Max Mathews: An Appreciation
It’s widely known that Miller Puckette, inventor of the Max language, named the program in honor of Max Mathews. It’s less well-known that Miller did this not just because Max was deserving of the honor due to his pioneering work in an astonishing variety of areas within the field of computer music. In fact, Miller was specifically acknowledging Max’s work on a pioneering real-time scheduling algorithm called RTSKED developed in the early 1980s, which Miller credits as a fundamental influence on the design of his software.
RTSKED refers to “real-time scheduling” and was one of the first examples of a music program that organized computation in multiple parallel units which could do something for a while, tell the system they were done, and then wake up and start doing something again in response to a trigger. This is, in some sense, the fundamental idea behind Max (the software). Managing real-time scheduling and computation is not an easy thing to do in typical computer languages, and Max’s conception of the solution was emblematic of all of his work: concise, elegant, and flexible.
I first worked with Max when I was a graduate student at CCRMA at Stanford, who hired him in the late 1980s after he retired from Bell Labs. CCRMA gave Max a couple of large high-ceilinged rooms, which he immediately filled to capacity with test equipment, tools, electronic parts, oscilloscopes, MIDI gear, and even a few computers. It quickly became known as the MaxLab. It was completely different from any computer music “lab” I had ever seen up to that point. For one thing, you couldn’t miss noticing the drill press when you walked in. Then there were the other-worldly Mathews violins in various states of assembly, along with a supply of Pioneer car stereo speakers for amplification. I never thought I would see car stereo speakers anywhere at a place ostensibly dedicated to audio perfectionism. Clearly Max’s interests extended to an analog world beyond software.
I was fascinated by the Radio Baton, a project Max started while at Bell Labs and would continue to perfect over the course of almost three decades. The technology was based on a clever asymmetrical arrangement of “antennas” to provide three dimensions of continuous control for multiple drum sticks. The drum worked by sensing the capacitance between the sticks and the drum surface. In conjunction with the hardware, Max had designed an interactive score program with a typically laconic name (“s”). A score for a piece in “s” could be performed with the drum — the performer controlling the tempo while the computer sequenced the pitches. Looking at the source code for what Max called the Conductor Program, particularly the real-time scheduling algorithm, was a revelation in its brilliance and simplicity.
Everything Max worked on had an aesthetic that was uniquely his own. Even though it would appear, as in the case of the violin, that all visual flourishes not essential to sound production were stripped away, I don’t think it was that simple. Walking into the MaxLab, there was an overwhelming sense of a man who kept everything in a tweakable state. Max’s work was, fundamentally, open-ended and accessible. He clearly prioritized future possibilities over a desire to conform to current notions of “polish” — he left that for others to worry about. He thrived on collaborating with students, colleagues, and musicians, and if he wasn’t working on a project with you, Max would still be continually feeding you new ideas. A couple of weeks before he passed away he called and mentioned a paper by his colleague Julius Smith he thought I should read.
The other side of Max Mathews was the quintessential nerd, the guy who is so comfortable at being himself that he defined a style for everyone who came in contact with him. In the past couple of weeks since my recent phone conversation with Max, I had been thinking about the nature of this style and what was so intoxicating about it. It is perhaps at this point better to share a few stories that convey the essence of this remarkable character.
I remember a visit Max and his wife Marge made to Santa Cruz when our kids were little. Max arrived with his kayak strapped to the top of his VW Golf (naturally, a TDI), the craft exceeding the length of the car by a factor of two. My kids were instantly entranced by Max and Marge and the feeling was clearly mutual; to this point I had not completed the picture of the man who did computer music with a drill press as a sweet (kayaking!) grandfather, but indeed he mentioned his grandchildren at every opportunity.
Once when I sat next to Max at a concert, I surreptitiously observed him taking notes in the small spiral-bound notebook I always saw attached to his belt. (I suspect, although I never knew definitively, that he created this belt contraption himself.) What kind of notes did the father of computer music take? I noticed on one page he had written “Rubber shoe laces” with an 800 number he could call to order them. He also took notes on each piece in his concert program. The only comment I remember reading was about the first piece: “Happy nap.”
I encountered Max in the men’s room during the intermission of another performance in San Francisco. He asked me what I thought of the concert so far. Not wanting to appear too opinionated in front of the other patrons, I uttered something quietly non-committal and asked him his opinion. Making his voice heard above the din of the hand dryers, he yelled to me, “I thought the first piece was GREAT, the last one was pretty good, and the rest were CRAP!”
As an inventor and as a personality, Max had something simple yet incredibly profound figured out. He had the ability to ask a simple question: “Why wouldn’t you?” Why wouldn’t you put foam balls on the end of drum sticks rather than covering the surface in foam? You’ll use a lot less foam, for one thing. You think it looks silly? Why do you care what other people think? Why wouldn’t you do something the best way?
“Why wouldn’t you?” is a question each of us, in work and in life, would benefit from asking ourselves more often. Max showed us how much fun you can have when you remember to do it.