Max Mathews (1926–2011) Interview with Geeta Dayal for Frieze

Max Mathews Radio Baton Demonstration

Rhizome contributor Geeta Dayal recently interviewed Max Mathews for Frieze magazine. Sadly the pioneer of digital music (creating MUSIC in 1957) passed away three weeks later. It's a fascinating conversation going over the history of computer music and Mathew's many high profile collaborations, while explaining the creative energy at Bell Labs at the time.

Your boss actually encouraged you to take time off from work to write MUSIC? Bell Labs sounds like it was an amazing place.

Bell Labs was a golden era. Golden for several things. One was that the research money to support it was gotten as a tax on the earnings or the profits of the telephone companies. We got it as a lump sum. The vice president in charge of research, William O. Baker, insisted that there be no strings attached to the money and that we could use it in the way we thought was best. So a lot of very important things were done with this support, or byproducts of things that were used in telephony. There were the radio telescopes, and the measurement of the background radiation with the very low-noise antennas that we developed that supported the Big Bang theory, and there was of course the transistor. And there were all sorts of speech codings that are still very important, and error correcting codes. The departments originally only hired Ph.D. physicists, mathematicians, and maybe a few chemists. Then they gradually let in some engineers. The whole research department, the position you took was a member of staff – MTS, member of technical staff. That was the highest position in the research department! [laughs]...

What’s your attitude about how difficult it was for you in the 1950s to make computer music, versus making computer music now? That the incredible constraints you had actually increased innovation? That perhaps there’s too much you can do, now?

I’ve wondered about that. I do know that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and even in the ‘70s, that the quality of computer – how beautiful we could make the timbres – was limited by how much computing time we could afford to buy, and the limited power of early computers. That is now no longer true. Almost any computer anyone has, has thousands of times more power than anyone knows how to use in a musically useful way. Musically useful means making things that really light up peoples’ pleasure centers, that they think are beautiful, or expressive. The limitations, and the domain of future progress, lies in better understanding how our brains work for music. Why we love music; what we love about it. We knew at the beginning that the computer could make any sound the human ear could hear, and any timbre. That was not true of traditional instruments. The violin is certainly beautiful, but it will always sound like a violin. That can be very good, and it’s also limited. And the computer is not limited.