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‘The White Lotus’ composer breaks down the eerie score we can’t get out of our heads

A man (left) in sunglasses and a patterned shirt, alongside a person in a gold lycra body suit doing a headstand.
Composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer (left) poses with a friend.
(Free Run Artists)

If you’ve watched a single episode of “The White Lotus,” the HBO limited series set at an exclusive Hawaiian resort, you most likely went to bed with its hypnotic theme music ringing in your ears, causing your palms to sweat and your heart to race, as you made a futile attempt to sleep.

Written by composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, the score is key to the series’ atmosphere of almost suffocating dread. Fans of “The White Lotus,” a cutting satire of privilege and entitlement, have responded enthusiastically to his work on social media.

“My days and nights are entirely scored by the theme music from ‘The White Lotus,’” tweeted actor Sarah Paulson — presumably a reference to the score’s infectiousness.

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Creator Mike White, who wrote and directed all six episodes of the series, said he wanted “music that makes you feel like there’s gonna be some kind of human sacrifice at some point.” The goal was a feeling of “tropical anxiety,” he said. “Cristobal nailed that — and then some.”

Writer-director Mike White and his cast reveal how HBO’s limited series unearthed the ‘apocalyptic anxiety’ beneath the surface of luxury tourism.

In a recent video chat from his home in Canada, Tapia de Veer recalled that in his initial conversations with White, he expressed a desire to do something different from the typical comedy soundtrack, something with a greater sense of mystery —an effect he described as “Hawaiian Hitchcock.”

His score features discordant flutes and steadily accelerating percussion layered with animalistic shrieks and heavy moaning.

A man and his teenage son sitting on a beach
Fred Hechinger and Steve Zahn in a scene from “The White Lotus.”
(Mario Perez / HBO)

In the opening credits of “The White Lotus,” the music is paired with sinister images of rotting fruit and dying fish hidden in lush tropical wallpaper — visuals that reflect the show’s focus on the corrosive aspects of high-end tourism. Throughout the series, the score lends a constant thrum of tension to scenes of pretty people lounging underneath palm trees.

Before he created the most evocative earworm on HBO since the “Succession” theme song, Tapia de Veer, who is originally from Chile, studied classical percussion at a conservatory in Quebec. His band One Ton had a Canadian hit with the song “Supersex World” in the early 2000s, but after working as touring musician he pivoted into creating music for film and TV.

A breakthrough came when he wrote the eerie score for the British thriller series “Utopia,” which was remade by Amazon last year.

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“That show became a sort of reference for lots of people in the production world,” he said. “Every project I’ve done since then, people call me because of that.” “Utopia” led to work on a number of other projects exploring similarly dark themes, including the techno-dystopian anthology “Black Mirror,” the artificial intelligence drama “Humans” and the Nazi revenge thriller “Hunters.” In 2018, he received an Emmy nomination for his work on another sci-fi series, “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.”

In contrast to these projects, “The White Lotus” — a post-colonial comedy of manners crossed with a murder mystery — “was kind of a vacation,” said Tapia de Veer, a genial, decidedly chill character with a voluminous beard and a bushy top knot. He responded immediately to White’s scripts and to the filmmaker’s hands-off sales pitch. “He was very easygoing,” Tapia de Veer said.

“The White Lotus” ably mocks the wealthy patrons of a tropical resort. Its knives would have been even sharper if it had spent more time on the staff.

The process of creating the music was “very improvised,” he said. “I just started jamming on percussions and all this wild stuff. It just started feeling like a zoo, somehow, and I was completely into it. So it wasn’t calculated — you know, trying to laugh at these people and making them seem like monkeys. But somehow it became like that.”

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Tapia de Veer used unusual methods to conjure the sounds of a sinister jungle, creating an eerie warbling by over-blowing into a flute. That was also him doing all the squawks and shrieks you hear. ”It’s aggressive but funny at the same time,” he said. “I had a big laugh the whole project. I was just screaming into flutes, doing completely ridiculous stuff like monkey sounds.”

He also used a South American instrument called a charango (similar to a ukulele); a dozen or so drums from different cultures (mostly handmade drums fashioned from wood and animal skin); a variety of natural shakers; and a bit of melancholy piano.

“The rest is just noise,” he added.

The staff at a luxury resort wave to guests from the beach
An image from HBO’s “The White Lotus.”
(Mario Perez / HBO)
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The goal was to make the music just menacing enough without overdoing it. Even though it’s revealed in the opening scene of the series that someone dies, “The White Lotus” has a relatively limited body count and is more about character than plot.

“I didn’t want people expecting things to happen: ‘OK, the music is very dark, so someone is going to get decapitated,’” he said. “A lot of shows are extreme now compared to what Mike did. So there is a risk of being too much and people expecting murders.”

Tapia de Veer found there was plenty of emotional depth to the story, and felt particular sympathy for Armond (Murray Bartlett), the uptight hotel manager who unravels in spectacular fashion.

“I can relate to his pain, dealing with privileged children and how a person like that can go crazy,” he said. “I guess some people might look at this and say, ‘I’m not interested in rich people’s problems’ or whatever, but there’s some really sad stuff there.”


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