Now that October is nearing it’s end, I just had to get this very special interview in because it was a year ago that I had the priviledge to review a cool horror score for the film, Midnight Movie and now a year later, with successful orchestration duties on films such as Battleship and Big Miracle, Composer/Orchestrator Penka Kouneva, has released a very special album entitled, A Warrior’s Odyssey.
A pensive and personal work inspired by her career to date, this album not only cements her standing as an outstanding composer in her own part, but also a one that is definitely capable with the big boys of Hollywood in both film and video games. She is a future talent that is just bursting to be unleashed and so without further ado, I’d like to introduce you guys to Penka. Enjoy!
Hi Penka, it’s an honor to meet you. I hope that you are doing very well.
P.K.: Thank you, I am honored too.
Please tell my readers what inspired you to become a composer?
P.K.: I began piano lessons as a child and enjoyed improvising and making up small pieces. Then wrote incidental music for children’s theater when I was 12. Composing gave a sense of who I was, and I just kept writing short pieces. When I was 17, a song of mine won the Gran Prix at a Japanese competition for young songwriters, and that was the “fateful” moment when I decided to become a composer.
Aside from being an outstanding composer in your own right, you are also an orchestrator, can you please tell the readers what an orchestrator actually does?
P.K.: I craft a printed score working with the MIDI “mock-ups” of the music that the composer has created for approval by the studio. We talk a lot about concepts, budgets, ideas, number of musicians in the recording session, overall vision of the sound and style. My job is to translate the MIDI file into an orchestral score in a way that will best feature the composer’s ideas.
You’ve orchestrated for Steve Jablonsky, Cliff Eidelman, Atili Ovarsson, Nathan Barr and of course, the great Hans Zimmer to name a few. How would you describe the process in working with each composer who’s style is drastically different from one another?
P.K.: Each time I try to understand as deeply as I can the overall musical vision, the style, then the orchestra size, limitations of the budget, special requirements that the director has, etc. Each project is always approached differently, with very specific demands in mind.
Who would you say is your favorite to work with?
P.K.: I really work well with all of my clients. Musically, I have been inspired lately by my game orchestration assignments (Steve Jablonsky on “Gears of War” 2, 3 and Neal Acree on all Blizzard games) and the ABC episodic drama “Revenge” – composed by iZLER.
Let’s talk about your latest project “A Warrior’s Odyssey”. How did this project come about?
P.K.: My goal was to compose a stand-alone, concept album — to grow as a composer, to learn new chops and explore new grounds. For the last 13 years in Hollywood I have scored films and games. I had to work with the requirements of my collaborators, to support their vision, to listen to temp tracks. Earlier in 2012 it was important for me to set my own goals as an artist, to stretch and grow in a direction that I chose.
What inspired you to do it and what does it mean for you?
P.K.: The initial impetus was to compose a few combat action tracks on spec, and to develop a personal “voice.” For the last few years I had amazing opportunities to compose additional game music working alongside the Transformers composer Steve Jablonsky on “Prince of Persia- Forgotten Sands,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” games and on a Korean role-playing game. I also did some arrangements on “Gears of War 3.” I felt compelled to build upon these life-changing opportunities and grow as an artist.
Was this harder for you to do than say orchestrating a film score?
P.K.: Yes, it was much harder because I challenged myself to compose themes that were memorable and personal. Each track was based on a specific concept and was meant to work as a “theme” for that concept. I approached it “as if” writing a theme for a game or film in that genre (e.g., special agent, monster-fantasy, shooter action)
Will an album of this special work be released for the readers that are interested?
P.K.: Yes, it’s released as a deluxe CD (with 12-page booklet) on www.howlinwolfrecords.com and on iTunes and Amazon.
Since it’s Halloween, I’ll bring up your score for “Midnight Movie”, which was a chilling and effective horror score released last year. What was your inspiration for the score that you wrote for it?
P.K.: “Midnight Movie” was movie-within-movie story, so I wrote one score for the film we were watching, and a few cues for the movie that the characters were watching. These cues were purposefully old-fashioned and campy. The score was a hybrid orchestra-electronic textural score that was shivery and explosive. The character themes were touching and heart-felt. The inspiration came from the characters and the supernatural storyline.
A soundtrack album for Midnight Movie was released on Howlin’ Wolf Records. How did you assemble the album and were you satisfied with the results?
P.K.: I wrote a new Opening Suite, extended a few cues and shuffled a few cues around for a better musical flow. Yes, I am happy – this was my first soundtrack release.
Your musical contributions as an orchestrator also grace the digital world of Videogames such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, World of Warcraft, Gears of War 3 to name a few. Is there a difference in what you do orchestrating/composing for feature films in the video game realm?
P.K.: Video games often feature relentless action, or complex textures. Overall, they are more intense to work on, both composing and orchestrating. Also, the cues are longer. In film, there is usually a balance between complicated long cues and shorter ones (under dialogue), but there is far more organizational work (keeping track of large, medium and small orchestra sizes, more revisions as the film gets cut 100’s of times, organizing the recording sessions, etc)
Do you feel that composers such as yourself are given enough time to write quality music now with rushed post production schedules and last minute changes?
P.K.: The time is always short. Composers learn to deal with it, by putting together amazing teams for score production, and by working 16-17 hour days. We are incredibly adaptive and resilient creatures. The mastery and commitment that I’ve observed in my colleagues is staggering. Composers will find a way to deliver their very best, no matter what. I always think of James Newton Howard delivering the “King Kong” score in something like 2 weeks. Of course, it comes at the expense of sleeping, eating, etc ….but we roll with the punches. On another hand, in indie features, there is usually more time.
You’ve worked in feature films and video games orchestrating and composing, which genre do you feel is the most comfortable for you to work in and why?
P.K.: I love all genres but my voice lends itself naturally to darker, serious stories – human interest drama, action, shooter, Sci-Fi, suspense, fantasy, adventure, thriller.
You are also orchestrating the hit ABC series “REVENGE” which is now starting its second season. How did you get involved with it?
P.K.: I met the composer, Izler, at Sundance Composers Lab in 2008. We hit it off and began working together. I am exceptionally proud of his commitment to learning orchestral music. His “Revenge” score is just tremendous.
Of all the music you’ve written over your career, which is your personal favorite?
P.K.: “A Warrior’s Odyssey” and my interactive music to “Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands.”
Do you have a favorite feature film or video game score you’ve composed or orchestrated?
P.K.: “Gears of War 3” and movies my 6 year-old daughter watches: “Brother Bear 1” and “Stuart Little 3” because she knows I worked on them and is proud of me.
What would be your dream project?
P.K.: A big sci-fi epic (like “Matrix”), a big family saga (like “Sunshine”) or sci-fi allegory like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”
What are your upcoming projects and plans?
P.K.: These days I am building relationships with game developers and film directors, while promoting AWO. I have a few small game and indie film jobs in progress but my goal is to score genre studio features (fantasy, sci-fi, action) and more games.
I’d like to personally thank you Penka for granting me this interview and I wish you all the best wishes on future successes no matter.
P.K.: THANK YOU !!!!
I would to thank Beth Krakower for setting up this very special interview and along with Penka for graciously giving me this interview. You rock!
Penka’s latest album A Warrior’s Odessey is available to order directly from Howlin’ Wolf Records http://www.howlinwolfrecords.com/storeawo.html along with her fabulous horror score for Midnight Movie.
Also check out Penka’s personal website at http://www.penkakouneva.com/ for more information on her career as well as music clips and upcoming projects.