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Savannah Book Festival: Thomas Dolby shares a life intersecting technology and art

  • Thomas Dolby

Savannah Book Festival: Thomas Dolby shares a life intersecting technology and art

08 Feb 2017

Thomas Dolby has spent his life and career at the vanguard of technology, exploring new electronic and synthetic worlds through his art.

An icon of New Wave and electronica music, reaching an epoch with hit tracks “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive!,” Dolby forged a career in music with technology as a cornerstone — and no fear of exploring the unknown.

He has cataloged his strange and adventurous career in a new memoir, “The Speed of Sound.” Born Thomas Morgan Robertson in London, Dolby adopted his famous surname from a nickname his friends bestowed on him after seeing him toy with an audio noise-reduction device by Dolby Laboratories.

The son of a professor of classical Greek art and archaeology at the University of London, Oxford and Cambridge, Dolby was born into adventure. At 16 he left school, a truly rebellious act in a family of academics, and was working at a fruit and vegetable stand during the day and playing in new wave bands at night.

“The Speed of Sound” chronicles Dolby’s journey through the early music scene in London at the end of the 1970s, where he caught shows by the Police, Elvis Costello and the Clash, inspiring him to push pop music beyond the status quo.

Dolby was struck early on by the intersection of technology and art. Using the junction of the two as a guiding light, he shed the standard operating procedure of the music industry to formulate a truly unique career path.

“It was pretty unusual to make pop records with electronic instruments,” Dolby said. “When I started making music that way, it wasn’t really getting played on the radio. I sort of jumped on the music video genre, which was also very new on the scene.

“When I got the first commercial breakthrough, it was because of the popularity of MTV. I sort of made the genre my own by directing my own videos.”

His music catapulted him into the spotlight as he toured the world over, selling out arenas and rubbing shoulders with giants of pop music. But, as every good story goes in the ebb and flow of things, Dolby found his pop music career shifting down, and so he turned his eye toward a different arena.

Transitioning into the movie and video game business, he scored films and games, and naturally found his way into Silicon Valley.

“Very often, I was attracted by technologies that were unexplored,” Dolby said. “For example, when I started as a musician I was using synthesizers, which was a pretty much a rare sight. I got involved on the internet and the web. There’s been this pattern throughout my career where I was drawn toward this breakthrough area.

“I felt that I had reached a place in my life that I needed to get some of that experience down on paper,” Dolby said of his memoir. “And share my knowledge and experience with a new generation of people coming through.”

Dolby fell into the TED talk scene early in the event’s life, finding it to be the perfect collision of science and art. In 1992, when the stalwart of idea-sharing was a private conference for elitists, Dolby gave his first TED talk. He was brought on as the musical director and when online streaming technology blossomed, he helped spearhead the event to the public.

“It was great for me,” Dolby said. “As a musician, I loved rubbing shoulders with astronauts and explorers, authors and physicists and so on. As a matter of fact, a lot of musicians blended in very well.

“You find yourself hanging out at the salad bar with a nuclear physicist on one side of you and a rock star on the other side. The conversations were very interesting. Everyone enjoyed the experience because they would find the commonality in their creative experience and their efforts to pioneer their respective fields.”

Much like the resurgence of the New Wave sound in modern popular music, Dolby’s life has enjoyed a circular route, as he continues to write music, explore art and technology and share his knowledge as a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“I think my dad would be tickled pink to know that I finally joined the family firm,” Dolby said of being a professor. “He was a Cambridge professor and his father and his father before him. I sort of come full circle at this point.”


Book: “The Speed of Sound”

When: 9 a.m. Feb. 18

Where: Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, Wright Square