Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera joins director Scott Frank (Godless) on composing the incredible score for Netflix's, The Queen's Gambit. The mini-series, which is based on the book by Walter Tevis, follows an 8 year old orphan called Beth Harmon discover her remarkable talent for chess. However, as the episodes develop we continue to see the young Beth head down a path of battling addiction and isolation into her adult life. But how do you create music to entice people to keep watching a story that has the foundations of chess, as well as, scoring for scenes of addiction? That was a thought that Carlos had when beginning to work on the series.
Carlos shared with us his journey on how he came to compose the soundtrack for the show, recording remotely with the Budapest Orchestra and more.
How were you brought onto the project? What was it about this show that interested you?
I have been very fortunate to work with Scott Frank on two previous projects, and it was a very easy decision to have another opportunity to collaborate with such a master storyteller. Along with Scott, I was able to work with editor Michelle Tesoro, and sound supervisor Wylie Stateman, as well as music editor Tom Kramer, all of whom I had collaborated with on Godless. They are each among the best in their field, and
getting to work with folks who took such great care in bringing Walter Tevis’ novel to the screen was inspiring to watch and learn from. So it felt like family, all of us aiming for the same goal - to help realise Scott’s vision.
When you started to sketch your initial ideas for the music, where did you go to find your inspiration? Were you watching anything particular, for example?
The first thing was Walter Tevis’ great little novel, The Queen’s Gambit. I read it as soon as I received an email from Scott letting me know it would be the next thing we would work on. After reading the novel, the realization came upon me that I was sort of in trouble, since classical music was mentioned and referenced quite a few times. It became clear to me then that I was going to have multiple melodic lines to horizontally imitate the game - point/move, counterpoint/response. To me writing is also research, and the first thing I did after reading the novels was to watch as many chess films as I could, as well as documentaries, in order to study what decisions had been made by the directors/composers in these previous iterations.
What's your relationship like with the director, Scott Frank? Were you in contact with each other constantly whilst you were writing the first set of ideas?
Absolutely. As soon as a sketch is written, I will send it over to him for feedback. We also have an unorthodox way of collaborating, in that I will choose a few scenes, make an iMovie of the script, and score it. He watches/listens, and decides if the tone is effective or not. There is so much worked out in these early stages, mostly what is not suitable, either tonally, or instrumentally. Scott is very straightforward with his comments, and it is a welcome relief, since we are both aiming for what works best. I think about it as the kind of relationship where you can ask for someone's honest opinion, and whatever they say, you won’t take offence.
Even though The Queen's Gambit is a limited series, it feels like a film. Can you share how you approached the score so it helped enhance that experience to the viewer? You've shared with us the question, how can you get an audience to be interested in the game of chess.
I have always loved underdog tales like Rocky, or Rudy. The moment I read Scott Frank’s teleplay, I knew getting to work with him in telling Beth Harmon’s story would be one of the great thrills of my life. It was something special, and to say the least, challenging, as we were going to have to make the game of Chess exciting on screen for those who play it - and even for those who don’t.
So what ended up working was scoring the games contextually. What I mean by that is the music for each game was borne out of what was happening to Beth in her life. Is she just playing any opponent? Then score the moves. Is she attracted to an opponent? Then score her emotional state. Is she completely hung over? Then score the uneasiness of those aware of this in the room. Whatever was important in the story was what was informing the musical needs of the game, helping add a needed freshness to the over twenty or so games that needed score...
As soon as a sketch is written, I will send it over to him [Scott Frank] for feedback. We also have an unorthodox way of collaborating, in that I will choose a few scenes, make an iMovie of the script, and score it.
Were there any moments when you were composing for the show that you ran into writer's block? If so, how did you overcome it?
It wasn’t so much writer’s block, but rather not nailing the tone the story needed. There seem to be two phases in being involved early on. First, you are writing to the script and sending the cues back and forth, until Scott approves. But, once the movie is actually assembled, much of the music has to change character in order to adapt to the translation from the script stage to the screen. Here is where I encountered a big chasm as the first chess matches were sent to me. I was hoping to have a kind of “Game Template,” where a certain music would play in every iteration. That was a hard fail. There were months I felt I was stuck in the basement with Beth, even to the point where Scott called me and said “You’re scoring the wrong movie.” It was a fantastic note, because it forced me to have to rethink my approach.
What ended up receiving approval from Scott was scoring contextually, as I described earlier, which ultimately helped me write my way out of episode 1’s basement.
Is there a particular scene or cue that you're fond of?
One of the first cues I wrote when I got the teleplay was the main title, which first appears at the end of the entire series, and is called a Main-On-End. This piece of music survived the entire production, which was surprising, because I was expecting it to be replaced/rewritten, as usually happens. Once the story is assembled and begins to take shape, the odd parts of the music begin to stick out, and it becomes obvious to all of us involved as to what belongs, and what ceases to.
The main title is an overture of sorts, containing all of this information - gameplay music, Beth’s winning music, Borgov’s leitmotif -. All of these themes are presented throughout the show, and right at her final game with Borgov, you will hear an almost complete presentation of that main title, becoming fully realised at the end credits.
These were all musical games I was playing with myself in order to motivate/inform the writing. This is not the stuff you talk about with the director - ever. You wouldn’t say, “Hey, listen, I’m deconstructing the main title.” Because they would inevitably just say, “I don’t care, just write.” They don’t care, they’re on a deadline and you’re only a small part of a big production. It’s all craft stuff, yet is the kind of thing that both inspires and encourages you to keep going.
The piano features heavily throughout the score, what was your reason behind picking this instrument?
Scott really wanted a piano based score. At first, he actually wanted the entire story to be scored with only piano. And so the early sketches were. But as Beth’s world enlarged, it felt inevitable to increase the instrumentation for the music to fit the story.
There's a really interesting switch with the music when Beth Harmon is playing chess. Can you explain your reasoning behind this?
I began by representing Beth’s life in the orphanage with Piano and Cello as the main colour, and slowly increased the instrumentation throughout each episode. Although her reality in the beginning was simple, what she visualised in her head when she played on the ceiling was always completely orchestral. By the time Beth arrives in the USSR in the final episode, Beth is also fully developed, and so the music, which matches the reality she always envisioned.
During the writing process, you are working first and foremost toward music that makes sense for the story. But you are also collaborating with people who have varied tastes.
The flute is also a prominent instrument that you hear throughout the soundtrack. Why did you choose this instrument and what do you feel it brings to the score?
During the writing process, you are working first and foremost toward music that makes sense for the story. But you are also collaborating with people who have varied tastes. Since they are deciding whether a cue gets approved or not, knowing what they like/don’t like will save hours/days of revisions.
The Flute became featured once I found out Bill Horberg (executive producer), was partial to, and played, the instrument. Being part of the process early on gave me access to the dailies, and I have always LOVED watching them. It so happens that in one of the takes, during a scene where Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) was having a conversation at a bar with Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Flute began to play “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Everyone stopped acting, closed their eyes and smiled. I found out later it was Bill who played it on set. From that moment on, I began including Flute in some of the cues, as it was Scott Frank who had the final word, but Bill was in the room where they made the decision. Best of all, it really complemented the piano well in those early episodes.
Where did you record the orchestral parts for the score?
They were recorded remotely at East Connection Music Recording, Studio 22. Our contractor was Miklos Lukacz, conductor Peter Pejtsik, and the fantastic Budapest Art Orchestra. Our orchestrator was Jeremy Levy. Score mixing was done by Lawrence Manchester. Featured musicians were Shea Kole and Joy Adams on Cello, as well as Siobhan Cronin on Violin.
How closely did you work with other people who are part of the music team on the show? Could you share who and what they did?
Absolutely. Toward the first year and a half, my collaboration was mainly with Scott Frank. I would make the demos to the screenplay and send them on. He would reply, and I would continue. Toward the last six months of post-production, Tom Kramer, the music editor whom I’ve collaborated with in my last three projects, came on board. Tom would help in assessing how much music/where to place it by being in the spotting sessions with Scott and I. We would develop templates in Google Sheets to keep things organised. From that moment on, he becomes indispensable in helping the cues go from completion to presentation for approval. Then, as the schedule begins to tighten, and cues need to be completed and delivered, David Stal (whom I’d first worked with on Godess), and Asuka Ito came on board to help get the cues through to the finish line. They would do anything from instrumentally fleshing out some cues for presentation, to adapting thematic material under my supervision to certain scenes, depending on the intensity of a deadline, or if we had multiple cues that needed to be delivered.
Could you give our readers insight into how long it might take to turnaround an episode of music for a show like this?
On The Queen’s Gambit, as well as Godless, Scott saw and worked on the story as one long movie, rather than episodes. In both cases there were six original teleplays, which ended up becoming seven. Inevitably, that forced scenes that were originally conceived and scored as ending scenes into becoming the second, or even third scene in the subsequent episodes.
There were initial set pieces which I would work on, that changed very little from the beginning assembly. Beth Playing Benny Watts, for example, remained mostly unchanged since early December, receiving some minor nips and tucks in the editing toward the final passes in late July. Other scenes needed to be scored, but as editing moved along, so did their placement - and even order, whereas a piece of music might be scored to support the transition in between scenes, but now the scene that was transitioned to was removed, or replaced, with another scene with an entirely different tone. That kind of work could be seen as the downside to being involved so early on. But compared to the upside, it is worth it.
You said that instead of composing character themes, you actually scored Beth's addictions. How did you approach that musically and why did you choose to do it that way?
Having such a complex protagonist as Beth Harmon, I wanted to avoid writing a “Beth Theme,” but rather Themes for different aspects of her character: Addiction, Genius, Mischief, Growth, etc. By resorting to these, I could apply and develop them throughout the seven episodes, as Beth herself developed, helping create a more holistic representation of her character.
Were you able to just miss the pandemic coming into full force when it came to recording or did you have to adapt your approach for certain scenes or tracks?
We were lucky to get to record with the Budapest Art Orchestra the day after COVID restrictions for live players had been lifted in Hungary. But for a while there, we were close to having a completely library based soundtrack. We relied heavily on Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds, Brass, and Strings to hold the larger cues together, whilst leaning on the British Drama Toolkit for the more intimate moments. This basic symphonic palate was coloured throughout by another common string effect I loved - the String Swells from Ólafur Arnalds' Chamber Evolutions. Many of the cues that addressed Beth playing chess on the ceiling used the fantastic brass and strings effect sounds the Kepler Orchestra provides. In the end. the final recordings ended up being a hybrid from the aforementioned libraries and the real orchestra.
We were ultimately able to record remotely for six double sessions with the Budapest Art Orchestra. In an odd way, this was not novel, as we had always recorded remotely with them. The difference this time was that our Orchestrator, Jeremy Levy, was in LA, our Music Editor, Tom Kramer, was in NYC, and I was in Miami. On Godless, it was similar, where Jeremy was in LA. But at least then, I was in a NYC studio with Tom. This time we were all in different cities.
Is there a track you're particularly proud of or feel pushed you as a composer? You shared that you are always learning and how that's important to you.
Apart from the Main Title, there was one other cue I wrote almost two years ago, it was the last cue of the show. So, there’s a final scene before the credits - almost like a coda to a piece of music - that happens after the rest of the story gets some closure. That bit of music was written way back when. Scott really liked it, I also felt very connected to it, but never thought it had a chance. That little bit of music is called “Sygrayem,” or “Let’s play” in English, and it survived. I really enjoy the fact that the last two pieces of music the audience will listen to are the first two pieces that were written for the story.
What's next? Anything we can look out for in the future from you?
After finishing The Queen’s Gambit in early August, I turned my attention to teaching at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, where I am program Director for the Media Writing and Production Program. Especially since Covid-19, we have had to adapt to a hybrid form of teaching, and I am quite excited about how it has broadened our overall approach. As far as projects, there may be a few things lined up, but it is certainly too early to tell. And I have been very grateful for the 2 month break after having spent 2 years in Beth Harmon’s world.