Max Mathews, Computer Music Pioneer, R.I.P.

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I found out today, via synthesist Matthew Davidson, that computer music pioneer Max Mathews died today.

Mathews (November 13, 1926 – April 21, 2011) is considered by many to be the father of computer music. Here’s what he had to say about his role as a computer music pioneer:

“Computer performance of music was born in 1957, when an IBM 704 in NYC played a 17 second composition on the Music I program, which I wrote. The timbres and notes were not inspiring, but the technical breakthrough is still reverberating.

Music I led me to Music II through V. A host of others wrote Music 10, Music 360, Music 15, Csound and Cmix. Many exciting pieces are now performed digitally.

The IBM 704 and its siblings were strictly studio machines – they were far too slow to synthesize music in real-time. Chowning’s FM algorithms and the advent of fast, inexpensive, digital chips made real-time possible, and equally important, made it affordable.”

Starting with the Groove program in 1970, my interests have focused on live performance and what a computer can do to aid a performer. “

The video above captures Matthews at the Computer History Museum in 2007, presenting his rendition of Bicycle Built For Two. While the vocal synthesis and electronic sounds in the work are unsurprising now, they would have been mind-blowing when Matthews made the arrangement in 1961.

“What we have to learn is what the human brain and ear thinks is beautiful,” said Mathews.

What do we love about music? What about the acoustic sounds, rhythms and harmony do we love?” he continues. “When we find that out it will be easy to make music with a computer.”

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