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Farseeing inventor pioneered computer music

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May 9, 2011

Max Mathews devoted most of his life to learning how computers could aid musicians in perf...

Max Mathews devoted most of his life to learning how computers could aid musicians in performance (Photo: Kham via Flickr cc2.0)

Renowned computer generated music innovator Max Mathews has died at the age of 84. Back in 1957 Mathews wrote the program that enabled an IBM 704 mainframe computer to play a composition lasting 17 seconds – an achievement recognized as one of the first examples of digital synthesis of music on a computer. For the next 54 years Mathews pioneered the field of digital audio research and devoted most of his life to learning how computers could aid musicians in performance.

Max Mathews earned an Sc.D. in electrical engineering in 1954 at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He started work at Bell Laboratories where he wrote the program MUSIC; the first computer program for generating digital waveforms through synthesis. In fact his earliest MUSIC program made sound not music – he and others at Bell worked out out to digitize speech and turn the bits back into sound waves via a computer. Adapting this process to music he wrote the first program to gain credibility from the music research community for its potential.

In 1957 the MUSIC program allowed an IBM 704 mainframe computer to play a 17-second composition by Mathews. Back then computers were ponderous, so synthesis would take an hour. Instead he transferred the piece to tape, and sped it up to the right tempo, ultimately proving that sound could be digitized, stored and retrieved.

"The timbres and notes were not inspiring, but the technical breakthrough is still reverberating," said Mathews at a conference on computer music at Indiana University in 1997.

He published a paper in Science in 1963 titled The Digital Computer as a Musical Instrument and after 1970, when he created the Groove program, he focused particularly on live music performance via the means of human-computer interaction. Countless programs and digital musical tools since then owe their existence to Mathews.

His influence on popular culture began in the 1968 movie 2001: Space Odyssey when Hal sings "Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)"; a cap doffed to the digital performance Arthur C. Clarke himself saw at Bell Laboratories in the early 1960s. Mathews worked with scientists and composers, invented several electronic violins, and helped create the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris, a center devoted to the science of music and sound and to experimental electro-acoustical art music. Later Mathews's Radio Baton, an electronic baton whose movement through space determines how music is synthesized, became the forerunner to gesture controllers developed by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

After serving as the director of the Acoustical and Behavioral Research Center at Bell Laboratories from 1962 to 1985, Mathews continued his research as a professor of music at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics where he continued to work into his eighties. He died of pneumonia last month aged 84.

"What we have to learn is what the human brain and ear thinks is beautiful," Mathews told Wired magazine earlier this year. "What do we love about music? What about the acoustic sounds, rhythms and harmony do we love? When we find that out it will be easy to make music with a computer."

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1 Comment

A little history correction about the earliest computer music: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7458479.stm

Gary Ruben
9th May, 2011 @ 06:37 am PDT
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