RIP Max Mathews (1926-2011)

Yesterday morning I received the sad news that Max Mathews, considered by many of us to be the “father of computer music”, passed away.

Not only was he among the first to use general-purpose computers to make music, but his work spanned many of disciplines within the field that we know today, including sound synthesis, music-programming languages, real-time performance and musical-instrument interfaces.

He studied electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a Sc.D. in 1954. Working at Bell Labs, Mathews wrote MUSIC, the first widely-used program for sound generation, in 1957. For the rest of the century, he continued as a leader in digital audio research, synthesis, and human-computer interaction as it pertains to music performance. [Wikipedia]

The “MUSIC-N” languages have influenced much of how we still program computers to make music. It has direct descendants such as Csound, and has also influenced many of the other languages for composer, perhaps most notably Max (later Max/MSP) that was named in his honor.

His rendition of “Daisy Bell” (aka “Bicycle Built for Two”) is one of the early examples ofphysical modeling synthesis. Sections of the vocal tract were modeled as tubes, and sound generated directly from physics equations. His work inspired the version of “Daisy Bell” sung by HAL9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (though he did real at a talk in 2010 that the version in the film was not his recording.)

Mathews continued to expand and innovate throughout his career, moving into different areas of technology. In the 1970s his focus shifted to real-time performance, with languages such as GROOVE, and then later with the Radio Baton interface, which can be seen in this video below.

I had the opportunity to see and hear Mathews at the ICMC 2006 conference and MaxFest in 2007, both events that honored his 80th birthday and five decades in music technology. At 80, it would be relatively easy and quite understandable to eschew the latest technologies in favor of earlier technologies on which he did much of his work, but there he was working with the latest MacBooks and drawing upon new research in connection to his own work.

[Max Mathews at GAFFTA in 2010. (Photo by Vlad Spears.)]

More recently, I saw him give a talk at the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts in 2010, where he introduced the work of young artists and researchers, something he continued to do all the way to the end. He was at the Jean-Claude Risset concert at CCRMA (and I later found out, gave the introduction, which I had missed.) I have also heard comments over the past day that he was still involved in email and discussions over current projects up through this week, a testament to his character and his love for this field and for the work that he pioneered.

In Tandem with Max Mathews, Aaron Koblin, and Daniel Massey

Last Friday I attended a talk featuring Max Matthews and a new conceptual work by local artists as the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA). GAFFTA is an intriguing new organization and space for the intersection art, design, sound, and technology. They are “dedicated to building social consciousness through digital culture.”

Max Mathews. Photo by Vlad Spears

I had last seen Max Mathews, considered by many to be the “father” of computer music, at an 80th birthday tribute at the Computer History Museum in 2007, and before that delivering the keynote address at ICMC 2006. It is great to see him still going strong and engaged with technology and supporting others’ creative work. His talk primarily focused on his work at Bell Labs, and in particular the history and technologies surrounding his 1962 computer rendition of the song “Daisy Bell” (aka “Bicycle Built for Two”). It was an early example of physical modeling synthesis, where sections of the vocal tract were modeled as tubes, and sound generated directly from physics equations. His version of the song was popularized in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, although Mathews revealed that the version Kubrick used in the film was not his recording. He also presented another famous example of computer-generated vocals, a performance of the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This piece used formant synthesis in which focus on recreating spectral characteristics of the sounds (i.e., the formants that characterize vowel sounds) without necessarily modeling the physical processes that allow humans to create those sounds. The voice is quite compelling (if a bit dated), and demonstrates that the most realistic sounds are not necessarily those generated from physical models.

[Mathews, Koblin and Massey.  Photo by Vlad Spears.]

Mathews’ presentation of “Daisy Bell” served as an introduction for a new project “Bicycle Built for 2000” by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey. Koblin has been working on a series of conceptual pieces that utilize the Amazon Mechanical Turk, a framework for harnessing human intelligence to solve large problems. There are some things that humans are quite efficient at and computers are very poor at, such as recognizing distorted text (think of the CAPCHA codes that we all deal with on websites, including here at CatSynth). The Amazon Mechanical Turk, which derives its name from an 19th century hoax where a supposedly mechanical chess-playing machine turned out to be a human hidden inside a box, provides a framework and API for defining tasks to be solved by humans, recruiting people to work on them, and then compensating them for their efforts according to a fixed budget. One of Koblin’s pieces provides the instruction to “draw a sheep” for a few cents. He then collected the resulting drawings of various sheep (and non-sheep) from around the world and compiled them into a larger mosaic work, The Sheep Market. You can see the overall mosaic as well as click on individual sheep and even see an animation of how they were drawn by the individual contributors.

[Screenshot of Bicycle Built for 2000, by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey.  Click to enlarge.]

For “Bicycle Build for 2000”, Koblin collaborated with Daniel Massey on a work that focused on sound and music. The Max Matthews rendition of Daisy Bell was decomposed in a sound segments no longer than one syllable, and for each segment an Amazon Mechanical Turk task was created for someone to sing back the sound. Koblin and Massey then reassembled the sounds to re-create the song as sung by the participants. The initial version, in which only one singer was used for each component, was almost unrecognizable, though quite interesting. A larger version which included a chorus of voices on each segment better represented the original qualities of the song, and clearly recognizable. You can hear the full version at the project website, along with an interesting visualization of the assembled recordings. The fact that the larger ensemble produced a more recognizable result, essentially averaging out the various sung renditions, is perhaps an example of the oft touted “wisdom of crowds”.

There is also a slightly more ominous set of questions from these works concerning exploitation of individuals who don’t know the overall purpose of their tasks, or about hive mentality and such, but I still find it quite interesting and am inspired to try out the Mechanical Turk for a future art project.