In this episode, Tara Joseph is joined by Penka Kouneva, a groundbreaking artist, composer, mentor, and passionate advocate for the advancement of female composers. Here, Penka shares the importance of her relationships across her career journey, even as she moved from Bulgaria to LA. She talks about the opportunities that opened up for her and the ways that people in her life contributed to those. Furthermore, with the COVID-19 pandemic right in front of us, we can’t help but also feel its impacts in the creative community. Penka shares with us how she is keeping her passions and creative pursuits alive in this time of isolation and how she is moving forward to give her best self as an artist.
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Cherishing relationships, opening doors, a fascination with Space, Astronauts and NASA and striving for success with composer Penka Kouneva
Interview With Special Guest, Composer Penka Kouneva
Originally born in Bulgaria, but now living in LA. She is described as a groundbreaking artist, mentor, and passionate advocate for the advancement of female composers. Let’s introduce to the show composer and recording artist Penka Kouneva. Penka, how are you?
Tara, it’s a great honor to be your guest.
I’m honored for you to be on the show. We should start by addressing the fact that we’re all living in challenging different times now. I’ve spoken to a couple of composers. You choose to be in isolation, but now you’re in forced isolation, so to speak. Has that changed your creative process at all?
The last several weeks have been all about being of service to my family, my community, checking in on my friends, colleagues, and checking in on my colleagues who are persons of color, minorities, to be sure if they need any help I could be of service. It’s been a time of opening up myself to the others. As far as isolation is concerned, I always work in isolation well. The last few months have been a time of examining my role as an artist. The meaning of what I do under, “How can I go forward? Give the best out of myself to the world.” It’s been a time of contemplation and reexamining my values. I would say these are things of being available to the people in my circles and examining my priorities as an artist going forward have defined the last few months.
What would you say your priorities are as an artist now, if you feel that you’ve re-evaluated who you are during this period of time?
The question boils down to what is the best music? What are the best ideas? What is the best storytelling that I have in me that I can share with the world? I think every artist asks themselves this question. For me, it has been I have an orchestral background. I have this diverse experience across film scoring, game scoring, television scoring, and emerging media like virtual reality. How do I take the best? I also think of myself as a storytelling artist, storytelling composer. How do I take these gifts and move forward with that ability to give the best of myself as an artist?
You have worked on iconic video games. You mentioned gaming. Tell me how do you get involved with League of Legends, Prince of Persia, and The Mummy. They’re top of the top. How does that opportunity arise?
I would say the answer is simple and also super complicated. There are two elements or two things. Be a good composer, the best composer you can be. Be skilled and also make friendships. I don’t mean networking. I mean creating meaningful friendships, cultivating relationships, staying on people’s minds for a long time, and getting people excited about your talent. This is my 21st year in Los Angeles. Intuitively, I always felt that I had to work on my mastery as a composer. At the same time, I had to make a lot of friendships. League of Legends came from somebody who was a mentee of mine. I gave him some strategic advice and composing advice as well. He became the audio leader at Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends. An opportunity presented itself and he introduced me. I was the right fit because they needed a composer versed in tragic horror, dark storytelling, but with a tragic undertone. I got the job. That’s how that one particular job came about. Every single meaningful job has come to me from a friend, from somebody who was excited, championed my talent. When the opportunity presented itself and usually have to wait a couple of years for the right opportunity to present itself where you’re a good fit.
Referrals are the best. When it’s word of mouth and people are talking about you because they love your work and they want to spread the word and to help you.
People get excited about your talent and the most meaningful jobs that have propelled me forward have come through referrals and close relationships. If I look at the careers of my friends, my peers, the same for them. All their meaningful jobs have come through referrals from people from their circle.
Should I be calling you Dr. Kouneva? You’ve got a Doctorate in Composition from Duke. Shouldn’t I be calling you a doctor?
Not in Hollywood. In Hollywood, people call me Penka. I had an incredible opportunity to leave Bulgaria on a full graduate scholarship and fellowship to go to Duke. I had fantastic mentors there, Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth. Two preeminent American concert composers who are also exceptionally open-minded about novel styles and ideas. They created an incredible, intellectual, and musical environment for older students to thrive. I was at Duke from 1990 to 1997 and I got a Master’s first and then PhD from Duke.
You’ve got to milk that title a bit.
Not in Hollywood because in Hollywood it is all about relationships and storytelling.The most meaningful jobs that propel you forward come through referrals and close relationships. Click To Tweet
I know. I’m teasing.
I don’t find my name with the Doctor in front of it, but I’m very proud of it.
You should be. You grew up in Bulgaria and you now live in LA. How did the transition happen? How did you find moving from one side of the world to the other? I’m from the UK, London, so I’ve done it. How long have you been in LA?
You’ve been here a lot longer than me. I’ve been here for 6.5 years. Do you love it in LA?
I love it. In Los Angeles, I found a community of composers who inspire me deeply. I have my clients here. I get amazing jobs. I cultivated a circle of peers and these are all important things. I love nature. I love the mountains. We live in the Northern Suburbs near the mountains. That’s all inspiring to me. I have a family in Los Angeles, my sisters are here. It’s a beautiful location where I’m surrounding myself with an incredibly inspiring circle of people. I’ve always been focused on cultivating these relationships and cultivating these circles, clients, mentors, champions, friends, supporters, and people who I mentor. LA worked out gloriously for me. I love it very much. I cherish the opportunities I’ve been given in the sound.
I would agree with you that there is a lot of opportunity in LA. I feel it’s the epicenter of the music and entertainment industry. It attracts people. Whatever your dream might be, it gives you the opportunity to fulfill your dream. However crazy and wacky it might be, as long as you believe in yourself, people believe in you. I think that’s quite unique for this city.
Many years of hard work. California is the promised land where people come to discover themselves. People come to invent their true self, their best version of themselves. In that sense, California has been about for many decades, and not just for musicians, also for writers, filmmakers, cinematographers, and all sorts of talent. California has that because you come to this town not knowing anything. I came not knowing anything about the business and having one connection. I knew I was a storyteller composer. I was passionate about film and science fiction. I’m from one job to the next. I kept getting more referrals, more friends, more champions, and people who opened doors. We work in the business of opening doors. In other words, somebody has to trust in you and somebody has to know your skills. An opportunity then presents themselves, and then they open the door for you. That’s how you get your first break.
My lucky break was meeting Patrick Williams, my first mentor. He was a television composer. He passed away in 2019. He introduced me to Bruce Fowler who is Hans Zimmer’s head orchestrator. That relationship led to being introduced to Steve Jablonsky, The Transformers composer. Steve Jablonsky made my career in video games because he opened the door of me composing on The Transformers video game. I understood the style well since I have been on orchestrating on the films. That’s how from one relationship to the next and from one opportunity to the next people build careers. The most important thing is always to cherish these relationships and try your best when the door opens, because it is the business of opening doors.
Some people don’t necessarily walk through the door when it’s opened for them. A lot of youngsters sometimes don’t realize how you have to grab that opportunity. I’ve seen that happen and you’re like, “Something amazing has fallen at your feet. What are you waiting for?” that you haven’t grabbed it.
This is the case with me and video games. I grew up in Bulgaria. We were not rich at all. I did not have any gadgets. We had a Mono Philips Tape Recorder. We didn’t have any PlayStation or anything like that. I didn’t have experience playing games. I love games because they’re fantasy and science fiction. The animation is gorgeous. Especially in 2005, I met my husband and I got into gaming seriously. I was captivated by the power of storytelling and video games. When the opportunity came in 2008, I had an opportunity to compose for The Transformers game. I thought to myself, “This is the lucky break that everybody who comes to this town pines for, dreams for, wishes for, and I got it.” I had to sit down and learn everything about all the game composers, learn old technology, learn interactive composing. I put myself through a self-designed graduate school of game scoring because I had to learn so much that I didn’t know previously because I didn’t grow up playing games. There was a whole vernacular of PC games and medieval games which I didn’t know, because I never had a PC. I’ve always been a Macintosh for many years.
The point I’m making is once that break happened, me composing on The Transformers game, I understood that regardless of how many gaps I have in that knowledge of games, I have to commit myself to not being an intruder or want to be a bonafide game composer who truly understands interactive scoring, in the game business, in the game of vernacular, and the history of the franchises. Because all the franchises come with a long history like Star Wars. They have many years’ worth of history. That’s what I did. I committed myself to learn in great depth the game scoring and transitioned from being a film composer, television composer, the right word is reinvented myself. I reinvented myself to become a game composer. That’s something I’ve noticed in a lot of the people from my generation. I identify myself as Generation X. We have to rebrand and reinvent ourselves a couple of times along the way. That’s a powerful thing because it’s inspiring. It’s energizing and cool. There’s a lot of learning that goes along. I’m a nerd, I enjoy learning. That’s why becoming a game composer was such an inspiring experience for me.
Are you playing any games now?
The latest Star Wars, we’ve been playing for a month. We finished it. Now, it’s all about cooking and handling the lockdown.
I’m fascinated by the NASA theme park music that you have been involved with, the Kennedy Space Center, which is relevant. We’ve launched a rocket into space for the first time in a few years. Tell us because I read that in your bio and I looked online. I looked at your Facebook page but I want to hear it from you. How did all of that happen? What did you do? Share with the readers, they’d love to know.
This job also came from a relationship in video games. A dear friend of mine, Jesse James had worked for Electronic Arts, but then he left that job and got a job as a media editor at the studio that produces theme park entertainment. Their next assignment was creating the exhibit of the theme park at the Kennedy Space Center. The previous year before I got the job, I released a passion project. It was an orchestral album title The Woman Astronaut. The Woman Astronaut was chapter one of that whole journey. After I released the album, I sent it to radio stations, to all my colleagues, friends, and especially all my business relationships. Jesse enjoyed it.
Jesse James who has known me for a few years prior to that point, started a new job at the studio that created the exhibit. He essentially used The Woman Astronaut as a demo for me to audition for the scoring job for the exhibit. It was such a perfect match because the music was thematic, lush. It was hybrid orchestral music. We have a lot of modern electronics, but there’s also a timelessness to the music. This became the approach to the score. I had to create a score that was both current because it’s going to be viewed by current audiences, it has to be cinematic. Also, it had to be timeless because it’s about the American heroes, the American astronauts, and what they did in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
This theme park lives on for decades. They have a long shelf life. This exhibit could live for 50 years because it’s part of the US Astronaut Hall of Fame. Saturn V, the rocket that went to the moon, is in that exhibit complex. They talk about John Glenn. Everything iconic. Going to the moon, this is the exhibit I scored. That was chapter two. The Woman Astronaut serving as essentially a demo or proof of concept that I can compose music that can endure the test of time, that’s thematic, emotional. Something amazing happened, we had this Hollywood Bowl Concert and the same studio that created the NASA exhibit, I commissioned them to create this three-minute film that was a current commemorative film about women astronauts. Jesse James was the leader of that project. In other words, I now in turn commissioned the same studio because they had all the access to amazing NASA resources. We had a short time here, like one month to create the film.
Hollywood Bowl Concert celebrating the Moon Landing Anniversary. That film was shown and I scored it. The music was played live by Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was amazing. It was chapter three in that whole journey of my fascination with space and NASA. Growing up in Bulgaria, reading about space and astronauts gave me a sense of freedom and a sense of hope because I grew up in communism. We couldn’t travel abroad. Learning about space and astronauts gave me something to aspire for. I’ve always been a gigantic fan of space and technology, airplanes. It’s unusual for a girl, but that was me.
You definitely watched the launch then?
The whole putting together, the whole concert was such an amazing experience because I got to research many women who participated as part of NASA either being pilots, scientists, or being on these missions. It was an incredible experience. My whole family was there, my sisters, and my daughter who’s fourteen years old. That was the continuation of the NASA project, the Big Hollywood Bowl Concert, 18,000 people came. On Facebook, there’s this gallery of pictures I put called the Hollywood Bowl Concert. America in Space was the title of the concert.
The point I’m making is that my passion project, The Woman Astronaut, which came from a deep sense of I’m passionate about space and science fiction. Let me do something that reflects that identity, plus it’s about this fictitious woman astronaut who is a self-determined woman. That was released on Varèse Sarabande in 2015. I started it in 2013 and got released in 2015. It’s a beautiful production and gorgeous mix by my amazing mixing engineer, John Rodd. That album led to the NASA job that was a gigantic scoring job with Lightworks, musicians, and beautifully mixed. The NASA job led to the Hollywood Bowl Concert.
Now that you’ve done the Hollywood Bowl Concert, do you have a stage four? Are you good at stage three?
Stage four was me scoring a commercial for the Super Bowl in January, which was for the product Olay. The theme of the commercial, the whole ad campaign was women astronauts. That was chapter four. I got this because of the NASA exhibit. They already had used my music as an attempt score into the prototype of the commercial. The whole point is something that came from my heart and from a place of idealism, wanting to grow as an artist, and wanting to honor what has inspired me as a young child in Bulgaria. The astronauts, space, rockets, airplanes, these passions came from an idealistic place in my heart that led to the things I haven’t even dreamed of in my life.
I read somewhere that I heard that Tom Cruise is hoping to go to space to film his next movie. Clearly, you need to be the one to do the score for that movie in space.
I will try. Things on Hollywood work on the basis of relationships, being the right fit, being proven. It’s not an easy journey. The most important thing for me is to work on meaningful projects with people who appreciate my talent and who feel inspired and energized by working with me. There’s nothing more glorious than a beautiful collaboration. That’s a beautiful, great experience. That’s what I wish for, great projects, amazing people, meaningful jobs, and jobs that resonate with my interests. I’m making steps, putting one foot in front of the other, like all the other artists in our business.
Let’s talk about another of your amazing projects, you composed for the Oscar-nominated film Aga set in Siberia.
It was an Oscar contender. He didn’t get the nomination. It was the submission by Bulgaria for the Oscars. It is a beautiful, almost like a parable, gorgeously visual story. It’s symbolic, a film filled with symbolism and contemplation about the modern way of life. It has a strong environmentalist thread, which is something I’m powerful about. It’s the story of an old couple and they’re the last of the tribe. They’re essentially left to live out their days in the Tundra. The story is also a rift between the generations because their daughter has left the Tundra and has gone to the city to live a modern life. I worked with a truly visionary filmmaker. His name is Milko Lazarov, Bulgarian director. This was a completely original screenplay that he wrote.California is sort of like the promised land, where people come to discover themselves or invent the best version of themselves. Click To Tweet
He wanted music that is soulful and also touching for the pivotal scene of the film. His direction was something in the style of Arvo Pärt. He is a minimalist composer who writes emotional and also stark music, not too verbose stark. I wrote this instrumental, mostly for strings, working with an amazing violin soloist, Lili Haydn, that was the score for Aga. It’s also not much music because the movie has a strong documentary feel, although it’s pure fiction. It’s a story about environmental degradation and the rift between generations, and a daughter trying to reconcile with her parents but it’s too late. The journey that the father has to take to meet the daughter and reconcile with her. It’s a story of family reconsideration, a powerful story.
You have a daughter. Is she musical?
She has a genuine gift as an artist. She goes to art lessons. She’s picking up the digital art during the Coronavirus. She’s been drawing a lot of nature things at home. There’s too much music in our house. My husband is also a music editor, so she found art.
What editing does your husband do?
He’s a music editor for motion pictures and he does temp scores.
It’s an amazing, musical, creative household. What’s next for Penka? What can we expect to see? What would you like to see for you in the next few years?
I’d like to see working on studio projects. I do a lot of mobile games and virtual reality games. They’re awesome. I am continuously looking for projects, looking for collaborators, waiting for my existing collaborators to get new projects off the ground. That’s also a big part of being an artist. You always have to wait for your existing collaborators to create something new because the development cycle is long, It could be anywhere from 5 to 7 years from the inception of a new project to production, post-production, and release, distribution. Composers have to be patient because one filmmaker creates one movie every 5 to 10 years, if they’re lucky. Always looking for exciting projects, always making new friendships, and always being of service to my community.
This show is called For Love and Music. I often ask people based on the title, which are the two reasons that I moved to LA. Is there a love and music moment that combines for you? I already know that answer because your husband is in music as well, so you answered that question. Is there anything that you could share with us about how love has influenced anything in your life with the career that you’ve had, you have, and will have?
I wanted to share two thoughts. The first thought is I had an emotional bond with music since early childhood, 5 or 6 years old. I already felt like music touches my heart, makes me cry. I was emotionally-bonded with music since childhood. That has helped me. The other thing is when I came to Hollywood, I realized that it’s going to be exceptionally difficult. I didn’t realize how hard it’s going to be, but I promised in my heart. I made one of these solemn, existential promises. I said, “No matter how many rejections I get or setbacks, I will never become jaded and I’ll never become cynical. I will always keep the love for music alive in my heart.”
In any artistic business, there are a lot of setbacks and a lot of difficulties. It’s a challenging business. One thing I can say after many years in Hollywood is I have preserved that love, not only preserved, but I truly love music. I enjoy listening to music and I have that vibrant relationship. I’m still excited to listen to music. I’m still excited to discover new talents. That’s profound because for all these years, I’ve been able to love music, love people, and share a lot of positive. I’m a giving person who gives opportunities, jobs, and materials. That has been going on for many years. It’s something I’m proud of. I still love music.
I can feel the passion. If people want to hear some of your material or learn more about you, where can they find you? Do you have any website we could give them?
The best place is iTunes and Spotify. My website is not updated, but I would say iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube. I have good videos there. If anybody wants to read interviews, they’re amazing. They’re good interviews about my journey and about the different challenges online. I’ve been good about keeping a good profile online, especially on iTunes and Spotify.
I encourage all the readers out there to check out Penka’s stories and music. It’s seriously been such a joy to talk to you and you’re mega-talented. I’m the one who’s honored to have you on the show.
Thank you for this opportunity. I wish you all the best and good luck in Los Angeles. I hope you fulfill all of your dreams. Even the most challenging ones because we have one life and we have to strive to do beautiful things.
I appreciate you saying that. Whenever you’d like to come back to talk about a new project, I’m always here.
In the meantime, stay safe and healthy. All the best.
- iTunes – Penka Kouneva
- Spotify – Penka Kouneva
- YouTube – Penka Kouneva
About PENKA KOUNEVA
Recognized in Hollywood as an extraordinary talent, Penka Kouneva has composed on iconic video games (League of Legends, Prince of Persia, The Mummy), the primetime network TV show Pandora (co-composed with Joe Kraemer), a NASA theme park at the Kennedy Space Center, and numerous feature films (the Oscar contender Aga, Sony Pictures releases – Encounter and Devil’s Whisper, and Cannes and Berlinale favorites). Her music has received national press as “fantastic,” “luminous” and “breath-taking” (Billboard, NPR and Forbes). In 2020, Penka scored the Super Bowl TV ad campaign for Olay, #MakeSpaceForWomen. Like a great musical storyteller, her music carries the listener forth on an emotional wave with soaring themes and innovative textures.
The premiere soundtrack label Varese Sarabande (Universal Music) released Penka’s orchestral albums The Woman Astronaut (2015) and Rebirth of Id (2018) to rapturous press. Penka is a Sundance Fellow, Duke University Distinguished Alumna and has received the Game Audio Network Guild Recognition Award. In 2019 Penka was commissioned and performed by Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in front of an audience of 18,000 (“America in Space”).
Penka was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, received classical musical training and began composing incidental music for kids’ theater at the age of 12. In 1990 she ventured out of Bulgaria with a Duke University composition fellowship and $150 in her pocket. At Duke, she studied with the celebrated orchestral composers Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth and received the first-ever Ph.D. in composition in the newly-established Doctoral program. As a groundbreaking artist, mentor and passionate advocate for the advancement of women composers, Penka has been featured on NPR, in documentaries, numerous textbooks, and in the international press.