As Chance Would Have It:
Thomas Makes Award-winning Music in California Mountain Retreat
By Ron Simpson
The name Chance Thomas started popping up in music trade magazines several years ago, where he was described as a California-based media composer and a longtime influential force in pushing the development of video game soundtracks to the next level.
Today he is identified with those who have reinvented the video-game soundtrack, introducing “hybridization” (the studio orchestra in combination with synthesized music). His music is significantly more complex than the elemental monophonic loops that accompanied those early video games.
Even when he was younger, Chance Thomas made a strong impression. Courteous and good looking, he arrived in Utah from Oklahoma in the 80s. He felt he was born to make music and to be around recording studios. Jim Anglesey was the first to recognize Chance as a kid with a future, and welcomed him, not only into his recording studio classes at BYU, but also into the world of his own professional recording, production, and live music projects.
Thomas ended up being a voracious music student at BYU, graduating not only with a terrific GPA, but also with Boshard and Barrett awards from the Music Department and a cum laude designation by his name.
Now Thomas’ name is well known enough that current BYU music students are buzzing about how a BYU graduate got the commission for the scores of the Lord of the Rings suite of games. He works out of a home studio near the gateway to Yosemite National Park.
Flying into Fresno, the green surface of the San Joaquin Valley looks like a patchwork quilt. As the plane descends, the green and brown squares become recognizable as pieces of an agricultural paradise with a network of straight, intersecting county roads. Some of the squares are family holdings with proud old tree-shaded houses in the corners of the land, and others have the look of the corporate farming enterprises that are gradually taking over that part of California.
The Fresno airport has been sort of a lucky stop for me, and, sure enough, my rental car is upgraded again. I set out along Highway 41, a modern freeway hurrying me across town into the foothills and eventually toward Yosemite. By West Fresno, 41 has shrunk to a two-lane highway cutting through an area of light industry and some low-key retail. And then, before you’ve thought about it, you’re undulating through gently-sloping vineyards punctuated by palm trees and stately deodar cedars. Finally the vineyards gradually give way to the wheat-colored Sierra foothills dotted with California’s dark green oaks as you cross the Madera Canal and the highway climbs and winds north toward its Sierra Nevada destination.
Chance’s e-mailed directions are good, and a couple of turns off 41 and I’m there. Sensitive to the intrusion of a strange car, Chance bounds out into the drive, directing me in. I say hi to Pam and the kids, who leave us free to go upstairs where Chance has his spacious, well-equipped loft studio.
I have to work at not feeling jealous: the south wall of the studio is glass, looking out into California’s legendary sequoia forests. I’m thinking Edvard Grieg. When I visited the little lakeside cabin at Troldhaugen where Grieg did his composing on a modest upright piano beside a picture window, I thought, “Who wouldn’t get inspired?” Same thought walking through Ainola, the comfortable forest-and-meadow retreat in the Tuusulajrvi lake district of Finland that calmed the spirit and enabled the creative life of composer Jean Sibelius.
Posters and award plaques on the walls make Chance’s major-project achievements fairly obvious, but he had much humbler beginnings. Chance regales me with an improbable tale of auditioning for the cruise ships as a single, with produced tracks playing along with his electronic keyboard at a time just before such technology would be considered easy, or even expected.
“We really like you,” someone from the audition table tells him. “But your act is just not quite enough. Visually, that is. Don’t you know any girl singers?”
And so Chance, already married to Pam, rushes home, rehearses frantically with his bride (who has never ever sung or performed in public before), they go back, audition again, and Pam proves to be that something extra. Cruise ships pay musicians well, and the Thomases logged 128 cruises before moving on.
As a bishop, Chance Thomas has to be a little bit larger than life for his sprawling congregation. For one thing, he has won an Oscar. For another, he drives a throaty-voiced, black Dodge Viper convertible. Not exactly your normal bishop’s ride. And to the local LDS kids and their friends, he’s an outdoor hero, climbing Yosemite’s daunting Half Dome at least once a year.
Yes, Bishop Thomas definitely takes advantage of his surroundings, with hikes and other outings on a regular basis often accompanied by his family or by ward groups. He likes extreme sports of every variety, and is credited with 25 bungee jumps, presumably not (but wouldn’t it be cool if they had been undertaken) with his ward’s high priests.
As we slide into some professional talk, it turns out I’ve missed a significant feature of Chance Thomas‘ career. “So where do you record?” I ask.
“Predominantly LA East,” is the unexpected answer, mentioning the familiar West Salt Lake City studio location. “I’ve never stopped recording in Utah.”
Wow. And he’s been decorated by virtually every industry organization that touches upon or intersects with the game industry. By now he has an Oscar and an Emmy, and has been honored by the Aurora Awards, the Telly Awards, the Addy Awards, the Vault Network Awards, and others. A tireless promoter of game music as a legitimate profession, Chance is also widely known for leading the successful campaign which brought game music into the Grammy Awards in the late 1990’s.
Thomas expresses his gratitude for the jumpstart given his career by the traditional music experiences in the rigorous degree requirements at BYU, and turns to the computer. “I mentioned I’d made a presentation to Berklee College of Music,” he says. “In case you’re interested, these are the materials.”
He pulls up a PowerPoint presentation, and launches into an explanation of the matrix concept of scoring game soundtracks. I hadn’t thought of it before, but of course any choice option the gamer might select would force the soundtrack to interconnect seamlessly with all of the possible preceding underscore segments. Tricky indeed.
Thomas’ Berklee presentation was entitled “Game Music Today,” and was a two-hour master class broadcast from the third-floor theater at Dolby Labs in Burbank to a gathering assembled at Berklee in Boston, but there was also a live audience present with Thomas in the Burbank theater, made up of Berklee alumni now relocated in the LA music industry. Topics ranged from creating an adaptive music score (the matrix system mentioned above) to surviving in the turbulent world of interactive games. Berklee Music Production and Engineering chairman Rob Jazko who attended the event called Chance a natural educator, and described the event as one of their best-ever guest master classes.
We shoot some pictures, go downstairs to chat some more with Pam, and soon it’s time to go. The day’s interview has shown that this career is indeed a remarkable one, with projects all the way from Sony Imageworks, Columbia Pictures, or Vivendi-Universal, to the Homefront Series for the LDS Church. But nothing is perfect – not even the gateway-to-heaven California forest. Chance and Pam bemoan the high time-and-money cost of promoting Chance’s career in LA without constantly being there. The suggestion is floated that the Thomas family might not be members of the Oakhurst Ward forever.
Driving back down the mountain, I think of some of the game projects Chance has worked on that BYU music students have probably seen or even played: Middle-Earth Online, Earth & Beyond, The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Ring, The Hobbit, Treason of Isengard, The Two Towers, The Fellowship of the Ring (some of these soundtracks were offered individually, and surpassed an astonishing one million music downloads); Paraworld; Robota: Reign of Machines; Unreal II; The Haunted Mansion; Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire, and so on.
Suddenly I’m remembering a trip to LucasFilms Games Division in Novato, California, just a little over ten years ago. Jack Sorenson was the thoughtful and articulate young vice president who hosted our BYU faculty/student delegation, which included myself and then-student Tyler Castleton from the music side. Sorenson had come from the music industry to his post at Lucas. In our final Q&A session with him, and in answer to my request for a profile of the typical music creator on a Lucas game project, Sorenson said, “Pretty much we’re talking about a generalist, a kid from Berkeley, UCLA, or Stanford with some kind of liberal arts degree who is a computer nerd with music as a hobby…”
But a new creative breath was about to blow into the video game industry, totally reinventing and dignifying the music soundtrack. It nullified part of Jack Sorenson’s cast of characters for the future of that industry and forced a major rewrite of the music-maker profile.
And it seems to have happened at least partly by Chance – and turned out just about as Chance would have it.
2005 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.