Soundtrack: <I>The Queen's Gambit</I>
Issue: May/June 2021

Soundtrack: The Queen's Gambit

Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit follows the life of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan who rises to the top of the chess world while struggling with drug and alcohol dependency. Set in the 1950s and ‘60s, the seven-episode series debuted in October on the streaming platform.

Carlos Rafael Rivera composed the series’ original score.

“Writer/director Scott Frank really wanted a piano based score,” Rivera recalls. “At first, he actually wanted the entire story to be scored with only piano. And so the early sketches were. But as Beth Harmon’s world enlarged, it felt inevitable to increase the instrumentation for the music to fit the story.”

Rivera says he began by representing Beth’s early 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 completely orchestral. By the time Beth arrives in the USSR in the final episode, Beth is also fully developed, and so the music, which matches the reality she always envisioned.”

Rivera read the Walter Tevis novel and came to the realization that classical music was mentioned and referenced quite a few times. 

“It became clear to me then that I was going to have multiple melodic lines to horizontally imitate the game - point/move, counterpoint/response. To me writing is also research, and the first thing I did after reading the novel was to watch as many chess films as I could, as well as documentaries, in order to study what decisions had been made by the directors/composers in these previous iterations.”

He recorded with the Budapest Art Orchestra right after COVID restrictions for live players were lifted in Hungary. things being uncertain during the lock-down, he had a backup plan to use a library-based soundtrack.  

“We relied heavily on Native Instruments Pianos, as well Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds, Brass, and Strings to hold the larger cues together. In the end, the final recordings ended up being a hybrid from the aforementioned libraries and the real orchestra.”