Hopkins professor Thomas Dolby aims to help the next generation score the future
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Sep 17, 2019 at 5:00 AM
For most music students at the Peabody Institute, back-to-school season can feel like a return to the beauty of a bygone era: to stately, Renaissance Revival architecture, libraries stuffed with yellowing scores and concert halls that fill with the music of many composers who have long since passed away.
The homecoming for a particular handful of sophomores feels much different. On a Friday afternoon just two weeks into the start of the semester, these students settle into a small room equipped with more than a dozen digital audio workstations, each with its own musical keyboard and computer. The lab is unnaturally quiet, its studio-quality acoustic wall paneling muffling the sounds of nearby rehearsals.
The students’ instructor, Chris Kennedy, plays a recording of the opening bars of “Jupiter,” a movement from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets.” Their task? To create a synth mockup of this music, a project that will require them to build and implement their own sample libraries.
It’s a foundational approach to their musical education: Sample libraries, which are collections of recorded sound that can be digitally manipulated, are a necessary tool for any professional composer that doesn’t have a live orchestra at their fingertips.
But, unlike the training in music theory and aural skills that’s required of every kind of music major, this lesson is something that’s specific to Kennedy’s students.
They are the inaugural class of Peabody’s newest major, Music For New Media, a degree program launched in 2018 to train students in the creation of music for things like film, television, video games and virtual reality.
Its founder is none other than Thomas Dolby, the 1980s pop star and composer of the new wave anthem “She Blinded Me With Science.” From his earliest days as a pioneer of synth music, Dolby has had a hand in reshaping music for an increasingly digital world. He went on to found the tech company Beatnik, which created the classic Nokia ringtone, and later transitioned to writing scores for films and video games.
In 2014, Dolby joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University as a Homewood Professor of the Arts. Initially, he was tasked with teaching a class on film music at the then-brand new JHU-MICA Film Centre in Station North, but his involvement in music education deepened when the Peabody Institute (which is part of Johns Hopkins) asked him to join a panel discussing the future of the conservatory and how it could better prepare its students for a changing musical job market.
“In the process of sitting on that panel, I came up with the idea for this Music For New Media course — and applied for the job that I effectively created,” Dolby said in an interview. Peabody was in favor of the idea, and Dolby spent a year designing the program, building the lab and traveling around the country to recruit applicants.
“It was the first time I’d visited many of those types of high schools,” Dolby said, referring to arts magnet schools and feeders for top conservatories. He became aware of a divide in the kind of career advice students received: Those interested in music technology were being directed to “trade-based schools,” while conservatories like Peabody were only thought appropriate for students interested in performing or composing for orchestral instruments.
“Part of the challenge was to … change the perception of Peabody as a traditional conservatory,” Dolby said. “It was a big step to get people to view it as a forward-looking, high-tech kind of school.”
Through reeducating both prospective students and advisors, Dolby hoped to attract what he described as “Renaissance-type students, who maybe had trained in their instrument from a very early age, but had also gotten into video games, maybe made their own SoundCloud page or YouTube channel — who even, in some cases, already had a following online.”
The ideal applicant didn’t even have to be particularly skilled at reading and notating music. In fact, Dolby feared that the rigorous admission standards of both Peabody and Johns Hopkins would deter “some of the most exciting candidates.”
After all, what students lacked in the way of traditional training could be learned while at Peabody. With its Music For New Media program, Peabody has become one of the few schools in the country that pairs advanced training in music technology with the thoroughness of a conservatory-style education.
For 19-year-old sophomore Ashna Pathan, that combination was the deciding factor in her choice for a school.
Pathan grew up playing the piano and clarinet as well as writing traditionally notated pieces, but she didn’t think of composition alone as a viable career path. Considering a secondary love for film and television, she decided to pursue a career in film scoring instead.
But when it came time to apply, she found that “most of the places that offered film scoring didn’t really involve a rich classical background. Before I found the [MFNM] program, I thought I was going to have to sacrifice one or the other.”
As a freshman, Pathan took part in a networking event that Dolby helped set up with graduate film students at MICA. She collaborated with one of them on a project and, over the summer, secured gigs to score two more short films — one of which even paid.
However, her time at Peabody has Pathan reconsidering an exclusive focus on composing for film and television.
Scoring for video games, for instance, involves unique challenges: The narratives are non-linear, requiring different music to cue depending on a player’s choices.
Then, there is the rapidly developing field of virtual reality, which necessitates recording music in a way that simulates a three-dimensional perception of sound. “The sound has to come from somewhere” in the virtual landscape, Pathan said, like a record player nestled into a corner of the room.
These types of musical challenges are only made possible through collaborations with other creative people, and that’s something that Thomas Dolby considers key for the success of the MFNM program.
“Under the Johns Hopkins umbrella, [students] have collaboration opportunities which none of the other schools can really provide,” he said. Students “might be interested in music and wellness. There are all sorts of projects related to that on the medical campus. We have computer scientists who want to go into game application and design.”
Ultimately, Pathan and her cohort will have to develop one of these collaborations into a capstone project — and this, too, caters to her interests.
“I prefer working with other people,” said Pathan. “It’s fun to [compose] for myself, but once I finish it, I have that ‘What now?’ kind of feeling. It’s nice to watch the piece grow with other people rather than it just being in my head.”
She has time to decide: The first class of Music for New Media majors doesn’t graduate until the spring of 2021. By then, there may be even more uses for music and technology. But an ability to embrace and respond to developments in the field is integral to the MFNM philosophy.
“In the past, composition was done mainly for music’s sake,” said Dolby. The goal of this program is “to equip composers to write for picture, including new forms of technology that we don’t even know about yet.”
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.