As we reflect on the untimely end of Channel 4’s drama series Utopia, we talked to the composer of its soundtrack, Cristobal Tapia de Veer, to shed some light on the conception and evolution of the show’s exquisite music.
After just two series, Channel 4 recently announced the end of drama series Utopia. A clever and gritty plot, superbly chosen cast, and beautiful cinematography centred around brash primary colours all make (alas, made) it one of the most impressive shows on mainstream TV. For such brilliantly experimental and tasteful electronic music to play a significant part, it almost helped regain our confidence in popular culture, had the show not come to such an unexpected end. But for that musical legacy we have Chilean-born composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer to thank.
In speaking of his eclecticism and genre-crossing musical skill, it comes as no surprise that Cristobal was initially a classical musician. Having studied for his MA at the Conservatory, he has used his classical knowledge for his own benefit, to consciously avoid staying in the past with his own music. It was “future”, “novelty” and “bringing something new to the table” which stood at the core of his compositional fluidity with Utopia.
Despite also being brought up on a diet of pop music, including Slayer and Michael Jackson, Cristobal soon learnt that pop was restrictive, possessing the “same folklore that it had five hundred years ago” with a template formula that was easily applicable to all. With this, pop became one of Cristobal’s “brushes” with which he paints his simultaneously cluttered and clear musical landscapes in his music, most notably in Utopia. Between the visual and audio senses, it is the relationship between image and sound which pleases and excites him most. In fact he even named music with visual narrative as the “ultimate art form”, which would perhaps indicate a modern-day equivalent to the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, if we want to get really nerdy. Explaining this belief further, if contemporary music isn’t totally understood, it cannot be appreciated as anything more than “noise”, “like a foreign language”, but images can be the necessary tool to “help your mind to open up”.
Cristobal’s compositions for Utopia therefore come with an engrained, almost formulaic knowledge of structure from both classical and contemporary music. However, traces of genre-pastiching are heard in both Season 1 and 2’s music, varying from ska (‘Dislocated Thumps Pt. I’) to drum and bass (‘Finale’). This is what made it so refreshing and exciting as TV music, and it directly descends from Cristobal’s far-spanning love of music. He mentioned a “twisted moment” of disco in Season 2’s soundtrack, a “familiar-feeling groove, and yet it feels alien, it’s upside down, but it puts the same smile on your face as if it were straight disco”. This mish-mashing of styles creates infinite possibility, and it’s what Cristobal beautifully calls “transcendence with a smile,” jokingly adding “maybe my next track will be a death metal polka, or just a pure cowbell record.” His ability to break free from a specific pre-existing style, then transform it into something new and distinctive, is what Cristobal claims had been “the hardest thing to do.”
In the same way that Utopia‘s cinematography never strayed from bold blues and yellows, Cristobal explained how his sonorous “colour palette” would be finely tuned by adopting a trial-and-error process. After a demo’s conception, it would then be “rediscovered” by others on the Utopia team, particularly director Marc Munden, where a “ping-pong” process followed. Sometimes a demo that was not intended for use within Utopia would be picked up on by Munden, and other times Munden would ask for a particular emotion missing from the music. Utopia‘s colour palette, characterised by its specific instrument groupings and weird dehumanised treatment of short vocal samples, again links Cristobal’s compositional process with his appreciation for the relationship between visuals and audio.
Along with Paul Ready’s unnerving performance as bone-chillingly calm hitman Lee, Cristobal’s favourite thing about Utopia was its take on perspective. As an audience member, things may not always be as they seem. These things often took on a metaphorical meaning which required your head to fill in the blanks. With this, Cristobal saw Munden as a bit of a David Lynch character, and translated this same ambiguity into the show’s score. It was a “transforming experience” of musical ideas, which originated from places so odd, only the composer in question could truly understand. This concept is what catalysed Cristobal to engage with and trust the “abyss” of his mind, apparently something every composer should do, “even if you’re scared shitless”. Despite a modest outlook on his trial-and-error approach, it’s clear that Cristobal bravely took on this method with unbounded success.
Elements of Utopia‘s score could be likened to the musical styles of Brian Eno and LFO, which Cristobal said have been mentioned before. He claimed that he was totally unaware of any homage explicitly paid to previous composers and artists in his musical settings and pastiche-like moments. His diverse taste means that the sources of inspiration for his compositions are spread broadly across the musical world – from Miles Davis to Daft Punk, and J.S. Bach to Flying Lotus – but an eclectic musical preference is often the key to a truly accomplished and knowledgeable artist.
When it comes to other soundtracks, Cristobal has a clear penchant for vintage scores. He says that people used to be both savvier and crazier with how they treated film and television scores. For example, composers like Krystoff Komeda (with Polanski) were creating “totally demented” music. Exceptions are made for more contemporary composers Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream) and Mike Patton; he repeatedly describes them as “crazy,” but is saddened how the term is now only used in derogative sense. It often appears in the light of a work which is truly genius, which “says a lot about the world we live in.”
This poignant statement seemingly echoes our feelings towards the show’s third season being scrapped. Just when British telly was getting good again! Despite this, Cristobal’s music has the staying power to live beyond its context within the screen. Even though the twist of Season 2’s finale was equally loved and hated amongst watchers, Cristobal concluded our interview by saying he thought it was “brilliant 😀 (you can publish that).” While Channel 4’s decision to scrap Utopia has left a bitter taste in our mouths, thankfully we still have the official release of Season 2’s soundtrack to look forward to. Hopefully it won’t be long before Cristobal returns with another forward-thinking soundtrack, and continues his – albeit unintentional – quest into shaping public tastes for the better.
The official soundtrack of Utopia Season 2 will be released soon via Silva Screen Records. Utopia has also been nominated for ‘Best Drama Series’ at the International Emmy Awards, broadcasted from NYC on 24th November. Thank you to Cristobal himself for taking the time to talk to us, and Kim at Free Run Artists.