RIP Max Mathews (1926-2011)

Yesterday morning I received the sad news that Max Mathews, considered by many of us to be the “father of computer music”, passed away.

Not only was he among the first to use general-purpose computers to make music, but his work spanned many of disciplines within the field that we know today, including sound synthesis, music-programming languages, real-time performance and musical-instrument interfaces.

He studied electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a Sc.D. in 1954. Working at Bell Labs, Mathews wrote MUSIC, the first widely-used program for sound generation, in 1957. For the rest of the century, he continued as a leader in digital audio research, synthesis, and human-computer interaction as it pertains to music performance. [Wikipedia]

The “MUSIC-N” languages have influenced much of how we still program computers to make music. It has direct descendants such as Csound, and has also influenced many of the other languages for composer, perhaps most notably Max (later Max/MSP) that was named in his honor.

His rendition of “Daisy Bell” (aka “Bicycle Built for Two”) is one of the early examples ofphysical modeling synthesis. Sections of the vocal tract were modeled as tubes, and sound generated directly from physics equations. His work inspired the version of “Daisy Bell” sung by HAL9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (though he did real at a talk in 2010 that the version in the film was not his recording.)

Mathews continued to expand and innovate throughout his career, moving into different areas of technology. In the 1970s his focus shifted to real-time performance, with languages such as GROOVE, and then later with the Radio Baton interface, which can be seen in this video below.

I had the opportunity to see and hear Mathews at the ICMC 2006 conference and MaxFest in 2007, both events that honored his 80th birthday and five decades in music technology. At 80, it would be relatively easy and quite understandable to eschew the latest technologies in favor of earlier technologies on which he did much of his work, but there he was working with the latest MacBooks and drawing upon new research in connection to his own work.

[Max Mathews at GAFFTA in 2010. (Photo by Vlad Spears.)]

More recently, I saw him give a talk at the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts in 2010, where he introduced the work of young artists and researchers, something he continued to do all the way to the end. He was at the Jean-Claude Risset concert at CCRMA (and I later found out, gave the introduction, which I had missed.) I have also heard comments over the past day that he was still involved in email and discussions over current projects up through this week, a testament to his character and his love for this field and for the work that he pioneered.