Interview: Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera on Scoring ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and the TV Music He Loves Right Now

Netflix’s limited series The Queen’s Gambit picked up eighteen Emmy nominations, including one for music composition. As chess prodigy Beth Harmon goes through the many facets of her life and her career, one consistent thing that follows her is a formidable score from composer Carlos Rafael Rivera.

Awards Radar had the opportunity to speak with Rivera about working with creator Scott Frank yet again, his approach to the score, and his reverence for the true talent making music in his industry at this moment.

Q: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.

A: Thank you, bro. My god, thank you.

Q: You’re already an Emmy winner for the main title theme music on Godless a few years back. What appealed to you about working with director Scott Frank again?

A: Employment. [laughter] No, there’s nothing luckier than to get to work with someone like him. I like the way the question is framed, but the truth is, I’m grateful to get to work with him. So anytime he says, hey, I’m absolutely there, like immediately, without a moment’s hesitation.

Q: So how is this project different for you than Godless?

A: It’s been iterative working with Scott because I started working with him on A Walk Among the Tombstones, and that was in 2013 that we were working on it. So that’s like eight years ago now. And I’ve seen him grow as a director, and I certainly have done more of the growing though. Growing into the job, understanding the parameters and how to tell story in a more effective way. But it truly has been a journey to learn how to trust. What’s different from Godless, for example, and this one is that I was really scared about this project because it was about chess and I think historically, it’s a very daunting thing to capture the emotional aspects of the game and to make people who don’t play chess care at all. And I was certainly always attracted to chess films in conversation, but I didn’t really watch many, until I found out I had to do this and I started watching all of them. I saw some great documentaries as well and listened to the scores by people like James Horner for Searching for Bobby Fischer, and other great music that’s been written for the game. But the real information came from the novel itself by Walter Tevis. And he kept referring to the games as chamber music and he made a lot of classical music references. So I was really overwhelmed, because it’s a difficult language to write in, and not only that, had it not been for Scott’s very clear vision, I don’t know if this would have worked at all, so it really is thanks to him that I’m getting to talk to you today.

Q: I feel like I can see the chess pieces moving on the ceiling while I’m listening to the score of this show. There’s a real rhythm to the music that augments the excitement of watching the gameplay. How did you achieve that?

A: It’s an interesting question because I think there were many iterations of trying to understand how to portray the game itself, and many fails. Scott kept coming back, that’s not it, that’s not it, when I was starting to think it was. And so, when you’re lost is usually the scariest moment, but it’s a good moment to grow. Like I was mentioning before, I did grow from this. One of the things that I found was this library, this music library that had a very wooden sound for the piano and it was very organic, hearing the felt pieces hit the strings, and I started thinking of the inside of a clock because so much of the games are always time-based. There’s so much time as part of the game, you’re always going to be hearing that clock. So I thought the idea of being inside a clock would make sense so the propulsion really comes from that library, that sound library, and so a lot of the motor comes from almost inside the piano, having a mic on it, and that really helped the propulsion. It’s subtle and it’s not over percussion, because that would have gotten in the way of us paying attention to the story itself.

Q: What is your process like? Do you get footage of the series and then you figure out how to score? How does it work?

A: Oh, man. There are sort of three levels. The first one is, again, because it’s an unorthodox relationship that I’ve had with Scott over the years, he sends me the screenplay as soon as it’s available, and I started writing for the novel, immediately just reacting to the story and sending him stuff, and he was like, yes, no, yes, no. Then once it gets to the second phase which is this screenplay and then they start production, I start watching dailies. So I was watching the seventh take of something, and all the scenes that got omitted. And for me, as a fan of films since I’m like seven years old, it’s a thrill. You get to go behind the scenes, like, oh my god. I’m always blown away in the process of getting to work with Scott because I am part of all of it, even from afar, but I’m contributing music to him and he’s like, no, or yes, depending on how it works. By the time we get to postproduction, all the actors have gone away, everything’s done and then begins the VFX and sound design and music. And so one of the things that we would do is we would collaborate a lot with sound, and the sound designer, his name is Wylie Stateman, and we call him Obi-Wan Kenobi for a reason. You can look him up. He worked on all the Tarantino films since Kill Bill, and he’s a master at his craft. He had this idea since Godless of doing a rolling music, meaning that, as we are assembling this, even if it’s going to get cut down, the sound that you make is not temporary sound. It is the sound. The music you make is not temporary music, it is the music. So, that process in itself, it has many drawbacks because it ends up being that a scene initially is like five minutes long, it ends up being two minutes. You’ve written five minutes of music. Now, you have to tailor it or rewrite it because it just doesn’t work anymore the way you initially built it, structurally to the scene. But what ends up happening is that a lot of this found sound becomes embedded, part of the DNA of the scene itself and the story you watch. I love the process. It’s difficult in many ways, but it’s definitely worth it, because we are really in collaboration. It’s not like I’m working on myself and we’ll see what happens with sound. It’s like, what are you doing? And I’m always inspired by what Wylie brings to the table. He is, like I said, a master at what he does, so it helps me.

Q: Did you separate out what you were composing based on the different places Beth goes and the phases that she’s in?

A: I think there’s two answers to it. One is that I failed miserably, even though I thought it was going to be a really cool idea because I read she went to Mexico, and I’m Hispanic, so I was like, this is going to be easy. And then she goes to Paris and, and I read that in the novel and thought, oh, that’s going to be great because she’s really discovering herself. The novelist, Tevis, really conveyed very well the fact that she was growing when she went to Paris in the novel. And then she goes to the Soviet Union, which is what it was called at the time. And I go, okay, well then, I’m going to have music for each place and it just failed. It was just horrible. And the reason why is that the story is told from the character’s point of view only. We only see one point of view in the story. We are on Beth the whole way. It never breaks away into Marielle Heller, Alma Wheatley, her adoptive mother. We never get much backstory into her real biological mother unless it’s from Beth herself, from her point of view in the car. Never do we break away to find out what happened with Beltik working at the supermarket or Benny Watts, what he did with the knife. We never know anything. Anything that felt like, I must establish musical place, felt like I was leaving Beth, so it had to be musical place through her eyes. Everything has to be through her character and that meant that I just had to stay on character, and the music didn’t necessarily become French or Parisian. If anything, there are some colors that are added, some instrumentation that’s added to make it feel slightly, but it’s not a thing of, like we’re in Paris now. That was one of the things. The second part was that her character does go through the journey, as you mentioned, it starts in the orphanage and ends up winning this massive thing. Her reality was always very simple. And Scott, the director, wanted a piano-based score. He wanted it to be all piano throughout the story, but once Beth got adopted out of episode one and into episode two and her world started to open up, it felt like the piano wasn’t doing enough. So we had to start growing the instrumentation. And then it started to occur to me, what if it keeps growing slowly as the character grows until we get to the final episode, when it’s all orchestral. That’s how that went.

Q: Do you have a favorite track?

A: I guess I have two. It’s the main title, because it was among the first things I wrote, and it survived until the end. And then the last track, Sygrayem, it’s called Let’s Play. It’s the last track when she goes into the park itself and she plays with those people, because it was also among the first tracks I wrote, and I think I wrote that one to the novel, not the screenplay, and the final scene. And again, it survived. They’re favorites of mine because they survive from their inception to the end, which never happens. Usually it’s like, this is a great idea, now it doesn’t fit anymore. That idea actually sucked. Why were you thinking about? Usually it goes through this journey of, why did you do it at all? And somehow these two kind of made it.

Q: You’re in very good company in your Emmy category with other composers like Jeff Russo and Nicholas Britell.  Have you seen and heard their work in Fargo, Oslo, The Underground Railroad, and WandaVision?

A: Yes, and they’re brilliant. Oh my god. I do pinch myself that I that I actually know some of them a little bit and that I get to be in their company. The truth is, when I won the Emmy, that was a crazy, crazy thing. But I knew that getting nominated was the award because you’re nominated by your peers. You’re not nominated by some random people. These are the people that are doing it, are the ones that pick this and so to me it’s fantastic. I was excited about what Jeff Russo had done. I was excited about what Nicholas Britell had done. And of course, Chris Beck, who did WandaVision, and who wrote a fantastic end title music for that, even though I don’t think he was nominated for that piece specifically. Loved WandaVision. Underground Railroad, conceptually, what Nicholas Britell did, the going descending melody and it’s underground. All these things, there’s such good writing at the level that these people are working at that to be on that list feels like I Photoshopped it. I tend to feel like I’m Photoshopping my name. I’m like, okay, I think cut and paste, boom. We’re good. But no, I’m grateful for that.

Q: What are some of your other favorite film or TV scores from the past year?

A: Everything nominated feels to me like it’s super in line. Oh, well, it won’t belong to this category, but Natalie Holt’s Loki is a masterpiece. I mean, I think they’re going to throw all the hardware at her next year without a doubt. Somehow she really connected the synthesizer with the orchestra in a way, what I feel like is synthesized music even though there are electric guitars, but somehow she’s really pulled it off in a way that feels novel. And more importantly, there’s something when you see music to picture and it works. She’s giving me that feeling. I’m a big fan now. That’s more recently the stuff I’ve been blown away by. Other than that, I’ve been watching Schmigadoon, and I think that’s a masterpiece. I don’t know if you’ve been watching that on Apple TV. Chris Willis is a composer, but I think he writes the intermediate music, the interstitial music, because it’s all songs. I don’t know if he does the arrangements but he is a master composer and he belongs there along with the Mickey Mouse stuff and all the films he has been working on. He’s one of my favorites today working. But they’re not of the past year. I hope that’s alright.

Q: They’re current, and I completely agree. I’ve been watching Schmigadoon and I’ve been listening a lot of the Loki soundtrack.

A: Dude, how good is Schmigadoon? How good is that? It’s perfect. To me, it’s a perfect show.

Q: You also worked this year on another show that was very, very different, on Hacks. Tell me about that.

A: I don’t know how I got the gig. I had an interview with them in November and I thought the interview went fairly badly because I had mentioned how difficult it would be to traverse the old-timer with the up-and-comer in a setting of Vegas without it being musically cheesy. You’ve got to do big band, and you’ve got to do contemporary. The conversation I’m having with you is the conversation I had with them. So I wasn’t saying, you know what guys, I think I can. I had no answer. My meeting was like, I don’t know what to do. And two months later, they hired me. I even asked them towards the end of our job, I was like, why’d you hire me? The reason is that they wanted to address more of the emotional beats, because they knew Jean Smart, who is a master actor, didn’t need musical help from me by any means. But the scene and what is expected by an audience in moments like those always demands a little bit of music. So how do you do it without being cheesy, schmaltzy, melodramatic, as opposed to just dramatic? And the story as I started to work on it, it felt like something special was happening here. Not in just the performance but in the way in which the story was told, and the surprises you find along the way and the involvement you start to find in those characters and how they connect and how you relate to either aspect of them. And for me, at my age, I’m exactly somewhere in the middle between this person and the younger one. So I get a lot of her jokes and I get a lot of her humor. I connected with them and I’m grateful to have been able to be on that project at all. It’s really talented people and it’s working with HBO. Come on, man. It’s dream. I’m very, very grateful and so happy for them. I’m not surprised about some of the nominations. I’m excited that they got fifteen, though. I knew Jean Smart was going to be nominated. I saw a couple of scenes, I even called the directors, and I was like, oh my god. There’s a scene at The Comedy Store where she’s doing a run-through before her final performance. I saw that raw, like nothing, just the assembled image, and I brought my kids in to watch that scene. The guy was a bully kind of character and a very chauvinistic dude, and then she comes on and she delivers really intense life stuff, and I brought my kids in to watch and it was great. It felt important, if that means anything, so I was lucky to be part of that. Once I saw that scene, I knew that something serious is going on here.

Q: That scene is in her official Emmy episode submission. I think she’s going to win – it’s hard to say no to that.

A: Is it that one? 1.69 million dollars. She’s so good. And, literally, there’s no music, just a little transitional thing at the end. It doesn’t need music. It’s so freaking good that scene. And it’s so all assembled, well set-up. There are multiple things going on and then she just has that moment. She goes up, and then just takes the water bottle, I’m like, oh my god bro, this is awkward and beautiful. She’s going to break down, and she went at it. I loved that scene, dude. I’m grateful that you saw it too because it’s a powerful scene. It’s a really powerful scene.

Q: Do you know if you’ll be back for season two?

A: I don’t know, I would hope so. They’re coming back, but I never assume anything. I hate assuming. If they want me back, that would be great. If they don’t get me back, that’s great for the show. Whatever they want to do. I have no expectations and that’s why I’m happy at fifty.

Q: Do you know what is next for you?

A: I’m just finishing a show called Just Beyond for Disney. Literally, this is the last week of mixing and stuff. And I’m working on the telenovela for Telemundo called La Reina del Sur, which is sort of a thing that’s been around, and they asked me to come on to season three, and I’ve been starting to work on some material for them. It’s exciting because it’s my people, man. I grew up in Central America, I grew up watching telenovelas, and my mom loves La Reina del Sur. I was like, Mom, you won’t believe it! So for me, getting to do that, it’s really great, and it’s a good story. It’s an interesting story, Kate del Castillo is the lead and then the production value I know is very high from what I’ve been able to see so far. I’m happy to be connected with that at all. So, these are things in process. I never usually talk too much about them until they’re done. But I think Just Beyond is pretty much done. I don’t think if they could still replace me. But I think we’re close to done. And the hope is that it goes well. I’m excited about it. It’s been a real thrill to work on that.

Q: It’s been great speaking with you today, and to learn that we have similar tastes in scores, which is always a good thing.

A: Dude, you’ve got to get ahold of Natalie Holt, man. If you get a chance to talk to her, just set it up now. Things are going to rain on her. I may be wrong, but she’s got something going on. There are moments where I was like, oh my god, this theme, the score progression, something about it feels like all the elements came together into right, and that’s how I feel about it.  I hope you do get to talk to her. She’s great.

Q: Thank you, and good luck at the Emmys!

The Queen’s Gambit is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.


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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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