The Resurgence of Thematic Composition in Television: A Spotlight on Composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer


By: Alex Elias

(note: Just stumbled on this great article from March 25th, 2017)

Let me start by defining thematic composition. Within a composition or original score for film or television, a “theme” refers to a track that relates directly to an on-screen presence, be it a character, an action, an event or an emotion. Arguably the most popular thematic composition of all time is the Batman theme. You know the one, “nananananana Batman!” While this composition is the theme song for the original Batman cartoon, the motif or “hook” can be heard all through every episod, or movie whenever the titular character makes his presence known. Originally, before the days of music libraries and music supervisors, thematic composition was the only type of composition there was. Once film was able to be recorded, composers and orchestras were hired to provide the score. Back then, before speaking was introduced into film, the score held an importance like no other. And while scoring has taken more of a backseat than it previously has, there is no denying the important of a good soundtrack in film or in television. “Themes” were of particular importance because they would provide color and evoke the perfect emotion the director was seeking in a given scene. A perfect example of how themes enhance a scene is the famous shower scene from the classic movie Psycho. Even If you haven’t seen the film, you may recall the theme that played: a very shrill, staccato buffet of evenly paced dissonant notes, essentially “din – din – din – din – din” that eventually sped up as the knife drew closer and closer. Another famous example would be the Jaws theme, similarly “dun dun – dun dun- dun dun dun dun dun dun” that plays every time Jaws would rear its ugly head in the movie.

In more recent years, thematic composition is frequently set aside in place for music of a genre that fits with a given scene and that enhances the realism or feel of said scene – not including diegetic music, which is music that the characters in the scene can hear as well as the viewer. More often than not, the lyrics of the selected song often tie-in to the scene and subliminally reinforce whatever is happening. A lot goes into the selection, but as these songs are only ever played once and chosen based on the scene, they are not themes. Furthermore, a theme must be an original work. Thus, it brings me to the resurgence of thematic composition in television as I would like to explore through the work of my favorite TV composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer.

While you may not know his name, you certainly may be familiar with De Veer’s work. He is the sole composer for The United Kingdom’s Channel 4 original drama “Utopia.”  More recently, he is the sole composer for Channel 4 and AMC Network’s joint series “Humans” and BBCAmerica’s “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.” If you’ve seen any of these shows, it is my hope that you will recall them as having unique and excellent scores. If not, that’s good too – because while the material may sound good on its own, its intention is to aid a given scene or link a theme with a character, act, event or emotion. There are a number of composers who create thematic scores for television, but De Veer’s music speaks to me personally because of its originality and particularly the duality of its playfulness and sense of unease.

Unease may not sound like something you want to feel – but all music is created through tension and release. When it comes to scoring for film and television, nothing is more important than unease. De Veer is a Chilean-born and Canadian based composer of electronic music. He obtained a Master’s degree in classical music from the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec. (The Quebec Conservatory of Music). He began to compose for film in 2011, but became noticed in 2013 for his work in “Utopia,” which one him an award from the Royal Television Society for Best Original Music. His work was described as blurring the lines between sound design and score. As a fan of his work in television, this is something I can attest to. De Veer emphasizes sound design, often taking unique sounds and turning them into musical instruments. De Veer’s music takes you deep into the world of the show, while being memorable identifiable enough to have you going, “Hey – this is some really different, cool music.”

It is hard to describe and categorize a musical score in its entirety, as their very nature is to change based on what is happening in an episode. But I can say that regardless of the pacing or the instrumentation of a given scene, De Veer’s music is almost always immediately identifiable as being uniquely his. I remember both instances – when I started watching “Humans” and “Dirk Gently” respectively and being a few minutes in and going, “This music … this is..! No way!” and confirming my suspicions with the Internet Movie Database. What amazed me about this is that, while I am a musician myself, I tend to fall into the group of people who can’t readily identify original music that is playing in a given scene. For example, it often happens that a friend of mine might say, “I really loved the soundtrack for this movie” and I’m sitting there thinking “Gee … I don’t remember anything about it. I was watching the movie…” So, knowing this about myself and then being able to instantly identify and enjoy Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s music is saying something.

You can listen to his music here on Soundcloud for the purpose of putting an actual sound to the words I’ve been using to describe his music. But, really, his music is something that can only be appreciated in its fullest when watching the series it was composed for. This brings me to my recommendation that you watch all or any of “Utopia,” “Humans” or “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.” Now interestingly enough, like De Veer’s music, both “Utopia” and “Dirk Gently” are inherently unique shows. In fact, I would go so far as to say they couldn’t be compared to any other shows in existence and let it be said that I have seen a great many TV shows. Hundreds. Now, “unique” does not inherently equal “good, but in the case of these two series it sort of does. There is something inherently fun about just how weird these two shows are. To try and put it into words, they are crazy. Like you’re experiencing an acid trip while not actually tripping nor trying to be visually and audibly induced into thinking you are tripping. In other words, these shows are as crazy as The Beatles must have been when they wrote their songs “Yellow Submarine” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Again; crazy does not mean good – but this is a good kind of crazy. I highly recommend that you at least watch one episode of “Utopia,” the better of the two shows and see what I mean. If anything, it’ll be an interesting experience.

Most television shows lack the depth to be called an “experience” – that is something people typically reserve, I feel, for going to the theater and seeing a mind-blowing performance with elaborate sets and costumes. But Utopia is definitely an experience in its own way. And so is Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s music.