behind the music behind the scenes composer interview music VGM whispers of the plains

Whispers of the Plains – Penka Kouneva

Penka Kouneva is a versatile composer whose credits include The Sims 3 and Prince of Persia. She’s a lady you may not immediately recognise but you’ll have heard her music somewhere in TV, Film or the gaming world. HPM got the chance to ask Penka some questions…

Hello Penka! First of all I’d like to ask at what moment did you first think, yes I’d like to go into music?

As a shy teenager (age 12) I composed short pieces for a children’s theater show in Sofia (Bulgaria); that’s when I started identifying myself as a “composer.” At 17 I wrote a song which was sent to Japan for a children songwriters competition and it won the Grand Prize. At that point I decided, music will be it. I continued to compose incidental music for theater companies throughout my college years and loved the collaborations and the task of underscoring drama. I also loved film, especially Fantasy, Sci-Fi, drama and adventure films. After completing my graduate degrees at Duke University I had to hone in on a career path for a lifetime – it seemed natural to choose composing for film.

You’re music style is a wonderful blend of different cultures, which has obviously been tapped into recently with “Prince of Persia” videogame. How did you come across cultivating your own style of music?

As an adolescent I felt that developing a “style” is the most important task for a maturing artist. I’ve been absolutely fascinated by the distinct styles any number of artists cultivate. Look at Mondrian, Dali, Brancusi, Kandinsky – a viewer could see a fragment and immediately recognize them by their style. (Art books were my escape from the dreary communist reality). In music, consider Debussy, Stravinsky, John Adams, or Thomas Newman. One could hear 5 seconds and identify the composer – their music is so distinctive. In addition to being classically trained, I’ve always loved non-Western and Bulgarian folk music. Later, at Duke my greatest “illuminations” were Medieval chant, minimalism, modern orchestra and electronica. Being a multi-cultural composer (I arrived in the US in 1990) I was convinced that to be authentic I must draw on influences from my musical roots and meld them with the new music that resonated with my heart. Hence, I’ve always been very thoughtful about developing my own style and have worked hard, musically, to achieve that goal.

You’ve composed for TV, film and games. Do you prefer any format over the other or does each one bring its own unique challenges and rewards?

My heart is in games now. I truly love the medium, both musically and the game narratives and the fantasy aspects. The scores I am asked to compose are grand, epic orchestral-choral pieces that are contemporary, with complex percussion, grooves and electronic textures. I also love scoring films and have been fortunate to work on great indie features and fun TV projects. The approach and the challenges are different.

You’ve worked on The Sims 3, Prince of Persia and Transformers to name a few, alongside Steve Jablonsky. How closely do you work together and is it a real collaborative effort?

I have been an orchestrator for Steve Jablonksy since 2004 when I was introduced to him by my mentor Bruce Fowler. Steve composes his cues entirely; my job is to craft flawless scores for the recording session, to suggest orchestral ideas, and to work with him on the logistics of the session. It’s like producing – how many players we need, how many hours of session time we need, what are the budget, deadlines and requirements of the client. Recently Steve is giving me more responsibilities: composing additional music, composing variations on his themes and composing/arranging within his style.

When your not directly composing, you have a list of credits as long as my arms for score production and orchestration. What exactly do you do in these roles and how important is it to the overall sound of the soundtracks?

The orchestrator works very closely with the composer and crafts their music (from a MIDI sequence) into a fully completed orchestral score. I focus on fleshing out 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 the director and studio. We discuss orchestra size, 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.

You’ve received a lot of awards and recognition for your excellent works. How does it feel to be that highly regarded and recognised in your field?

Truly, I don’t think in such terms. My daily motto is: I must keep putting one foot in front of another and just keep making steps forward. I cannot sit on my laurels, not for a second. Music is like an ocean of knowledge and I am continually challenged to learn new vernaculars and develop new skills. Especially now that I am re-inventing myself as a transmedia composer and focusing on games, I have to learn a whole new world of game scoring, game franchises, game composers’ music – that’s a huge task. Often I am the only woman in the music team… I feel fortunate to have made strides in two career fields (composing of orchestral music and orchestrating) that are practically inaccessible for women.

Are there any instruments or composers you’d like to work with in the future?

These days I am mostly interested in hybrid scores that use traditional orchestral instruments, electronics and some distinctive, fresh new color or timbre. There are many composers I’d love to collaborate with in the future but currently I am completely dedicated to Steve Jablonsky and his assignments for me.

Do you have anything in the pipeline for Penka Kouneva that you could tell us?

Three independent features (“Rough Hustle,” “Rejouer,” “El Nacional”), the re-release of “Midnight Movie: The Killer’s Cut” (supernatural horror feature) and additional composing on an Asian fantasy-epic game for Steve Jablonsky.

Finally, if you ever get stuck for inspiration, is there anything that you do that can get you back into the creative mood again?

I immediately listen to a piece of music I admire, or go on YouTube and watch non-Western instruments, focusing on how they are played, or watch game walkthroughs. Or just browse iTunes and listen to stuff randomly or thoughtfully. Or I teach my orchestration partners interesting ideas and we look at scores – that’s very inspiring for me. Sometimes I just go for a walk, or turn the computer off and just shut my brain off. Pretty soon I get out of the writer’s block. It’s not unusual for me to craft a theme for a long time, re-write, revisit old material. I cherish being a creative artist.

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