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The Queen’s Gambit’s Music was Composed by a Latino

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know that “The Queens Gambit,” was the #1 show on Netflix for weeks. But did you know, the show’s music is not far behind? The music for the show already has over 3.5 million downloads and counting. Emmy award-winning composer Carlos Rafael Rivera is behind it all – and we got a chance to talk with him.

 How did you get involved in the series?

In April of 2018, I received an email from Scott Frank letting me know that “The Queen’s Gambit” by Walter Tevis could be our next project. In my excitement, I forwarded the email to my wife and proceeded to download the novel. I read it within a day (it’s not very long at all), and by the next day began to think about how to adapt the story through music. Since then, it was two years of very hard work to find the right tone for both character and story.

 Did you anticipate it will be the super success it has become?

Absolutely not. I was hoping the Chess community would take a liking to it, as I was aware of how concerned Scott Frank was about getting the Chess “right.” I was certainly proud of the work we had done but did not expect it to become as popular as it has.

 You have known Scott Frank for a while now. Can you tell us how you two met and how has it been working with him thus far?

In the Summer of 2003, Scott Frank walked into Old Town Music in Pasadena looking for a guitar teacher. He opened a binder and picked my name. It never crossed my mind that nearly twenty years after our first lesson, I would be composing the score for a Netflix Limited Series.

 At the time, Scott was simply looking to get better at playing guitar. Flash forward to a few years later, as he was gearing up to direct his first film, “The Lookout,” he first gave me a chance to play guitar for another composer who was doing the demo for the film. This was before James Newton Howard came on board to score it.

 Following the release of that film, he started suggesting I write some music to scenes he would write – scoring to the script. This was the birth of our quite unorthodox relationship, as he would fill me in on things he was working on, and I would do the same. During that time, my mentorship with Randy Newman had been going for a few years, and Scott took great interest in that.

Scott without a doubt changed my life, as he gave me the opportunity to score “A Walk Among The Tombstones,” starring Liam Neeson. Since then, it has been a constant thrill and education for me to collaborate with him.

 Were you a fan of the novel?

I became a quick fan of the novel upon reading it. I also became concerned, as there were several mentions of classical music throughout the novel by its author, Walter Tevis. Upon reading it, I realized classical music was needed to help tell the story, and convey the back and forth (counterpoint) between the pieces. It is a rather challenging style to write in, as it demands a good bit of understanding of musical form, structure, counterpoint, and orchestration.

 Was there a specific scene that was challenging to score?

Many of the chess sequences, at first. As I was receiving the assembled game sequences, I first thought there should be a kind of music that plays every time. That proved to be a hard fail. There were months I felt I was stuck in the basement with Beth, even to the point where Scott called me and said, “You’re scoring the wrong movie.” It was a fantastic note because it forced me to have to rethink my approach.

 That is when I realized that every scene required a particular kind of music because what mattered was the context around which music would be living. If Beth was interested in someone, the music would address that. If she was vying for the US Championship, it became battle music. This is what ended up receiving approval from Scott, which ultimately helped me write my way out of the basement.

 Do you think Hollywood is giving more opportunities to Latinos now than before?

I would certainly hope so. If anything, I have sensed an increase of awareness for the need for representation. From directors like Guillermo Del Toro and Patricia Riggen, to producers Tanya Saracho and Nancy Mejia, we are starting to see more stories that reflect back to us our own cultural heritage.

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