Max Mathews rides away

In 1957 a young researcher at Bell Labs in New Jersey wrote a computer music program he called simply, MUSIC. He demonstrated the program, basically a bunch of perforated cards fed into an IBM 704, with a short example of Bicycle Made for Two (a popular song from the end of the 19th century… that sometimes goes by the name Daisy Bell). By 1961, MUSIC had become MUSIC IV and, with a small group of researchers, Max Mathews managed to do a complete version of the song:


The influence of this work led to a plethora of computer music programs including the one that took his name, Max (of the bicycle seat logo), as well as Supercollider… and just about any music making you can imagine using a computer. It also inspired Arthur C. Clarke then Stanley Kubrick for the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and where would we be without the famous death scene of Hal singing…

Mathews moved on through a great number of projects influencing generations of researchers-cum-musicians-cum-programmers. He seemed to be tireless and never without a new idea leading us towards systems and inventions, like the Radio Baton, to control the vast amount of power the computer provides today. The father of computer music was also probably its greatest critic as can be seen in a recent Wired interview where he remarks that “Computers are so powerful and inexpensive, but nobody knows how to take advantage of it in music.”

I met Max Mathews only once, to my great regret, during a conference in France in 2002. He was presenting another new technique for making sound, in this case perfect just scales,  with a new technique called Scanned synthesis. My memory of him is of this rather elderly gentlemen having more fun and telling more jokes than those less than half his age. This humor coupled with a constant curiosity in such an advanced technical and artistic world were high among the reasons I was attracted to making music with computers in the first place. The elderly gentleman showing-off his latest high-tech brainy project like a kid with his latest video game, and making music with it, will always be my memory of Max… and a personal totem.

Max Vernon Mathews died a week ago today, rest in peace. I wish I could refer you to some great study on this man and his work, but we don’t have one… yet. There are several resources available on the web and in dictionaries, and you can find his writings in various books he has co-authored, The Technology of Computer Music,  or edited, Current Directions in Computer Music, both old but worthwhile additions to your library.

I know he is gone, but I can’t help but believe that there will always be some Max in all our computer music making efforts…

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