Inside the Music with film & TV composer Carlos Rafael Rivera

Interview with Carlos Rafael Rivera

Carlos Rafael Rivera is an American composer best-known for his work on the hit Netflix show The Queen's Gambit for which he won both a Grammy and an Emmy Award. We caught up with Carlos to discuss how he became a film composer, his musical influences, his writing process, and more.

Download The Queen's Gambit sheet music

Interview with film & TV composer Carlos Rafael Rivera

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Can you tell us just a little about your musical background and how you got started in film composition?

Carlos Rafael Rivera ("C"): So, when I was a teenager living in Central America, I was into rock music. My brother was playing bass and he joined a local rock band but they didn't allow me to join because I was four years younger than my brother. But I started playing guitar, and then we moved to Miami. And I formed a band there with my brother because I was now older, or cool enough to be let in, according to him! I was always loving music, but I never thought of it as a career.

Then I went to college to study accounting, but took a music appreciation class, and that was it. I heard The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. And I had seen Fantasia, but I hadn't registered that moment. I only knew the one with the hat - the Paul Dukas piece, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. But I just got blown away by The Rite of Spring. And I remember a teacher brought in the score and there was this massive moment where there was this big growl in the orchestra. And the teacher pointed at that moment in the score and it was like two notes on paper in the trombones. And I don't know why, but I was fascinated by the fact these machines make this sound, and that was what drew me to composition.

And so I started studying composition along with classical guitar, and I got my Bachelor's degree from FIU in composition and guitar. And then I went to USC in Los Angeles to study composition where I received my Masters. And then eventually I earned my doctorate degree in composition because the goal was to be able to write orchestral music. I wanted to write music for orchestra and hopefully get something performed before I died! That was the goal.

   I just got blown away by The Rite of Spring. I remember this massive moment where there was this big growl in the orchestra. And I don't know why, but I was fascinated by the fact these machines make this sound, and that was what drew me to composition."

S: Okay, that's fascinating. And so you trained to be an accountant before that. That’s quite a different career choice!

C: Well, I was supposed to be an accountant because my dad came from Cuba, you know, and my mom came from Guatemala to the United States. So, like, you had to work hard. You had to be a lawyer, an accountant, a doctor. You know, that was sort of the calling. My dad wanted, you know, a safe thing, a secure thing. He was concerned as hell about me studying music. He loved the singer Julio Iglesias. And he goes, "Julio Iglesias, he's a lawyer. And then he sang." So there were a lot of things working against me, and it was really, really tough to get going. Although as a parent now, I completely understand where he was coming from.

S: And who were your musical inspirations growing up?

C: I feel like when I was 11 or 12 years old is when like the most powerful music and cinematic events happened for me. Movies got ingrained in my mind's retina, and the sounds of bands. At that time, it was bands like Van Halen but it was also John Williams with E.T. and The Empire Strikes Back, and Poltergeist by Jerry Goldsmith. And soundtracks were always at our home because my brother bought all the albums. We also had The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel, and I remember specifically a song called "Laura," which I used to love. And that whole album was like a Sgt. Pepper for Billy Joel's career.

We also used to make mix tapes, because of course there was no playlist on Spotify, so you'd just make your own cassette with the most perfectly curated songs by bands as varied as Devo, Sammy Hagar, and there was metal, there was Journey, there was little bit of everything, man. It was really the birth of MTV also, so music videos were a big thing. And, you know, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan by James Horner, which I loved as a kid. And with those movies you knew that the music was good, but you weren't thinking, "wow, I really like the choice to picture." You're not thinking any of that. You're really just enjoying it viscerally. And so I was always into that, but I never thought I would ever be that person, or getting to talk to you!

S: So quite a wide range of musical inspirations then! Can you talk us through your writing process, whether that's for The Queen's Gambit or just generally your writing process when you're starting out with a new project?

C: Yeah. Now I've gotten a little bit clearer on what the process is like, and it's really just reacting to what the story is. And what's weird about the challenge of writing is that it feels like you're talking about a dream you had when you wake up from it. When you're in the dream, it's so clear. But when you try to tell someone the dream, you get stuck in words and you're like "I was swimming in a coffee cup." And it made sense in the dream, you know? But when we talk about how we write music and how we put things together, it feels very weird. It feels like dreaming, but it's actually just a craft. There is nothing more to it than the act of doing. And over and over, things start to come out. It's not like magic, even though it seems like magic, you know? It's the weirdest thing to explain, but I've come to real terms with it because my focus has been to become like a craftsperson, a person who makes things as well as I can make them. And that so happens to be intangible things. Something that you just experience aurally, I guess.

   When we talk about how we write music and how we put things together, it feels very weird. It feels like dreaming, but it's actually just a craft"

But the only reason I've gotten any decent is because I've been putting all the hours in and I just do it. And when people talk about it, they can get pedantic and artistic. And I'm not into that. It's just a job. It's no different than any other job. And it can become as tedious as any other job in practice, you know? But I think there is something to it because it's intangible and because it's ephemeral. But I actually really think of it as more of a work day. You put your hours in and you produce content.

S: That was a very honest answer, so I appreciate that! So obviously The Queen's Gambit was a tremendous success. Were you personally surprised by how big it became? Were you expecting that? Was it a shock?

C: Yes, I was shocked and I was not expecting that. And I remember Scott Frank sent me an email saying, hey, it looks like there's another thing we're doing. And I read the novel and I was like "whoa, this is going to be really hard." And it's chess. And if any time I told somebody what I was working on, nobody cared. And I've been blessed to always work early on with Scott, so I got the dailies and I started looking at the dailies. I was watching Anya Taylor-Joy work, and not only did Stephen Meizler's cinematography already look good, but watching her work and seeing the process, I remember thinking "this is going to be a really good stepping stone for Anya." She was just so professional, she had this attitude of "let's go, let's go, let's go." And she was so captivating. And I think the reason for its success is not only Scott's brilliant writing and the way he amplified the story from the Walter Tevis novel. But it was the fact the story is told from one point of view, which is only Elizabeth Harmon's point of view. You don't ever go to another character. You stay on one character's perception of the entire experience. And because of that, the pressure on the actor is more I think that even she may have realized at the time, but she carried it. She carried it incredibly.

   I really felt very happy to be part of it, and the music has become sort of part of that community in a way that I never, ever dreamed of."

So, I was certain the chess community would be very happy with the film, because I knew how much work Scott put in to honor and respect the games and the gamesmanship. It was a real nerd fest for all of us who cared about chess. And then I thought that Anya Taylor-Joy would probably get more work, but I didn't realize she was going to become a superstar and chess sets would be sold out, and that I'd get more work myself. But I really felt very happy to be part of it, and the music has become sort of part of that community in a way that I never, ever dreamed of.

S: And then you obviously won a Grammy and an Emmy Award for your work on the show, which is a pretty big deal in itself. How did that feel?

C: Horrible, haha!

S: Ha! Maybe that's a silly question!

C: No, it's just weird because when you get nominated, it's because your peers are nominating you. And so the fact that you're recognized at the nomination level is the big thing. Getting past the five or six nominees to become the recipient of it is always a gift, but it's a surprise. It can go to anyone. I think the nomination almost matters more than the award, if that makes sense. When I got the first Emmy nomination, somebody said to me "you will always be an Emmy-nominated composer," and I was like, "oh my God!" You know what I mean? That hit me way more than the award winning. And winning at that level is awesome, I'm not going to play it down. It felt amazing getting to walk up to the stage to the person who just called your name. It's a surreal walk. But the feeling of the nomination is that your peers are paying attention and there's nothing more validating than that moment.

S: That makes a lot of sense. And then, staying on The Queen's Gambit for a second, do you have a favorite musical moment in the film?

C: There are things that I'm happy about how they turned out. One of the first things I did was write the main title. And I sent that to Scott and he really was happy with it. And the second thing I wrote was the last piece of music that happens in the show. The scene where she's walking around this sort of park and wearing a white thing that looks like a queen. So those are the first two things I wrote. And then at some point I started writing all the rest of the score, and then the rest of the score was like a deconstruction of the main title that builds back towards it throughout the story. But then at some point Scott said, "I think we've got to change the main title." And I never said no of course. I was like "oh okay, I understand." Because you're working for them, right? So I was in a panic that evening and the next day he goes, "well, maybe it is kind of good." But I told him I had got some ideas which would add a little bit more intensity to the theme I had originally done. And he got into it and I was like, "oh my God, we got lucky that we saved the main title!"

   I'm happy that those first two things I wrote are the last two things you actually hear in the show."

But by the time I had written the rest of the score, the last piece you hear had nothing to do with the rest of the music in the show! And it only works because it feels so different. It's its own thing. So I was expecting Scott to call me and say "this doesn't belong in the show," but he never said anything. So I was like, "head down, stay quiet." And I'm happy that those first two things I wrote are the last two things you actually hear in the show. And so for me, the most satisfying thing was that that piece got to live and survive all the way to the end.

S: That's awesome. So, aside from your own work, do you have a favorite film score or soundtrack that you particularly enjoy?

C: So I love the classic stuff, but I also love the work people like Daniel Pemberton and Nicholas Britell are doing. I think there's like a newer generation younger than me who are very eclectic in a way. Ludwig Göransson too of course - he's one of the most incredible ones. He's so bold with his writing and he can produce so well, and the quality of the sound that you hear is fantastic. So I just really respect them for what they do and I get inspired. I think it's an amazing time for composers to be making things, because there's so many opportunities and so many outlets. You're hearing a variety of sounds from classical to electronic to ambient to God knows what, and if it works to picture, more power to them!

S: It's interesting you mention Nicholas Britell, because the Succession theme has been one of our best-selling sheet music titles for some time now.

C: It's so yummy. And for whatever reason, you just want to get in and play those two high chords at the start. And from the moment you hear it, it was already great. And it's like he just had that moment where it all came together. From some of the interviews I've seen, I think he put the main title at the end after he'd done the whole show. He kind of amalgamated it from all these different vibes he had put together. So I'm happy to hear it's doing well because it's a really worthy piece. And I think the job of a main title is to invite you to the party. The job of a main title is to say, "check this out, it's going to be amazing." It's like someone standing outside their store in the mall and saying "you've got to come in here and see this!" That's our job when we write a main title. And that reminds me of the stuff from the seventies, like the stuff Mike Post did - Hill Street Blues and The Rockford Files. He was great at that.

   The job of a main title is to invite you to the party. It's like someone standing outside their store in the mall and saying "you've got to come in here and see this!"

S: I love that shopping mall analogy! And so, you're obviously a guitarist by trait, do you still sit down and play for your own enjoyment nowadays?

C: So, I started as a classical guitarist, and I was into performing. But then that bug just went away. And I've heard several interviews with composers who say they need to practice when they're not writing. But I like to play video games when I'm not playing! If I'm not working, I'm not really doing any music if I can avoid it. I'm trying to play video games, basically. That's the goal!

S: And one final question for you. What are you working on at the moment that we can look forward to?

C: I did the music for season three of a Spanish telenovela called La Reina del Sur. And it's very exciting because it's one of the most popular telenovelas of all time in Latin America. And it happens to be this massive juggernaut of a show. And I was approached to do it like a year ago, and then The Queen's Gambit was starting to do really well. And I told my mom about it and she goes, "oh, my son, finally, you're doing well!" You know, because she's Guatemalan and watched the show. One of the reasons I took it on is because she reacted like she did. And so that's coming out in October.

I'm also working on a new Netflix show called Griselda with Sofia Vergara as the lead, which is directed by Andy Baiz and produced by Eric Newman, who are the team behind Narcos. And it's a great story about Griselda Blanco, who was the cocaine Godmother in Miami. I'm super excited about it. It's really thrilling. And then Scott Frank is working on something else that's going to be coming out next which I'm starting to work on now a little bit, and I'm super excited about it. Honestly I’ve just been blessed to be working. You know, it's a miracle to be having this conversation and hear myself talking. I feel like I'm lying, you know? It's been a good ride, that's for sure.

S: That's testament to your hard work and talent. So congratulations.

C: Thanks, I appreciate that.

S: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, Carlos. All the best with your future projects.

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