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  • Editor’s Note
  • Rebecca Fiebrink

Max Mathews 1926–2011

Max Vernon Mathews, a pioneer who helped to create and shape the field of computer music, passed away on 21 April 2011 at the age of 84. He had been briefly hospitalized for pneumonia in San Francisco, California, where he lived.

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A Computer Music Pioneer and Visionary

Born in Nebraska on 13 November 1926, Max Mathews has often been called the father of computer music. Indeed, he was responsible for one of the most significant events in the birth of the field: in 1957, when Mathews was a young researcher at Bell Telephone Laboratories, he wrote the first program for generating audio waveforms using digital synthesis. Suddenly, humans making sound were no longer constrained by the physical, analog world; digital synthesis allowed the creation of any sound imaginable, turning the computer into—in Mathews’ words—“a universal instrument” (Park 2009, p. 11).

The invention of digital synthesis alone might have established Max Mathews as a founding father of computer music. But he was also a pioneer and a visionary whose work continued to shape research and practice in the field, as well as inspire countless collaborators and students, for many decades to follow. In the Music III language, developed in 1960, Mathews introduced the “unit generator” paradigm for programming sound synthesis. The unit generator was born of Mathews’ desire to empower musicians to create their own sounds through a simple and effective interface. In a 1980 interview, Mathews remarked: “I wanted to give the musician a great deal of power and generality in making the musical sounds, but at the same time I wanted as simple a program as possible; I wanted the complexity of the program to vary with the complexity of the musician’s desires. . . The only answer I could see was not to make the instruments myself—not to impose my taste and ideas about instruments on the musicians—but rather to make a set of fairly universal building blocks and give the musician both the task and the freedom to put these together into his or her instruments” (Roads and Mathews 1980, p. 16). The unit generator paradigm enabled new ways of composing and programming with sound that have persisted to this day, and Mathews later indicated that he considered this to be “the most important innovation that [he] had a hand in” (Park 2009, p. 20).

Although real-time control over digital sound would not be feasible until over a decade after Mathews’ first work on digital sound synthesis, his motivation for that work arose partly from his vision that computer technology could someday enable people to perform music in new ways. As an amateur violinist, Mathews saw the computer as a means for performers like him to “make better music” by transcending some of the physical demands inherent in learning and performing with conventional musical instruments (Park 2009, p. 10). Mathews’ pioneering work with F. Richard Moore in the late 1960s produced the Generated Real-Time Output Operations on Voltage-Controlled Equipment (GROOVE) system, which for the first time allowed a human performer to interact with a digital computer to control live analog sound. Later, Mathews developed some of the first software and hardware for allowing real-time control over digital sound. Recognizing that the creation of interactive computer music systems demanded careful consideration of the roles that humans and computers could and should play in live music performance, Mathews created the Conductor program to allow a human performer to expressively shape the computer’s rendition of a pre-composed musical score. In the Conductor program, Mathews also challenged and expanded the roles played by the human composer and software programmer, recognizing that the questions of which musical dimensions should be controllable by the performer over the course of a piece were essentially musical questions whose answers were encoded in the software program.

Mathews invented the Radio Baton, a new digital musical instrument, in the early 1980s. The Radio Baton sensed the motions of two handheld batons in space and used those motions to influence and control the computer’s sound during performance. Mathews continued to refine the...


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pp. 11-13
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