Vol. 32 Issue 1 Reviews

Institut National de l’Audiovisuel Portraits Polychromes: Max Mathews

Softcover, 2007, Portraits Polychromes No. 12, ISBN 978-2-86938-206-0, 108 pages, € 9; available from GRM Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, Maison de Radio France, 116 avenue du Président Kennedy, 75220 Paris cedex 16, France; telephone (+33) 1-56-40-29-88; electronic mail grm@ina.fr; Web www.ina.fr/.

Reviewed by James Harley
Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Book CoverThe influence Max Mathews has had on computer music cannot possibly be overstated, except perhaps to call him the Great Grandfather of Techno (as is humorously noted in the volume here under review). I think it is reasonable to assume that the digital revolution in music would have somehow happened without Max (as he is called by pretty much everyone, and as he is of course encoded in the most popular music programming software on the market today), but its form would have been quite different, and progress may well have proceeded at a slower pace. Max turned 80 years old last fall (November 2006), and his work was celebrated with a MaxFest at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) in April 2007. This publication (first released in French as Volume 11 of the Portraits Polychromes series) was intended to support that event, also underscoring the 50 years since Max’s first computer music results at Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) in 1957.

Perhaps one of the most striking elements of the “Max phenomenon” is that it is still possible to bump into him at the International Computer Music Conference (he was the keynote speaker at the 2006 conference in New Orleans) or other such gatherings. He is perhaps the most critical core of what is an increasingly diverse and fractured computer music community. As becomes apparent in this volume, in case it wasn’t already, he has supported or facilitated many of the important figures and institution of computer music. This publication tells the story, and fills in many details that are not covered in broader histories of the field.

As with each of the other books in the Portraits Polychromes series, editor Évelyne Gayou presents a lengthy interview with the featured person. It should be noted that Max is the first non-composer to be included in this series, again underscoring his importance to the field (and some would call him a composer anyway, even while his modesty compels him to deny it). This is a wide-ranging discussion over 18 pages, covering Max’s background, his work at BTL, his research, his career, his love of music, etc. We get some insight into the open research environment at BTL, and while many of Max’s technological innovations are already well known, we also gain insight into his deep generosity and willingness to collaborate (including his devotion to chamber music, which he carries on as a violinist to this day). Surely it is this aspect of his character that has influenced the computer music community as much as his pioneering work in developing software for music programming or hybrid digital performance systems (e.g., GROOVE) or the Radio Baton. Music programming software remains largely a communal, freeware world, with Csound, Cmusic, Cmix, common music, SuperCollider, pure data, and many other development environments freely available to anyone interested. It could so easily have been different.

Jean-Claude Risset, a similarly generous soul, contributes a lengthy article to this volume (as he did for the volume on John Chowning, reviewed in CMJ 30:1), placing Max’s work into historical context and outlining his own research as it has interfaced with his mentor (beginning with his first exposure to early publications on digital synthesis and his subsequent decision to pursue research into timbre at BTL from 1964). This is a detailed accounting of chronology and research, and in fact forms the bulk of the book (30 pages of the 100 or so of the volume). I found one item especially fascinating: a description of a graphic interface for sound synthesis implemented in 1966 on the IBM 7090 computer. Apparently, Iannis Xenakis and his computer engineer colleague François Genuys had visited Max and seen this novel technology (which was not carried forward beyond the life of that particular computer). Xenakis and his team developed a similar graphic music computer system in France, launching the UPIC in 1978. (Oddly, I do not recall Xenakis ever mentioning this visit to Murray Hill, New Jersey, nor giving credit to Max for the idea.)

Gerald Bennett, Swiss composer and computer musician, was one of the central figures of IRCAM as it was established (he left in 1981). He was Director of the Diagonal Department, meaning that he was to coordinate the various collaborations between departments of the institute (between research and music performance, for example). Max, who had first met with Pierre Boulez in 1970, was engaged as Scientific Advisor (he left in 1980), and spent several months there each year through the 1970s. He and Mr. Bennett established a close relationship, one that continued beyond their tenure at IRCAM. Here, Mr. Bennett contributes an article about their cooperation on various research projects at IRCAM. He laments how little influence Max (and John Pierce, Max’s colleague/supervisor at BTL, who also pursued research at IRCAM during that period) had on subsequent research there: “The relatively small influence the originality of two such remarkable scientists as John Pierce and Max had on IRCAM’s work is indicative of the degree to which IRCAM ultimately failed to become a center of important scientific research” (p. 60). Max himself is less critical of the institution, and cites among other work Miller Puckette’s graphic programming language (that came to be known as Max).

Chris Chafe and John Chowning contribute an article highlighting Max’s connection to CCRMA, which really began with Mr. Chowning’s first visit to BTL in 1964 (having read the very same article on computer music in Science that had so captivated Mr. Risset). When Max retired from BTL in 1987, he moved to Stanford to take up a research position at CCRMA (his longtime friend and colleague John Pierce had already moved there to take up a similar such position). As noted in the article, Max’s activities at CCRMA have covered a wide scope: “electronic instruments, synthesis algorithms, music making, publication, and teaching” (p. 74). To be more specific, the article lists his work on the Radio Baton, an electronic violin pick-up, well-behaved high-Q filters, and scanned synthesis. Max has also contributed to a number of publications, including the International Digital Electro Acoustic Music Archives (IDEAMA) and the Musical Acoustics Research Library (MARL).

Jon Appleton, also a central figure in the computer music community, contributes a short article, “Max’s importance to the field of electroacoustic music.” His relationship with Max began in 1970, and has continued, more recently as a collaborating composer on the Radio Baton project.
Marc Battier, a pre-eminent historian of electroacoustic/computer music, contributes an annotated catalog of Max’s writings, providing important work sorting out key citations from mere abstracts, and sorting out references that had appeared in bibliographies but which had disappeared from Max’s own listings (modesty being one reason references had been dropped). This is important work, and Mr. Battier’s meticulousness is to be commended (other volumes of the Portraits Polychromes could use similarly rigorous attention to such bibliographic listings). Max himself contributes an annotated catalog of musical compositions (again taking pains to note: “I’m not a composer. I’m not a musician, but I’m an inventor of computer-based new instruments” (p. 101).

This volume is filled out with a science fiction short story penned by Max in the early 1970s (and first published in Creative Computing in 1977). The story offers a futuristic view of digital music technology, written at a time when digital music was very much an obscure practice by specialists who had trouble fitting into university music departments, let alone into the consciousness of the general public (Stanley Kubrick’s citation in 2001: A Space Odyssey of Max’s computer version of “Bicycle Built for Two” aside).

In conclusion, this is an extremely useful publication for any student of computer music history and community. The details and references will be valuable, and the story told through the various authors’ accounts is engaging, reflecting the vitality and energy Max has carried forward in his work and in his support of the activities of many others over the past 50 years. I have not had a chance to compare the French version of this volume with the English. There are a number of errors in the English edition, pointing to perhaps a rushed translation and editing process. None of them are particularly serious, just a bit distracting. In addition, there are numerous duplications of facts and anecdotes across the different articles that get a bit tiresome as one reads through the book. There may be no way to avoid these, and the duplications will provide useful information for researchers who are perhaps directed to just one of the articles in the book.

I’ve wondered before (in reference to the volume of this series devoted to John Chowning), and must yet again: why has a volume such as this never been published before, in the country of Max’s roots? (To be fair, this volume has been published with the assistance of Stanford University.) It probably doesn’t much matter, as we are certainly glad that the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel in France has seem the importance of undertaking this historical research.