With the exciting new release of her second Orchestral album ‘The Woman Astronaut,’ Bulgarian Composer Penka Kouneva has become a talent to watch, as well as to listen. I had the opportunity to talk with her about the album and what drove her to take this musical journey, as well as finding out where she started, how she got to where she is today, and where she sees herself in the future.
Humble beginnings – America Bound
She discovered her connection with music at the age of six, when she started playing the piano. From then on her interest grew as she did. As she explored the piano, she became fascinated with the musical notations on the page, so she would notate her own compositions as early as age seven, and fully write out her own piano pieces. “The most important thing for me as a child was having a very strong emotional bond with music. When I listened to music, I would imagine stories filled with adventure. I was a creative, nerdy child.” It was clear that Penka was immediately hooked, not only on learning about music, but also creating her own: “When I was twelve, I composed for children’s theatre, which gave me a sense of identity. I began to think of myself as a composer.”
As her musical life began so early, she was innocent to the struggles of female composers, and continued on her chosen path, unaware of the challenges she may have to face.
Being a woman composer definitely has its barriers, that I always ignored. My whole life I was very oblivious to them. It is a profession that has historically excluded women, and so there are few female role models and mentors, which pushed me to compose music and find opportunity. I composed for theatre in my college years in Bulgaria, and then left for the United States in 1990 at the age of 23, as the Berlin wall fell.
She left her homeland and headed for new possibilities studying her craft and developing her skills.
The thing that really opened a new chapter in my life was when I received a composition fellowship at Duke University. I had two very inspiring music mentors there; Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth. I took formal orchestration studies with Scott and composition studies with Stephen. They were fantastically talented people, and I was honoured to receive the first ever Doctorate in Composition from Duke University.
Moving to Hollywood – The Importance of Collaboration
With more orchestras and composers establishing themselves worldwide, it is expected today more than ever, that you can succeed outside of the Film and Television hub that is Hollywood. But in the 1990’s, as Penka was newly discovering the areas she wanted to explore, Hollywood seemed to be the best way to do so, but as she found out, going in blind to the unique habitat that tinseltown is, can be daunting.
Once I finished my studies, I had to figure out what my passion was. I’ve always been passionate about storytelling in any medium, and I’ve always loved working with people, so I came to Hollywood. I had a great portfolio, but zero understanding of the business, so for me it was a complete mystery how the entertainment world worked. It’s the reason why I like mentoring people about it all now, because it’s vital to have an understanding of how the business works, if you’re going to succeed.
For women specifically, there is no difference in your approach. The difference comes in the responses you get. Of course there has been prejudices in the past, and it is getting better, but for me personally, when I arrived in Hollywood all those years ago, I intuitively felt like I had to be more reliable, more giving, more professional and better in every possible way, so that’s what I did.
She began to thrive with that mindset, and paved her own way, working for top composers on impressive projects. She told me about her interesting collaborations throughout her first few years in the industry, and how one by one, they became an integral part of her success.
I began working for other composers as their orchestrator, which is how I made a living for a long time. My first mentor in Hollywood was Emmy-winning composer Patrick Williams, and he introduced me to Hans Zimmer’s orchestrator, Bruce Fowler, who opened the most life-changing door in my life, by introducing me to Steve Jablonsky in 2004.
From then on I orchestrated the ‘Transformers’ films for him, and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and ‘Angels and Demons’ for Hans Zimmer. Then in 2009, an opportunity came for me to compose music for the ‘Transformers’ video game, and because I knew the music intimately, it was a natural step. Jablonsky assigned me the biggest, high-level action loops in the game, which were truly wonderful to work on. It’s a shame I didn’t get into video games earlier, because it’s such a creatively rewarding medium.
Science Fiction – A Perfect Fit
As we moved through her career, from her first major orchestration jobs to her first major composing jobs, I noticed a trend. Even though her activities took place in many genres, she tended to gravitate towards Science Fiction. I wanted to know if there was any design to this pattern, or whether she just naturally fell into the genre.
I would read science fiction as a child and watch every single Sci-fi Film I could. It’s just a great way of telling stories. You have the fantasy aspect, but you pack it with very important social issues and current social critique. My top favourite movie of all-time is Terry Gilliams ‘Brazil,’ which gives you a sense of my overall taste.
Once I understood her love of Sci-fi, I wanted to know about her projects within that world, specifically her huge recent orchestration projects, and how she has moved more and more towards the blockbuster sound in both her own work, and that of others.
With ‘Elysium’ and ‘Ender’s Game,’ we approached things very individually. Each time we have to reinvent the sound, and you do that through the orchestra, which is one of my major jobs; to figure out and invent the sound of a film. In the case of ‘Elysium,’ I was recommended by the wonderful recording engineer John Rodd, who knew about my passion for science fiction, as well as how I help young composers in Hollywood on their journey from small films to big films. Therefore ‘Elysium’ was a perfect fit for me, because that was the case with the composer; Ryan Amon.
The Woman Astronaut – Growing as an Artist
As our feet were firmly planted in Science Fiction, and our minds were drifting out into the realm of possibilities, we came to the reality of her immense talent. I was sent ‘The Woman Astronaut’ to listen to before talking with Penka, and it couldn’t have been more obvious that she was born with the orchestra in her mind. Filled with colours, sounds, feelings and motions that take you to another place, ‘The Woman Astronaut’ is openly out of this world. I was delighted to hear all about how this special piece of work was created, and where such a rich musical story was born.
The album is autobiographical. Every piece has a personal memory or emotional experience from my life. I composed it by trying to capture that in music. It is a journey of a self-determined woman, presented in three acts. I made a great effort for each act to have its own emotional scope and sound.
First is the childhood spent in the homeland, which is very light and colourful. The second act is the training aspect, and is much more driven with the passion and resilience to achieve. And the last act is more darker and emotionally complex, because it addresses what happens after you’ve achieved your goal, and having to rethink your whole life in order to find what’s next. It’s about letting go and understanding destiny. I created this album to grow as an artist.
You can listen to a piece from ‘The Woman Astronaut’ below.
With an emotional comprehension of the creation of ‘The Woman Astronaut,’ I was keen to hear about the technical aspects of the album, including the dedication it takes to realising a dream.
The album took two years to make. I chose the title and story because I researched one day that there are more women astronauts that have been in space missions, than there are women who actually work as composers at the highest level.
This fact completely shocked me and made me really think about the composing environment and why this is true. It’s a frightening concept to believe; that music is such a beautifully creative art and yet the female presence within it is restricted. I set those very important topics aside for the moment, and returned to the intricacies of the album, and how Penka put it all together.
I composed it all out of order. I focused on the major pieces first, because I wanted to establish the key moments to build on later. I had a very strong vision, and every single aspect of the album was filtered through that vision; the writing, the orchestration, the performance, the sound design, and of course with the mixing, which was done with the amazing engineer John Rodd, who I worked on ‘Elysium’ with. He spent long hours mixing the album, and we spoke many times back and forth about how it should sound. It needed to have a modern, pulsing quality of electronics to go with the traditional orchestral and thematic components.
Certain things are seemingly created out of nothing, but there is rarely nothing behind a piece of art. We cannot just pluck something out of the air and it be disconnected from anything that already exists. Everything dreamed, everything thought of and imagined is a product of our own lives. I wanted to know what Penka was energised by in shaping the album.
I was inspired by many different things during the creation of the album. Along with my own life and my own design for it; like my early life in Bulgaria and my heritage, there were people too like Mychael Danna for example, with his wonderfully spiritual score for ‘Life of Pi.’ Also others like Bear McCreary, as I loved his scores for ‘Defiance’ and ‘Europa Report.’ So of course we all take inspiration from the people we admire and it becomes a part of us when we create ourselves.
To fund the album and the large costs involved in such a project, Penka turned to the crowd-funding website ‘Kickstarter;’ the ultimate platform for collaboration (you can find the successfully funded campaign here). She told me a bit about it, as well as the albums release with the Varese Sarabande label, and how great it felt to be so supported in her vision.
Kickstarter was one of my most profound life experiences. I felt so supported by the community that I have built over my sixteen years in Hollywood. It was such a reciprocation of help and collaboration. It was so energising. I sent individual emails to thousands of people, to tap into every community I have been in, from my friends, my game community, the Hollywood community, and the support was overwhelming. It is something I will treasure forever. I am so very grateful to the kickstarter backers.
In terms of getting the album out there to my wonderful supporters, I invited Robert Townson from Varese Sarabande to our recording sessions, and he heard the music and understood how special it was to me, and so we released it through them, who have always been incredible supporters of Composers and their music.
Hopes and Aspirations – Helping the Next Generation
After Penka had shared her early childhood discovering music, her early adulthood honing her talent, and her current accomplishments setting the precedence for women composers, I wanted to find out what her goals were going into her future.
Looking for a job as a composer is a full-time job. I would love to compose for a big fantasy or science fiction film. It’s why I love composing for video games, because of the fantasy and futuristic narratives, as well as the people I get to work with in video games. They are such wonderful people. So you could say that is my passion right now. But so is of course fantasy films and television, which is very exciting today, with the renaissance that is happening in TV; with its powerful storytelling and strong female characters as well. So I will pursue any interesting opportunities in every field of entertainment where I can deliver my very best.
Finally, we spoke about her devoted outlook of helping others, and what it means to her to be able to impart all that she knows to the next generation.
I am passionate about mentoring, as I feel it’s my duty to share knowledge and insight. I would say the most important thing for an artist is to have a very deep sense of identity. Work on your skills and compose music every day to be proactive as an artist. A composer has to be technically fluent also, because we use computer programs that you need to learn, and that takes time, just as developing ones talent does.
You also have to remember to be gracious in building relationships, because the entire business is based on relationships. Contribute to your community by giving your time and your skills. You cannot stagnate. You must continue to grow and open doors and even break down walls. You must remember that everybody has a dream. Everybody has different hopes and expectations. When you help people achieve their dreams, you help yourself achieve your own.
Speaking with inspiring people doesn’t happen every day. So when you get to sit down with someone who has a vast accumulation of knowledge and experience, and who is also willing to devote their time to others, you become inspired yourself. Penka is an enthusiastic and generous person, whether it be with a young composer, a curious fan, or just an interested person such as myself, wanting to learn more about her as an artist and person.
I would like to personally thank Penka for her honest and interesting insights, and for introducing me to the wonderful work she has done and is still doing.
If you would like to find out more about Penka, then you can do so here on her website.
And her new Album ‘The Woman Astronaut’ is available NOW here on Varese Sarabande.