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Whispers of the Plains: Penka Kouenva

HPM has the opportunity to chat to Penka Kouneva, the genius behind A Warriors Odyssey which is a wonderful CD taking all the trimmings from a game or film soundtrack and making it a standalone story. Let’s see what tasty titbits we got!

Congratulations on your latest work. It’s beautiful. How do you feel now its out to the world?

Thank you! My goal was to demonstrate my passion for game scoring, to learn new techniques, and to adapt my skills specifically as a game composer. I am satisfied! The initial impetus was to write a few action pieces building upon the sound of Gears of War 3 and Modern Warfare 3. Out of these few action pieces my album kept growing, loosely based on the archetypal hero’s journey – epic battle themes interspersed with personal moments of defeat, resilience, hope, and ultimately reaching victory.

What made you decide to record an album of music not tied to a production? How was it having complete freedom to build your own story with your music?

In the last few years Steve Jablonsky gave me opportunities to compose additional music for Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and arrangements on Gears of War 3. These were life-changing opportunities and I felt compelled to keep building upon them, to grow as a composer, and to come up with new, fresh themes that will also help me solidify my own voice. With A Warrior’s Odyssey I charted my own goals, my own trajectory. It was a very challenging and profoundly satisfying experience.

You settled on the theme of a Warrior, or Soldier and indeed there is a patriotic flavour to a lot of the themes. What draws you to a warrior? What made you think – yes there’s the story to tell?
First, the Warrior archetype has always resonated with me. I am a multicultural artist and a woman in a vocation with so few other women. The last 13 years in Hollywood felt like I was fighting relentlessly every inch of my way. Last year one of my TV clients complimented me, “Penka, you are a Ninja!” Then, to grow as a game composer I had to develop my ability writing epic battle themes. Once the album began to take shape, my artistic goal was to transform personal struggles into a universal and common human experience of fighting battles and ultimately prevailing. Thus, the album is meant to work on a narrative level (game battles) and also on a symbolic level – “from struggle and defeat, to hope and triumph.”
The album itself is divided into three very distinct sections. How did that come about? Was it part of the original plan or something that happened during or after?
The concept of an archetypal three-part “hero’s journey” probably coalesced sometime in the middle of two very intense months of composing. It was very important to me to solidify my voice as an Eastern European-Bulgarian artist, so I was going to have “Bulgarian-flavored” music. If you think of any “hero’s journey” (of Hercules, for instance) it made sense for the 3-part structure to be “The Battle Begins – Faraway Lands – The Battle Goes On –[Victory].

My personal favourite section is the “Faraway Lands, Ancient Times” where your instrumentation bleeds out into all kinds of wonderful instruments, some of which represent your own heritage. Was that important to you?
In film and game scoring (two extremely competitive fields) there are many richly talented composers. While it’s expected that each composer will be skilled and versatile, it is the personal unique voice and attitude that allows certain composers to excel. Think of Inon Zur in games, or Thomas Newman in film – how distinctive their voice is. I arrived in Hollywood in 1999 with one keyboard and one professional contact, and in 2001 was accepted as a Fellow at the Sundance Composers Lab. Sundance Lab is the most competitive forum and composers apply year after year to be accepted. At the time, I was stunned, pondering my luck and trying to understand why my music got picked over 250 other applications. The music I submitted had an authentic personal voice and blended my Bulgarian heritage with modern idioms. As a composer, I want to get selected to score the RIGHT job that will propel me forward, the way Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands became my “breakout” score and a life-changing job. So, with A Warrior’s Odyssey I wanted to explore my roots while blending those influences with modern film & game sound, in an effort to refine my artistic identity.

Do you have any specific fond memories of the recording process or funny titbits you can let us in on?
The recording session was an absolute joy. We had one day only – morning with the string quartet and afternoon – with the brass, in the beautiful Bridge Recordings Studio in LA. Because the album was composed so fast (in just two months – May through July, though I began thinking and sketching in January), I relied upon my long-time collaborators who helped with sequencing of some synths, orchestrated, and helped me deliver on time. It was the happiest, most joyful summer that I remember.

Now you’ve had complete free reign on this project, do you think that’ll help you or give you a different insight for any future compositions you are doing for TV, films and games?
Growing as an artist is what I set out to accomplish, and this growth will certainly help me in my future work. I understand more precisely the creative vision of my film and game collaborators, and I know technically how modern game music is composed and arranged. Without following a “temp score” I did listen closely to many beloved soundtracks: True Blood by Nathan Barr, Moon by Clint Mansell (for the interludes) and Act of Valor by Nathan Furst (for the military action, in addition to GOW3 and MW3). I would say that A Warrior’s Odyssey is probably the most important creative work I’ve done, precisely because of its lasting impact upon my future game & film collaborations.

Speaking of future projects – what’s next for A Warrior’s Odyssey and Penka Kouneva?
These days I am building relationships with game developers and film directors, while promoting A Warrior’s Odyssey. I have a few small games and indie films in progress (can’t quite discuss yet). My long-range goal is to score big action, sci-fi and fantasy games and films. I hope the game fans will enjoy my passion project for the game biz, A Warrior’s Odyssey!

Many thanks to Penka for joining us. A Warriors Odyssey is available from Amazon, iTunes, SumThing Else and many other digital & CD outlets.

Here are some wonderful behind the scenes photos from Lisa Bevis.

3 comments

  1. This was a completely fascinating interview from the perspective of someone who knows next to nothing about the gaming world, but who completely relates to the motivating force of wanting to grow artistically, and also the amount of energy and dedication it takes to finish your own project in a way that you are satisfied with.

    Very big congratulations to you, Penka! And thank you, Simon for bringing this talented artist to light here.

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