Based on the novel by Walter Trevis, Netflix’s new limited series The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Beth Harmon (Anna Taylor-Joy), a orphan chess prodigy, who struggles with addiction to the game, boarders on madness, and eventually becomes a Grandmaster in the game. It’s a decades-spanning story expertly told by director Scott Frank who again partners with composer Carlos Rafael Rivera.
Rivera previously won an Emmy for his Main Title Theme music for Netflix and Frank’s western Godless. Here, he tackles the complexity of such a compelling central character in Harmon. His score avoids the traditional character-based theming and provides accompaniment for the different phases of her personality.
Find out more about Rivera’s work on The Queen’s Gambit in our Awards Daily interview below. The soundtrack is now available.
Awards Daily: You’ve previously worked with director Scott Frank on A Walk Among Tombstones and Godless for which you received an Emmy for Main Title Theme. What is it about this partnership with Frank that made you want to return on The Queen’s Gambit?
Carlos Rafael Rivera: 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 realize Scott’s vision.
AD: You have talked about telling stories through the art of music. What story does your score to The Queen’s Gambit highlight within the limited series?
CRR: Music helps to tell story by bringing to relief aspects that the acting, cinematography, sound, or effects may not. It aids the director in conveying the tone of a specific scene, or the entire story. For The Queen’s Gambit – by 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.
AD: The series shows Beth’s life across several decades. How did you settle on a sound and instrumentation for the piece given the different time periods and story locations?
CRR: My focus was not on the time period, but rather the character’s journey – and growth as an individual. Because of that I was able to maintain a direction that would feel in line with her character’s development. I began by representing Beth’s life in the orphanage with Piano and Cello as the main color, and slowly increased the instrumentation throughout each episode. Although her reality in the beginning was simple, what she visualized in her head when she played on the ceiling was always Orchestral. By the time Beth arrives in the USSR in the final episode, she is fully developed, and so the music, which matches the reality she always envisioned.
AD: What direction did Scott give you regarding scoring the chess match sequences? Were there conversations about making the experience of a chess match cinematic?
CRR: There were over twenty games that needed score, and I was warned by Scott, as well as Wylie Stateman, that music would be doing a lot of the heavy lifting in these sequences. They were right. Not only in the chess matches, but in montages, which are opportunities I love to take on, specially since I feel Scott is really good at telling story through them. Whether it was on the ceiling, or against another person, it was my initial thought that I should find a way to characterize all chess games under one sound/musical template. However, after many months of failed attempts, I realized that every game required a particular kind of music, because what mattered was the context around which each one was being played.
AD: The series also highlights Beth’s struggles with madness and addiction. What were your inspirations and intentions on scoring this aspect of her personality?
CRR: There is a lot of sadness in Beth’s origin story. By the time we meet her, she is already orphaned, having suffered the consequences of other people’s choices. On top of that, the orphanage gave the children tranquilizers, enabling her addiction to them by the age of 8. I featured the darker music whenever we would flashback to her mother, or when losing a game, attempting to connect loss as a musical theme that plays throughout her life.
The Queen’s Gambit is now available on Netflix.