I recently had the awesome opportunity to correspond with Penka Kouneva and get to know a bit about her work and about her upcoming album The Rebirth of Id. Penka is a veteran composer and orchestrator with background working in the film, television and gaming industry.
The majority of this interview delves into The Rebirth of Id. That being said, I learned a lot about orchestration and the world of professional music over the course of this interview.
Penka, what is your educational background/what we some of your earliest projects like? I was classically trained since age 6, so Western orchestral music was a big influence, along with rock and hard rock. As an adolescent, I worked as a composer for live-theater. I also have a doctorate in composition from Duke University. Collaborating with others and writing music to another person’s visions is natural for me. Since arriving to LA in 1999 film and game soundtracks inspired me deeply, as I began to score independent features.
In a 2012 interview, you said that your Album The Warrior’s Odyssey was an opportunity for you to expand as an artist and composer. Do you feel that way about Rebirth of Id? Rebirth of Id is my 3rd artist album (after The Woman Astronaut and A Warrior’s Odyssey). I returned to my formative inspirations (classical orchestral music and Minimalism) and blended them with electronic arrangements. As a composer for visual media, my mission is to expand my palate and grow my skills. Getting an actual scoring job is hard; it’s a very competitive field, and composers get pigeonholed easily. In my albums, I compose music that I haven’t had a chance to write on my previous job. By doing this, I could steer my career in the direction I want it to go – towards fantasy, Sci-Fi, drama and genre films and games.
You’ve said that “your heart is in game scoring.” How do concept albums like Rebirth of Id help you as a game and film composer? When I released The Woman Astronaut and I mailed it to all my friends, one of them was working on the NASA exhibit Heroes and Legends at the Kennedy Space Center. My friend submitted the album to his bosses, and I got the job of scoring the new attraction. (If you are in Orlando, FL, check it out!) When I compose my own artist albums, I create the vision, the stories and the music, as a preparation for future scoring of games, films or anything.
After listening to Rebirth of Id, I found it really to be quite bold. In some ways, it’s almost like four mini-albums. How did you approach an album that is so varied in style and tone? Were you worried that the tracks would clash with each other? I set out to make four mini-soundtracks in completely different styles that I haven’t composed to-date. It’s a high-concept album and it’s helpful to know the idea – four original stories presented as mini-soundtracks in different genres.
This album has a very strong sense of story. The titles of the tracks are evocative- they come off as chapters to a book. You describe the album as a series of mini-soundtracks. Listening to this album you can feel the narrative by but all of the details are inferred by the listener. Did you have specific stories in mind when you wrote these tracks? Can you speak about how you cultivated a sense of story throughout the album? The four stories are my own original ideas — stories I must tell! The first is a futuristic Sci-Fi story about a woman leader in a dystopian land that is experiencing severe drought. I was traumatized by the catastrophic drought in California and felt compelled to write an environmentalist story. The second story, a period drama, is about Clara Schumann — a 19th-c. composer prodigy who stated that “women should not compose.” I needed to ask “Why?”. She was very talented. It’s sad that she did not write her music, but for me there is a bigger picture of women not having opportunities to be creative. So, essentially, I “wrote” Clara Schumann’s unwritten, unrealized orchestral compositions as a feminist statement of “lost” possibilities, lost art. The third story is a supernatural romantic thriller, in the vein of Black Mirror, where a woman uses a VR device to travel back in time to a past life. The fourth story is my own journey of demo-ing (or bidding) to get scoring jobs.
The title “Rebirth of Id” has an amazing dark, primordial feeling to it. Is there a story behind it? Yes. This album celebrates the rebirth of my creative identity as a composer. The defining experience of my early 40’s was the birth of my daughter. To a degree, I experienced stagnation as an artist. My 40’s were a challenging decade because I had to learn to balance being a parent with a demanding career of composer and studio orchestrator across three industries – film, games and emerging media. In my late 40’s I began to work with my great mentor Victor Rodriguez who suggested composing stand-alone CD’s. Rebirth of Id celebrates my renewed focus on composing which has defined my late 40’s.
What did it take for a Bulgarian woman composer to cultivate a distinctive career in film, games and emerging technologies? There are so few women composers and the entertainment business is a tough nut to crack for all. Upon arrival in Los Angeles, I knew that having a strong, individual musical style is a must. I invested time and resources into developing my talent and skills – through my own CD’s and constant learning. I came to LA with no money so I had to work a lot, but that meant many credits, relationships and experience. Although I didn’t have a “business plan” or vision for the trajectory of my career, I’ve always been intuitive and felt that my greatest capital was my music, my friendships, my people skills, and my health. I’ve also helped many composer friends (as their score producer and orchestrator). When opportunities fell on my lap, I jumped and made the best out of them. Above all, two things were the key for my success: composing great music that touched people and being a gracious person.
Penka- thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Your work is very interesting to me and I’m so glad that I got to spend a bit of time with your new album. Thank you so much! Best wishes to the readers of Cultured Vultures!