For composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, it all began in April 2018, with an email. Long-time friend and partner in crime, Oscar-winner Scott Frank, had just read The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis and emailed to say that this was their next project. Carlos then proceeded to read the book, and immediately mapped out ideas for the score that would inexorably amplify the narrative in profound ways.
The duo had worked on Godless , a Western series on Netflix. But Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit taps into the world of chess through a fictional story. Set in the Cold War era, it follows Elizabeth Harmon (Anya Taylor Joy) who develops a talent for chess during her early years in an orphanage. She is then adopted by a couple, and her talent is encouraged taking her around the world. However, Beth descends into a dependency on tranquilisers which darkens the plot — ultimately inviting Carlos to experiment with compositions.
“We were all concerned about visually translating the sport,” recalls Carlos over a call from his home in Miami, USA. “I’ve seen all the films and documentaries about chess that I could and I realised I had to score for 20-odd games where each one would have its own thing. And how do you make it interesting to people that do not know? I know baseball and football... I grew up with chess in that my dad played a little, but I never cared about it. But as long as you know that someone stands to lose, you can score for it. It didn’t work to write music that would apply to the games like a template.”
Carlos and Scott had gone back and forth for months until Carlos realised that writing for context was key — he had to score according to what happened before and after the match. The composer agrees that, given the story is centred on Beth, the music channels her emotions during a match too; if she’s feeling particularly competitive, there’s battle music, if she almost apologetically wins, the music portrays this too.
Beth, aloof in some moments and actually relatable in others, was “not a mono-thematic character.” Carlos, who is deeply impressed by actor Anya, started scoring aspects of her character, be it victory, addiction, heartbreak, or loss. He chuckles, adding, “These are very nerdy musical things! I wanted to present very cold and simple instrumentation in the form of piano and cello as she leaves the orphanage. By the time she goes to the USSR to compete, it is fully orchestral.”
The Queen’s Gambit features soundtrack as well as score, so Carlos states, “The songs of that time — such as Bill Compton’s ‘25th of the 12th’ and Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ — help place you in time more successfully than music ever would.” He also commends Wiley Stateman, the series’ sound designer, whom everyone dubs ‘Obi Wan Kenobi’ because he has worked for many Quentin Tarantino films including Once Upon a Time in Hollywood . Carlos describes the symbiosis: “Music doesn’t live just against the picture, music lives in a landscape that is really terraformed by the dialogue and sound design. So Wiley and I collaborated very early on, working in tandem to help tell Scott’s story.”
Throughout the series, audiences will feel anchored by the sound of the ticking chess timer, around which some of the music was scored. “It’s in the main title which I wrote in December 2018 and Scott approved it,” agrees Carlos, “and it’s always been about a game of time… because it’s not only the two people playing against each other, it’s each individual playing against time. That clock is ever-present in the games. I had to let go of being at ‘quarter note equals 60’ or the tempo of an actual clock. At some point, the music just has to service the story. That was one of the great examples of collaborating with Wiley, in having these moments where music takes over or the clock takes over; it’s symbiotic. We had plenty of conversations about balancing the clock and the music. I also thought ‘this may be annoying to some people’ because the clock has its own tempo and then the music has another tempo. First of all, I try to avoid any percussive instruments that would kind of compete with it to create confusion because the clock is a percussion instrument in its own way. It was complicated to weave around without it becoming insanity-inducing.”
A lot of Beth’s pain is shown through the music, agrees Carlos who adds that he scored Beth’s biological mother, who is seen in flashbacks through the series. “Beth didn’t know how to love in those first eight years of her life — her father was absent and her mother was unstable — and she doesn’t understand that part of life. She does, however, understand chess, because she feels like she can control it. There was an empathy machine trigger that wasn’t activated in the first stage of her life, to no fault of her own; the music for these flashbacks are a variation that is darker and lower.” Then came scoring addiction. “There was this melodic idea that was actually slowed down and you’d hear it in the cello, to resonate that stoned point-of-view.”
The series concludes with a tension-brimming match in the USSR between Beth and Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). It’s a scene (no spoilers here) upon which Carlos looks back with a lot of respect. “When I got the final scene, I cried. I hadn’t written music. The scene was beautifully edited by Michelle Tesoro, beautifully shot by Steven Meizler, and beautifully directed and written by Scott Frank [laughs]. And Borgov, oh, [played by Dorocinski], I love his face, he’s such a good antagonist to her.” That scene propelled a creative outflow from Carlos,who says there was no heavy-lifting involved. “All the work that I had been doing for two years with all these melodies, fully matured like Beth. The music was written so fast then, and it was cathartic.”
Carlos feels blessed to be involved in storytelling that empowers women. “The time had come for women and chess, but represented fictionally. It’s about an orphan girl from Kentucky beating the Russians at their own game during the Cold War era, so it’s been a privilege to be a part of that storytelling.”
Limited series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is streaming on Netflix. The score for the series can be streamed and/or purchased from here .