In Conversation With Cristobal Tapia De Veer

Although its often said that, “all good things must come to an end”, that idiom was little comfort when dealing with the recent and untimely cancellation one of our favourite shows on television: Channel 4’s Utopia. Across two series it was comfortably one of the most exciting and unusual things to hit the small screen on these shores in years – a program that could genuinely be held up and compared alongside its American counterparts as an example of TV’s ability to give film a run for its money. Centered around a conspiracy theory to sterilise the majority of the planet, the show was a triumph of clever casting, black humour, ultraviolence, spectacular cinematography, relentless pacing and an endlessly bizarre score. Save for the omnipresent hue of yellow in nearly every shot, the latter feature was perhaps Utopia’s calling card – something for which they’re indebted to Chilean born, Canadian based composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer. The classically trained de Veer – who has also composed for the decidedly different likes of BBC period drama Jamaica Inn and French series Seríé Noire, rightfully won won a Royal Television Society Award last year for his work.

Whilst listening to the score (featured in its entirety below) without having seen the show might be an odd experience, its no more unsettling than taking in the full package, with de Veer’s fearlessly unorthodox creations laying on an additional dimensions by which to take in Utopia. Challenging yet seductive in its exotic nature, there are few obvious reference points on show here – something which is perhaps unsurprising given the composer’s proclivity for ‘unusual’ instrumentation (a trumpet made of coiled bamboo and horse intestine? Rhino faesces?). With David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Gone Girl), recently confirmed to helm an American remake of the show, he would be well advised in recruiting de Veer to do the honours once again.

Looking for answers about the score, the show and a whole lot more, we thought it would be best to hit up de Veer for some closure. Possessing a sense of humour every bit as off key as his musical sensibility, we didn’t quite solve the mysteries of the universe – although as you can see there was plenty of food for thought nonetheless…

Hello Cristobal, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. How are your cats?

Smarter than me, but I’m 6’4″.

How much of a surprise was it that Channel 4’s version of Utopia got cancelled?

Not much, it’s just business.

It was obviously then a pretty abrupt ending for the show – where would you have liked to see it go if they’d made a third season?

I would’ve loved that they infiltrate The Network and get to meet the one person pulling all the strings, The Master Rabbit. Fiction and reality would get blurry, Master Rabbit would put an end to the UK version of Utopia (for dangerous content) and would start his US version from there. There would be riots and stuff. Last scene would be a planet populated by rabbits only.

I imagine you must have spent a long time watching scenes from the show over and over again – does paying attention to it on this level mean you end up getting heavily invested in the characters in the plot?

Totally. I became particularly influenced by Carvel and his work, his “separation”. When working on Utopia I completely disconnected myself from the outside world for months, it’s unhealthy really. Weird stuff happened, but that’s a story for later, like 10 years later…

Did you have a favourite moment from the show – as a viewer?

Milner visiting Carvel who’s attached to a chair in a surreal asylum scene from EP1, the light coming out of his head. Marc Munden’s genius at work right there.

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The series was based around conspiracy theories – is this a subject you’re interested in at all?

More or less. I’m interested in the fact that people would create anything to bring some sense of an explanation for life. Things are more random than they seem, people just find power and meaning in thinking otherwise. Some are better at recognizing events they can capitalise on, so they re-write history to their advantage and make it seem like a plan, which is very empowering. Nobody had a 100 year old plan, humans are short termed, but very creative, they jam all along and make it work for them, sometimes it doesn’t. But who knows, there might be a Dracula somewhere.

The Utopia soundtrack was roundly praised for being unusual and different – did you feel a responsibility to create something subversive given that your work would be featured on a ‘mainstream’ platform like Channel 4?

I didn’t know nothing about Channel 4 or anything else. I only knew Marc Munden (director of Utopia).

A lot was made of some of the ‘unorthodox’ instrumentation you used? Specifically, how exactly did you get rhino faesces that you used?

I spent time in Zimbabwe and brought all kinds of shit back home. I was also bitten and returned with “African Tick Bit Fever” (was horribly sick and dellusional for a bit, but had it treated and I’m ok now. At least I think I’m ok.)

Where else did you look for in terms of instruments/field recordings? 

There was a lot of talk about the human bones I’ve used, my mom was stupefied that I would do such a thing. I see it as taking them out for a walk, why would they want to be buried forever without music? Plus they come from the Chilean desert, which is extremely hot, dry and salty, that’s no way to relax is it? Sounds like torture to me.

Were there any scenes that proved particularly challenging to score?

The whole third season.

There are a lot of different tempos, moods and styles explored on your score across two seasons – was there a defining ‘sound’ that you tried to spread across the whole thing to tie it together?

At some point I got the idea that season one was like a birth, very minimalistic and crude, the characters where naive, childish, like kids in a videogame. Season 2 was more established mayhem, more “knowledgeable” characters, in your face political conspiracy, a much heavier, darker and complex sound… But what I’m saying here makes it all seem like a “plan”, see? I’m just re-writing it backwards to make it seem like it wasn’t improvised. It’s how everything works, plans appear all over the place, like magic XDDD.

The shows that you’ve scored have been broadly very different – is there a common quality in a piece of visual drama/a show that you look for in terms of it being attractive to score?

I’ve only been doing this for like 4 years, so I cant say I have a system for anything at this point. I’ve been “trying” projects, find what I like most. For any project I’ve done I can recognize a couple of steps: I look for texture in sound that would make what’s on screen palpable. The melodic/harmonic content that would give perspective and dimension to the feelings that are being depicted in the story. I’m more and more obssessed by uniqueness, a project must feel as unique as an individual should be. It’s part of my job to give that to the project, as much as I’m able/allowed to. Standardization is death.

If you could have scored any film from the past, what would it be?

Walt Disney’s World War 2 propaganda films.

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Are you supportive of them making an American version of Utopia?

Sure, I love Fincher, I’d love him even more if he calls me to do the score 😀 I’m just wishing Fincher can be a perverted punk about this project. The usual “tapestry” style score is going to destroy everything I like about this show.

Has anyone from the production team of the American show tried to get you on board for the soundtrack?

Did you know you could clean your colon with Flax and Kefir?

You can find out more about Cristobal and his work here.

Interview: Christian Murphy 

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