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Rivera Talks Collaboration for Composing ‘Queen’s Gambit’

Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera discussed his work on writer/director Scott Frank’s Netflix miniseries "The Queen’s Gambit" at an event for the Production Music Association's PMA Academy.

Carlos Rafael Rivera
Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera collaborated extensively with writer and director Scott Frank for “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Miami, FL—Award-winning composer Carlos Rafael Rivera’s favorite sequence in writer and director Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit has nothing to do with any music that he wrote. Rather, it was an example of the collaborative process that begins when he first reads the screenplay.

“The way I work with Scott is very unorthodox,” Rivera told the audience during a recent PMA Academy webcast. “I work with him from the screenplay. I start writing music reacting to it.

”Frank had already written Minority Report and Get Shorty when Rivera started giving him guitar lessons. Frank was studying composition at USC’s Thornton School, where he was mentored by Randy Newman. Eventually they started working together, first on 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, then on Netflix’s 2017 series Godless, for which Rivera won an Emmy Award for the main titles theme music.

“I make an iMovie out of the screenplay, then I score that,” said Rivera of his creative process. “What I’ve learned in being involved with the process early on is that 30 percent of the music survives. The rest goes away, because it doesn’t work.”

"The Queen's Gambit" album art
Listen to Rivera’s score for “The Queen’s Gambit.”

His favorite sequence in The Queen’s Gambit, he said, is the end of episode 1, where the 1953 film The Robe is playing in the background. “I thought of having this movie being heard in the background, and the score in the background becomes diegetic—it informs the action. I was able to suggest something the director liked so much that he shot it with the idea of syncing it to Alfred Newman’s score.”

When writing his own scores, Rivera uses Native Instruments’ Kontakt and Komplete, he said, but he has also been using Spitfire Audio libraries such as Albion Tundra. “It helped me on Godless,” he said.

Some composers buy lots of libraries. “I get one thing—because until recently I couldn’t afford these things—and work my way through it,” said Rivera, whose day job is teaching at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. “I like the idea of consuming one library and then moving on to another.”

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Sound mixer Roland Winke talks about recording The Queen’s Gambit

But he always incorporates a few live musicians to “sell” his demos, he said. “I record them and blend them with the libraries.” The idea is to ultimately record the score with an orchestra in Budapest, Hungary. For The Queen’s Gambit, he said, “The session dates started the day after Hungary lifted the quarantine on musicians. We were very lucky. But we were prepared to have it in-the-box.”

Carlos Rafael Rivera •