Consider, for instance, his recent documentary, "The Invisible Lighthouse," about a tower near his childhood home that was being shut down.

Dolby was denied official permission to visit the historic site, partly because the grounds around the lighthouse are strewn with unexploded land mines, he said. He didn't let that stop him.

"I've always cast myself in the role of the dissident underground writer/artist trying to get work done despite the oppressive Big Brother figure," he says.

"I only had about an hour to get my shots in the camera and get on and off the island. So I did a clandestine commando raid on the island in a high-speed inflatable boat. I put GoPro cameras all over the boat, which are the kind that skateboarders and snowboarders use. And I had a drone camera hovering above that I could control with my cellphone."

Another example: While he was on tour for his 2011 album "A Map of the Floating City," Dolby tricked out a trailer to look like a 1930s time capsule in the style of H.G. Wells. Audience members could come into the time capsule and shoot 30-second videos to the future, which Dolby later uploaded onto YouTube.

"Some people left messages for their grandchildren," he says. "Some people left messages for the aliens who will inhabit the planet after we're all extinct."

Paul Mathews, the Peabody Institute's associate dean for academic affairs, says that Dolby was much sought-after by record producers long before his hit single was released. For instance, Dolby played the synthesizer for Foreigner's 1981 hit "Waiting for a Girl Like You."

"He was a whiz behind the scenes," Matthew says.

"He was brought in by legendary record producers to make albums sound better and to put sounds in the background. He was the only one out there who was working with synthesizers and electronic music in a way that was familiar and warm and human and that had commercial value. Dolby was always using futuristic technology to embrace the past in new ways."

Perhaps that's because when Dolby is putting together an album, his method of creating is to think in reverse.

"I'm in a record store and I'm flipping through the D's, and I pull out this album by this guy named Dolby. What does the album cover look like? I flip it over. What are the names of the songs? I put the headphones on. What do they sound like? I've always worked that way."

For 12 years, starting in 2001, Dolby was music director of TED, the global network of conferences dedicated to presenting innovative ideas. The house band he created was just as inventive. It became known for its mix of unknown musicians and such superstars as Paul Simon, David Byrne, Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock.

It's possible, Dolby says, that some of these big names might visit Baltimore once the new arts center is up and running.

"Baltimore is in a good place geographically," he says. "It shouldn't be hard to get people to stop by when they're performing nearby."

Though Dolby is vague on specifics for now, he has programming ideas for the arts incubator, which is expected to open for the fall 2015 semester.

A Hopkins spokeswoman says Dolby has floated the notion of launching a television show that possibly could be broadcast from the Parkway. He envisions it as sort of an "Inside the Actors Studio" for musicians.

"I'm fascinated with things that used to be modern," he says.

"If you look at old science fiction, their vision of the future is sometimes laughable and sometimes fascinating because they weren't encumbered by the knowledge that we now have. There's a sort of parallel universe aspect that has always really appealed to me: What if things had turned out differently?

"What if the sea level had risen 60 meters? What if there had been no microchip and everything was running on clockwork and steam?"

Dolby's mind then jumped about three spaces ahead, as it tends to do.

"I think I'd do just about anything," he said, "to get out of writing relationship songs about text message break-ups and booty calls."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com