Interview With Penka Kouneva (Composer)

Interviewed by Justin D Williams

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I had a chat with composer Penka Kouneva. We had talk about her musical upbringings, her new projects and much more.  Penka Kouneva, who began her career in film and television, but had a break scoring the Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands and Transformers video games, with themes by Steve Jablonsky, the Transformers composer.  Recently, Penka scored The Mummy Escape Game and VR Experience, and the $30 million, multimedia exhibit, Heroes and Legends, which celebrates the American astronauts, and is permanently located at the Kennedy Space Center. Penka has also served as an orchestrator on World of Warcraft: Legion, Overwatch, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, for which she was the lead orchestrator. Penka has also released two award-winning concept albums, and will release her third, Rebirth of Id, later this year.  Penka's major composition awards include a Game Audio Network Guild Recognition Award (2016), a Sundance Composer Fellowship, two Ovation Awards, and a Duke University Distinguished Alumna Award.

Otakus & Geeks: Let’s start from the beginning. When did you fall in love with music and realize you wanted to be a composer?

Penka Kouneva: I bonded emotionally with music around age 6. Music was my outlet when I was growing up in Bulgaria (which at the time was a communist country). At age 12, I composed incidental music for children’s theater, and began identifying myself as a “composer.” My parents encouraged my interests, although most of their friends laughed at the notion of their daughter being a composer. Historically, composing as a vocation has not been accessible to women. Today, about 1.5% women composers are performed by major philharmonics and 2% score studio feature films. I see composing as my destiny.

Otakus & Geeks: Who are some of your musical influences?

Penka Kouneva: I was classically trained and orchestral music has been a great influence for me. In my 20’s I discovered EDM, American Minimalism and medieval chant. Since 2000 I have been immersed in film and game music. My taste and experiences are eclectic; I voraciously listen to music every day. My composing style is a modern hybrid cinematic style – an orchestral palette blended with modern synths and percussion. I orchestrated and arranged for Steve Jablonsky (the Transformers composer) and Neal Acree (composed for all Blizzard games); their music has been the deepest inspiration for me.

Otakus & Geeks: You have two recent projects, The Mummy VR game and the NASA exhibit Heroes and Legends. Can you tell us about how you approach each project?

Penka Kouneva: Since The Mummy is a big Universal franchise, I studied all the past Mummy film scores. But it’s a VR experience, not a film or game, so I had to find the unique tone of it. I used tension music as a signature for the Special forces, and horror music for the enemies. My objective in scoring VR was for the music to blend with the sound design and voice over. Since VR is such a new frontier, it takes a thoughtful, innovative approach to score VR projects. Check out The Mummy VR at the IMAX VR Theaters.

The NASA exhibit Heroes and Legends was a unique composing job I’ve ever had. As a child growing up in Bulgaria I loved reading about space and astronauts. Space symbolized freedom for me. This NASA attraction is permanently located at the Kennedy Space Center and features 3D movies, installations, and media telling the stories of the American astronauts on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. I wrote modern and timeless music that celebrates these American heroes -- heart-swelling orchestral themes with modern percussive arrangements to express our fascination with space.

Otakus & Geeks: Is there any difference in scoring a film/television to composing compared to a videogame or exhibit score?

Penka Kouneva: Yes, they all are similar in certain ways and very different in other ways. The similarities are that music must capture specific emotions and become a signature for characters and ideas. The differences are both musical and technical – for instance, film is a linear media and the film score is defined by the editing – by the emotional arc of the scene, by the storytelling. Games are interactive; different gamers go with different speed through the game and may have to repeat a level many times. The music is composed like Lego blocks so that it can be looped, or interrupted by a “win” or “lose” stinger, or turn on a dime from quiet exploration to intense battle. A game theme is a bit similar to a jingle (TV commercial) -- it serves as a sonic signature for the game and is used as a branding device, helping the game to be distinguished from other similar games. TV scoring is extremely challenging because of the stringent weekly production cycle. TV scoring takes supreme time, people management skills, and fluent music production skills. Also, much of TV scoring is under dialogue so the music should never compete with dialogue but work subliminally.

Otakus & Geeks: As a composer how do you find the inspiration for a score? How do you decide what instrument or sound would go best with the score?

Penka Kouneva: I am a collaborative composer, and my music supports the ideas and vision of other creators. I ask them questions about their ideas, story, and characters. I also ask about their taste and together we discuss what style of music would be a perfect match. Sometimes we look at past films or games in a similar genre. My biggest job is to understand the vision of my collaborator and their taste in music and filmmaking. Then we discuss the best style, tone, and instrumentation for the project. Over the years of collaborating, I have trained myself to listen closely, to be open-minded, and to deeply understand the needs of each film and game. Collaborating is fun!

Otakus & Geeks: Is there any song from The Mummy VR or Heroes and Legends that was the most challenging for you?

Penka Kouneva: As a composer for visual media, I get inside the mind of my collaborators. They have lived with their vision for years, from writing to pre-production through editing, and I am being brought in during the last weeks (or month) of post-production. Every project has one or two moments that are challenging to nail down. This is normal. My intuition, experience, and caring attitude help me push through the challenges.

Otakus & Geeks: Can you tell us a little bit about your next album Rebirth ID?

Penka Kouneva: Rebirth of Id is my third artist album (after The Woman Astronaut and A Warrior’s Odyssey). I created it to stretch as a composer and to write music that I haven’t had a chance to compose on a scoring job yet. I wanted to return to my formative inspirations (classical orchestral music and Minimalism) and blend them with innovative electronic textures. The album has a unique structure – four tone poems, each telling its own story. The first tone poem is a futuristic sci-fi story about a woman leader in a dystopian land that is experiencing severe drought; the second is a period drama about a woman - former composer prodigy - who has renounced composing; the third is a supernatural romantic thriller in the vein of Black Mirror where a woman uses a VR device to travel back in time to a past life. Do you want women’s stories? Here I am telling original women’s stories.

Otakus & Geeks: How can fans keep up to date with your work and projects?

Penka Kouneva: Yes! Check out a terrific supernatural horror feature, Devil’s Whisper which tells the story of the 16-year-old Alejandro. It’s a beautifully produced and richly layered film about fighting demonic forces, coming of age, courage, and perseverance. (Sony Pictures released it on DVD and VOD). Two other features are coming out soon – Paul Salamoff’s sci-fi thriller Encounter and the drama features Blue and Nanook. I composed the scores for all three of these films.

Follow me on Facebook – Penka D Kouneva, twitter @PenkaKouneva. I would like to thank my fans for their time and enthusiasm.