BALTIMORE – Before composing his 1982 synth-pop hit “She Blinded Me With Science,” Thomas Dolby sketched out the story line for the music video. That’s not just rock-and-roll trivia – it’s one of the experiences Dolby can lean on as he teaches film and music students at Johns Hopkins University, a school known more for medical science and research than the arts.
Not bad for a guy whose formal education ended at age 16.
“When I saw the arrival of music videos, I thought it was actually a new opportunity for me to, you know, break through. And I was very lucky that I caught the crest of that wave,” Dolby said last week. “ ‘She Blinded Me With Science' was really, truly a soundtrack for a music video.”
The wacky video, about a home for demented scientists, became a favorite on MTV, then about a year old, helping propel the song to No. 5 on Billboard’s U.S. charts. Dolby, 55, released three more albums over the next 10 years that cemented his reputation as an electronic music pioneer.
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In the 1990s, Dolby moved on to film and video-game scoring, and founded a Silicon Valley company that created software enabling cellphones to produce musically rich ring tones.
Last year, he released a short film, “The Invisible Lighthouse,” inspired by the decommissioning of a lighthouse near his home in Suffolk, England. He shot it with inexpensive cameras.
“I’ve always been very much a DIY artist,” said Dolby, whose real name is Thomas Robertson. He earned the nickname Dolby because when he was young because he lugged around a portable cassette tape deck featuring Dolby Laboratories audio technology.
Never comfortable with music industry middlemen, Dolby relishes the freedom his 12 students have to market their work online.
“The bad news is that there’s 10,000 other guys trying to do the same thing,” he said.
Dolby began teaching his “Sound on Film” class Friday at Hopkins’ Peabody Institute music conservatory.
“Somebody that is a concert pianist and composer, but knows nothing about marketing, about branding, about technology, is going to have more of a challenge,” he said. “And so, part of the goal of the course that I'll be teaching here is to give students practical skills that will enable them to get the job done, and in this case it’s all about filmmaking and film score composition.”
School administrators can hardly believe they’ve landed a bona fide rock-star professor. Paul Mathews, a Peabody associate dean, said he was stunned when Dolby applied for the post in January. Mathews said he still listens to Dolby’s albums.
Students were less familiar with his work.
Jameson Dickman, a string bassist from Washington state pursuing degrees in recording arts and acoustics, said he did a little research on Dolby to prepare for the class but, “I actually, honestly don’t know a whole bunch” about him.
“I think it’s a good opportunity to meet a professional who’s done a lot of interesting work,” he said.
Linda Delibero, Hopkins’ director of film and media studies, said Dolby’s pioneering work and commercial success makes him an extraordinary resource.
“He knows how to get his work out there. And I think that’s one really valuable lesson that the students can get from him that they might not get from somebody who’s within academia,” she said.