Why ‘The White Lotus’ Became the Hot TV Soundtrack of Summer 2021

Composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer offers insight into creating the memorable music for the HBO hit and why Season 2 might sound different

"The White Lotus" / HBO

Chances are if you were watching HBO on Sunday nights last summer, you grooved to the most earworm-y main title music since “Mad Men” and wondered who blended those percussive beats to the haunting choral wails you just couldn’t get enough of while the cast’s names unfolded onto a palette of wallpaper seemingly blooming to life in sync with the main theme.

That would be the Chilean-born, BAFTA-winning composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, who was tapped by writer-director Mike White to score his suspenseful, Hawaii-set look at the downsides of white privilege and fraught vacationing. It proved to be a splendid match, though Tapia de Veer was not completely familiar with his oeuvre at first.

“I knew ‘School of Rock,’ but I never saw it,” Tapia de Veer said over a recent Zoom call. “But I knew his face, and I started to watch his [HBO series] ‘Enlightened,’ and I loved that show and started really getting into his stuff. I started this project pretty late. When I came in, we were, like, about a month from mixing time, so I started working only with the script.”

Though Hawaii was a backdrop for “White Lotus” that Tapia de Veer was not terriblly familiar with, he knew that the tension of the series would present itself through unveiling emotions under the surface and expressed it with well-utilized instruments.

“I have an instrument that’s called a charango, which is small guitar like a ukulele but with more strings,” the composer said. “So, although not being truly native instruments from Hawaii, it was more about, I suppose, this reaction to colonialism. So, that’s in there in the music as a general paintbrush. And the spirit was kind of Hitchcock, though it doesn’t sound anything like Bernard Herrmann. It kind of became a joke between Mike and in finding the spirit of this [project]. But it was that feeling there’s going to be a sacrifice by the end of the episode, or somebody’s gonna die, or something terrible might happen.”

Lots of percussion pervades the score, including African and shamanic drums, in addition to bass and Tapia de Veer’s prized charango, but he notes that it’s the vocal additions that make the score really pop. “It’s something really attractive to me; I think it catches your attention really fast. And it’s not obvious what’s happening. It’s not autotune or stuff that sounds digital, and you recognize it. The voices sound very organic and not robotic.”

And in some cases, the music defined their journey, as in the heightened drums whenever Murray Bartlett’s harried hotel manager dominates the frame, and even more omnipresent in the spiritual awakening of the teen-aged Quinn (Fred Hechinger), the spoiled son of Mark and Nicole (Steve Zahn and Connie Britton), whose accompaniment becomes positively hymn-like as his interests begin to deepen.

“I think there are two main sounds: the chaotic anxiety and all of that, and then the peaceful, more natural, balanced vibe. And then there are some situations like the young married couple [Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario] and the girls [Brittany O’Grady and Sydney Sweeney] flirting with the bartender where the work is more mellow and still a bit mysterious, but it has a certain romance going on,” Tapia de Veer said.

Filming of a second season of “The White Lotus” is underway, including one of the Season 1 cast members (Jennifer Coolidge’s career-redefining rich lady Tanya). But another boon of great news is that audiences will be treated to a brand-new opening title sequence by Tapia de Veer with some revised music to serve the Italian-set backdrop of the sophomore run. (Kim Neundorf, who the composer has worked with several times including on Amazon Prime’s Al Pacino series “Hunters,” is slated to take on his additional duties.)

Says Tapia de Veer: “I’m working on a movie, so I really won’t have to be there [full-time], but the opening is going to have classical Italian hints of Renaissance and a little harp and some operatic voice…it’s a blend of very old and very modern and goes into a dance track by the end, so it’s more dramatic, I suppose.”

Season 1 of “The White Lotus” is now streaming on HBO Max.