By James O.
The ubiquity of computers in music today and the relative accessibility of modern music production technology owes a great deal to the career of Max Mathews. Over the course of his staggering career Mathews wrote the first music production software, collaborated with many seminal musicians and composers, conducted groundbreaking research in interactive music systems, synthesis, algorithmic music production, and psychoacoustics, and happened to invent a few instruments along the way.
Max Mathews was born to two college professors in Columbus, Nebraska in 1926. He studied violin in high school, a hobby that informed many of his inventions. He later joined the Navy where he worked as a radio technician before he pursued his doctorate in Electrical Engineering from MIT in the early 1950s. In 1955 he landed a position in New Jersey at Bell Labs, the research division of AT&T, working in the acoustics and behavioral research department. Mathews described his time at Bell Labs as a golden era of the institution during which he and his peers carried out cutting-edge research on the digitization and synthesis of speech and acoustic neurophysiology.
According to Mathews, computer music was born in 1957 when he attended a piano concert with his boss at Bell Labs, John Pierce. In a 2011 interview, Mathews recalled that the pianist, Dika Newlin, “played some Schoenberg which was pretty good and some Schnabel which John and I both thought was pretty terrible.” Pierce remarked during the intermission that the computer they were working on could probably do a better job, spurring the conception of MUSIC, which became the first program to generate digital audio on a computer through direct synthesis. Originally written in 1957 for Bell Labs’ IBM 704, MUSIC and its subsequent iterations became the de facto standard for sound synthesis during the late 50s and into the 60s.
MUSIC I was limited to a single voice, timbre, and wave shape, but 1960’s MUSIC III, considered by Mathews to be his real breakthrough, featured a block diagram compiler, which organized the synthesis process into individual code blocks with various functions. These blocks could be individual oscillators, mixers, filters, or other kinds of sound generators or processors. Mathews said in a 2011 interview, “The crucial thing here is that I didn’t try to define the timbre and the instrument. I just gave the musician a tool bag of what I call unit generators, and he could connect them together to make instruments, that would make beautiful music timbres.” This modular synthesis method of patching block diagrams together is still used widely today.
Mathew’s fascination with the possibilities of computer music inspired him throughout his long career. He often invoked the crucial principle of Claude Shannon’s sampling theorem which dictates that any perceivable sound can be constructed with the correct sequence of digital samples. “We knew at the beginning that the computer could make any sound the human ear could hear, and any timbre. That was not true of traditional instruments. The violin is certainly beautiful, but it will always sound like a violin. That can be very good, and it’s also limited. And the computer is not limited.”
While he could conceive the endless possibilities, at the beginning, the technical capabilities of the machines Mathews worked with were quite limited. To run the original MUSIC program, Mathews and his colleagues at Bell Labs would have to drive to Manhattan to access the IBM 704 on Madison Ave, which was stretched to its limits running tens of thousands of computations in order to read their musical score, printed on punch cards or paper tape. The computer cost $300 an hour to operate, was loaded by hand, and would run through the night, slowly recording an audio signal to magnetic tape. The team would take the reel back to their lab in New Jersey to play it back and listen to the recording. Despite its humble beginnings, MUSIC remained extremely influential, with several pieces of software, such as Csound, Cmix, and Max, following in its footsteps. In addition to the MUSIC program, Mathews persisted in his research efforts throughout his entire life, and invented many instruments, including several electric violins, and the “daton,” an electronic version of the conductor’s baton.
The trailblazing work that Mathews and his colleagues carried out during this time attracted a huge variety of people who were intrigued by the growing scope of computer research. In the 2011 Frieze interview, Mathews remarked about his time at Bell Labs, “Usually the kooks got sent to me; I don’t know why.” In 1968, Stanley Kubrick, working on his seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey
, sent one of his people to Bell Labs to inquire about how a telephone booth in space would behave. After John Pierce gave his professional opinion, he encouraged the person to listen to one of Mathews’ synthesized pieces: a rendition of the melody from the refrain of “Bicycle Built for Two,” otherwise known as “Daisy.” The endeavor impressed Kubrick so much that he incorporated the tune as the sentient computer HAL’s swan song at the end of the film. Though instead of using the recording, Kubrick had a new recording made with two singers: John Kelly, a student of Claude Shannon, and Carol Lachbaum, a programmer and colleague of Max Mathews at Bell Labs.
In addition to Kubrick’s team, Mathews’ visitors at Bell Labs included a Saudi Arabian prince who was seeking help to move icebergs from Antarctica, famed television magician Uri Geller, and a host of some of the biggest names in modern music of the time, including composers Vladimir Ussachevsky, Edgar Varese, and John Cage (who sometimes enjoyed mushroom-foraging excursions with Mathews). Over the course of his career, Mathews also collaborated and interacted with John Chowning, the inventor of FM Synthesis, Fluxus performance artist and socialite Charlotte Moorman, music theorist Milton Babbit, and composer Pierre Boulez. Boulez also enlisted Mathews help in the founding of Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), a leading center of music research where Mathews worked as a science advisor in the 1970s. In 1987, Mathews left Bell Labs to join the Stanford University Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), where Mathews remained a fixture until his passing in 2011.
Mathews’ lasting influence in music and technology is felt everywhere. His radio-baton controller is a predecessor to the handheld controllers later developed by Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. His contributions to synthesis pervade the timbral quality of virtually every song on the radio today. And the descendants of his MUSIC software, namely the Max/MSP family of software, of which he is the namesake, are used widely in modern sound design and music production. In the words of John Chowning, Mathews’ close colleague and collaborator, Mathews “imagined and created his own magical world and first built the essential concepts and tools that allowed us all to do the same.”