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'She Blinded Me With Science' singer named Hopkins' 1st Homewood professor of the arts

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You could make a plausible argument that '80s pop star Thomas Dolby has been blinded with science.

Since he was a teen, Dolby, now 55, has looked for ways to blend technology with sound — whether that meant writing a quirky synthpop anthem that rose to No. 5 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in 1982 ("She Blinded Me With Science") or inventing a cousin of the polyphonic ringtone likely playing on your cellphone today.

Next week, Dolby will be named the Johns Hopkins University's first Homewood Professor of the Arts — a position that will enable him to help create a new center that will serve as an incubator for technology in the arts.

"There's a family of arts industries that all use digital technologies," says Katherine S. Newman, dean of Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

"We're trying to create what I think of as a Silicon Valley for the arts while teaching our students the skills they'll need. It's a natural fit for us, because scientists and artists are both outside-the-box thinkers."

The center will be housed in two projects totaling about $35 million and being jointly overseen by Hopkins, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Maryland Film Festival. The former Parkway Theatre at 5 W. North Ave. is undergoing a $17 million renovation and will become a three-screen, 600-seat theater. Just down the street, an Art Deco building at 10 E. North Ave. is being converted into classrooms and office space at a price of $18 million.

In addition to playing a leading role in designing the new center, Dolby also will co-teach a course at Hopkins, "Sound on Film," that will bring together film students from the Homewood campus with composing students at Peabody — and that will make use of computer techniques he pioneered.

Dolby and his wife, actress Kathleen Beller (known for her roles in "Dynasty" and "The Godfather: Part II"), will move from Suffolk, England, to Baltimore this summer. The couple has three college-age children.

When he accepted the position at Hopkins, Dolby was being courted by big-name universities in New York and Boston with established arts programs.

"I always like to put myself in situations that make me a little uncomfortable," he said over coffee Friday morning.

"For me to join a program with a pre-existing program in the arts would have been less interesting than breaking new ground in an institution that's making a radical left turn. That's very exciting. I like the city, and I like being part of something that's less predictable and more wide-open."

Dolby — the former Thomas Robertson — is the son of an archaeology professor and a mathematician. Though his five siblings are teachers, his own formal education stopped in high school. His appointment to Hopkins — and as a full professor, a title the university does not hand out lightly — is an irony that amuses him greatly.

"I come from a very academic family," he says. "I was the dark horse. If my parents were still around, they'd be very surprised that this is what I'm doing."

Hopkins administrators say that Dolby, with his background as a practicing artist and entrepreneur, is exactly what they've been looking for. As Newman explains it, Hopkins already has an established program in art history. But with the exception of faculty members who teach in the writing seminars, there are few practicing artists on staff who can teach students the real-world skills they need.

Selecting Dolby as the first of what she hopes will be several Homewood professors of the arts is, she says, a "huge step" in the right direction.

"This is a game-changer for us," says Linda DeLibero, who is Johns Hopkins' director of film and media studies.

"We're so excited. This is going to be one of those finger-of-God moments that's going to make a lot of things we were dreaming about suddenly become possible. Most people, when they hear Thomas Dolby's name, think of him as a pop-music icon from the 1980s. But he's done so many things. He's made it a point to keep innovating and reinventing."

In 1993, for instance, Dolby started a tech company that created software for mobile phones that was licensed by Nokia. Even today, a later version of the polyphonic ringtones he created are found on more than a billion mobile phones.

Dolby is also a little bit subversive, convinced that rules are made to be broken. He's inevitably drawn to new frontiers and often uses the technologies of tomorrow to shed light on the past.

"I like designing new technologies, and I enjoy showing what can be done with them," he said.

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

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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