One of the most important keys to how we perceive films, shows, and games is the music that sets the tone of each scene.
I recently spoke with composer and musician Penka Kouneva about her past and present projects and how she found her way to music and to the US.
You may not realize it, but you have heard Penka’s work many times before in films like Elysium, Act of Valor, Angels & Demons, Freaks of Nature, Heroes and Legends and the recently released genre film Devil’s Whisper.
Horror Fuel: “How did you become a composer?”
Penka Kouneva: I have been drawn to music since early childhood. My mother is a teacher of music theory for a college. There was always music in our house. She took me to concerts. I felt emotionally drawn to it when I listened to music as a child. I always imagined stories and settings. Music for me was always associated with storytelling. That’s how it started.”
Horror Fuel: “And we are glad that it did.”
Horror Fuel: “Will you tell us about your journey to the US from Bulgaria?”
Penka Kouneva: “I was born and raised in Bulgaria. I went to the high school of music there because my parents wanted to encourage my talent. One beautiful moment was winning a big award at a Japanese competition for songwriters when I was seventeen. That fueled my fate and made me want to become a composer. But the most important thing happened after I graduated from the musical conservatory in Sofia. I received a Duke University fellowship for graduate school for composition. When I was twenty-three I left Bulgaria and went to Duke. It was a place where I really thrived. I composed music for theater, orchestras, and choirs. I had fantastic mentors. Duke did not have a PhD at the time I enrolled so they created a doctorate for me. I became the first person to receive a doctorate in composition at Duke. I came to Hollywood in 1999 and started my career. I’ve been working here ever since as a composer for film and video games. This year I scored four feature films. I am happy that I chose the career or the career chose me. I love storytelling and working with people and they seem to respond to my music.
When I left Bulgaria, right after the fall of communism, all I had was the Duke University fellowship and $150 in my pocket. I guess my story is a Cinderella story. I’ve built a wonderful life in this wonderful country. ”
Horror Fuel: “What were the four films that you scored for this year?”
Penka Kouneva: “Devil’s Whisper just came out for Sony Pictures and is available worldwide. Right now, I’m finishing a Sci-fi drama starring Luke Hemsworth, who is in Westworld. That’s a beautiful drama that is going to premiere at the Berlin film festival. I have another film premiering at the Berlin film festival called Nanook, an Inuit film. The fourth is a drama called Blue it’s going to festivals and I think it’s going to be very successful. It’s a very wonderful film with a story that needs to be told.
I also composed a lot for video games. I composed for a virtual reality game The Mummy based on the Universal franchise and a bunch of iPhone games. I enjoy a doing a variety of projects.”
Horror Fuel: “They all sound fantastic. You have been a busy woman.”
Penka Kouneva: “I love it.”
Horror Fuel: “As a woman, do you find it hard to work in a male-driven industry?”
Penka Kouneva: “It is more challenging because the expectations are higher. Basically, I have to be more reliable, more talented, harder working, simply because historically, composing is not a profession that has been known to be accepting of women. Composers historically are 100% male. In entertainment, it is more complicated because the stakes are so high and there is usually a lot of money involved. It is difficult to break through into the field. I’ve always felt like I had to be better. But, I am exceptionally grateful to the many mentors that I’ve had because they have recognized my talent. I’ve been very fortunate, starting with my mentor at Duke, Steven Jassa. He persuaded Duke to open the PhD so that I could stay and develop my talent. I feel driven to be the best I can be. It’s been a very difficult journey, but I love what I do and love the people that I work with.
Horror Fuel: “Where do you find your inspiration?”
Penka Kouneva: I do two types of work, one is collaborative where they come to me with a film or an idea and I have to add music to their vision. It’s not easy. It’s my job to really understand what they want, what they expect. It’s important to know what they expect from the music.
I also work on my own passion projects, my own artists’ CD’s and albums. This where I am the storyteller and I’m working with the orchestra and the sound engineer. In that case, it’s my passion, my project. I like to think of myself as a storyteller. That’s why I am so drawn to games or films or TV. It’s modern storytelling.
Horror Fuel: “How do you use music to manipulate scenes?”
Penka Kouneva: “Basically, music has the ability to express emotion. Historically in filmmaking, there are types of music used in certain genres, like in a sports film the music is energetic and hopefully, in drama, the music is more subdued with piano and strings. Much of the music works as a code for emotions. One of my jobs is to watch a lot of films and listen to a lot of genres of music. All these musical styles inspire me, but ultimately what matters is the expectations of the filmmaker. I ask them to tell me their favorite soundtrack, their favorite music, what type of sound are they hearing for the project. It’s my job to add that emotion.
Horror Fuel: “You’ve worked on so many different projects, do you have a favorite?”
Penka Kouneva: “My favorite is usually my latest project. Right now, it is Devil’s Whisper. It is a psychological horror story. It’s a story about a fifteen-year-old boy named Alex. It’s a coming of age story. He has experienced a lot of trauma and his repressed memories are coming back to haunt him. There’s a demonic presence in the movie. It is told with so much taste and so much compassion, but it is also very scary. I love when a movie or game has layers.
In terms of games, I scored Prince of Persia that came out in 2010. That was an incredible experience. It was my first big gaming job.”
Horror Fuel: “Can you tell us a little about the music for Devil’s Whisper?”
Penka Kouneva: “It is ambient/modern music. It is subtle. I was a refreshing change because I have been doing a lot of heavy music. I used electronics. I used strings. I’ve been told that the music elevates the film, which is the biggest compliment I can get as a composer.”
Horror Fuel: “Are you working on anything now?”
Penka Kouneva: “I’m working on the feature film Encounter. I just finished Blue, the other feature. If you are in Los Angles or New York check out The Mummy VR game at Imax theaters. I am always looking for the next exciting project.”
Horror Fuel: “As a musician and composer, what is your favorite song?”
Penka Kouneva: “I would say the soundtrack to the Gears of War II. It’s composed by Steve Jablonsky. That’s one of my favorite soundtracks ever. I grew up listening to Pink Floyd and they are still my favorite. I love rock and classical music.
Horror Fuel: “What’s your favorite horror movie and why?”
Penka Kouneva: “You know, this year my favorite horror movie is Get Out. I think that it is really awesome and so original. In previous years, my favorite horror films, there’s so many of them, Stir of Echoes is one movie that really scared me. I would also say Carrie which is a classic horror movie. I love Alien and Blade Runner. At home, we watch a ton of science fiction/horror. That’s my favorite genre. My most rewarding musical assignments have been horror or science fiction or fantasy. That’s why I love them so much.
I think the best power of filmmaking and game making, we have the ability to tell a story that touches people lives and resonates beyond entertainment, beyond the surface. You’re telling a story, but there are deeper issues. I would love it if I could spend my life composing music for stories that are like that, with deeper social commentary. To me, that’s the greatest power of entertainment.”
Horror Fuel: “What about your favorite games?”
Penka Kouneva: “My favorite game that came out this year is called Horizon: Zero Dawn because it has a female protagonist. I look forward to their next iteration. I work on all the Blizzard games which are World of Warcraft, Overwatch. I love those.”
Penka has faced tremendous odds and through dedication and hard work has built an impressive career after she arrived in the US.
Be sure to check out Devil’s whisper, Blue, and the other films and games she worked on this year. You can find out more about Devil’s Whisper HERE.
Next time you watch a film or play a game listen carefully to the music that helps to shape them.