Thomas Dolby makes a big noise at Snape
He blinded us with science in the early 1980s, he’s played with dozens of top bands and innovative hit-makers, he performed at Live Aid alongside David Bowie and now Suffolk-based musician and technical whizz Thomas Dolby is this weekend hosting an event which brings to Snape some of the sharpest and most innovative minds in the music and technology business.
Dolby, who was partly raised in Suffolk, and has had a beach-side home in the north of the county for the last 20 years, is musical director for an organisation called TED – Technology, Entertainment and Design. This weekend Aldeburgh Music is providing the Hoffman Building for TEDX – a day of talks and musical performances which opens up new areas for music to explore, and ways it can be delivered to the public.
Thomas Dolby says that the marriage of music and technology would appear to be a modern phenomenon but nothing could be further from the truth. He cited the piano, which is a fiendishly complex instrument to create. “At the end of the day it’s all about getting your music heard, finding ways of delivering your music to an audience, shaping and controlling your music. I think that the internet has been a very good vehicle for that. It allows bands and musicians to interact with their audience without the need for expensive record deals.
“Now there is nothing to stop a band putting out a demo of a new song online and getting immediate feedback or an artist putting two or three, or even half-a-dozen different versions of a song online because there is no intrinsic extra cost. You don’t have to print up extra CDs or press expensive vinyl.
“The internet has given the artist back their freedom. In the old days, travelling musicians would play according to the crowd. Their performances would be different if playing to the court than they would be playing to the crowds on market day. The internet and digital technology has given musicians the freedom to become responsive musicians again – to vary their performances to suit themselves and their audience.” He said that in the old days the aim of an old fashioned single or album, cut in a record company’s recording studio, was to capture a one size fits all performance which could be sold to the world at large. Technology has changed not only the means of delivery but has also changed the way that music is performed.
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“The arrival of the gramophone and radio changed the music business beyond all recognition, it changed music from a live experience to a snapshot in time. It was all about capturing that perfect take, it was all about getting that perfect sound but the downside was that music isn’t about snapshots in time. It’s about responding to audiences. If you are playing live you vary songs in response to the people in front of you. With arrival of the pop record, people wanted bands or performers to replicate the sound they heard on record and that had a huge effect on the way that music was performed.”
He said that the history of music was also the history of innovation. “Going back to the piano, that was an enormous step forward. Before the pianoforte live music could only be enjoyed by very small groups of people. The harpsichord probably had a maximum audience of about 30. But introduce the pianoforte, the forte is the important part, you put it in a concert hall with 2,000 people, you open the lid and you can thrill them.”
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That, he said, changed the business. The guitar, a tremendously versatile instrument, made music portable. Electricity not only made it heard over the din of drinking establishments but changed the nature of the sound, particularly when it was swiftly adopted by blues musicians and the pioneers of rock’n’roll.
“There had always been a partnership between the artists and the inventors. Sometimes a new invention comes about because the lack of a suitable tool for the artist to do what he wants to do or sometimes the inventors just go off on their own and come up with something, an artist comes along and goes ‘ah!’ and adopts it for their own use.
“Steel drum music in the Caribbean came about because British oil companies were littering the place with oil barrels. The islanders cut them up, started banging on them and hey presto you’ve got steel drums. And then you refine it and fine tune it and the instrument develops. It makes a good sound, you find out why it makes a good sound and you are able to shape it and control it.”
He said that TED and Aldeburgh Music was a perfect fit as Aldeburgh had always been involved in the development of music and musicians. Also this weekend is very special to Thomas Dolby for personal reasons. Not only did he grow up in Snape during the 1960s – he remembers the original Snape Maltings Concert Hall burning down in 1967, watching the flames from the otherside of the village – but his great, great grandfather Newson Garrett was the man who built the Snape Maltings complex – and if that wasn’t enough his mother Theodosia Cecil Spring-Rice was Benjamin Britten’s first assistant during the early years of the Aldeburgh Festival. His grandmother, who lived at Iken Hall, was also close friends with both Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears and according to family stories played peacemaker during some of the more fraught musical discussions during the early years of the festival.
“The family also has a wealth of stories about Newson Garrett. One of my favourites concerns the rather warped, curved frontage of the buildings here at Snape. Apparently he was explaining to the builders exactly what he wanted but they weren’t getting it, so he drew a rough plan on the ground, lines in the sand, but as it was a quick, rough sketch, the lines weren’t straight and the builders took him at his word which has resulted in this rather unique curved frontage.”
Dolby said that although he was born in London he has had a long association with Snape and had lived off and on in the village for much of his young life. “I have been coming back here for as long as I can remember and it certainly influenced my decision to move here permanently when I came back from America three years ago. I have had a house on the coast for the last 20 years but until I moved back I just used to visit. I have been close to the Festival but have had no direct involvement until recently.”
He met chief executive Jonathan Reekie and was immediately impressed with the work that Aldeburgh Music was doing with the experimental Faster Than Sound project both at Snape and at the Hush House on the former RAF Bentwaters and could see the potential for bringing TED to Suffolk.
He said that his name has caused a lot of speculation over the years and a confrontation with the Dolby Laboratories, makers of the famous noise reduction systems. “I was born Thomas Robertson but my nickname at school was Dolby because I went everywhere with a tape recorder slung over my shoulder. Then when I was older, just starting out in the music business, I was friendly with Tom Robinson, the singer. We agreed that whichever of us made it big first, would change our names. I did – just about – and adopted my nickname from school and it has been good to me ever since.”
Surrounded with a wide variety of technology being installed for this weekend’s conference, I have to ask whether Dolby is a musician who is also a electronics expert, an electronics expert who is also a musician or a happy blend of both characteristics.
“At heart I am a musician who has dabbled in electronics as a means to an end. When I started out electronics in music was really a rarefied luxury. Synthesizers were bulky and expensive and to use them you had to be either a rich rock star or affiliated to a big university or tied to a large record label with expensive recording studios. It was difficult to get access to those tools but when you did they were fun and exciting.
“But when I was starting out, post-punk, there were the beginnings of an underground electronic music movement – inspired by people like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream and we would build synthesizers out of kits. We would use diagrams out of the back of Popular Mechanics and in some cases, the music departments of universities would cast off their old circuit boards and you would hang around skips with a soldering iron ready to make off with anything that was usable. There was a pioneering spirit – a sense of adventure which was very exciting. It had a heroic tinge to it because you felt like a ham radio operator or a dissident writer or a French resistance fighter all rolled into one. I think that has largely gone now, simply because so many people are using electronics that most of the innovative stuff has been done.
In the old days you couldn’t help break new ground because electronic music itself was so new. No-one had wired together those bits of kit in exactly the way that you had or had twiddled the knobs in that sequence. You couldn’t help but be a pioneer but today the opposite is true. You have got hundreds of thousands of people spread across the world using basically the same bits of kit, so statistically it is unlikely you will introduce something no-one has seen or heard before.”
He said that despite his long association with electronics and computer software – it was his company Beatnik which developed the technology to place polyphonic ringtones in mobile phones – he is now currently pursuing more acoustic music. Earlier this year he performed at the Maverick Americana music festival at Easton Farm Park, sat in with Eddi Reader at the Snape Proms and is currently recording a new album at his home studio, which brings various collaborators like Mark Knopfler, Eddi and Imogen Heap together.
“If truth be told, the landscape of electronic music is so detailed and rich now that it is almost impossible to do anything new. My songs have always had verses, choruses and middle eights. Although I used synthesizers and electronics in the studio to create unusual atmospheres and interesting soundscapes, these songs could always have been played acoustically with a voice and a piano and for me today, that is the rarefied arena where you can make your mark.”
Dolby says if he lived anywhere else, his recording studio would be housed in a shed at the end of his garden but as he lives on the coast, he has adapted a ship’s lifeboat into a self-contained state-of-the-art studio which he acquired in 2007.
“It’s amazing. Apparently it was the lifeboat to a ship called The Queen Anne which, we believe, was sunk off Capetown in February 1943. The windows are all blacked out and its sound-proofed so I can get on and work but I have a periscope on board so I can look out and see what is going on. So if you see a periscope rising from a beached lifeboat, its me.”
This sort of innovation has always been the lifeblood of Dolby’s work. This weekend involves bringing together some of the world’s foremost musicians and technology experts to meet, talk, share experiences, enjoy performances, swap stories and just have people enthusing about the worlds of music and technology.
Many musicians and researchers spend their lives locked away pursing their own projects, Dolby said that TED was first dreamed up in the USA 20 years ago as means of bringing like-minded souls together. “And the beauty of it isn’t just the talks and the lectures. It’s about people just bumping into other people in the restaurant and having a chat. Making friends over coffee or a beer. The best talks aren’t those which are delivered to a prescribed script with a Powerpoint presentation. The best ones are structured enough to be interesting but loose enough to respond to the previous speaker or to comment on a performance they have just witnessed.”
Among the artists taking part at this first TEDX event are: Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, musician, composer and record producer William Orbit – producer of Madonna’s Ray of Light album – former Flying Lizards vocalist and now music writer David Troop, who has long been a leading member of the British experimental music scene, with recorded talks from former Talking Heads front man David Byrne, composer and sound designer Nick Ryan and the Human League’s Martyn Ware. French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie will be providing live performances as will Imogen Heap and cellist Peter Gregson.
TEDX: Aldeburgh Music is taking place today from 10am to 6pm. Then next weekend Aldeburgh Music is hosting Faster Than Sound featuring a new collaboration between Tod Machover, Peter Gregson and Ben Bloomberg.