The First Computer Musician


Max Mathews with Joan Miller.

“In 1957 a 30-year-old engineer named Max Mathews got an I.B.M. 704 mainframe computer at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N. J., to generate 17 seconds of music, then recorded the result for posterity. While not the first person to make sound with a computer, Max was the first one to do so with a replicable combination of hardware and software that allowed the user to specify what tones he wanted to hear. This piece of music, called ‘The Silver Scale’ and composed by a colleague at Bell Labs named Newman Guttman, was never intended to be a masterpiece. It was a proof-of-concept, and it laid the groundwork for a revolutionary advancement in music, the reverberations of which are felt everywhere today. … In comparison, the contributions of Max Mathews may seem inevitable. Just as so much of our life has become ‘digitized,’ so it seems that sooner or later, sound would become the domain of computers.  But the way in which Max opened up this world of possibilities makes him a singular genius, without whom I, and many people over the last six decades, would have led very different lives. As an engineer, Max had extremely diverse interests, all of which he pursued with a great deal of energy.  He provided the initial research for virtually every aspect of computer music, from his early work with programming languages for synthesis and composition (the MUSIC-N family of software) to foundational research in real-time performance (the GROOVE system and RTSKED, the first real-time event scheduler).  Max also helped start the conversation about how humans were meant to interact with computers by developing everything from modified violins to idiosyncratic control systems such as the Radio Baton. Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and one of Max’s peers, said that Max “wrote the first beautiful examples of how to do things and then he moved on to something else,” leaving it to colleagues, students and other creative minds to pick up where he left off.  Along the way, his fluency in human cognition, acoustics, computer science and electrical engineering allowed him to always keep in mind the big picture: that computers were meant to empower humans to make music, not the other way around. …”
NY Times
The Music of Bell Labs (Video)
Musica Informatica: Music IV
W – Max Mathews
YouTube: First computer to sing – Daisy Bell, Bell Telephone Labs – Daisy Bell ’63


IBM 704 in 1957

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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