Max Mathews is best known for his involvement in the debut of digital synthesis, but he contributed much more. His Radio Baton predicted gestural controllers that arrived much later from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, and it may be his code design ideas that outlast even the memory of the computer’s first musical utterances. Photo CC-BY-NC-SA) Rainer Kohlberger.

Max Mathews, the man who literally first gave voice to computer music, died yesterday at age 84. I can only offer my heartfelt condolences to Max’s friends and family.

Max was the man present at the moment when the very subject matter of this site was born. An IBM 704 playing his 17-second composition marked the first genuinely digital synthesis of music on a computer.

Max’s achievements, though, go beyond that initial breakthrough:

Digital synthesis of music.
The Music 1 software demo on an IBM 704 in New York City was the first computer music performance. While not real-time, and while Mathews himself says “the timbres and notes were not inspiring,” it was a stunning proof of concept.

The computer sings.
Mathews’ arrangement of “Daisy Bell,” for a computer-synthesized voice developed by a Bell Labs team led by John Kelly, was the first “singing” digital computer. The event found its way into pop culture via Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Computer music in code.
Computer tech is supposedly fleeting, but Mathews’ original work on the Music I – Music V series was the direct basis for languages like Csound and Cmix, used today. (Csound apparently even found its way onto a popular karaoke machine.) The basic notions of scores and instruments, the fundamental assumptions of the language, and the essential designed features all remain visible in today’s languages. Mathews indirectly influenced every other music language since. He is the namesake of Miller Puckette’s “Max,” a reference to the timing techniques used in what is now Max/MSP, which were modeled on techniques designed by Mathews. That means that there’s something of Max’s thinking in Max/MSP, Jitter, Pd, GEM, Max for Live, and others.

Innovation in gestural control.
Before the Wii remote and Microsoft Kinect would come to change popular ideas about gestural control of computers, Mathews’ Radio Baton explored similar spatial manipulation in musical performance. Add to that involvement with research and events like the “New interfaces for musical expression” conference, and Max has had a profound impact on the exploration of novel control.

Max was warm, witty, and insightful in every encounter I had with him, going on to continue to inspire colleagues and students through his late years. He played a role not only in our narrowly-appreciated realm of computer music, but the history of the computer itself.

There’s really too much to say; let us know if you have comments for CDM or contact us directly and I hope to put together something more detailed by next week.

  • Very nice write up, Peter.

    I hope people realize how fitting the tag "everything-this-site-has-ever-covered-ever" really is in this case. Max Mathews laid the groundwork for everything we do in computer music. RIP.

  • With 84 years of age, Mathews was not exactly young, and there are many people we call computer music pioneers that are younger than this. But nevertheless Mathews stayed creative and active working until this great age, and that's really impressive! And because of this we can now look back onto his live and achievements and think: That's quite some stuff, he did. And with more minds and researchers like him, we'll have a great future in computer music to come.

  • "Despite a common belief, Max's conception did not copy that of synthesizers: on the contrary, it inspired the analog devices built by Moog, Buchla or Ketoff using voltage control – but which appeared after 1964, while Music III was written in 1959."
    – Jean-Claude Risset, Max Mathews Portraits and Polychromes (2007)

  • I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that many of us who read this blog feel that we owe a huge chunk of our lifeblood to the work of Max Mathews.  

    Thanks, Max, for everything you did for music and the world. 

  • Peter Kirn

    @Jacob: Half of that sounds correct – Mathews wasn't influenced by synthesizer work that hadn't even appeared yet. But I'm not sure about the other half; my understanding is that Buchla, Moog, Ketoff all would have had fairly limited knowledge of the Bell Labs work in the early 60s. (I can ask Don Buchla, at least.) Mathews' work would have been inspired by the RCA Synthesizer (especially since it was geographically nearby), and that much I suspect wasn't a myth. Moog's work I know was heavily inspired by Raymond Scott, with whom he worked directly. The West Coast and UK builders I don't think would have had a whole lot of exposure to Scott, the RCA, or Mathews' work, but presumably just did what everyone else was doing – mess around with equipment generating signals.

    To me, the broad influence of Mathews' work comes later, as the Bell Labs work disseminates and – as Mathews pointed out – Chowning's developments allowed it to happen in real-time. Today, some of his ideas are everywhere, but it took some time.

  • @peter: This could be a case of a great idea that manifested in many places at once.

  • Peter Kirn

    Absolutely, it was. But that's part of why Max's accomplishments are so notable: the digital ideas behind Music I-V really are different from a lot of the other work done at the time.

    And on top of it, he was an extraordinarily nice guy.

  • Yes, what a wonderful person. I had the privilege of meeting him on a few occasions. My first C programming lesson was a private tutoring session with Max in 1999, an experience that is still fresh in my mind.

  • griotspeak

    Yeah, I am glad I took a couple opportunities recently to hear him present. Exceedingly smart, very much present, and incredibly pleasant.

  • Thanks for all the inspiration and music.

    RIP Max

  • And thank you to have opened the road …

  • What I find the most admirable thing about Max is for 50 years he kept on the leading edge. He was a selfless enabler that encouraged others to take what he did and surpass his efforts. Just look at all his bright students. 😀

  • Tim Thompson

    Max was always unassuming about his own work, and when he did talk about it, it was with the same child-like enthusiasm for discovery. He always seemed more interested in what others were doing. The last time I saw him was at this year's SEAMUS conference, where he and Jon Appleton had a small piece on the program. After the piece, he nodded to the applause, slipped his nanokontrol into his bag, and settled in to listen to the music of much younger composers. A regular guy who also happened to be brilliant and forward-thinking.

  • Thank you for writing about this.  He was such a kind and brilliant man.  

  • I had the chance to see him on a conference with Jean-Claude Risset and John Chowning here in Argentina. This man was a true genious; always very innovative, even nowadays.

  • Larry Larson

    I met Max at Interval Research in the late 90s, and played Beethoven's 9th with his radio baton. I tried not to fawn too much, but I was in awe. He was indeed a nice guy, who seemed more interested in my ideas than himself. I named my son Max after him.

  • Laurie Amat

    Max and I had been working on his new phaser filter system. I have always been an acoustic vocalist and this is the first time I've heard synthesis increase human sound expression. to the end, he was making new work, new ideas. 
    But also, he was a good friend and mentor. he was willing to guide, held back judgment and was a loving man. 
    I have a broken heart right now, and the joy I try to hold is the core of who he is, adventurous, slightly irreverent and just a bit of a punk. The lights just went a little darker.

  • RIP 🙁

  • mediawest

    max was the guy who inspired guys like moog and alan perelman [arp]. this guy was a giant, like les paul, tom dowd, putnam, neve, and so many who created the industry, that was once great. now you have an app for that…. no talent, but you have great tools.

  • I just met his son today – turns out Max and I lived in the same neighborhood for the past five years and regularly visited the same cafe. Wish I'd known that sooner, by all accounts he was a great guy.

  • Linda Roberts

    Max was such an important influence in my life. I met him while I was in graduate school in 1982 and he encouraged, supported, and mentored me during his last years as director at Bell Labs. We published several articles and book chapters together and spent many evenings playing chamber music (Max playing the electronic violin he created and me on piano). I feel blessed that I was Max's friend and that I was able to spend a wonderful evening with Max and Marjorie at their home in San Francisco last year. I will miss him very much.

  • i met max once for 10 minutes a few years ago. but no matter. the basic point is: no max, no ardour. why so? well, without attempting to connect to what max did or the giant that he was or in any way suggesting that he was imagining or somehow dreaming of ardour, the facts are:

    * no max, no Music N languages
    * no Music N languages, no Csound
    * no Csound, no paul sitting in basement in 1997 listening to a Csound composition rendered in less than real time on a 100MHz 486
    * no experience like that, no attempt to reimplement Csound as Quasimodo (and no visit to MIT that validated my status as an audio programmer)
    * no Quasimodo, no ardour

    maybe if max hadn't come along, somebody else would have thought of the things he worked on and made work. but max was the giant we got, and we are all better for it.

  • The more you learn about electronic music, the more you learn about Max Mathews.

    Max' innovations make It unlikely that any of us will be as innovative as he was. But I will consider my life very well lived if I can manage to maintain even a fraction of his creativity throughout my life.

  • BellectroniQ

    RIP Max and thanks.

  • I never had the honor of crossing paths with Mr. Matthews, but spent a lot of time only a degree or two of separation away. One of my best profs (and my senior thesis advisor) at Berklee, Dr. Richard Boulanger, was a huge proponent of the radio baton, and worked on several compositions featuring the instrument during my time there. I had the distinct pleasure of attending a couple live performances of these important works. I honestly believe that Max Matthews was thinking decades ahead of the rest of us. It's tough to say it's a great loss when we had already gained so much. But one never knows how much more he might have taught us. Thank you, Max!

  • Phew, and this is someone I never even knew about! Had you not posted it, I wouldn't have been able to learn about such an awesome fellow, and the legacy that he left behind!

    I'm truly captured by the types of capabilities such an awesome tool as the Radio Button could open up, and would love to see it around sometime.

    Good Luck Max, you led a good life.

  • Blob

    It's amazing how we can find a bit of Max Matthews' achievements in most aspects of electronic music making. We probably wouldn't have gotten so far so soon without him. Thank you, Max!