Well-written soundtracks for movies and television series can add much more depth and drama to the stories already portrayed onscreen. However, composer Carlos Rafael Rivera was presented with a challenge when he agreed to write the music for the hit Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit.
According to Deadline, the award-winning show centers around Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a prodigal chess player who has her sights set on beating the Russian Grandmasters in Moscow. During this journey, Harmon must also overcome her childhood traumas and various other issues.
Chess is a quiet game. No sounds other than the moving of players on the boards, or perhaps the ticking of a timer, are heard during a chess match. So how does one compose music for a show primarily focused on the game of chess?
As mentioned in an article posted by Deadline, Rafael Rivera stated that rather than composing for the game of chess, he decided to score for the player. Since The Queen’s Gambit is told from Beth Harmon’s perspective, Rafael Rivera composed a variety of themes based on what Harmon was experiencing and themes that demonstrated the complexity of Harmon’s character.
In his interview with Deadline, Rafael Rivera explained that he wrote themes for when Harmon won, when she lost, when she felt “cool,” when she was “up to something,” or even when she played an exciting chess move during a match. Rafael Rivera believed having only one central theme for Harmon felt “very constraining.” As Harmon grew from a child to adult, Rafael Rivera ensured the instrumentation grew with her. He stated that the show’s producer, Scott Frank, originally wanted an all piano-based score. The idea worked for episode one: Harmon’s life was “simple” and “sad”. The piano adequately reflected what Harmon was experiencing at the time and where she was living.
However, from episode two Harmon’s life began to change and become more interesting. Having only a piano to tell her story through music was no longer sufficient. Rafael Rivera then began to slowly incorporate more instruments. His idea was to gradually add instruments over the course of the seven episodes, so that by the final episode, the instrumentation “becomes fully orchestral by the time she is fully matured as a player.”
Her dream becomes her reality, and now the piano is no longer the most prominent instrument, but just one component of the overall picture.
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