The Other Lord of the Rings Composer: An interview with Chance Thomas

Howard Shore's videogame counterpart poured years of intensive study into Tolkien's worlds before he scored The Lord of the Rings Online.

I’m not a Tolkein guy. Lord of the Rings is one of those fandom dead zones for me. That’s why I wasn’t sure what to do with Chance Thomas. He’s the guy who scored Lord Of The Rings Online.

To this end, Thomas spent a solid chunk of his life expressing fanatical dedication to the craft by researching everything J.R.R. Tolkein ever wrote down about the concept of sounds. He spent years intensely researching the books, pulling out everything professor Tolkien wrote about music, song, voices, instruments, even the effect that music had on people and environments. He collected these references, sorted through them, organized and then distilled all of his research into a 26-page document which he called “The Tolkien Music Style Guide.” For each of the 5 key races in Middle-earth, his Style Guide lists specific instrumental palettes, vocal ranges, stylistic guidelines, even home keys— all based on references and inferences drawn directly from the text.

What a cool dedication to a thing I could never understand. So of course I wanted to meet this guy and ask why… why did you approach the work like this, but also just sort of a general musician-to-musician “Why?”

Thomas's well-thumbed LOTR paperbacks, stuffed with the composer's notes. Thomas's well-thumbed LOTR paperbacks, stuffed with the composer's notes.

Before the interview, I spent a few days diving into Thomas’s work. I discovered that I actually own a book he wrote about scoring. I’ve heard him in dozens of other places: he’s the guy who made modern videogame scoring what it is, and I think he might be a genius. Also, this is the dude behind soundtracks for Unreal II, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, King Kong: The Game, Avatar: The Game, D&D Online, Might and Magic Online, DOTA 2, and even the Left Behind tie-in game.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

ZAM: How do you get started down this videogame scoring path?

Chance Thomas: Do you remember Sierra Online?

Hell yes. Space Quest forever, man.

They were doing King’s Quest and Quest for Glory and I was there with there when one of the execs secured a contract to do an online Lord of the Rings game. And the first thought was, well, this had better be authentic because otherwise 150 million players are going to call you on it.

150 million seems to also indicate that this was the biggest thing Sierra had ever done.

Exactly. So my first move was to just go grab all the paperback books, and I read through them while underlining anything and everything that related to sound. How the music would influence people. How vocal tones existed. From that, I extrapolated a set of rules for what I thought music would sound like if Tolkein had been in charge. What kind of a harp would an elf play? What would a dwarf play? What would be the home key for this world?

So, I pulled that stuff together and only then did I start trying to put together the sounds of a Tolkein universe. Uh, and my first works— I hope the files? The digital files? I hope they’ve been burned. Or destroyed in the most painful way. Because here was my goal: when a specific piece of music plays, you know that you’re in The Shire. Or whatever the location may be. That anyone would be transported, and if the music didn’t make that work by itself, then it didn’t work.

Was there a specific moment where it clicked?

I tried some stuff in the early days and then Sierra got shut down. The remnants of the team moved up to Washington and I wasn’t going to move to a place with 69 days of sunshine a year, and right afterwards they lost the license. So I was forced to move on to other things. But then when I came back, you know how stuff in the back of your head can marinate? That’s what happened.

In your other gigs, do you always do this ridiculous amount of source material obsession, or do you know when a paycheck is a paycheck?

King Kong: The Game was another one that I treated this way. I’m just a geek and I’ll always do this kind of thing. I tried to create something that harked back to the original score. And in Seattle I found a very small, tight, bright room. I brought modern film score sensibilities in while also making it close, and in your face. X-Men wasn’t that for me. I was called in last minute to unravel the DNA and you aren’t always given, you know, multiple years to give to something like that.

You do a lot of game scores for licensed projects… what kind of feelings do you carry with you when you see the movie versions of these things done by other people? What are your opinions on, say, the Howard Shore Lord of the Rings soundtracks?

Brilliant. He really got it. I mean he nerded out too. He did his research. When I first started on this path, it was 1998, so long before the Jackson films. When I went to see Fellowship, having come up with my own LOTR music, I have to admit it felt weird. I’d done my take. But if you listen to the movie score soundtracks and the LOTRO soundtracks, they’re very different takes but they’re cut from the same cloth. Then there’s the Peter Jackson King Kong

Let me make this statement about games I’ve scored that have films. Every one of them were done independently from the film score. In every case, my score was completed before the film score was even started. But people think I just re-record movie scores. And that’s frustrating, I’ll be honest, because people appreciate originality. The one exception was Avatar, where I worked on the game and the film and studied under the composer because there was an idea that the game and movie should have scores that transition across each other seamlessly. I went to James Horner and got his theme and work in progress music and then made my Pandora separately.

You’ve been in games for long enough now, the way it is used in games has changed. Music used to be very static and now it is triggered by events and the player. How does this change how you compose?

My first full orchestral score was Quest for Glory and I tried to explain to the team how we could do more immersive music work in games. The team said, “Yeah, that’s great but we don’t have time to do any of this.” So one night I bought the head programmer a hot pizza and brought in some drinks and said that I had some ideas. A few minutes later, he was at the white board designing a digital audio stream based music principles and techniques I’d come up with. I did some heavy lifting but couldn’t do the programming, and he put it in the game.

What do you think of other Lord of the Rings games soundtracks?

My friend Gary [Schyman] made the soundtrack to [Shadows of Modor] and I haven’t played the game but I love playing the soundtrack. I think it’s great. And I couldn’t even send him the style guide I put together because the game company owns that document I put together. The creative arts are kind of brutal in work-for-hire agreements and then you can never quote from you work or use it in any other context.

More than a few videogame composers no doubt have Chance Thomas's book on their shelves. More than a few videogame composers no doubt have Chance Thomas's book on their shelves.

You are also the reason that games soundtracks are in the Grammys now. How did that come about?

In the 90s there was no category for games work and I started pushing it on the people in charge. One guy actually said to me: “Games music? Like Donkey Kong?” And I was like… No. Not like that. Full orchestras with voices and strings and woodwinds and everything else. So we were at a Grammy party and I brought one of my soundtracks up to the DJ and made him play my music and then explained it to them. Now we have three categories of game soundtrack awards.

I love that you got soundtracks recognized by your music peers by really ruining the dancefloor at a fancy party. That seems only fitting for nerd culture.

Yeah.

How much of this new re-release is from your work or is this just the material hitting ten years?

It is from my very first release through eight or nine different expansions. You can hear the entire collection of what players have told me are their most beloved tracks and I’m re-arranged them in a way to create the most exciting LOTR adventure I could possibly create. It’s a perfect headphone album that will take you away on quite a fantastical adventure.

The 26 song double-album The Lord of the Rings Online 10th Anniversary Commemorative original videogame soundtrack is available now through all online music services.