Sunday, 22 May 2011

Max Mathews

I am overdue writing about Max. Max' recent demise at the "hands" of Community Acquired Pneumonia leaves Computer Music without its founder. Max (incredibly) conceived of computer generated music in the 1950s --- a time when computing a single sample of sound could take forever. At Bell Labs he rose through the ranks to become the director of the acoustics center --- all the while maintaining his lab in a tiny space off the spine of Building 1.

Max was a unique individual. He had this very distinctive craggy voice and a very bald head. He was extremely enthusiastic and supportive of all efforts with computer generated sound. While at the Labs, I wrote a "Studio Report" with Max on Computer Music at Bell Labs. At that particular point, he had moved into the construction of interfaces and away from synthesis. He was working on the Radio Baton --- as the New York Times obituary pointed out, presaged the Wii and all other gesture based controllers.

I should point out that Max conceived of music synthesis assisted by computer languages in the early 1960s. He started with Music I and eventually it became Music V. One can not underestimate the effect of this concept and implementation. At Stanford, this became Music 10 and was used by the composers when one second of sound required one hour of computation. It was rewritten as cmusic and the lineage of "unit generators" continues to this day.

What made Max so important was that he was decades ahead. He had what I consider to be spectacular forward vision: he could see what technology could do for the arts long before it became even possible. Max encouraged this interaction personally by inviting guests to his lab (both scientists and artists). His early work with Jean-Claude Risset showed how analysis and synthesis of acoustic instruments could be done with computers. His fundamental contributions to the start-up of IRCAM are also not to be ignored.

Even in his "retirement", Max continued to teach and encourage at CCRMA at Stanford. I have no doubt that this leaves a void in the CCRMA environment and in the world of Computer Music.

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