Thomas Dolby Enlivens an Otherwise Flat ‘Brainwave’
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Pairing groundbreaking scientists with equally edgy creative types has been a winning formula for the Rubin Museum of Art’s “Brainwave” program, now in its 10th year and, this time around, dedicated to coming at the theme of “Perception” from a variety of angles. But not every pairing in the series comes up with the requisite chemistry to deliver on its intriguing premise. Sadly, such was the case with March 4’s promised look at “where music and technology intersect.”
Wired with a body mic and each given a side of the stage filled with tech toys specific to their fields of expertise, French neuroscientist, academic, and DJ Jacques Lavoisier interviewed musician, producer, and Nokia ringtone co-developer Thomas Dolby. Lavoisier garnered laughs by breaking the ice with a self-deprecating joke about his love of talking about himself “because I am French” — then continued, sans irony, to make good on that statement by cutting off Dolby in mid-anecdote, and cracking a number of crude jokes. “Is your mother hot?” he asked, to a youth brought on stage during the audience participation segment. The fact that the kid’s mom was an old school chum of his made the remark all the more creepy and sad.
Later, after showing a short film about a friend who was blinded, then paralyzed, Lavoisier made sure we knew his “Brainwave” speaking fee was waived in lieu of a donation to the man’s recovery fund. Karma wasn’t announced as a guest on the bill at this museum that celebrates the Himalayan region, yet one couldn’t help but feel the universe was at work when Lavoisier’s much-hyped brainwave-meets-music demonstration suffered a software glitch from which it never recovered.
The evening had one thing going for it, though: Dolby was the mirror image of his crass counterpart. Humble and candid during a 1980s flashback, the accomplished singer/songwriter recalled an episode of paralyzing anxiety upon seeing the venue (Radio City Music Hall!) for the opening night of his first American tour. Powerful stuff dispensed from a hastily summoned doctor’s hypodermic needle got him through that night — but the numb feeling “of being outside of myself,” he said, was nowhere near as challenging as the “failure was not an option” time when he found himself, after very little rehearsal, tasked with executing a flawless keyboard intro to childhood hero David Bowie’s set at Live Aid (witnessed by a global audience of one billion).
“The stakes are higher if you do it from the inside out,” he added, on the topic of answering audience expectations from a vulnerable place of sincerity found far beneath one’s protective persona. Looking back, he noted that many of his defining successes (music videos, cellphones) came from a natural “attraction to areas where there was no rulebook” or road map.
After layering a series of tracks and delivering a sizzling version of his 1984 hit “Hyperactive,” Dolby spoke about teaching a course in the Film and Media Studies program at Johns Hopkins University. Recognizing that the next great advancement in art or technology will likely be the work of his young students rather than himself, Dolby’s peaceful, even happy, acceptance of this notion yielded an inspiring takeaway: Perception may play its part in shaping reality, but it’s a positive interpretation of what we perceive that creates a reality we can live with.
Better luck next time: “Brainwave 2017” films, talks, and discussions happen through April at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 W. 17th St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.). For reservations and the full schedule of events, visit rubinmuseum.org. Visit thomasdolby.com for artist info.