Rememberg Max Matthews, The Father of Computer Music

“What we have to learn is what the human brain and ear thinks is
beautiful,” Mr. Mathews told Wired magazine in January. “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

He’s not a name that many in the music and/or art world know, but really, everyone should. Today, it’s hard to imagine a time before digital music, but there was once a time when scientist-composers paved a new world. In this case it was Matthews writing the first software program allowing a computer to play music.

Max Matthews had a glorious career filled with invention, not only of software but of instruments such as electric violins, or the Radio Baton, and collaborations with other great colleagues like Boulez, James Tenney, John Cage, Edgard Varese, and others.

Max Matthews was a giant, who helped bring music into the 20th and 21st centuries, and whom all music lovers owe a great debt of gratitude.

And of course, as a long-term tribute, the programming language Max/MSP, widely used for music and multimedia, was named for Max Matthews.

Click here to read the excellent obituary in The New York Times.

And here, is a terrific piece by one of Max’s collaborators, the late, great James Tenney. The piece is called For Ann (rising). It is an aural illusion that could only be created through the technology that Matthews helped make possible.

A funny story: I used to have the Tenney piece on the music on hold at the American Music Center. Once, a BMI executive called me and mentioned that there might be something wrong with our phone system. He had heard For Ann (rising), but didn’t know it was a piece by James Tenney, who happened to be a BMI composer…

Check it out:

And a few more for you:

One response to “Rememberg Max Matthews, The Father of Computer Music”

  1. The endless glissando effect in the Tenney recording was invented by the French composer Jean-Claude Risset and is called the Shepard-Risset scale. He has also created a similar effect with rhythm in which tempo seems to increase or decrease endlessly. Risset was a co-worker of Mathews’ at the Bell Labs beginning in 1964. Risset has a composition where the endless glissando descends downward (instead of upward as in the Tenney recording.) It is part of his work “Computer Suite for Little Boy” (1968) and is about atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In that context, the endless descent of the glissando becomes quite haunting.