Remembering Max by Dr. Richard Boulanger

Richard Boulanger with Max Mathews

- Stanford University Obituary
- New York Times Obituary
David Zicarelli of Cycling ’74 Remembers Max
- New Box Music: Charles Dodge Remember Max
- Create Digital Music Max Mathews Memorial
- Computer Music Blog Memorial
Computer Music Journal Tribute Issue
A Recent Interview w/Max by Geeta Dayal
- Max Interviewed by Tae Hong Park at M.I.T.
- Max Interview by Wired 

“Max Mathews has had a profound and deep impact on my research, my writing, my teaching, my music, and my life.”

I met Max at MIT in the summer of 1979, but we didn’t start working together until around 1984. I had composed my “Three Chapters from the Book of Dreams” for his “electronic violin” while doing my PhD at UC San Diego, and I think he liked the piece. When I told him that I would like to write a duet for the “electronic Stradivarius” and his newest invention, the Radio Baton, he invited me to come and work on it with him at Bell Labs.

Having begun teaching at Berklee College, I would drive from Boston to Bell Labs in Murray Hill New Jersey every Friday afternoon and live with Max and Marjorie Mathews pretty much every weekend. They made me feel at home and like a part of the family. In fact, Max and Marjorie Mathews made everyone in computer music feel like a part of their family.

After a delicious dinner prepared by Majorie, Max and I would head off to work at the lab through the night; but to work in Bell Labs “through the night” meant that Max slept there while I worked. The padded carrying case for my DX7 synthesizer, spread out on the floor of his recording booth, usually served as his bed. At sunrise, we would take a short walk back “home” for a shower, a change of clothes, and a quick breakfast before we headed back to the lab to continue working on the systems, the hardware and the piece.

At MIT, the premier of “Shadows” was a “cutting edge”, a “bleeding edge”, catastrophe. A “drummer” was playing the Radio Baton part and flipping all the wrong switches; thus producing a cloud of stuck notes for movement1, for movement 2, and for movement 3. It was an exceedingly long piece of noise! The review in the Boston Globe described the experience like going to a concert to “listen to the left hand only of a two part invention.” Given all the sacrifice and hard work that went into the project, I thought for sure that it was the end of our “collaboration”; but Max did not give up on me, and the MIT “experience” inspired me to play the radio baton myself and not to ever again leave that crucial role to another.

Today, the Radio Baton is “my instrument” and I perform regularly on a very beautiful wireless instrument that Tom Oberheim and Max Mathews built for me and named for me: “Radio Baton #1 – The Boulanger”. Over time, my piece “Shadows” did work, and I have played it all over the world. One of the greatest performances was at the Theremin Center of The Moscow Conservatory with Max Mathews on the violin!

Our collaboration may have started off pretty rocky, but over the past 27 years, we developed a wonderful friendship. Max is my teacher and mentor, and I am a devout admirer and an eternally dedicated student. I am overflowing with so many wonderful memories and stories – traveling, performing, working in his lab, working in his home, working in my home, at Bell Labs, at Stanford, at MIT, and at Berklee. Our days would always begin with “The Mathews Breakfast” – (this could well be the “secret” to his longevity and success so… take note!) it consists of a bowl of “Special K” cereal, topped with a healthy white mountain of home-made plain yogurt, and slices of fresh strawberries or apple (usually sliced with Max’s pocket knife!) and a light sprinkling of white sugar. Then, and this is the tricky part, he would “slide in” the skim milk (powdered!) along the side of the heaping bowl so as not to make a mess of the yogurt. Finally, this is complemented by a large cup of very strong black coffee, which was usually heated over from the pot made for the previous night’s dinner; according to Max, it was “stronger” and “better” when it sat for the night.

For sure, Max Mathews was a “coffee achiever”, and so too am I; though this may have led to that one time when he accidentally poured his morning coffee onto one of my laptops. Given our best efforts through the day, it was clear that there was no way to fix the machine. At dinner that night, I remarked that he had wiped out about 20 years of our work together with this “Freudian slip,” and then I asked, “Max, are you trying to tell me something? You don’t like the new piece?” We worked incredibly hard; but we also laughed a lot too. I took advantage of every minute with Max to learn all that I could from him; but there was also times where we just did great stuff together too like going to concerts, going to movies, going to lectures, going to conferences, looking at the stars through his home-built telescope or through my computer-controlled telescope; or best of all, spending the day sailing my little boat around Rhode Island or his big boat around Cape Cod.

In our all-day and all-night lessons, week after week, year after year, Max taught me how to program, how to solder, how to build a computer, how to upgrade a computer, how to repair a computer, and how to wash a computer. That’s right. How to wash a computer. One day there was a problem with my lunchbox computer crashing and restarting. We had tried everything and were both pretty frustrated. He grabbed it, brought it over to the sink, and as he filled the sink with warm water and dishwashing detergent, he asked me to go and get him a screwdriver. He took it apart and immersed the circuit board in to the sudsy dishwater – “you got a spare toothbrush?” Once things had dried, it worked like new and perfectly. Max magic!

He taught me so much about synthesis and signal processing. Imagine how lucky I was to be able to hang with him, to drive back and forth to Boston, to Stanford, to San Francisco, to McGill, to Dartmouth with him. How great it was to live with him – picking his brain through every meal, every minute. I have a number of great photos of him just falling asleep in mid-sentence to protect himself from my incessant deluge of questions. There was not yet Google or YouTube; but I had Max Mathews – a source of infinite and vast knowledge on absolutely everything! Max… “What’s a vector?” “What’s a pointer?” “Please explain FM to me… so that I can teach it to my students?” “How does an oscillator really work?” “What was it like to work with Varese? To work with Cage? To work with Boulez? To work with Chowning? To work with Risset? To Judge the Bourges Competition? To work at IRCAM? To tune and play the GROOVE system? “I have a student working on Filters, do you have any circuits that you can share?” The answer to my every question was always detailed and deep and clear – and there were thousands and thousands of questions.

Dr. Boulanger, Max Mathews, and the Radio Baton

When Max was visiting me at Berklee, or spending the week in my home, I would always invite a student or two to work with him. I loved to sit quietly while he answered all of their questions and watch and learn as, like me before, he now taught them the innermost workings of his latest code or hardware. I photographed everything. I recorded everything. I videotaped everything. I took notes and collected everything that I could and I cherished every single minute. Max shared everything he knew, everything he wrote, everything he had – with everyone. He once told me that the best way to “protect” and “back-up” your work was to “give it away.” And he did.

My most recent book is dedicated to Max Mathews. In the Foreword which he wrote, he leaves us with an agenda for the next generation of computer music research; and on the DVD he leaves us working versions of his classic “MUSIC V” program. (Simply type “make” and it will compile for your Macintosh, PC or Linux machine!) Also, he leaves us a working version of his latest “PhaserFilters” program too. His greatest and his latest are there for everyone to explore, study, and use. In fact, his “Conductor Program” is there as well. With these programs, we can all continue to learn from him, and from his code.

Max Mathews taught us all “how it works” – through his books, his published papers, and especially through his code, which he freely shared.

Max Mathews taught us all “how to work”… together – like the unit generators in his MUSIC programs, he connected us to one another and showed us, by example, how to communicate, collaborate, network, learn, remember, and make room for each other’s ideas – to mix!

Max Mathews taught us all “how to play” – with our variations of his software instruments and his mechanical instruments such as MUSIC V, and Groove, the Electronic Violin, the Radio Baton and the Conductor, IMPROV, and PhaserFilter Programs.

Max Mathews taught us all “how to live” – until the very last days of his amazingly creative and productive life, he was programming, he was designing and building, he was composing, he was lecturing, he was jamming, he was remixing, he was sharing, connecting, and promoting, and most importantly, he was still learning – in fact, he was learning Max!

Max Mathews IS the Father of Computer Music – and an amazingly great father!

He listened to us. He cared about us. He inspired us.

And today, tomorrow, forever, Max lives… in me… and in each and every one of us. “

– Richard Boulanger