Max Mathews and his influence

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R. Luke Dubois, "The first computer musician", NYT 6/9/2011:

If the difference between 1911 and 2011 is electricity and computation, then Max Mathews is one of the five most important musicians of the 20th Century. – Miller Puckette

In 1957 a 30-year-old engineer named Max Mathews got an I.B.M. 704 mainframe computer at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N. J., to generate 17 seconds of music, then recorded the result for posterity. While not the first person to make sound with a computer, Max was the first one to do so with a replicable combination of hardware and software that allowed the user to specify what tones he wanted to hear. This piece of music, called “The Silver Scale” and composed by a colleague at Bell Labs named Newman Guttman, was never intended to be a masterpiece. It was a proof-of-concept, and it laid the groundwork for a revolutionary advancement in music, the reverberations of which are felt everywhere today. […]

As an engineer, Max had extremely diverse interests, all of which he pursued with a great deal of energy. He provided the initial research for virtually every aspect of computer music, from his early work with programming languages for synthesis and composition (the MUSIC-N family of software) to foundational research in real-time performance (the GROOVE system and RTSKED, the first real-time event scheduler). Max also helped start the conversation about how humans were meant to interact with computers by developing everything from modified violins to idiosyncratic control systems such as the Radio Baton. Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and one of Max’s peers, said that Max “wrote the first beautiful examples of how to do things and then he moved on to something else,” leaving it to colleagues, students and other creative minds to pick up where he left off. Along the way, his fluency in human cognition, acoustics, computer science and electrical engineering allowed him to always keep in mind the big picture: that computers were meant to empower humans to make music, not the other way around.

Max Mathews was my boss at Bell Labs from 1975 to 1985. One of the best parts of that experience was the opportunity to interact with the crowd of composers, performers, and theorists who were attracted by the then-unique hardware, software, and expertise that Max and the people around him created.  It was an environment where the goal was to give intensely practical answers to basic theoretical questions — and to have as much fun as possible while doing it.

I wrote a few words about Max after his death in April ("Max Mathews R.I.P.", 4/22/2011). But there's a lot more to be said about him, and about the environment that he created. Or, I think should say, the environment that he perpetuated, continuing and protecting the scientific and technological culture that he inherited from Harvey Fletcher and John Pierce.


  1. Nick Lamb said,

    June 10, 2011 @ 7:31 am

    Now I want to know who the other four are. The really nitty gritty fundamentals of computer music are interesting. I still remember how impressed I was after implementing Risset's "continuously rising tone" for JACK – just how powerful the illusion is despite knowing how it's achieved. I must confess to being ignorant of Max's role in all this, and I wonder how many other pioneers I might not know about in a field that was in a sense subsequently overshadowed by a mundane focus on merely using computers to do what was already possible without them.

    In the end, things have worked out just fine. The Rolling Stones may not sound any different for putting albums together using PCM samples instead of analogue tape but computation dependent phenomena like the phase vocoder in Auto-Tune are mainstream. Our popular music has in fact been as irrevocably changed by computation as it was by electricity.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    Louis Armstrong, Enrico Caruso, Chuck Berry, and [your favorite here].

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