Alumnus Duncan Thum forges path into Hollywood

Two-time Thornton graduate Duncan Thum earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities and a master’s degree in screen scoring. He is known for his compositions in film and television. Photo courtesy of Duncan Thum.

Duncan Thum, multi-instrumentalist and Emmy-nominated composer, started his musical journey under his father’s piano, listening to his father create music every day.

“I have very clear memories of experiencing music — the milieu of sound and emotion and color were an early spark for the imagination,” Thum said. “That planted a seed for what would be my whole adventure in studying music at USC and eventually becoming a composer.”

Thum initially attended the Thornton School of Music for his undergraduate education as a studio guitar major. After exploring myriad classes and activities, Thum eventually graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in humanities with an emphasis in music to fully devote himself to composing and other interests.

“Different styles of thinking and different ways of applying creative process really helped me as a musician,” Thum said. “I explored the whole plethora of arts, humanities and sciences available to us as USC students and that really broadened my horizon and fed back into this process of focusing on writing music.”

Less than two years out of USC with his master’s degree in screen scoring, Thum found himself on the Television Academy’s top-six list as a rookie Hollywood composer. For Thum, each composing process starts the same — with a crisis.

“The blank slate is always daunting,” Thum said. “Whatever successes you had with a past project are gone. You have to find that purpose again.”

Thum takes that blank slate and builds a world through music by working with the filmmakers and directors, examining the personalities of the characters and the theme to identify parts of the story that can only be conveyed through music.

Over the past few years, the USC alumnus has composed for a number of films including Dear Apple, Off the Rails and Dealt. He is best known for his work  on the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, which received Primetime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series in 2015 and 2016. Thum started working on the project shortly after receiving his master’s degree in screen scoring from Thornton.

“You get to jump around to all these different countries and you have to find the collusion between these different worlds,” Thum said. “Your curiosity leads you through these different musical revelations.”

Thum has also composed for I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, a documentary about electronic dance music  artist Steve Aoki, who went his own way instead of following in the footsteps of his father, the founder of Benihana.

“It was a fun story to tell through music,” Thum said. “You get into the psychological element of heartache, of finding your own identity and of working hard and trying to innovate.”

In addition to the next set of episodes for Chef’s Table, Thum is working on a feature film called The Iron Orchard, a story about a 1960s West Texan man who makes a fortune by striking oil. He is also in the beginning stages of collaboration with a pop musician and considering creating his own solo album.

“Whenever we are involved with anything we are passionate about, it can be so easy to hamstring yourself and think that your project isn’t good enough,” Thum said, when asked what advice he would give his college self. “You’re creating this intense pressure to find an answer when really the answer is something that evolves slowly and you have to give it room to manifest itself.”