Montreal composer on creating a 'Hawaiian Hitchcock' score for 'The White Lotus'

·6 min read

TORONTO — Everybody seems to be wading into the Hawaii-set HBO series "The White Lotus" this summer, but Canadian composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer says you can count him out.

While he recorded the music for the social satire, centred on a group of wealthy elites staying at a hotel resort, earlier this year, he hasn't actually seen the final cuts, so he's uncertain how his score fits into the mix.

"I never watch any shows that I've made," he confessed in a webcam chat from his recording studio in Sainte-Luce, Que.

"I feel terrible when I watch little bits here and there. Then I turn it off and I just run away."

For all of his perfectionist fears, Tapia de Veer isn't totally out of the loop. He's read the buzz for "The White Lotus" online and seen viewers rave about his work on the show's haunting theme song, titled "Aloha!"

Last month, Billie Eilish's producer brother Finneas tweeted praise saying the song is "so ... good it's crazy," while actress Sarah Paulson joined the chorus on Sunday by tweeting: "My days and nights are entirely scored by the theme music from 'The White Lotus.'"

All of this attention is a remarkable boost for Tapia de Veer who's slowly risen from a Canadian pop artist to a successful television composer.

The Chilean-born musician moved to Quebec in his late teens before earning a master's degree in classical music and launching electro-pop group One Ton, whose single "Supersexworld" played on the airwaves of MuchMusic and MusiquePlus in the early aughts.

Since then, he's forged a career writing the music for 2013 British TV series "Utopia," 2016 zombie movie "The Girl With All the Gifts" and "Black Museum," the season 4 finale of "Black Mirror."

Tapia de Veer spoke to The Canadian Press about blending humour and anxiety into the scenery of "The White Lotus."

CP: The story behind the production of "The White Lotus" is so unique. Creator and director Mike White said he began writing it in August 2020 after HBO called looking for a show that could be made quickly during the pandemic. He began shooting last October and wrapped a little over two months later. When did you get involved?

Tapia de Veer: I think it was February. I had a meeting with Mike ... and at some point we started speaking more about how this could be some kind of Hawaiian Hitchcock. He wanted the music to be bubbling under the characters, to have a feeling that something odd is happening, that the discussions people are having could have different meanings and it's darker than it seems.

CP: The vibe is certainly ominous and it only intensifies as the series goes on.

Tapia de Veer: He told me he’d love it if we felt like there was going to be a sacrifice, even when there's nothing happening – people are just hanging out at the pool. So there’s a sense of danger with the music. I was recording very fast. Lots of very tribal and aggressive percussive stuff. There were moments where I was scared that it was too over the top, but I’ve learned that if you’re not a little scared then you’re not coming up with something new.

CP: How long did you have to work on the entire six episodes?

Tapia de Veer: I had like a month to make the music for the mix. In general, I tend to have people call me several months before, or even a year, so for me it was a very fast turnaround.

CP: One of the characteristics that stands out is the evocation of monkeys and birds in the music. At times it reminds me of zoo animals in a state of unrest. Where did that idea come from?

Tapia de Veer: I guess that's the comedy, part of it. As good-looking as everybody is, you start digging in every episode and people do such random and dangerous things that feel almost like a gang of chimpanzees out of control. It was just funny to portray the hidden sides of the characters, the things that are slowly coming out and towards the end of the series becomes a more chaotic situation.

CP: The opening song "Aloha!" is getting a lot of attention. Can you talk about the ingredients that went into making it?

Tapia de Veer: I recorded the singer and she’s doing something like (pats his mouth while making a "whoop" sound). Then I put that long note in a sampler and played it on a keyboard. The whole sample keeps playing while I’m making notes on the keyboard. So it’s a familiar voice sound that people recognize as being something human, but at the same time, there's something you don't recognize. So it's kind of like in a horror movie where the creepiest characters are people you think (are) human, but there's something wrong, there's something you can tell is alien.

CP: The soundtrack features some traditional Hawaiian songs, but you didn’t seem to use many local instruments in your work. Can you talk about that choice?

Tapia de Veer: The score has its own personality and it’s not competing with the traditional Hawaiian songs. I wouldn't want to mimic Hawaiian music. I put some colours here and there but I wouldn't feel comfortable doing something that is not my culture.

CP: What instruments did you use?

Tapia de Veer: I played lots of flutes, native big flutes. I don't know exactly how to play those as I should, so I kind of just play. I was screaming in the flutes and doing notes with my voice and playing at the same time. It was very improvised to get sounds that feel like animals. There’s a cuíca, which is a traditional Brazilian instrument used in bossa nova. It’s a drum with a stick inside and with friction you can make monkey sounds. (He also played the drums with a human femur he acquired in Chile. It's an idea he first tried while recording "Utopia" in 2012.)

CP: Having this unusual COVID-19 project under your belt, is there anything you garnered from the experience that surprised you?

Tapia de Veer: I learned that I could do something really fast that I'm happy (with), maybe even happier than I’ve been with shows lately because of how spontaneous and how less in control it feels that I am. That’s a challenge I’m going to try and continue – to work faster and be less judgmental about what I’m doing. It’s more of a personal challenge.

— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2021.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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