Film & TV Miss N

Scoring Chess in The Queen’s Gambit.

Within a month after it was released on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit became the streaming service’s biggest scripted limited series to date, ranking in the top 10 of 92 countries, hitting 1st place in many of them. Over 60 million households and counting have been captivated by the seven-part drama, which means many more ears have been introduced to the work of composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who created the score.

“Getting the musical tone right for this kind of story has been the greatest education of my life,” Rivera tells American Songwriter. The series, which stars Anya Taylor-Joy as rising chess star Beth Harmon, is based on the Walter Tevis’ novel, and directed by Scott Frank with co-creator with Allan Scott (Don’t Look Now). Rivera met Frank in 2003, when Frank was looking for a guitar teacher. As the Oscar-nominated screenwriter began developing the directing part of his career, so he and Rivera started working together beyond music lessons.

Around the same time that he met Frank, Rivera was being mentored by Randy Newman while studying music composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School. It all helped set him on track for a career that would bring music to the screen, both for film and TV. “[Newman’s] early advice regarding dialogue and tempo helped my early cues get approved, and has stayed with me to this day,” says Rivera. He scored Frank’s 2014 film A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, and his wild west TV series, Godless, for which Rivera earned an Emmy for outstanding original main title theme music.

But chronicling the life of an orphan chess prodigy, in a story set during the Cold War era, proved to be an entirely different experience for Rivera. The music in The Queen’s Gambit fulfills many roles — it underscores the character development of a female chess-player but also accentuates chess moves as they are made in quiet matches.

Rivera began his process by using what he calls a “rather unorthodox musical approach” that he and Frank have developed to his storytelling. “I will read through the teleplay and select scenes that feel like they will require score, make an iMovie of the written words to be followed at a reading pace, and score it,” says Rivera. “We call them ‘script movies,’ and this has helped our process tremendously, in that we find out what is not working early on, before production has begun.” 

From the start, Scott told Rivera the score should be piano-based. “At first, he wanted it to be only piano, but as the first assemblies began to come in, we both realized we were going to need instrumental depth and color to fill the screen,” says Rivera. Their longtime friendship has helped create a shorthand between them that was especially useful on this production. “He can share his honest opinion without concern. It’s an ideal working relationship, as with a really good friend, where you can ask: ‘Hey, does this shirt look good on me?’ and they answer: ‘It’s a disaster. When you put your arm through one sleeve, what made you think you should put it through the other?’ That brutal honesty is very hard to find in any relationship, because the intent is never hurtful, but rather unafraid, and safe,” says Rivera. “Ultimately, we are both looking for what will best serve the story.” 

Rivera credits Frank’s patience and trust in getting the score to work as well as it does. Bringing chess — a sport that doesn’t lend itself to great cinematic flair — to life on screen was challenging for Rivera. “I was warned by Scott, as well as Wylie Stateman, our sound supervisor, that music would be doing a lot of heavy lifting,” says Rivera. “They were right. Not only in the chess matches, but in montages, which are opportunities I love to take on, especially since I feel Scott is really good at making them. There were very difficult months early on in post-production, where Scott would tell me: ‘You’re scoring the wrong movie.’”

The composer relied on Gambit’s main character to create a score that best served the story. Rivera initially thought about writing one main theme for Taylor-Joy’s Beth but found that breaking it up into different themes that showed the complexity of her character — like Addiction, Genius, Mischief, Growth — worked better. “By resorting to different themes, I found myself applying them throughout the seven episodes, whenever one of these aspects were guiding her character in a scene, creating a more holistic representation of Beth,” says Rivera.

Her growth as both a person and a chess-player is developed in this way, but also in the chess games Beth plays in her mind on the ceiling above her. “The point of the ceiling games was to show what Beth imagined as a child in her head. When you’re a child, and you have those ‘one day, I’m gonna be…’ fantasies and dreams, you always imagine everything fully realized,” says Rivera. “So, the instrumentation was fully orchestral every time she played on the ceiling. Although her reality in the orphanage was piano and cello, when she played her games on the ceiling they were orchestral, therefore complete. Along with her growth, I added more and more instrumentation. By the time she is playing [her biggest competitor] Borgov in the final episode, Beth’s childhood fantasies have become her reality. And so the music is fully orchestral, leaving the piano behind.”

The series is riveting to watch — and with Rivera’s suspenseful score, riveting to hear, too. The 3.5 million streams the score picked up after just three weeks on Spotify certainly attests to that.