- In Memory of Max Mathews
[Editors’ note: We have solicited letters from six of Max Mathews’ colleagues and friends who knew him at different points in his life (and in their lives). Though sampled from very few of the people who knew and worked with Mathews, these letters paint a more detailed picture of how his accomplishments have impacted our community, and they make it clear how much he will be missed.]
There is no doubt that computer music would have happened independently of Max, but that it happened as early as it did and in the form that it took was altogether dependent upon Max’s unique, forward-looking way of thinking. In his famous 1963 article in Science (Mathews 1963), where he first made public his work begun six years before, he describes a music program that was elegant in its conceptual simplicity yet extensible to constructive complexity. The article showed that music, for Max, embraced the numbers behind the notes on paper, the science that explains sounds in the air and its mysterious processing in the brain. His implementation was accessible to musicians because his program was in a musical frame—note, score, orchestra—and the non-musical concepts, signal flow, control, and so on, were translatable or learnable and became part of the lexicon. Max invited, indeed encouraged, musicians to become involved, for he knew that from among them he could find those who possessed essential attributes for the field that he had launched—the capacity to compose, to create sound from the inside out, and the capacity to apply refined performance skills to his magical controllers. Max gave voice to these and many other ideas and pursued them with passion through his lifetime—we listen and we hear, still.
Standford, California, USA
Max Mathews opened the era of digital musical sound: He started computer music and nurtured it through all his life. It was a very important step—most electroacoustic music has gone from analog to digital. And the fact that Max did it was a good fortune for the whole community. Max was a scientist and an engineer of the highest caliber; he was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Science, and he directed important departments of Bell Laboratories when it was the greatest research institution in the world. Max also had a passion for music, and he showed a rare musical empathy: His exceptionally clear mind understood the desires of composers, and he generously worked to help fulfill those desires, even when he did not share them. I myself am very deeply indebted to him for my own work, and many others are, in a direct or indirect way.
With the support of John Pierce, Max ensured that computer music benefitted from his unique ability to combine scientific and technical knowledge, to understand the challenges of different types of music, and to realize effective and practical implementations. He was an extraordinary designer. His contributions evidenced a real genius of conception; the tools he forged for music are powerful and sensible, and they favorably influenced the whole domain, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and know-how, as the Computer Music Journal demonstrates.
Max also searched for new ways to make musical practice easier, not only for professionals—he wished to help listeners become performers. He developed concepts and devices to provide new ways of expressive control of the music. In his “intelligent instruments,” the computer helps in the literal rendering of the music, leaving the expressive control to the performer.
The word computer often evokes dehumanization. In a musical and imaginative way, Max strongly contributed to making our relations with digital tools more harmonious, both in the literal and the figurative sense.
Max was my friend and mentor for 40 years. We met on the island of Lindingö in Sweden in 1970. Nearly every year, I stayed with Max and Marjorie in the Bay Area, and they came as often to my farm in Vermont. Max encouraged me to compose for his electric violin, the radio baton...