Max Mathews, electronic music pioneer: RIP

It’s been a tough year for some of my heroes… I’m at the age when those who were the teachers, mentors and leaders of my college days and young adulthood are themselves fading, passing away.  And thanks to the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-finding ‘Net, it sometimes brings me news of a former mentor who’s seen his last days.

Earlier this year, it was Ken Olsen, founder of DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation).  Just a few weeks ago, another pioneer in technology and the arts passed:  Max Mathews, engineer, acoustician, musician and pathfinder in electronic and computer music, died on April 21st, 2011.

In the first four years of “the 70s”, I was a young engineering student at the Hoosier Big-Ten campus, Purdue University.  Rather than following a classical engineering curricula (EE, ME, Civil, Industrial, etc.), I got lucky — found my way into a then-trendy program called “Interdisciplinary Engineering.”  A mouthful, yes… but it was my entrée into a rather liberal arts curriculum, embedded in a very traditional set of engineering schools.  IDE (as the mouthful was abbreviated — everything in engineering and technology gets ultimately reduced to an acronym, give just a few nanoseconds) was originally conceived to house the university’s then-rather-fledgling nuclear engineering program, but under its department head, Dr. Richard Grace, it soon encompassed a small herd of engineering students who didn’t fit — or didn’t want to fit — into those classical schools and disciplines… trendy things like environmental engineering, acoustical engineering, biophysical, ecological, ocean, aerospace, engineering and law, and more…

And so, with just a bit of preliminary interviewing and vetting, I was accepted into the IDE program, subject to finding a small committee of engineering and other professors who would advise me in designing my very own custom course curriculum — how cool is that! — consisting not only of a core of solid engineering classes, but also comprising a smörgåsbord of coursework outside of the engineering schools, including: computer science (then rather a new & big deal), acoustics (including architecture and noise abatement), lots of advanced math, and… music, lots and lots of it!  Ultimately, I managed to take every music course offered by the Department at Purdue — and wanted more.

And so, bolstered and encouraged by my very own faculty advisory committee — Prof. George Hughes, EE, acoustical and speech analysis/recognition researcher, and amateur oboist;  Dr. Ronald Kidd, head of the Department of Music, pianist, musicologist and expert on Thomas Jefferson’s music collections; and Prof. Joseph Modrey, ME, musical acoustician, researcher into creativity in engineering, and thinker-outside-of-the-box — I got to “roll my own” class schedule and BSE degree.  Electronic music was still brand new, a fresh field open to intrepid musicians, composers and engineers, including undergrads.  I dove in…

It was in my sophomore year that, in coursework on the acoustics of musical instruments taught by Prof. Modrey, our class was visited by a vigorous and lively — and rather diminuitive — engineer from the famous (in those days) Bell Labs: one Dr. Max Mathews.  He was there to consult with university colleagues on the then nascent field of computer generated music, embodied by his own MUSIC family of sound synthesis programs, what we now know as digital sound synthesis.  Here was the inventor of the whole discipline — yet we hardly knew then what it would become 20 to 30+ years later.

Thanks to Dr. Mathews, I managed to obtain a copy of the deck of FORTRAN punched cards comprising a version of MUSIC-IV which would run on the CS department’s mainframe computer.  Armed with minimal documentation about using the program, together with generous funding from Dr. Hughes’ own research account which could be billed for computer time — users were billed big-time by the second for computer cycles in those mainframe days, and my runs often consumed a couple of minutes — I managed to create several non-trivial “computer music pieces,” exploring some rather wild, or at least off-beat, concepts in an area of engineering and creativity that were becoming the “big deal” in music, and music technology, of the time.

Dr. Mathews didn’t come to “lecture” us in the traditional university way — instead, he conversed and explored with us, telling us tales, and showing us things, of his research and developments at the storied Bell Labs.  We were fascinated, for here was the real deal, an actual avant-garde practitioner doing real cutting edge stuff in engineering, and actually building things that had never existed before.  Some of it went right over my head — as an undergrad, armed with sufficient math to understand discussions of Fast Fourier Transforms (FFT), digital filtering, sampling theory and sound synthesis, I still didn’t have the necessary chops in computing theory and programming to completely understand everything that was embodied in that MUSIC-IV FORTRAN deck.  But that didn’t stop me from composing a piece called “Pluralism,” for oboe (Prof. Hughes performed the premiere), cello, prepared piano and computer-generated sound tape, which actually got a couple of public performances (poorly attended) at the university.  Not a very good piece at all, best consigned to history’s dustbin — but a complete experience in composing a work all the way through to rehearsal and performance.

Dr. Mathews was notable for his many inventions, and for his good humor as well.  He brought along another of his creations, this time not a computer program, but an actual musical instrument of his own devising and construction.  One of the best ways to (attempt to) comprehend the complexities of an actual physical musical instrument was (and still is) to “break it down,” decomposing it into an engineering model and mathematical equations, and to try to reproduce aspects of that instrument by “recomposing” those aspects using electronic circuits.  In this way, you “instrument” the instrument so that by “twiddling the knobs” (varying certain and various electrical parameters), you can perceive the spectrum of “what’s going on,” hopefully coming to an enriched understanding of the instrument’s overall acoustics, performance and dynamic characteristics.  It’s complicated, but illuminating…

Dr. Mathews’ “home-brewed instrument” was actually a violin — but a rather odd-looking one.  It consisted of the neck and fingerboard, pegbox and tuning pins, bridge, strings, tailpiece and chin-rest — but was completely missing the instrument’s body, soundboard and frontboard with f-holes.  Instead, on the bridge, it had a sound pickup, much like that of an electric guitar, which fed the sound as an analog signal to a system of electronics: filters, amplifiers and even (as I recall) to an early A-to-D (analog to digital) converter so that the signal could possibly be processed by a computer program.  The purpose of all of this was to analyze and understand the resonance and frequency responses of a real violin — its voice — and it worked well for that.  But the darned thing was indeed an odd-looking duck.

One of the students — perhaps she was just an auditor — was a young lady who was also a very accomplished violinist (she later played first violin for a concert where we played four of J. S. Bach’s harpsichord concerti — the famous D-minor solo concerto, one of the C-minor concerti for two harpsichords, the C-major triple, and the A-minor quadruple concerto, in which I managed to hold my own in the fourth harpsichord part… for a technical school, we were pretty intrepid in those days!); her name was Elsa, and she was the daughter of the concert violinist Louis Krasner.  I do recall that she was a fine musician, although quite traditional, given her background and upbringing.

When Dr. Mathews discovered that we had an accomplished violinist in the classroom, he was of course eager for her to try out his electronic instrument.  I remember that Elsa picked up this hybrid violin like it was a dead skunk — yet she gamely gave it a go, and played a couple of short solo pieces for us.  It sounded good, and she performed well.  But she was unconvinced… looking things over one more time as she handed it back to Dr. Mathews, she asked what those little things were that were attached to the bridge; she’d never seen them before on a “real” violin.

Dr. Mathews proudly told her that “Those are the resistors which are part of the sound pickup.”  She blinked at him, wide-eyed.  In complete innocence, she asked: “But… What do they resist?”  …A roomful of engineers, including the good doctor, dissolved into uncontrolled laughter.

Max Mathews was part of a rich tapestry which was our university education of the time — almost renaissance in tenor, it seemed then that almost anything could appear or happen in the midst of the Hoosier cornfields.  He made but the one visit to Purdue, but that visit was a cornerstone of events and opportunities upon which several careers were based.

In the following years, we enjoyed the presence of many of the disciples and beneficiaries of Dr. Mathews’ works and legacies, including musicians and composers such as Morton Subotnick, Don Buchla and “The First Buchla Synthesizer Quartet,” and others.  Dr. Mathews went on to expand and refine his research, and especially his sound synthesis programs — the MUSIC line of programs evolved into MUSIC-V, MUSIC-11 (for DEC PDP-11 minicomputers) and CSound, CMusic and Structured Audio Orchestra Language (which became part of the MPEG-4 digital audio standard).  Today, we download excellent FOSS (free/open systems software) digital sound synthesis, analysis and manipulation programs (for Linux… or not-so-free proprietary programs for Mac and Windows) which are the direct progeny of his pioneering work.

He arranged an accompaniment for the song “Daisy Bell” which was later used in Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” sung by the HAL 9000 computer as it’s being disabled.  His trailblazing continued:  he created the Groove program to focus on human-computer music performance interaction.  He laid the foundations for contemporary music technologies and standards such as MP3 (and other) digital sound compression formats, the MIDI electronic music capture and (re)performance standard, and the whole panoply of digital sound synthesis software and hardware that we take for granted today.

I saw, heard and talked with him but that once… yet he and his works made a lasting impression.  During my studies, I kept up with as much of his work as I could, and my own work and learning benefited immensely from his MUSIC-IV computer program — I lugged that FORTRAN deck around for much of the next three years.  The concepts he shared, together with his infectious attitude about music, sound and technology, impressed me for the rest of my career.  I’d have like to have known him better — he was quite a gentleman and a consummate engineer.

Max Mathews, RIP.

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5 Responses to Max Mathews, electronic music pioneer: RIP

  1. Pingback: Portfolio | The Rockjack

  2. is cool, bookmarked!

  3. Eric J. Blommel says:


    Thanks very much for that slice of life from the early days of electronic music. Seems like you got to be part of a very unique course of study! You really captured that sense of excitement about an emerging new field, and the bittersweet feelings of nostalgia and loss.


  4. Jamie LaRue says:

    Fascinating. Yes, there’s the truth of age: losing so many mentors and influences. But this is a great collection of stories, and a clear setting. Sounds like you were lucky to know him.

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