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Energy Animates Duo : Tom Chase and Steve Rucker compose for their group, Chi, as well as films and even cartoon shows

<i> Don Heckman writes frequently about music for Calendar</i>

Quick! What do the Chipmunks, the Gummi Bears and Tai Chi Chuan have in common? Nothing, you say? Think again.

Let’s start with the third. A new recording from the contemporary music group Chi, “Sun Lake,” hit the stores in early October. It’s the third release from this increasingly popular duo, named after the Chinese word for “energy.”

Unknown to most of its fans, however, Chi is only one of the activities of guitarist Tom Chase and keyboardist Steve Rucker. When they’re not working on Chi’s music, Chase and Rucker are writing music for the zany shenanigans of such cartoon characters as the Chipmunks, the Gummi Bears and the Real Ghostbusters.

Rarely seen in live performance, Chase and Rucker--as Chi--will appear at Le Cafe on Dec. 9. This Christmas, a new animated special from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin company--"A Wish for Wings That Work,” based on Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County” comic strip--will feature music by the duo. In the meantime, their television scoring can be heard Saturday mornings in “The Pirates of Dark Water” on ABC, and in the syndicated “The Gummi Bears,” “The Chipmunks” and “Duck Tales.”

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The modern, efficient-looking Chase-Rucker studio is perched on a hilly street just beyond the eastern border of the Universal Studios lot. Like many of Los Angeles’ active composers, Chase and Rucker work surrounded by a Space Age collection of synthesizers, samplers and sound control devices.

“This is it,” says the 6 1/2-foot-tall Chase, gesturing around the second-story control room. “This is where it happens--everything from cartoons to features to, well, however you want to define the music of Chi.”

The two San Fernando Valley boys graduated in 1967 from Ulysses S. Grant High School but didn’t know each other at the time. Rucker went on to associations with, among others, Chuck Berry, Helen Reddy and Whitney Houston, and Chase served as musical director for Eddie Rabbitt and Ronnie Milsap and wrote TV scores for “Hill Street Blues” and “The Greatest American Hero.”

“We were introduced around 1982 by a mutual friend, but we didn’t really get together on anything until the next year, when both of us had already been fairly active as composers,” said Rucker.

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“Yeah,” Chase said with a laugh, “he hired me as a ghostwriter.”

“It was typical of the kind of stuff we were doing in those days,” continued Rucker, “a project with a Japanese guy who had a lot of money and wanted to do all the great Hollywood movie themes of all time in a five-record set.

“I looked at this list that included everything from ‘Tara’s Theme’ from ‘Gone With the Wind’ to the theme from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ and I knew I’d never be able to do it all myself. So I took all the ones I wanted.”

“And called me up to do all the ones with the lame harmonies,” said Chase.

Part of the undertaking was recorded in Korea because, Chase said, “you can get an acre of string players there real cheap.” He traveled on to London to finish the job.

Then a weird thing happened.

“By the time I got done writing these huge arrangements to all the tunes Steve didn’t want to write,” said Chase, “my brain was fried. It was summertime, and I love the ocean, so I immediately took off for Hawaii to do a little serious relaxing.”

Rucker, meanwhile, had wrapped up his London conducting and was ready to head back to California.

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“Then, just on impulse,” he said, “I asked the travel agent what it would cost me to go via Maui instead of going right home. He said, ‘Fifty bucks,’ and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’

“The next day, without any planning at all, Tom and I just ran into each other in Lahaina. Amazing. But it was the first real chance we had to sit down and talk for a few days. We hung out together for a while, and I listened to this huge guy playing this minuscule little ukulele and thought, ‘This guy’s a blast.’ ”

“We realized,” adds Chase, “that ‘Hey, we’re both frustrated composers, working for other guys, doing other people’s movie themes; why don’t we get something going together?’ ”

It was almost the start of something big, but it took a while; the initial few years were financially lean. Beginning with a small rented studio, an eight-track tape recorder and a Fairlight synthesizer--a functional if not exactly world-class setup--they worked and borrowed and worked some more. The assignments were varied: commercials for Dole Pineapple and Nike, a 12-minute mixed-media package for the 1984 Olympics, feature films such as “And God Created Woman” and “976-Evil.”

Four years ago, Chase and Rucker got serious with the establishment of their current studio. The two-story facility allows them to use a lavish assortment of synthesizers and a new state-of-the-art Waveframe--a digital orchestra in a box--as well as to mix and edit their music to tape and film. The latter capacity is particularly attractive to composers who often discover that handing their completed tapes over to independent editors can result in unpleasant changes in their efforts.

Close business and creative relationships have been known to cause negative vibes and acrimonious lawsuits. Not so with Chase and Rucker.

“I think the answer is that we both make big efforts to listen to the other guy,” said Chase. “Give him plenty of chance to say what he has to say. We’re both competitive, but I think we’ve both kind of used each other as a tool to grow.”

“Absolutely,” Rucker said. “A healthy partnership breeds a healthy competition. When things are 50-50, you don’t want to feel that you’re letting your end of the bargain down.”

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Chi came about, in part, because Chase and Rucker needed an uncluttered creative outlet to balance their commercial activities.

“We wanted to do something for ourselves,” Rucker said. “Instead of fitting music to a project, we wanted to just sit around, do our own tunes and see what happened. The amazing thing was that it happened so fast.

“We had six tunes reasonably together very quickly. Then, when we were talking to a record company about some of our movie sound tracks, we said, ‘Well, listen to these pieces, too.’

“They were starting a jazz label at the same time, so they released the album--'Pacific Rim'--and, lo and behold, it reached No. 4 on the New Adult Contemporary charts.”

“Of course, we had to find a name before the album could be released, and that was more difficult than we expected,” Chase added. “We were just throwing out ideas and nothing seemed quite right. Well, around that time, we were both studying Tai Chi Chuan as an exercise and as moving meditation. So Steve said, ‘Hey, how about calling ourselves Chi?’ And it was perfect; it just rang true.”

Despite the artistic and emotional pleasure that Chi provides, Chase and Rucker say they must continue their sometimes precarious juggling act of writing for television and films.

“And you have to remember that the work we do in TV and film has its own satisfactions, too,” said Rucker. “Whatever the project may be--whether it’s acoustic or electronic, sound sculpture or melodic--we try to find ways to make it uniquely our own.”

“Yeah,” added Chase, “but there’s nothing quite like the fun of watching our Chi albums climb the charts--and hearing them on the air.

“I went out to dinner with a lady friend of mine recently, and we heard a Chi tune played on the radio. Now that was a great feeling.”


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