When I heard that Max Matthews had just passed away, my first thought was deep sorrow, and my second thought was how fundamentally he changed our culture.
It’s been well over half a century since Matthews started experimenting with the use of digital computers to create musical compositions. Now, of course, we all live in a world of digitally created art. We take for granted that our music, our movies, our games, our TV ads and just about everything else around us uses digital computers as a tool for aesthetic creation.
But back in 1957, when Matthews created the first real digital computer composition, these giant electronic beasts were generally seen as military tools for fighting the cold war, when they weren’t being portrayed as cold-hearted destroyers of humanity in the work place. The idea that the cybernetic behemoths of the day could be used as tools to create something as lovely and aesthetically focused as a musical composition was simply off the cultural radar.
Now, with the hindsight of fifty four years, after the rise of computer music (a field very much nurtured and mentored by Matthews), and then its younger sibling computer graphics, it’s astonishing to realize how truly radical and ahead of its time was that vision.
Sadly, the man himself is now gone, but he has left behind a powerful legacy, as generations of artists have now walked in his footsteps. In many ways the world of today, our art, our music, our games, the breathtaking computer visions and soundscapes in our movie theatres, are all his children.