light up one at a time until they are all lit indicating that data is being collected and stored.

    2. Next is data processing. This mode is activated once the performance is over and the memory bank is full. When activated the lights blink in seemingly random patterns as data is accessed and assimilated. This sequence is accompanied by a pattern of random tones. A progress bar at the bottom of the light grid fills until the process is complete.

    3. The final mode is moral proclamation. Once the most moral performance is determined, the magistrate will activate a light facing the performer.


    The goal of the moral magistrate was to make a device which used sound and light as a dramatic performance prop in such a way that would draw the viewer into thinking that something complex was happening. I was initially going for the ubiquitous early sci-fi “flashing light” computer look which says to the viewer “something technical is going on”. Its a bit over the top in its gratuitous use of flashing lights and blipping sounds but not entirely unbelievable as a real tool. It had to be interesting to look at (handsome design, flashing lights), draw in the audience (uses progress bars to build anticipation) and allow people to think that maybe its actually real. I think that people are general willing to believe that technology can do anything. So that last part was taken care of for me. The intention wasn’t to trick people as much as it was to encourage a certain line of questioning. Someone at some point designed a device which could quantify morality. What does this mean?


    The magistrate was built into the housing of an old test oscillator and was designed to retain the aesthetic quality of that mid century testing device. The faceplate was designed in auto cad and custom milled out of aluminum.

    The light display is made up of a compartmentalized grid of LEDs.

    On the inside I’ve got a power supply, an audio amp and speaker, two solid stay high power relays and a microcontroller.

    Here’s my original sketch. It changed around a bit but retained the most substantial components.


    Sorry, no sound files for this piece.

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