In this in depth interview of Penka Kouneva, we talk about her development as a young musician and composer in Bulgaria; her journey to the US where she received a PhD in Music from Duke University; and then her journey over many years navigating first Hollywood as a composer and orchestrator and then through the fascinating world of video game scoring. We also delve into her most recent album, The Woman Astronaut, which is a deeply personal album that encapsulates the amazing journey she herself has taken from Communist Bulgaria, through academia, and then as a Hollywood and video game composer. Along the way, Penka provides very important advice to composers who are trying to navigate a similar journey. She has always been a mentor for young composers, and this, her first in-depth interview, will be a valuable resource for those interested in scoring for film and for games.
Game & film composer of “exquisite talent” Penka Kouneva began her career in film/TV in 2000. She composed on PRINCE OF PERSIA: FORGOTTEN SANDS, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN games (themes by Steve Jablonsky). Her solo composing credits include the indie features THE THIRD NAIL,MIDNIGHT MOVIE, PRIMROSE LANE and telefilms ICE SPIDERS, CHUPACABRA, NUCLEAR HURRICANE. Recently, Penka scored the award-winning PS4 game Rollers of the Realm, H-Hour: World’s Elite on STEAM, the iOS games Intense Life, Galaxy, IronKill, Hades , VR rides and others.
Above: Photo Gallery of Penka’s works as an Orchestrator and Composer
Penka’s composition awards include: the SUNDANCE Composer Fellowship, two Ovation Awards, The Copland Award, Hollywood Music in Media Award, Square Enix Music Online, Independent Music Award. As an industry leader and mentor Penka is on the Advisory Board of Game Developers Conference, Advisor for the Sundance Institute, and Mentor for the LA Chapter of NARAS (Grammy’s).
Her first orchestral album was A WARRIOR’S ODYSSEY. Her second orchestral cinematic album THE WOMAN ASTRONAUT was released to 5-star reviews.
Penka was also an orchestrator on the Matrix, Transformers, Pirates franchises, as a Lead orchestrator/soundtrack producer on Elysium, Ender’s Game, Need For Speed (films); and on World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Gears of War 2, 3, Sims 3, Diablo III, Dragon Age II, Bloodborne, Overwatch (video games).
Here are some additional images from the The Woman Astronaut
And here are some additional images from Penk’s journey:
Links for Further Reading
Timeline of questions in the interview
1:30 – How did you get into game scoring?
5:29 – Going to your 1st GDC
7:35 – Favorite video games
8:20 – Earliest memories of music (orchestral concerts)
9:10 – First opportinity as a composer (age 12)
10:20 – My fate is sealed – the Japanese competition
11:45 – Duke University Graduate Fellowship in Composition
12:18 – Coming to Los Angeles to become a film composer
12:50 – First opportunity in LA
13:25 – First Hollywood scoring gig
14:15 – Identity as a composer – individual voice
15:30 – Launching the orchestration career
16:35 – Meeting Conrad Pope (orchestration mentor)
18:35 – Introduction to Blizzard composers and work for Blizzard
20:00 – What skills does one need to become an orchestrator
24:28 – How do you orchestrate?
26:45 – The Woman Astronaut – #1 Earth
27:25 – Young composers, find your individual voice 🙂
31:00 – “Earth” theme
31:28 – 11% women astronauts and 1% women composers on top gigs (opera, big orchestra commissions, Hollywood studio films, AAA games …)
37:00 – Tells the story beautifully in music, talking about Track #4 and #5
38:00 – The importance of writing strong, distinctive themes for game composers
40:00 – #6 Training
40:35 – The dialectics of tradition and innovation
41:25 – #13 Goodbyes in Zero Gravity, the inspiration of European Music (Mozart Piano Concerto #21 K.467 “Elvira Madigan” slow movement, and Arvo Part “Fratres” for string quartet)
45:45 – Transitioning from film composing to interactive composing / adaptive music. The importance of understanding interactive music and how it will be implemented into the game
48:20 – The differences between Elias, FMOD, Wwise
48:50 – Have you been asked to deliver your game music in an interactive container?
49:25 – We work in a collaborative environment
51:44 – Closing remarks