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.”
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.”
Working 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.”
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...