Like a visual metronome, a repeating flash of light would invade the childhood bedroom of musician Thomas Dolby.
The light emanated from the Orford Ness lighthouse, in East Anglia, Great Britain. For the now 55-year-old Dolby, that broad metrical beam proved a searing memory.
“The lighthouse used to be one of the brightest in the British Isles,” Dolby said. “It was in my bedroom every five seconds, and inevitably, it worked its way into my music.”
That music spawned such ’80s-era hits as “She Blinded Me With Science” and others.
These days, Dolby is blinded by the memory of the lighthouse, especially since the structure will soon meet its doom. Like most lighthouses, its service has been eclipsed by other technology and it closed in June. Worse yet, erosion is eating away at the low-lying land that surrounds the lighthouse foundation – in some cases by as much as 200 yards in one evening.
Dolby’s quest to document the lighthouse’s final chapter forms a curious documentary film and music show, titled “The Invisible Lighthouse.” That show will be presented at the Crest Theatre Saturday with Dolby and sound artist Blake Leyh.
Dolby will be manning two keyboards onstage in front of a screen and providing narration while Leyh will be working as a live foley artist underscoring the sound effects of the documentary.
For Dolby, the show is a very intimate tale and a tribute to memory. But it’s also a performance about place.
The area around the lighthouse has been off-limits to the public for some time because of several unexploded World War II-era bombs buried around it. “It’s a very eerie place – very atmospheric,” said Dolby.
History pervades the island (the lighthouse area was once the broadcasting point for the BBC’s World Service). And so does the unexplained – the lighthouse is 2 miles from Rendelsham Forest, where one of the most infamous UFO sightings was reported. The sightings took place in 1980 by U.S. servicemen stationed at the nearby Woodbridge air force base.
All of these figure large in “Invisible Lighthouse.”
“The show scratches the surface of something profound – which is about a childhood and about memory and the unreliability of it,” Dolby said. “We amplify and fill our memory to suit.”
It’s also a show that includes Dolby’s music. Included are six Dolby songs – from modern-day compositions to works from his early ’80s catalog. “They are all songs that have been heavily influenced by the area,” Dolby said.
Songs include “Windpower,” “Cloudburst at Shingle Street” and “Europa and the Pirate Twins.”
The project started several months ago when Dolby decided to document the lighthouse’s closure.
“I did not understand what the lighthouse meant to me until I found out we were going to lose it,” he said. “Just because they’re obsolete does not mean we should let them crumble.”
It proved no easy task – the authorities in charge of the lighthouse did not cooperate. Dolby decided to forge ahead without proper clearance.
“I decided to make a film without knowing what form it would take,” he said.
He started by shooting video on his iPhone while narrating. The video quality was wanting, so Dolby hired a professional cameraman. He nixed that idea once he saw the footage – it was missing the spontaneity of what he had shot on the phone. “We lost the confessional quality,” he explained.
Dolby decided to do the shooting on his own. He bought some GoPro cameras and other accessories – including a mini helicopter equipped with a camera that he learned to fly remotely from his phone.
He then bought a high-speed boat. With all of these, Dolby made a clandestine raid on the barren lighthouse property. He turned the footage into the climax of the documentary.
“This is not a documentary like a David Attenborough or Ken Burns documentary,” said Dolby. “It’s more a tone poem, with music and words that flow into one another.”
A crucial part of the show is the presence of Leyh. In the world of film and television scoring, Leyh is well known. He was the sound designer on James Cameron’s “The Abyss” and later became the sound supervisor for the HBO series “The Wire” and “Treme.”
“I think of myself as a storyteller that uses sound and music to tell stories,” Leyh said. For “Invisible Lighthouse,” Leyh eschewed music sampling. Instead, he uses myriad musical and found objects to perform the score.
“This project was unique in that it allowed me not to think about sound vs. music, because Thomas has combined the two,” said Leyh. “In the show, I’m doing everything from walking footsteps, which is the most literal kind of sound work, to the other end of the extreme where I’m also playing guitar and other things that are quite musical.”
In some ways, “Invisible Lighthouse” is at once a highly technological and a low-tech show, Dolby said. That’s a telling statement for a musician who has delved into the technological marketplace when he started Beatnik Inc., which licensed technology to help Nokia develop ring tone software.
“There is always a technological aspect to what I do – I like to dive in and experiment with new technology where no one has learned how to use it or apply it yet,” Dolby said. “However, I would say that this show is quite organic, really.”
Nonetheless, Dolby feels it is as novel a work as he has ever created.
“I’m not the first person to perform a live score in front of a screen,” he said. “However, it is quite unusual that it’s the filmmaker himself that is up there doing it and also telling a very personal story.”