How ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera Approached The Challenge Of Scoring The Traditionally Silent Game Of Chess

Chess is a game of intense concentration, with silence only broken by the ticking of the timer. For composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, the task of scoring such a game in the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit was impossible, so he opted for a very different approach. Instead of scoring a game, he would score the player.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy at the heart of the show. Her goal is to beat the Russian Grandmasters in Moscow, while trying to overcome childhood trauma and addiction problems.

With the focus of the music shifted away from the game and more towards the player, Rafael Rivera centered his score around Harmon’s emotional state. As she grew as a person on screen, the music grew along with her.

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DEADLINE: How did you arrive at the decision to split the theme for the main character, Beth Harmon, into multiple parts?

CARLOS RAFAEL RIVERA: Well, one of the most important things I realized as we were doing this, was that the whole story is told from Beth’s point of view. It’s a single character point of view story. We only see what she sees, and what that generates is a very complex character. We’re going to go through all the things that we, as people, go through, whether we’re in a great mood or desperate or tired or whatever.

With her, it seemed like having one theme for her as a character felt very constraining in a way, and put her in one color. The idea was to create music that would support her. For her addiction, it fills her and the theme fills her around. There was a musical theme for that. There was a musical theme for when she wins, or if she’s up to something, if she was feeling cool, or if she makes a really interesting move in the game. I tried to use little motifs that would help generate material to be able to dress up the story as much as possible.

DEADLINE: Was the music more tailored to the situations that she was in or her emotional state at the time?

RAFAEL RIVERA: It depends, I think, on the context. It was always contextual, especially for the games themselves. The games were really scored based on where she was emotionally, pretty much, because the music was really for her. Specifically, regarding the games, it was more contextual. If she was, let’s say, with someone, then that music would be generated throughout the whole game. If she was playing a nemesis, like Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), it was battle music. It was music like, “We’re going to war.” It sounds like an over the top thing to say, but when you put it to the moment, it feels like it fits.

DEADLINE: Can you speak on how the instrumentation grew with Beth throughout her life?

RAFAEL RIVERA: Scott Frank originally wanted to have a completely piano-based score for the series. He really wanted a very bold, distant thing, being the piano, that would help tell the whole story. When we were in episode one, it felt like it was right, because her reality was very simple. Her reality was very sad, and she was a product of choices that were made for her when she was eight, so the piano felt like it fit the place — the orphanage and the dreary situation that she was in.

But, once she got adopted and we walked into episode two, her world grew and it felt like the piano wasn’t doing the job it needed to do. It felt like it needed help, so we started adding instrumentation slowly, but surely. One thing I looked to do was that, while she was in the orphanage, her reality was piano-based, but as she went to bed and played the game in her mind, that music was always fully orchestral, and the intention was very much like when you’re a kid.

You have a dream. “One day, I’m going to grow up to be,” whatever it is that we fantasize about as children. It’s always fully formed.

Once we got into episode two and realized we had to increase the instrumentation, I started thinking, “Well, what if we seven episodes where the instrumentation keeps constantly growing until it becomes fully orchestral by the time she is fully matured as a player?” So, the thing that she saw on the ceiling, as a kid, becomes the reality that she was hoping for, and so the piano is part of the color, but not the main color anymore.

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