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Cristobal Tapia de Veer

Cristobal Tapia de VeerPhoto: Pierre Barlier

Cristobal Tapia de Veer has become a first‑call Hollywood composer — by ignoring Hollywood’s rules.

“I make music because of necessity,” says Chilean‑born Canadian composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer. “To me, it is a way of talking. I talk better with music than I do with words, so explaining music is not something that I like that much. I mean, I’m happy to talk about it, but if I had a choice I would rather not explain music.”

Tapia de Veer has found himself having to explain his music a lot since 2021, when a project he scored became an unexpected worldwide smash hit. HBO’s The White Lotus fuelled pop culture discourse and sparked a mid‑career renaissance for the actress Jennifer Coolidge. Originally intended as a one‑off mini‑series, the show is currently filming its highly anticipated third season in Thailand, and has put Tapia de Veer firmly in the spotlight for his score, with its heady mix of otherworldly human voices, primal beats and hints of sounds that may or may not have come from a jungle. For the Sicily‑set season two, his theme song ‘Aloha’ was given an operatic makeover, has since become a legitimate dance hit, and was even remixed by DJ Tiësto.

The composer insists, though, that there was no magic formula behind the theme’s success. “Somehow I feel like when we talk about things in interviews, it feels premeditated — like I had this major plan about composing this big piece — but I have to go back and understand what I did, because I wasn’t thinking at all while doing it. Ninety percent of what I do comes from improvisation: from doing stuff, making errors and then realising that something is amazing and following that path. I’m just following the rabbit! You realise what you were doing afterwards and then you could write a PhD about that stuff, but it feels like it’s made up, in the sense that you really have to make a story to be understandable to the world. The stories come afterwards, and it’s a result of having done something right.”

Learning The Ropes

Tapia de Veer has been doing something right with music since he scored the cult British hit Utopia in 2013. You can hear the hallmarks of his style in the score: otherworldly vocals, unconventional instruments and dancefloor‑ready arrangements that underscore the subject matter. Tapia de Veer looks back fondly on his time working on the series that served as the breakthrough for his composing career: “I had done one show before with the director Marc Munden — a period drama for the BBC called The Crimson Petal And The White — and the same director called me to work on Utopia. I think of it as a science experiment where I was in the laboratory doing something, and it exploded and that presented me to the world, I guess.”

Cristobal Tapia de VeerWorking on Utopia was an educational experience. Tapia de Veer was already a classically trained musician, having graduated with a Masters degree from the prestigious Conservatoire de Musique de Québec, but composing for TV involved acquiring a different set of skills. “I didn’t study to compose to the image, so I didn’t know any rules, really. To me, it’s like with any musician: if you give them images, they’re going to start vibing, maybe on a guitar or whatever instrument is at hand, and see how that feels, how that looks with the image and that’s really the only thing that I knew. There was lots of trial and error but I learned with the director, who would tell me what worked and what didn’t. That was kind of my school, I suppose.”

He learned not just about making music for visuals, but also about dealing with all the other stakeholders in a production. “The first time I went to London to work on the show, a line producer called me to say, ‘OK, you need to meet with the sound effects guys and see that all the sounds you guys are making are going to work together.’ And I told her, ‘Well, I don’t have the time for that, I have so much to do!’” He laughs at the memory now and at his own naïveté: “I was like: anyhow, they have to adapt to the music. It’s not like I want to change the music to incorporate door sounds! In my mind this was obvious, but I learned that it’s not like that. I learned on the field to deal with people, with the production, and how to make music for images.”

Utopian Vision

After the success of Utopia, Tapia de Veer says the phone never stopped ringing. Over the next few years he scored critically acclaimed shows like Humans, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Black Mirror, and last year’s big hit horror movie Smile, to name a few. The pattern that runs through his filmography is collaboration with directors who have an auteur‑like approach to their work, which allows the score to have a strong and individual voice. “The thing that I look for the most while choosing a project is whether it feels like people understand what I can bring to a project, and whether they’re going to let me help the project. I guess those are the two elements where things could go wrong. I’m not very good at making something like the temp score; I don’t think anybody can do something like the temp, in the sense that it’s so specific.

Cristobal Tapia de Veer: People tell you, ‘We don’t want you to copy the temp score, but it has this feeling that we want.’ That sounds great on paper, but the reality is that when you like a piece of music there is no making another piece of music like it.

“People tell you, ‘We don’t want you to copy the temp score, but it has this feeling that we want.’ That sounds great on paper, but the reality is that when you like a piece of music there is no making another piece of music like it. You really connect with that particular piece of music. Maybe it’s the voice, or the singer, or the way it was recorded; there are a million things that people connect with in one piece of music, and they’re going to try to get you as close to that as possible and it always ends in some kind of a rip‑off, which is not a good way to work. I suppose what I’m thinking the most of is trying to be sure that I’m not going to be in those kinds of situations going into a project.”

It’s not easy, but Tapia de Veer has developed an understanding of the process. “I tend to work with a director for a while and then, later in the production, the director shares what we’ve been doing with the producers. That can be a bit of a shaky place! It can be surprising for producers when they hear the new stuff that is so different from the temp score, and I do tend to experiment a lot. Sometimes [the producers] are in shock about something and that can be tense, but there’s a path of trying to understand where they are coming from. Most of the time they are not musicians, so quite often they don’t have the language for the feedback. They get scared and if they hear something they don’t like, they could say, ‘Can you change this little thing?’ or something like that, but instead they go, ‘Oh my God, this is not working!’ It seems like a big deal because they don’t know what to say, but it’s generally not as bad as it seems and I learned that if you are patient, you’re going to get to the same place that you all want to go, and everything is just stronger.”

Back To The Source

Tapia de Veer’s compositions come from a love of experimentation and improvisation which extends not only to his treatment of sounds, but also to the sources of the sounds themselves. “I’ve been recording sounds with an acoustic guitar that I found in the trash some time ago. It was probably the guitar of some kid who stopped playing at some point, so they just left it outside in the minus‑40‑degree weather. It was fairly destroyed so I modified it, added metal springs and things, and now there are some really interesting sounds in the instrument. You can make some really funky, spooky sounds; it’s almost like a prepared piano in a way, with all the harmonics and what you can get out of the strings. You can also use it for percussion and all kinds of other weird stuff. I’m scoring a movie using this broken guitar, and the directors are also completely in love with the sounds coming from it. It’s very interesting to me and I like the fact that it’s something that came from the trash, because instruments can be so, so expensive and it always feels like you need to spend so much money to make good sounds.”

Cristobal Tapia de Veer coaxes new sounds from a heavily modified broken guitar.Cristobal Tapia de Veer coaxes new sounds from a heavily modified broken guitar.

The tradition of collecting and modifying instruments goes back to his childhood, he explains: “I didn’t have instruments when I was a kid in Chile, so I experimented a lot. I had an old Spanish guitar from my parents that I began experimenting with; I started making drums out of boxes and plastic bags. I found that if you combine a lot of plastic bags to make a ball, put it on a stand and hit it with a stick, it sounds like a closed hi‑hat.

“I also had an uncle who was an electrician and he told me that I could use an old speaker as a microphone. So I took a speaker, taped it on my guitar, plugged the two wires into the input microphone of a ghettoblaster that I had, and a really interesting blues sound came out of that. I could also use the speaker on a hardwood floor — if you tapped your feet on the floor, the speaker would amplify that into the ghettoblaster and, with the volume turned up, the speakers would distort and you’d have a really interesting hip‑hop‑style dry, distorted kick.”

Tapia de Veer experimented with whatever was available, and he says it remains an interesting way to find new and unexpected sounds, even though he now has instruments from all around the world. “I don’t know exactly how they work, but I find a way of making them work for me, in the same way as if I had made these instruments. Also, I don’t have eight hours a day to really learn one particular instrument, so I have to find a way of playing them confidently. I know what a confident sound sounds like, when a musician knows what they’re doing! I know how to do it with what I’ve studied, so I try to keep that attitude in an instrument that I don’t know at all. I find certain things that I can play like I’m a pro and just use that. That’s it. I don’t need to be any more of a virtuoso with that instrument, it’s really about the palette of sounds and I use whatever I need for the composition.”

For Cristobal Tapia de Veer, the important thing in getting usable sounds from almost any instrument is to attack it with confidence, even if you’re not an experienced player. The dununs in this photo are African rope‑tuned drums.For Cristobal Tapia de Veer, the important thing in getting usable sounds from almost any instrument is to attack it with confidence, even if you’re not an experienced player. The dununs in this photo are African rope‑tuned drums.

On The Phone

Like modern‑day musicians everywhere, Cristobal Tapia de Veer reaches for his phone when inspiration strikes, recording musical ideas before they disappear and even jamming with himself as he records loops and builds upon an idea. “I put the phone on my leg and play into it, which is not optimal but it’s amazing how fast things go if I can jam with myself on a track and keep adding to it. It feels really spontaneous, which I really like. I remember one day, I made around 45 tracks like that. It was ridiculous and I realised that I needed to find a way to make this system professional!

“Right now, I’m trying to replicate that in the studio, so I’m aiming to have all the mics ready to record, where every mic has a chain with a preamp, a compressor, an EQ and maybe even distortion and hardware reverbs and things like that. I would like to know every mic, to choose if I’m going for a brighter sound or a darker sound or a weird sound, and to be as fast as possible, so that when I record the sounds it’s almost mixed and I don’t have to think about plug‑ins or anything like that — I am already very close to something that I like. Since I also produce and mix everything, I can take those risks of recording sound that is completely produced. I have an idea of where I’m going, so it’s not a huge risk, really. That is a system that I really want to perfect: to be able to jam and record ideas very fast.”

The main obstacle he comes up against is the difficulty of recreating the feel of the phone recordings in the more professional setup. “These tracks that I made on my phone didn’t sound amazing, but the interesting thing is that when I imported everything into my DAW and thought, ‘OK, now I’m going to re‑record everything better,’ I couldn’t make anything better! It was just impossible, and I have the tube mics and everything! I would listen to my phone demo, be amazed and try to imitate it. At one point, I thought maybe I have to put the mic on my leg where my phone was, and it just became ridiculous. I realise there’s something about when you capture an interesting idea in the moment. It sounds even technically better in a way that I could not improve with better gear, strangely enough. It really puts into perspective all these ideas we have about what kind of gear you need to make sounds that you like, but it seems like capturing the right moment is everything, really.”

It’s All In The Voice

Cristobal Tapia de Veer

Even though there are no lyrics, the human voice frequently takes centre stage as the element around which the rest of Tapia de Veer’s arrangements are built. “I suppose I just realised at some point, while experimenting with voices, that there is no sound that feels more intimate than the human voice. There are instruments, like the violin or cello, that — with a really good player — can take you somewhat close to the emotional impact that the human voice has. But in the end, we like those instruments because they’re close to the human voice, and ultimately the voice is a really important thing.

“That’s one aspect of it, and the other is that because it is so personal and intimate and warm, when you start messing with it, it can be weirdly unsettling. The thing is, though, what I really like is to not process the voices a lot, so that they really feel natural except for something weird that’s happening. You can tell there’s something weird, that it feels alien, but it doesn’t sound like a robot: there’s no Auto‑Tune, there’s no vocoder, there are no voice‑changing algorithms. It really sounds like someone, but like someone weird.

“In The White Lotus, I felt like the voices are so special that I was happy making a dance track and just chasing that energy to build throughout the track. The voices are getting bigger and bigger and I’m trying to somehow chase a sentiment of being overwhelmed or being at a festival or a club and completely tripping. I was chasing that euphoria in the music.”

Bijou Boutique

Tapia de Veer’s studio setup is all‑analogue apart from Ableton Live, running on a laptop, which he says allows him the flexibility he needs while composing. “To me it’s about the workflow. Ableton feels like it is really elastic, and with Pro Tools and Logic, I felt like I was trapped. To give you an example, in Live I can play with the pitch of a wave like this [makes an up and down dragging motion] and get somewhere, but in Pro Tools I need to open a menu, then write ‘2 semitones’, print it and listen, and then it’s possibly not the right pitch so I have to undo it... This makes no sense to me, it’s going to take a year! So for me, that’s the gold in Ableton because it’s more than a studio. I suppose if you see Pro Tools as a studio it might be great but I’m writing with Ableton, in the sense of stretching and warping and doing all that in a second. To me, that’s really important, because I need to hear all those differences and make choices. It’s more interesting that way.”

One of the more conventional instruments in Tapia de Veer’s studio is this orthodox drum kit.One of the more conventional instruments in Tapia de Veer’s studio is this orthodox drum kit.

His studio is populated with gear that he’s been collecting over the years: preamps, compressors, saturation units, cassette recorders and bigger reel‑to‑reel machines. He has also become a big supporter of smaller pro audio companies that make quality products and sell directly to customers at reasonable prices. “Stam Audio, for example, are making the most accurate recreations of vintage gear, so you either pay $20,000 for a mic or you could pay $1000 for a mic from Stam Audio. I just bought an 87 tube mic from Stam Audio for about $800 that I’ve really been enjoying. It’s just crazy that we have access to this kind of quality at that price, because it feels like not so long ago you needed to spend like $4000 for that kind of quality. It’s the same for gear from a company like Audioscape; there’s also Locomotive Audio, from where I bought some tube preamps that look like they were made in the ’50s.”

His collection also includes the Dramastic Audio Obsidian Compressor, a classic SSL‑style compressor, which he says sounds amazing on the mix bus and has the capacity to be pushed hard if one so desires. Tapia de Veer has been using it for years and delightedly explains: “There’s a position on the ratio knob, indicated by a skull and two bones, and I don’t know what that’s doing, but it’s super violent. It’s a really aggressive kind of compression and distortion that I really like.”

Also a regular in his effects chain is the Black Box HG‑2 distortion and saturation unit. He liked it so much he tried out the plug‑in as well, which he admits doesn’t have the same effect — quite literally. “I have the real thing, and for me, it sounds like day and night as compared to the plug‑in. I feel that we haven’t come to a place where there’s a clear way to test analogue versus digital. When you hear a demo of a plug‑in that emulates, for example, an 1176, you might hear a snare sound with the plug‑in and it feels like, ‘OK, this is close enough. Why spend thousands of dollars on the hardware?’ but I don’t know if it actually works like that. It feels like you need to listen to an entire song and see how you feel at the end of the song, see whether your ears are getting tired with the digital aliasing and things like that, which you might not realise just by listening to a snare sound. You can do something with these plug‑ins for sure, but you could also be so wrong and then you’re destroying everything. With hardware, the sweet spot feels very large; it’s very forgiving.”

As far as the signature element in his compositions goes — the human voice — he has a specific goal and uses minimal effects to achieve it. “There is an edge where things sound really natural and otherworldly at the same time, and that to me is the sweet spot where I like to make music with the voices.

More instruments from around the world in Tapia de Veer’s studio: various bells, and a set of Thai gongs.More instruments from around the world in Tapia de Veer’s studio: various bells, and a set of Thai gongs.

Cristobal Tapia de Veer“I think my voices are always either super‑dry or have lots of reverb. I have the Alesis MidiVerb; there’s something really interesting about those ’80s units, they glue to the sound more. Besides that, I suppose saturation is something I use a lot. I recently discovered a new company from Holland called Singular Audio, from where I found a module for the 500‑series rack that is very similar to the Black Box that I mentioned earlier. It’s called Tubedrve and it’s this little unit that has four tubes in it. It’s a really incredible unit at a great price, and with it, I feel like I can do all the saturation I need. Once again, it’s that vibey sound I’m going for: not necessarily that I need to hear distortion, it’s just to make things bigger and more interesting. The interesting thing to me about all these old‑school machines is that you can push them and the sounds become rounder.”

The quest for a rich, warm sound means that he’s less fond of cleaner‑sounding modern gear, which he says he might like more if he were recording to tape all the time. “Computers feel very peaky and harsh to the ears. It’s just not a natural sound, and it really feels like you need the tube gear, the distortion and all the saturation you can get to have the records sound good and warm, like they did before. When digital came out, maybe at the end of the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s, people seemed really brainwashed, saying things like, ‘Now we can hear music, we can hear the detail.’ But it’s so strange that it took a while for people to realise that there was something wrong, something missing from it.

“There’s so much talk about the warm sound and harmonics, like it’s a choice, and I’m not sure that it’s really that much of a choice — in the sense that the human ear compresses naturally. When you go to a show or there’s a loud sound, your ears turn down the sound. This action of turning down sound is a familiarity we have. Pretty much anybody likes fat music, music that feels like you’re close to it, and that happens with that saturation and compression. When there’s none of that, it feels like daggers coming at you, like it’s somehow attacking your ears. In the ’90s, people would try to make things loud with limiters and digital stuff but that doesn’t work that well, it’s not really a nice sound. Now we’ve come full circle: you can buy gear that is pretty much like it was in the ’50s or ’60s and you can get this sound that is just more natural to the way we hear things, and I really appreciate that.”

Silence Is Golden

Despite the fact that scoring is Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s business, he’s critical of filmed entertainment’s tendency to overuse music. “In a silent film in the ’20s, you did need help [from the music] because nobody was speaking, so you had to be super descriptive about every moment and everything that was happening. To this day, this is what film music sometimes feels like to me. It’s way too detailed. When it’s well done it can be really nice but the problem is, most of the time, it feels like there’s someone mansplaining the movie to you.

“Silence is so important in a movie; things can be much more dramatic without music, I think, because then it feels real. I mean, in real life, when something bad happens, you are scared and it’s not cool in any way, shape or form. With music, I feel like movies can lie about how difficult situations can feel in real life. Something could seem a little bit cool even if it’s actually not cool at all. It can be completely confusing and it can be dangerous in that you can make things cool that should not be cool. You don’t get much silence in American movies, and European movies sometimes can be the opposite. There’s no music at all, and it’s so hardcore because there’s really nobody to help you. There should be a middle ground.”  

Free Agent

Cristobal Tapia de Veer has achieved both commercial and critical success. He’s an in‑demand composer with Emmy, BAFTA and ASCAP awards under his belt and his works are firmly entrenched in pop culture. Yet, almost uniquely, he has chosen to work in Hollywood without an agent, a decision that’s unheard‑of for a composer of his calibre. His reasoning is based in practicality. “It has somehow become a feature, with time, I guess, but the thing is I met all the big agents in Hollywood. I met some really great people, some people that I would like to work with, but I’ve been working non‑stop since I did Utopia. The phone never stops ringing, and that somehow put me on this path. A director asked me to be personal with the score, and because we did that at the beginning, people started calling me to do that, to be original and to be different. It’s pretty much a dream come true, in the sense that I don’t feel like I’m playing games too much.

“There’s a system with agencies, and there’s a way of thinking about doing the biggest projects and many other elements, and I suppose maybe I am a little bit wary of where that could take me. Maybe it’s just paranoia, but it feels like I don’t want to delude myself about what I’m doing.

“I’m not saying it’s never going to happen [that I get an agent], but for now I like that when I go to Hollywood I’m like this guy who comes from another planet and is somehow working with everybody, but then I go away and disappear. I’m happy to feel a little bit disconnected from how things are done in Hollywood!”