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Switched-On Daddy 




The sound of your ring tone (cellphone or land line), the portability of your music (CDs to iPods), and the general onslaught of electronic media all around us: 80-year-old Max Mathews had something to do with all of it. You can thank him, or damn him. Fifty years ago, while working as a staff engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Mathews succeeded at turning digital code into music.

Often called the “father of computer music,” Mathews is known best among denizens of the electronic arts scene, who have been building on his pioneering work for decades. Many of Mathews’ progeny can be found in the offices and studios of EMPAC—the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, which will honor him in a special program on Thursday, October 11. “Memories, Futures, and Dreams of Computer Music” will feature Mathews speaking about his earliest computer programs, Music I-IV, and how their principles are still in use today. He’ll also perform on the Radio Baton, his 1987 invention, including a duet with Schenectady Symphony violinist Theodore Mihran.

The free program begins at 7pm at RPI’s Biotech Auditorium. (518) 276-3921; www.empac.rpi.edu

—Joseph Dalton


Joseph Dalton: Why computers in music?

Max Mathews: Any sound that the human ear can hear can be synthesized by the right sequence of digits. This shows that the computer is in some sense the perfect musical instrument. It has no limitations. The violin is a very beautiful musical instrument—I play it. But it always sounds like a violin. The computer can sound like anything.

Except a violin.

If you work hard enough, you can indeed sound like an exact imitation of any instrument. But the things that are worth doing are to make sounds that have the expression and beauty and emotion of real instruments, but are different and new.

So you’re not trying to replace live performers?

Oh my God, no! I don’t want to give up live performance, because performing is fun! In the beginning, we worked with the world’s fastest, biggest computer, and still the job of making sounds on it was very demanding. It took about 100 seconds to make one second of interesting music. Now the laptop computer can become another instrument in an orchestra, playing timbres you can’t get out of an orchestra. So I don’t want to replace musicians, but join them.

In the advancement of the whole digital realm, have there been any surprises?

How hard it is to make a rich, good timbre by digital synthesis. Almost all the sounds are unpleasant or undesirable and some even dangerous.

What exactly is the Radio Baton?

This is a controller for a musical computer—two batons that a musician waves in the air very freely. The Radio Baton is the world’s easiest instrument to play. We’ve given all the hard parts to the computer. The technology can track each of the two batons so the musician can do many of the things an orchestra conductor does in controlling the expression of the music. The ends of the batons are little radio transmitters and the pizza-shaped box you wave them over is a directional receiver. It’s like radar in some sense.

What are you playing these days on your violin?

If I had the choice of taking one composer to heaven with me, that composer would be Mozart. He’s the one I enjoy the most. But I also play Bach and Beethoven, Schubert and occasionally Brahms. I started on the violin in third grade.

click to enlarge Max Mathews, the "father of computer music," with the Radio Baton, which he invented. Photo courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
  • Max Mathews, the "father of computer music," with the Radio Baton, which he invented. Photo courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
click to enlarge Mathews standing in the middle of an IBM 7094 computer at the Bell Telephone Labs, circa 1965. Mathews will lecture and perform at RPI in Troy on October 11. Photo courtesy of Max Mathews/ Bell Laboratories.
  • Mathews standing in the middle of an IBM 7094 computer at the Bell Telephone Labs, circa 1965. Mathews will lecture and perform at RPI in Troy on October 11. Photo courtesy of Max Mathews/ Bell Laboratories.

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