Middle Earth Music

Very few modern things have captured our collective imaginations as J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy "The Lord of the Rings". The world of Middle Earth is so cram-packed with depth and atmosphere that The Professor himself generated background information, whole languages, and geo-political history that filled about twenty times as many pages as the three books themselves.

Scattered throughout the books are references to poetry and song that help our imagination do its job. So it is only fitting that a series of computer games based on Tolkien’s books have music that is directly drawn from this treasure trove.

That is just what Vivendi Universal Games has done. When they needed music to go with their new line of Middle Earth games, they went with the best. Chance Thomas has been writing music for computer games for over a decade. He has done everything else, including some McDonald’s commercials. His music helped win "The Chubb Chubbs" an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Heck, he would have gotten a Nobel Prize by now if those wacky Swedes ever gave one out for music (or if physics could be set to music"or something).

was privileged to meet with Chance at this past E3 and hear some of the music he had cooked up for Vivendi’s line of Tolkien-based games. Being a big fan of Middle Earth for the past three decades, I wasn’t going to be swayed easily by any half-baked effort. What I heard was incredible. Chance managed to capture the very feel of the books in his music. I experienced the heat of the forge where Sauron made the One Ring, the cool depth of the Dwarven homes, and the high spirits of the Hobbits in their Shire. I must have looked like an idiot as I stood there for the fifteen minutes with my jaw on the floor.

Music like this can only enhance one’s enjoyment of the game. Hear some for yourself: http://www.hugesound.com/AUDIOdemos.htm.

Once I picked my jaw up again, I managed to ask Chance a few questions about his music, Tolkien’s works, and how music fits into the game development process.

HUGEsound – http://www.hugesound.com.com

Vivendi Universal Games – http://www.vugames.com

GiN: Tell us a bit about how you got started in the music industry.

Thomas: Sierra Online brought me into the game business in the mid-90’s. I started as a Musician and was eventually promoted to Senior Music Producer for the company. During that time I worked on THE REALM, QUEST FOR GLORY V: DRAGON FIRE, SWAT 2, and the prototypes for NAVY SEALS and JRR TOLKIEN’S MIDDLE-EARTH.

GiN: Have you always been a large fan of Tolkien? When did you first start reading him?

Thomas: Tolkien is the man"! I love his literature so much. Like many people, I first read Tolkien when I was a kid and enjoyed it immensely at that time. But when I read it again as an adult, I had a completely different level of appreciation for it. There is such an enormous amount of craft in his work, and only as an adult did I start to see the scope of his achievement. It’s an amazing accomplishment at so many different levels. And it’s still fun to read too!

GiN: When you started this project, were you told about any of the games they would be using your music in?

Thomas: Oh yes. I read design docs, had meetings with all the developers and producers, and even developed the themes with the developer’s input. As I would finish fleshing out a theme, I would make an MP3 and send a copy to the other two Tolkien Directors, Daniel Greenberg (content) and Mark Aro (art). Also to Scott Cuthbertson and Vijay Lakshman, the senior management at VUG, and to each of the game producers, studio heads and audio staff at each development studio. They would send me comments, which I would try to incorporate into the themes as appropriate, and then move on to the next theme. It was a very cooperative approach to thematic development and just about everyone pitched in.

GiN: How many references of song and story did you find to use from the books? How many did you end up using?

Thomas: Over 60 different songs can be found throughout the pages of the Tolkien literature. 60 different songs! Plus there are literally dozens of additional passages which include musical references and descriptions. To illustrate, here are three:

"Noises of trumpets and horns, pipes and flutes, and other musical instruments" of perfect make and enchanting tones."
The Fellowship of the Ring

I wish you could have heard their song as they marched" A great deal of the song had no words, and was much like music of horns and drums. It was very exciting."
The Two Towers

"He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner" for he thought to make a great shield wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark."
The Return of the King

The themes I wrote for the Lord of the Rings game series all have their foundation in the literature. In fact, the opening theme and climax for The Overture of Man are both based on the last above passage. As the piece begins, we are thrust at once into the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, where Eomer and the Rohirrim have charged deep into the ranks of the Haradrim. The undaunted mumakil and hordes of Osgiliath surge forward to surround them, and with the Corsairs of Umbar sailing swiftly up the river, the ranks of men fall into doubt and despair. In the midst of this maelstrom Eomer, the King of the Mark, rallies the hosts of men to valor for one last fateful charge by letting the horns blow, as we read above. Then he cries out:

Out of doubt, out of dark" Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!"

It was the turning point of the battle, and the fate of Middle-earth hung in the moment. The race of men rose to a new prominence, new strength and noble majesty, and mankind finally came into its own as heir and protectorate of Middle-earth. This is so completely epic, it defines the term! This is great inspiration for writing music.

So The Overture of Man opens with this powerful rally of the horns and trumpets. Then in the restatement of the theme the choir erupts singing a setting of Eomer’s war cry adapted for song. By the way, the choir in our recording is a choral section from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and they are just fabulous.

As another example of referencing the text in my themes, we read in The Hobbit of Thorin playing a golden harp strung with silver. So in The Song of the Dwarves, I don’t use a classical harp, a troubadour harp, or even a Celtic harp. I use a sample of a wire strung harp, which is a "golden harp strung with silver". It has a sound that is totally unique among harps, a use that is totally unique among the races of Middle-earth, and thus is truly authentic to the world Tolkien described.

One more example. In The Rise and Fall of Sauron, we thought it would be really cool to use some of the Sauron’s Black Speech. Thanks to Kristofor Mellroth at Surreal and Chris Pierson at Turbine for helping bring this idea to life. We ended up using the inscription from the Ring of Power, and I set it to music:

"Ash nazg durbatuluk,
Ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatuluk
Agh burzum-ishi krimpatul."

It’s sung twice in the theme, once with men only singing in a profoundly low octave, and the second time with full choir, including sopranos just wailing on the top end. Again, we used the choral section from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the recording, and they were just WAY too creepy sounding. I said to them, "What’s your choir director going to say when you tell him you’ve been singing the Black Speech of Sauron?" Most of them laughed, but a few started fidgeting and shifting around nervously". It was good fun.

GiN: Did you reference any of the supplementary works, such as The Silmarillion, or did you just stick to the Lord of the Rings books?

Thomas: Vivendi-Universal’s license is based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion is not included.

GiN: What exactly is the process for selecting your music to go in specific games? Do you have any input as to what themes are used where?

Thomas: With each developer I have an initial meeting, then follow up with a general Music Style Guide and a Themes Style Guide. Then we have phone conferences and exchange a lot of email. Through that process, we end up with a use of themes in each game that all of us are excited about and will hopefully be thrilling and memorable for the players..

GiN: How hard was it to get singers from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to sing such lines as "Ash nazg gimbatul"? Did they know what they were singing?

Thomas: Not a problem. The English translation of that isn’t anything too sinister anyway. The line you quoted simply means, "One Ring to find them." Interestingly, most of the singers were HUGE Lord of the Rings fans anyway and knew what it meant already. Still, it’s just the thought of a bunch of clean-living, good-hearted Latter-day Saints singing the Black Speech of Sauron, the Dark Lord, that gives the whole thing a delicious kind of ironic twist. Especially since they were so good at it"!

GiN: I know choosing the right instrument to be the voice of the character is very important. Tell us why you picked some of the instruments you did.

Thomas: The main instrument in The Age of The Elves is the harp. Many references to the elves and their music mentions a harp. For example, ""the elvish folks were harping"" and, "..behind him stood Galadriel" and in her hand she held a harp"". The Elves theme is also highlighted with a beautiful clear voice, mirroring this excerpt from the text, ""a single clear voice rose in song"the sweet syllables of the elvish voice fell like clear jewels of blended word and melody""

From Appendix A in Return of the King we learn that Hobbits are an ancient race, more ancient than was commonly reported. So The Hobbits’ Tale is introduced on the Hammer Dulcimer, an instrument of primeval origin. The main theme is next restated by the more commonly expected ensemble of Celtic instruments, most of which are itemized at the description of Bilbo’s birthday party.

For The Song of the Dwarves, the main instrument was the voice, ""chanting in a deep voice" deep-throated singing of the dwarves"", but it also features clarinet and bass viol. Again from the text, "[They] brought back" clarinets" [and] viols as big as themselves""

All of the themes are based on similar research from the text. It really is quite authentic.

GiN: Do you have a particular theme that you are especially proud of?

Thomas: I love each one for different reasons. The Age of the Elves is melodic, magical, and beautiful. The Hobbits Tale is endearing, fun, surprisingly martial in its combat section, and tender hearted at the end. The Overture of Man has immense musical range and the most virtuosity in the performances of the players. The Dwarves Song has perhaps the most memorable melody and most variations of a single theme. And The Rise and Fall of Sauron is the most atmospheric and evocative of the pieces. I love each one for different reasons!

GiN: Did you play any particular instruments yourself for the recordings?

Thomas: I played in each part of the score individually on a keyboard, including percussion parts and special effects. Once the parts were played in, I used a computer program to generate the sheet music for the recording sessions. Then the professional musicians and singers performed the parts. I did manage to sing along with the choirs while conducting, and some of that may have leaked onto the recording"

GiN: Do you have any other projects in the works?

Thomas: Yes. I am very excited about a massively multiplayer online game project tentatively titled, Aridaen Gates. It’s a fantastic development team of veterans from Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Shadowbane, and a ton of single player games. One guy has shipped about 70 games. The team has made a tremendous commitment to the music in the game, and the current music design calls for nearly four hours of original score assets.

In addition, we are taking the time to figure out how to make the audio most effectively adaptive to both the game fiction and the player’s actions in the game. It’s a little mind boggling actually, but a thrilling challenge to participate in. I wish I could tell you more about it, but management is wisely keeping a pretty tight lid on things at the moment. But stay tuned, this is going to be a good one"

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