Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera breaks down the creative process for scoring Griselda - Interview

Uncover the musical inspiration behind Griselda. Explore how Carlos Rafael Rivera incorporated opera, harpsichord, and choir into the score for an over-the-top and epic feel.
64th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Winners Photo Room
64th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Winners Photo Room / David Becker/GettyImages

Directed by Andrés Baiz and produced by Eric Newman and Sofía Vergara, Griselda stars Sofia Vergara as the real-life crime lord Griselda Blanco, sometimes known as "The Cocaine Godmother" or "The Black Widow" (due to her killing all three of her husbands). Griselda is available to watch on Netflix right now and has quickly become a breakout hit for the streaming service.

Show Snob recently had the honor of sitting down with Carlos Rafael Rivera, the Emmy-winning and Grammy-winning composer of Netflix's Griselda.

Show Snob: Can you elaborate on your creative process for scoring the Griselda soundtrack, particularly your decision to incorporate the harpsichord choir and classical guitar, and how these elements contribute to the narrative?

Carlos Rafael Rivera: Writing for Griselda was an enjoyable experience, mainly due to the director, Andrés Baiz, being a highly creative person. We spoke extensively for about a month and a half before I began writing. Our conversations revolved around capturing the essence of the story set in Miami during the seventies and eighties.

I'm older, so I vividly remember watching Scarface when it was released, featuring Al Pacino as Tony Montana. The film had a fantastic score by Giorgio Moroder, known for its heavy use of synthesizers. To align with this vision, Andrés shared a Spotify playlist of synth-heavy music. Initially, we discussed replicating the cinematic and sonic spirit of the era, with the visual and sonic aspects being key elements.

While I focused on composing, the source music and mood-setting tracks were handled by music supervisor Liza Richardson. She curated a playlist of songs for scenes like entering a club, featuring artists such as Donna Summer and Blondie. Andrés also shared a playlist of dramatic classical music, which sparked the idea of incorporating opera into the score, aiming for an over-the-top and massive feel. This concept became a starting point for our discussions.

After receiving the playlists, Andrés sent me the opening scene of the show, expressing uncertainty about the need for music. However, as I watched the scene and noted a crucial moment where the protagonist reveals blood on her hand, inspiration struck. I usually react to visuals by singing into my phone to capture melodies. After recording these initial ideas, I transfer them to the digital audio workstation for further development.

I started attempting to flesh it out and make actual notes instead of my previous voice. But that happened, and I somewhat enjoyed it. I thought, "Dude, this feels like opera, an overture to an opera." It's like you're about to witness a larger-than-life story, right?

So, I began incorporating choir and harpsichord into it. I sent it to him, thinking, "I don't know, he's probably going to hate it." However, he responded, "Carlos, I love it. I think it's going to be great." I was like, "Oh my God." From there on, we just took off. Now, to specifically address the question about the harpsichord, throughout the story, she delivers speeches to her team, empowering them as a true leader.

What I discovered is that in operas from the classical era, there was a thing called the continuo, where the harpsichord would support during recitations. Whenever they transition to singing exposition, like narrating that the uncle is coming to town, there's always harpsichord playing a chord. So, I thought, "What if we have harpsichord accompanying her speeches?"

It's totally operatic. Opera is orchestral, classical, with the harpsichord featured, and choir. We know that low notes in films signify something scary, like Jaws, right? Low notes are a trope, a device to make you feel that the sound of a choir means something epic. When you hear a choir, you think, "Oh, a large and grand story." All these elements come in by planning and taking risks, and we got lucky, man.

Show Snob: So, if music sounds like a child's musical box, something demented is probably happening...

Carlos Rafael Rivera: Of course, if it's two o'clock in the morning, and the scene is dark, it ain't good to hear that.

Sofia Vergara
"Griselda" Miami Premiere - Arrivals / Mireya Acierto/GettyImages

Show Snob: The Griselda series is set in the seventies in Miami, as you mentioned. How did you infuse cultural elements into the score to enhance the storytelling, considering the series setting and theme?

Carlos Rafael Rivera: I grew up in Central America. My mom's from Guatemala, my dad's from Cuba. I moved a lot. Born in Washington DC, moved to Miami at three, then to Guatemala, Costa Rica at nine, and Panama at 11. I had a lot of Spanish and cultural upbringing, but I was into rock and roll, man. I rejected all that old folks' music, you know?

But it was in my twenties when I started studying music seriously, that I started paying attention to Latin American music and going holy sh**. This is really good stuff. Like it's really interesting and why do I keep clapping on the wrong beat for Cuban music, you know, and it's like, oh, I get it.

Show Snob: So how closely did you work with the director to align the musical elements with the vision he had for the series?

Andrés Baiz, was like a dream to work with because he really just gave me room; he wasn't micromanaging anything. It's a job of revision that job we this was just a unicorn of an of the great experiences that I had was doing the there's a scene that happens at the Day Land Mall, it's like the Day Land Mall shoot out.

The feeling I had when I saw the scene already as it was sent to me was very much of a, of a movie called The Usual Suspects, scored by John Ottman. it's like you're like in on what's gonna happen until it happens, you know, and the funner thing is that the music stops when the actual thing starts to go down. And so it's, you know, kind of Lord of the Rings. There's like always music building until the battle and then the battle happens, there's no music and it's so raw, the sound of the clink of the armor and the spears and whatever that, that it feels you're even more immersed but had the music not been there, you wouldn't be as [immersed].

Griselda and the Cocaine Cowboys

Show Snob: I watched two documentaries on Griselda called The Cocaine Cowboys. One thing that stuck with me is that there's this guy, I don't remember his name, but he hated her so much that he stayed in a mall all day long himself. He didn't hire a henchman, but he wanted to take her out himself. So he stayed in the mall she frequented. That kind of stuck with me.

Carlos Rafael Rivera: It's an interesting character...I [think the Griselda miniseries is] trying to explain, but definitely not excuse, her. You know what I mean? And she's someone you're not supposed to root for. But those are the kind of stories I like because you find yourself being on her side throughout, but you shouldn't be, you know?

Show Snob: With someone like Freddy Krueger, even though he's bad, he's one of the worst. Yet if you are A Nightmare on Elm Street fan, you're kind of a fan of Freddy. You know, it's kind of the same thing.

Carlos Rafael Rivera: Absolutely. I mean, that's what makes it fun because that's what makes it entertaining, I guess. And at least it was fun for me to work on because this lady [Sofía Vergara] really, really nailed the job. I mean, she did really well, and she's perceived as a comedian and a funny lady, and she is. But she nailed this duality to the character too.

(NOTE: This interview was edited for clarity, space, and grammar, which also means some liberty was taken with the transcription.)

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