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

Thomas Dolby has made a career of blending music with cutting-edge technology, from writing a synthpop hit to creating ringtone technology for cellphones

  • Thomas Dolby, who has just been named Johns Hopkins University's first Homewood professor of the arts, has done pioneering work in digital music.
Thomas Dolby, who has just been named Johns Hopkins University's… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
February 28, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

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 (she's best known for playing Kirby Colby on "Dynasty"), 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.

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