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

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.”

Mathews was featured in this 1986 retrospective on computer music, above:

Here, Mathews demonstrates one of his later projects, his Radio Baton:

A Radio Baton is an electronic instrument with two baton controllers and a receiving base called the antenna. In the end of each baton is a small radio transmitter. As the batons are moved over the receiving base, four antennas in the base are able to determine the batons’ location in three-dimensional space. The movement of the batons through space are converted into instructions determining how the music is to be synthesized.

The Radio Baton Conductor Model uses the model of an orchestra conductor controlling the musical tempo, dynamics and expression of the piece. The Conductor program puts the pitches and the durations of the notes in a score that the computer reads as a sequence of beats in the computer memory. The conductor can move the batons around with his two hands, controlling six variables, and assign these variables to whatever functions in the music are important at any instant of the music.

When asked if the radio baton was a successful instrument, Mathews answered, “I suspect actually it was too successful. It may have made music too easy to play. But my vision there, and the vision I think I got from John Chowning was that everyone could have his own orchestra and could interpret music according to his particular feelings about it. And that this might be a much more satisfying way than simply sitting and listening to a recording or simply listening to a concert in a concert hall.”

Mathews is featured in one of the oral histories at the NAMM site. Mathew’s name also lives on in the multimedia programming language MAX.

Finally, Matthew Davidson shared this Matthews-inspired track, One of the most interesting kinds of sounds, which is constructed entirely from digital audio, culled from Max Matthew’s ‘Numerology’ (1960), ‘The Second Law’ (1961), ‘Bicycle Built for Two’ (1961) and one of Matthews’ lectures.

5 thoughts on “Max Mathews, Computer Music Pioneer, R.I.P.

  1. Terrible news – Max Mathews was brilliant, and he was always an inspiration for me both from his pioneering work in computer music in the 1950s and 60s and also for the fact that he was still working at CCRMA in his 80s!

  2. As was noted, Max was not only a pioneer but a very warm and approachable person. Sad he is gone, but very happy I got a chance to meet him and, in some small way, advance his work.

  3. Its sad news indeed. Personally I'm more inclined to say its tragic instead of terrible. We all pass away eventually, but the tragic here IMO is that it was mainly caused by an illness.

    I don't know the man, only from what I read and learned around me. First in my "sound bible" (as I like to call it; the Computer Music Tutorial from Curtis Roads; excellent read IMO). That made me look him up more on the Internet and well…

    The one thing catching me is his presence. I mean; you see an aged man talking about his work and projects and it only takes a few seconds to recognize the passion in him. That is inspiring and admirable IMO.

    Sad news indeed, I hope his work won't be forgotten and will inspire many more to come.

  4. SynthFan – on the bright side – he was sharp as ever and active in electronic music into 80's, which is pretty amazing.

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