Saturday, April 9, 2016

Professor Thomas Dolby

With the 1982 release of his first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, Thomas Dolby became an unlikely pop star. His quirky video for the single "She Blinded Me With Science" was played in heavy rotation in the early days of MTV. In The New York Times, Stephen Holden once called the single a "pop tone poem." Dolby released four acclaimed albums in the first 10 years of his solo career. The last of these, 1992's Astronauts and Heretics (AM8, which included the AM10 single, "I Love You, Good-bye"), was the first LP to be completely engineered using a Macintosh home computer. Despite the campy radioplay for which he's most known, Dolby is/was the composer of some rich and haunting melodies, from the compelling "Leipzig" or “Cloudburst on Shingle Street” from 1982 to the hypnotic "Oceania" from 2011.

In 1994, Dolby founded Headspace, Inc. and created the Beatnik audio engine, an early software synthesizer. The product was designed as a component for video games, and Dolby immediately saw its potential for use in early web browsers. While working with the founders of Netscape, Dolby licensed Beatnik to Sun Microsystems for use in the Java programming language. Beatnik came to the attention of Nokia engineers, who sought a sound solution for their mobile phones. Ultimately, ringtones proved the most robust market for the Beatnik audio engine, and by 2005 Dolby's technology was in more than half the world's mobile phones.

Over two decades, Dolby adapted his musical vision to feature films, video games, and electronic sound technology. He's written scores for films by Ken Russell and Richard Brooks, and his music has been featured in dozens of films and television shows, from "Mission Impossible III" to "Breaking Bad." Thomas served as musical director for the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences from 2001 to 2012, and in 2013 he toured the U.S. performing a live soundtrack to his award-winning documentary short, The Invisible Lighthouse, which he shot, scored, and edited himself. Today, Dolby is on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. There is no argument that rock stars and singer-songwriters have channeled the likes of Keats or Shelly or that Bruce Springsteen has resurrected the ghost of Steinbeck, but in Thomas Dolby we have the rock star, albeit a quirky one, incarnating Pascal and Tesla.

"I guess the thing was that I had no fear of music technology. Like most people of my generation, I started off with traditional instruments – guitar and piano – but by the time I heard the likes of Roxy Music and the Berlin albums of Bowie and Eno, I could see that things were shifting. With Bowie and Kraftwerk, electronics were forming the heart of the song. And what was wonderful was that the machines were being allowed to sound like machines – we weren't trying to make them sound human.
"I was fed up of beating my head against a brick wall. I felt neither wanted nor valued, but Silicon Valley made me feel... wanted and valued. Because of my relationship with Opcode and Digidesign, I'd sort of got a foot in the door and found myself being invited to all the new music seminars, talking to people who were putting together multimedia projects, people in the gaming industry. It just seemed a lot more grown up than the music industry.
"The final move away from music came when I started working with David Liddle, who'd been involved with all the innovative mouse/desktop work at Xerox PARC. Paul Allen then set up a company called Interval Research and asked Liddle to assemble a team of researchers like they'd had at Xerox – I was one of those researchers. It was all hush-hush and very well paid, which meant that I could make it my job. We're talking early 90s, here. We were sending music over the internet, enabling real- time interaction over the internet; people were jamming over the internet... we created musical interfaces that could be shared over the net. It was an absolutely thrilling time to be in Silicon Valley. We suddenly became aware that the world wide web was going to change everything. Not only was it going to affect how we made music, which was my sphere of interest, but it was going to change our lives."