Words & Music caught up with Chilean-born Canadian composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer in London, England, where he’s been scoring film and television productions since 2012. “Of course, I could do it from my studio in Montreal,” says de Veer. “The new generation doesn’t mind working via Skype. And sometimes I actually do, particularly in the last stages of a project. But, to tell you the truth, I also like to meet the team in person so I can understand the direction of a series or a film. This also helps me catch the energy of the people I’m working with.”
For the past month and a half, de Veer has been writing music tracks for the English-language series National Treasure (Channel 4) directed by Marc Munden, the man behind the cult series Utopia. De Veer and Munden are now working on their third project together since Utopia and The Crimson Petal and the White, the historical series that started their professional collaboration. “Meeting Munden was a stroke of luck,” de Veer says today. “I’ve been able to take on interesting projects thanks to him and to his notoriety.”
Although de Veer studied classical music at the Quebec Conservatory, where he majored in percussion, his first professional steps were taken miles away from that universe. He worked for a time with One Ton, the modestly successful, JUNO-nominated, Warner Music-signed electronic pop trio, but soon realized the limitations of an over-restricted music world. Moving to The Spider in Charlie’s Box, a solo project he wrote in his bedroom, de Veer got a taste of what it’s like to write film and television music without being encumbered by any restrictions, and never looked back. He was able to use that album as a calling card to introduce himself to a number of producers as a true individual, unwilling to follow the rules. “I didn’t have a clue what the film composers’ rules were,” he says. “Quite frankly, I got here by accident.”
In Québec, de Veer is mostly known for the exquisite soundtracks for the Série noire TV series, a winner in two soundtrack categories at the 2015 Prix Gémeaux French-language television awards, and a nominee for the 2016 edition as well. Cristo first met Série noire director Jean-François Rivard in a Montréal studio where he was recording Rivard’s band. Rivard later got in touch with de Veer to ask him to set the series’ sonic atmosphere, a very specific commission. “Rivard directed me to the soundtracks of 1980s horror movies, mainly those of John Carpenter, who was scoring his own films,” says de Veer. “So I leaned heavily on synthesizers, while maintaining a minimalist approach.”
“I wrote music for the Humans series that was enormously successful in England, with 7 million viewers a night, but I didn’t sign for the second season because I didn’t want to repeat myself.”
When asked to describe his musical style as a composer, de Veer thinks for a few seconds, and then launches into an explanation of his approach outside the film music profession’s conventions. “I like looking at the music of a film or series as if it were a character in itself,” he says. “Normally, music that’s written to image must be relatively transparent. It contributes to the pace and to the drama. Personally, this is not how I visualize the role of music. I like to occupy more space musically, and to give a defined character to the music. I like proposing a counterpoint to the emotion in a scene.
“In Utopia, there were scenes involving killers. What we wanted to convey at the same time, through the music, was those people’s childhoods, their lack of parenting, what had brought them to this, the information that wasn’t portrayed on-screen. So we superimposed a piece of childish music on a murder scene. It was a lot more moving and disturbing…”
De Veer also likes to create fresh sounds for later use in his scores. He stays away from synthesized and computer-generated sonics in order to create fresh new textures. His sound sources range from animal noises to urban soundscapes that he collects everywhere on his sampler.
As a musician, de Veer – who’s planning to spend some time in Montréal this summer – sees the whole world as his playground. He’s also working in Los Angeles on two series, including one to be aired on BBC America. The British science fiction film The Girl with All the Gifts, which he scored, will be released in theatres in September. In spite of his ambition, de Veer likes to remind himself of his guiding principles as a musician.
“What I value above all else is creative freedom,” he says. “I don’t want to be writing in L.A. just because it’s L.A. I wrote music for the Humans series that was enormously successful in England, with 7 million viewers a night, but I didn’t sign for the second season because I didn’t want to repeat myself. I reserve for myself the sacred right to choose those contracts that provide great creative opportunities, and promote innovation. I’m not here to be on automatic pilot.”