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The Sound

Celebrate innovation with Thomas Dolby


In 1982, Thomas Dolby released the one thing many people know him for: synthpop hit “She Blinded Me With Science.” For many people, that was it. Not much else of Dolby’s made regular radio play, so people were happy to toss him on the pile of “one hit wonders” with the likes of Dexys Midnight Runners or Toni Basil. But to do so is to wildly undersell one of music’s genuinely creative, proactive minds.

Thomas Dolby serves as keynote speaker for DMACC’s “Celebrate Innovation” week on March 3 at the school’s West Campus.

Thomas Dolby serves as keynote speaker for DMACC’s “Celebrate Innovation” week on March 3 at the school’s West Campus.

As a child, Dolby (real name Thomas Robertson) sang in the local choir near his London home but never received any formal music education or training. He learned how to play piano and guitar over the ensuing years, always self-taught. After he played his first synthesizer in the mid ‘70s and started writing his own music, that method of self-deconstruction and understanding influenced how he approached the music he was creating.

“Every time that I write, it’s a kind of exploration,” he said in a phone intervew. “I’m fascinated and frustrated by many types of music I hear. So when I start to make music myself, I try to fix it.

“When I first started making music, I was influenced by the electronic musicians that were coming out of the UK and Germany. I was very interested in the sounds, but from a compositional point of view, a lot of those musicians were emphasizing the synth as a machine. They were very interested in the cold, robotic feeling that it created, and I thought there was warmth to be had. So I thought that if I could combine those sounds into to a more orchestral patchwork, I could move that genre forward.”

Prep Iowa

The result of that initial thought was 1982’s “The Golden Age of Wireless,” which Musician Magazine would call “The best damned synth-pop record ever, period.” From there, Dolby would continue to push the preconceived boundaries of what the genre could produce, engaging in a stunning number of collaborations with artists, actors and musicians from across the musical spectrum. Over the years, as Dolby would drift in and out of an active music career as his other projects would wax and wane, the art of the collaboration remained an important device to him.

“A good collaboration is one where the whole is the sum of the parts,” he explained. “If I listen to someone’s work or view their work, and I see a way that I could maybe contribute and expand on that, then it seems like that would be an interesting possibility.”

Dolby took some time away from making music in the ‘90s to focus on his company, Beatnik Inc (originally called Headspace). The company first introduced the Rich Music Format (RMF) digital format for music, before moving to a series of software synthesizers for mobile devices. He made his return to music in 2010 with the groundbreaking “A Map of the Floating City” and its accompanying online multi-player game.

Though “A Map of the Floating City” is the last original music he has produced, Dolby has been far from idle, as he now teaches as a professor of the arts at Johns Hopkins University and has served as music director for the TED Conference since 2001.

And, in many ways, it all comes back to the concept of that self-taught young man, first listening to his first synth tracks. Whether producing, teaching or curating, Dolby is always looking for the next way to bring people together and push everything forward. CV

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