SALT LAKE CITY — Jan. 3 marks 126 years since Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien was born, and Utah composer Chance Thomas plans to commemorate the occasion by wearing his elf cloak that day.
“(It’s) the old professor’s birthday,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to do something to celebrate.”
Thomas, a Brigham Young University School of Music graduate, has been writing and directing the scores for video games based on Tolkien’s literature, including “The Hobbit,” “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The War of the Ring” and The __Lord of the Rings Online series, for nearly 20 years.
“Everybody is familiar with the Peter Jackson films and the music from those films,” Thomas said. “I’m the other Lord of the Rings composer.”
The inspiration for Thomas’ work stems from his early intensive research of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, during which the composer marked all references to music or sound with sticky notes.
“As you imagine yourself in that fictional world in whatever circumstance you’re about to score, music starts to come, and you get these ideas and you get these impressions, and then you can kind of play with them in your mind,” Thomas said.
He then created a style guide for his compositions defining the instrumental palette, home key, vocal ranges and textures, harmonic progressions and melodic motifs of each of the races in the literature, including hobbits, elves, dwarves, men and the races of evil.
“There’s always a thread of hope, there’s always a thread of beauty and as a composer, I try to find that; I try to bring that out, even if I’m scoring a situation or a circumstance which is dark, hopeless, overbearing,” Thomas said.
The composer recently released a 10th anniversary soundtrack commemorating some of the most beloved songs from the Lord of the Rings Online series.
“First of all, I went to the songs that the players seemed to love the most, they had to be on there,” Thomas said. “And then I wanted to tell a story. I wanted the music to take you on this epic adventure. … So as I put the music together, it was designed to give you a journey of imagination through Middle-earth.”
Thomas lived in California during the first 10 years of his work composing for Tolkien-based video games, but all of the music was recorded and edited in Utah using only musicians from the state, including the Utah Film Orchestra and Choir. He said he has sensed that Utah has a special connection to Lord of the Rings.
“A lot of the musicians that I’ve worked with have read the books themselves, and they love the literature and they’ve loved playing on these scores,” Thomas said.
The musicians’ participation in recording the music also enriches their relationships with their children who have played the video games.
“They tell their kids, ‘Yeah, I’m going to play a session for Lord of the Rings Online.’ (And their kids reply,) ‘What? Oh, you’re so cool, mom,’” Thomas said. “They think that’s just the greatest, so that’s been fun to see.”
Utah’s rich tradition of music has also enhanced the Tolkien-based compositions, according to Thomas.
“So many people in Utah grow up singing or playing an instrument, and I think that has helped to create this rich culture of outstanding musicianship that we have in the talent pool here in Salt Lake and Provo and Ogden,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ compositions also feature the vocals of David Osmond, who sang the credit music for “The Lord of the Rings Online: Mordor.” The song, “Ever On,” is based on a poem from Tolkien’s literature titled “The Old Walking Song,” featuring the words, “The Road goes ever on and on.”
“I took that poem and that phrase, ‘Ever on,’ and I made a folky/pop song out of it to commemorate 10 years of this game going on and on and on,” Thomas said. “In the books, the story sort of ends at Mordor … but the approach that Lord of the Rings Online has taken is that, ‘No, the story goes ever on and on.’”