Max Mathews, ‘father of computer music,’ dies at 84

In 1957, Max Mathews invented a program that allowed a mainframe computer to play a 17-second musical composition. The technical breakthrough is still reverberating.

Max Mathews, who has been called the “father of computer music,” died of pneumonia in San Francisco on April 21. He was 84.

John Chowning, left, with Max Mathews.

John Chowning, left, with Max Mathews. (Image credit: Chuck Painter)

Mathews was a Stanford professor emeritus of music at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), where he remained brilliantly inventive and innovative into his last days.

“He imagined and created his own magical world and first built the essential concepts and tools that allowed us all to do the same,” said John Chowning, the founding director of CCRMA (pronounced “karma”) and another pivotal figure in computer music. “There are so many institutions and individuals whose paths and lives would certainly have taken a different turn but for Max.”

Though computer music is at the edge of the avant-garde today, its roots go back to 1957, when Mathews wrote the first version of “Music,” a program that allowed an IBM 704 mainframe computer to play a 17-second composition.

He quickly realized, as he put it in a 1963 article in Science, “There are no theoretical limits to the performance of the computer as a source of musical sounds.”

The article inspired Chowning, at that time a 29-year-old who had never seen a computer. After taking a programming course for non-engineers, he sought out Mathews in New Jersey. “He provided encouragement and the program that he described in the Science article, in the form of a box of punch cards.”

The assistance was characteristic of the man who was “very generous intellectually and personally,” said Chowning. While modestly refusing center stage, Mathews could alter the path of a student with a sentence or two.

Max Mathews with electric drum-computer instrument.

Max Mathews with electric drum-computer instrument. (Image credit: Ed Souza)

Max Vernon Mathews was born on Nov. 13, 1926, in Columbus, Neb. His parents taught at the state teachers college in Peru, Neb. He studied violin in high school and played throughout his life – “although always as an amateur and not an exceptionally good one, either,” he said in 1995.

He trained as a radio technician in the Navy and studied electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1950. He earned a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1954.

He joined the acoustics and behavioral research department of Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1955 (from 1962 to 1985, he was director of its Acoustical and Behavioral Research Center). At Bell, he and other researchers figured out how to digitize speech and, using a computer, turn the bits back into sound waves. Mathews thought of adapting this process to music and wrote a program making the technology available to nonscientists.

He invited composers to try it out. In 1994, after he had moved to CCRMA, he told Wired, “We had decks of punch cards on which the computer scores were produced, which we would carry around in boxes.”

In those early days in New Jersey, the researchers would put the boxes in a car, drive to IBM in Manhattan and, renting a mainframe computer at $600 an hour, “we would queue up,” Matthews told Wired. “Then, when it was our turn, we would run down the stairs, stick our cards in the deck and press the button.” They would take the resulting digital sound samples back to Bell Labs.

“The timbres and notes were not inspiring, but the technical breakthrough is still reverberating,” he said to a conference at Indiana University 40 years later.

The reverberations were evident after science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke visited Bell Labs and listened as a voice recorder synthesizer performed a rendition of “Daisy Bell” – the feat was immortalized in the 1968 classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the computer HAL 9000 sings the song as it is dismantled.

Mathews developed several generations of “Music,” leading to programs such as Csound, Cmix and Max, the last a program named for Mathews in the 1980s.

Mathews also invented the “Radio Baton and Conductor Program,” a precursor of the handheld controllers eventually developed by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to direct activities on a computer screen.

He collaborated with avant-garde composers Edgard Varèse and John Cage. With composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, he helped found Paris’ Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in the 1970s and served as a scientific advisor. He called it one of the world’s two leading centers for research in computer music; the other is CCRMA.

When he retired from Bell Labs in 1987, he joined CCRMA. It is said that if Mathews is the father of computer music, CCRMA is the house where it grew up. Chowning puts it a little differently: “Max provided the seed and Stanford the nutrient environment.”

Mathews invented several electronic violins and a totally new instrument that he called the “daton,” a mix between a drum and a conductor’s baton. He said that “the real-time immediacy in performance and inexpensiveness of the equipment far exceeds my wildest dreams.”

According to Chris Chafe, director of CCRMA since 1996, Mathews’ final work involved a sound project to create synthetic resonances, a building block for sound, using a mathematical algorithm called phasor filters.

Despite the sophistication of his generations of software and electronic inventions, Mathews’ view of his own achievements could be disarmingly simple: “I think of myself as an instrument maker or inventor, and I try to persuade musicians and composers to use my instruments,” he once said.

He is survived by his wife, Marjorie, of San Francisco; three sons, Vernon of San Francisco, Guy of Palo Alto and Boyd of Berkeley Heights, N.J.; and six grandchildren.

A memorial event is planned for Sunday, May 29, at CCRMA. Please check the CCRMA website for updates. At 8 p.m. Saturday, May 28, in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, the Stanford Symphony Orchestra will dedicate its spring concert to Mathews’ memory. See the orchestra’s website for details about the concert.