|Interview with Penka Kouneva
Involved Composer and Orchestrator of Starcraft 2, The Sims 3, Gears of War 2,
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Bee Movie, Transformers,
Thick and Thieves, Angels & Demons,
Hostel, Matrix Revolutions,
Pirates of the Caribbean and much more.
July 31, 2010
Penka Kouneva is a Sundance Composer Fellow and a rising Hollywood film composer who blends her native Eastern European influences with modern orchestra, medieval chant, rock, and electronica.
Recently, she composed additional score for the videogames «PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE FORGOTTAN SANDS (PS3, PC) » 2010 and «TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN» working alongside the TRANSFORMERS composer Steve Jablonsky.
Other works include the horror feature MIDNIGHT MOVIE, the crime drama THE THIRD NAIL, the Sci-Fi Channel thriller ICE SPIDERS and TV music for FORENSIC FILES on CourtTV, DOG FIGHTS and MODERN MARVELS.
In addition to scoring, Penka is an orchestrator on film soundtracks, including TRANSFORMERS 1, 2, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3, ANGELS AND DEMONS, 9, HOSTEL I and II, MATRIX 2, 3, SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS and videogames such as WORLD OF WARCRAFT, SIMS 3, TRANSFORMERS 1, 2, STARCRAFT 2, and GEARS of WAR 2.
Penka was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, started piano lessons at 6 and wrote incidental music for children's theater shows at 12. In 1990, she ventured out of post-communist Bulgaria and came to the US to make a life for herself as a composer. She had $130 in her pocket and a Duke University composition fellowship. In 1997, she made history at Duke by receiving the first-ever Doctorate in Composition from this distinguished institution. At Duke, she studied with Stephen Jaffe, Scott Lindroth and with the Dutch postmodern minimalist Louis Andriessen. Penka also enjoyed a successful career as a concert composer. Soon after Penka arrived in Los Angeles in 1999, she began her career as an orchestrator for Emmy-winning composer Patrick Williams. Later that year, Cliff Eidelman gave Kouneva her first scoring break, the Holocaust drama «SHADOWS». In addition to Steve Jablonsky, other composers who played a major part in Kouneva's career would be Bruce Fowler and Lee Holdridge. Penka Kouneva has since been honored with WorldFest's Platinum Remi for Best Score, the Aaron Copland Award, the Sundance Institute Composer Lab Fellowship and Meet the Composer Award.
Penka recently composed 2 hours of additional music for Ubisoft's Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands on PS3/Xbox360/PC, whose principal composer was Steve Jablonsky. Penka also has an upcoming official soundtrack CD release in June for Midnight Movie, an indie supernatural horror film released on DVD/BluRay which is currently receiving regular airplay on TV in the USA. The label is a start-up genre soundtrack collectors label, Howlin' Wolf www.howlinwolfrecords.com.
|Dear Mrs. Penka, may you tell us more about you? where are you come from?
I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. My mother is a music professor and my dad is a scientist. I began piano lessons at the age of 6; went to a High School of Music in my hometown Sofia, then to Music Academy. Upon graduating in 1990 I was awarded a Duke Graduate fellowship for composition and arrived in the US with $130 in my pocket. At Duke I was encouraged by my professors, two great orchestral composers: Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth.
In the 90’s some concert composers were calling themselves “postmodernists” writing tonal music and fusing elements from Eastern and Western cultures, old and new music, “high art” and pop vernaculars. This approach was closest to my heart and I began identifying myself as a “postmodernist” too. By temperament I am calm, level-headed, soft-spoken. In my work, I am exceptionally dedicated and hard working.
May you explain us what’s your job as an orchestrator?
The orchestrator works very closely with the composer and engraves their music (from a MIDI sequence) into a fully completed orchestral score. I focus on crafting the scores and plan the details of the recording session while the composer is busy writing an enormous amount of music and dealing with feedback and approvals by director and studio. We discuss how big the orchestra will be, budgets, where, when and how to record – always addressing the needs of the score. On “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End” I orchestrated for all non-orchestral and non-Western instruments that were a big part of its “world-sound” (Japanese koto, tons of Chinese and Asian winds and flutes, Cimbalom, Dulcimers, Irish fiddle, drums). It felt like discovering new worlds.
How did you meet and how did you begin working with Steve Jablonsky from Remote Control?
In 2004, I was introduced to Steve Jablonksy by Bruce Fowler, the Supervising Orchestrator for Remote Control. Steve had scored a TV show (“The Contender”) with a small budget for music. That was my first assignment orchestrating for him.
Then in 2006 I orchestrated his “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” and “Dragon Wars” scores. He called me because of my experience with modern orchestral effects often used in horror and fantasy scores. Then “Transformers” games and films, “Gears of War 2, “The Sims 3.”
I worked really hard to make sure he felt that I deeply cared for his success at the recording sessions. My experience as a concert composer, knowledge of Ligeti and other modernists combined with Hollywood experience and work ethics secured my working relationship with him.
You orchestrated on «Transformers» scored by Steve Jablonsky. Could you tell us more about your work with him?
The orchestra for the film “Transformers” was a large ensemble with reinforced low brass and low strings. I admire Steve Jablonsky’s ability to write themes that are so memorable, emotional and distinctive. It’s something I strive towards daily and he is my inspiration. The “Transformers” music had a dark epic quality, in addition to the high-octane action. I am always aware of how the live orchestra will interact with synths, percussion, drum loops, to make sure everything is crafted perfectly. We communicate via email and servers where my assignments are uploaded.
By the time I receive the cues to be orchestrated, they have already been approved by the director and studio. I can’t change any notes, any themes. My job is to think how this music will sound the best – it’s a quiet cue, maybe I can use less violins, or I could have the Horns support the Trombones. Or maybe this mournful theme will sound better on Alto flute than regular C Flute. These are the kind of questions that are part of my job, but I cannot change anything thematic or structural. Or else when the director hears the new embellishments, they will jump “where did that come from?”
||Did you also meet and work with other composers from Remote Control? Maybe Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams or Klaus Badelt? Tell us more about that.
I worked with Klaus Badelt in 2004 on an independent film “Beat the Drum.” His score was beautiful, touching and had simplicity and sincere feeling. I have received all my orchestration assignments for Hans Zimmer by my supervisor Bruce Fowler. I have great admiration for Harry Gregson Williams but haven’t worked for him.
Are there some differences between movie and videogame scores you’ve orchestrated for Steve Jablonsky? Which one is easier to work on (movie or game)? Why?
In film, the entire score must synchronize with picture and must support the arc of the scene, the editing, and the subtext of the story. Often, a film cue goes through a dramatic development, a rousing climax, or sudden change. A film cue could be short but with great variety. In games, music has different functions: ambient, suspense or combat loops that support the ever-changing gaming experience. All loops are usually around 1:30 to 3 minutes: much longer than an average film cue and intense.
Could you, as a orchestrator, interact and change for examples some themes, notes or melodies from the composer like Steve Jablonsky? Maybe like «Oh, I have a great idea, what do you think about that….»? Is that possible?
What do you like more, working as an orchestrator or as a composer? Why?
I love my “dual” career. In 1999 I came to Hollywood to build a career as a film composer but my background was in concert music. I had to learn everything: technology, MIDI, business, procedures. My first mentor was the Emmy-winning TV composer Patrick Williams.
At the time (1999-2001) Patrick scored 12 television films; I crafted his scores and did the copying of parts. In my own early scoring I emulated the clarity of his melodies, his emotional focus and how he approached various scenes. Later I met Bruce Fowler who began giving me orchestration jobs.
I orchestrated “Hostel” for Nathan Barr in 2005, and a few years later influences from this collaboration inspired me for my own score on “Midnight Movie.” (We both love Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” and shivery viola tremolo & harp ostinato for suspense). Recently I felt greatly inspired by orchestrating for Neal Acree, Blizzard’s contributing composer on “World of Warcraft” and “StarCraft II.” You see, I’ve profoundly enjoyed and benefitted from my dual career as orchestrator and composer.
When you’re composing, what kind of instruments are you using and which information, requirements or advices are you receiving before you start to write and compose? Did you use some electronic music and synthesizer too or just some real instruments, orchestra and maybe choir?
First, I watch the film, and then I try to get inside the director’s creative mind, in order to feel his vision and the needs of the film. I “live” inside his film like a character in it, trying to absorb the characters’ motivation and story. Since the score must create sonic identity for the film (besides adding emotional depth, subtext and dramatic arc), initially the director and I talk about the overall style, “building blocks” and tone of the score. I must listen very closely to his taste and requirements. Then I do a fair amount of “research” into past films with similar story, style or tone. Then I sketch my own themes and usually score 1-2 pivotal scenes that will help me find the film’s “heart.”
I have a keyboard but usually I sketch themes and melodies on paper, just imagining how they will go with the film. For the score approval meetings with the director I play him complete cues with all instruments sequenced using samples. Most modern film scores are a combination of live instruments, electronics and voices (or choir). How many instruments are recorded live depends on the budget. I’ve loved the orchestra all of my life and feel incredibly privileged to write for the orchestra, because I believe that film and game scores are “the modern orchestral music of 20th and 21st Centuries.” But each score has very different demands about instrumentation.
|Where do you find your inspiration and ideas for composing some videogame or movie scores?
As soon as I receive a new composing assignment, I immerse myself into its world. I tend to be thoughtful and think up ideas, sketch and revise motifs, and let them gestate. For instance, when I found out that Ubisoft had approved me to work alongside Steve Jablonsky on the “Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands” game, I began listening to Persian singers, Armenian duduk players and (on YouTube) to tons of instrumental soloists playing santour (Persian dulcimer) and many other Middle-Eastern instruments.
My sketches sat in my notebook for a few months until I started composing in earnest. By that time, I had distilled the best ideas from the sketch book and used them for my cues.
What is your typical day at work? What kind of music do you listen to, if it isn't a soundtrack or score?
I work on the computer 9-5, then play in the park with my 4 year-old daughter. After she goes to bed, I work again till midnight. Usually my creative hours are the quiet evening hours. My days are hectic, I work hard. Creativity (composing) and distractions don’t go together well: I need absolute focus and quiet time to immerse myself into the task and be creative. I listen to classical, world and Renaissance music for inspiration.
What are you doing in your free time?
Spend time with my family, play outside, hike, camp, exercise, jog. Visit friends, support their work, remain connected with my colleagues. Read or do crafts with my kid. Listen to videogame and film scores, read composer interviews, learn constantly.
Please tell us something about your next projects. What kind of composing are you doing right now?
This summer I am learning everything I can about videogames as I desire to become a skilled composer in this field (I’m playing, reading game composers interviews, setting up meetings, listening to game OST CDs). I need to find composing jobs, and that takes very hard work (researching) and luck. I’d say, I am in transition, finishing two independent features (ROUGH HUSTLE and REJOUER) and looking for my next assignments.
|What would you ever like to compose or be a part of?
A soulful and epic story – a period romance like “Sunshine.” A mystery or genre film with a big twist in the end like “The Sixth Sense.” A story that could use soulful, bold themes and sweeping, grand statements, or a subtle, delicate or melancholy score. The next “Matrix” possibly or a transformative human-interest story. The sincerity of my music fits dramas naturally. I hope to hook up with a visionary filmmaker.
Have you got a last unpublished note or a nice info for our readers, to finish this interview?
I am honored by your interview, and thank you for your time reading. To all my readers – follow your dream. I did. I hope to continue and write music that inspires my audiences.
Thank you very much for your time and all the best from Switzerland and France.
MIDNIGHT MOVIE by Penka Kouneva
Howlin' Wolf Records is proud to present the first official film score release for Penka Kouneva, a prominent Hollywood orchestrator and rising composer for videogames, television, and film. In 2008 Jack Messitt wrote and directed MIDNIGHT MOVIE, a supernatural horror/thriller about a maniacal filmmaker who breaks the barrier between celluloid and reality to stalk attendees at a midnight screening of his black and white cult horror classic THE DARK BENEATH. To score this film Penka Kouneva was presented with the challenge of providing scores for both the vintage film and the modern film, which beautifully blend and intersect seamlessly throughout the storyline. MIDNIGHT MOVIE, premiered in 2008 at the Chicago Horror Film Festival winning "Best Feature Film." It is currently available on both Blu-ray and DVD from Bigfoot Entertainment.
Penka Kouneva has long been recognized in Hollywood for her amazing talent as the orchestrator of blockbuster scores including HOSTEL, HOSTEL PART II, TRANSFORMERS, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, ANGELS AND DEMONS, as well as Tim Burton's "9." Most recently Penka worked alongside renowned film composer Steve Jablonsky to score the videogame PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE FORGOTTEN SANDS, now available for download on Amazon. In addition to a busy career as an orchestrator, Penka has also scored a number of films other than MIDNIGHT MOVIE, including CHUPACABRA TERROR, ICE SPIDERS, and most recently ROUGH HUSTLE.
Midnight Movie by Penka Kouneva
Coming Friday The 13th!
Release Date: 08.13.2010
The score for MIDNIGHT MOVIE is an earnest composition with gentle piano in addition to dark string tremolos, brass textures, ambient electronics with heavy percussion and ethereal voices. For the vintage film featured in the storyline, THE DARK BENEATH, thin, high violins, bassoon, synth patches, and meandering chords for suspense are employed. A newly composed accompanying suite "Darkness And Fear" as well as an expanded cue for "Bridget, Your Father Is Not Here" are bonus features.
This release is a limited edition pressing of 1000 featuring a complete score and full color inserts with vivid imagery from the film. The 16-page insert booklet includes detailed liner notes by Jack Messitt, the writer and director of MIDNIGHT MOVIE, along with notes from Penka Kouneva, the composer. This collector's limited edition packaging is lavishly designed by Luis Miguel Rojas.
For more information and to hear excerpts from select score cues please visit
HOWLIN' WOLF RECORDS Website: www.howlinwolfrecords.com.
MIDNIGHT MOVIE Official Film Website: www.midnightmovie.com
PENKA KOUNEVA Official Website: www.penkakouneva.com
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