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Interview - Penka Kouneva - Part I

2vs8: When did you know you had a love for music in any form, and how this led to composing or orchestrated music?

Penka Kouneva: I was very young when I remember being moved to tears while listening to Grieg Piano Concerto. Classical music always moved me. Then I became a huge fan of rock. My parents were busy university professors who were also politically repressed in my native country, Bulgaria. We were also poor. Listening to music became my outlet and the piano became my friend. Symphony concerts were cheap to attend, and my mom, being a music teacher, dragged me with her to concerts all the time, a few times a week all throughout my childhood. I began composing music for children's theater at the age of 12 - just little pieces for piano, flute and glockenspiel. Much later, already in graduate school at Duke University I first composed for the orchestra. In 1990, I was accepted at Duke to pursue a Master's in composition and my teachers, Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth, greatly inspired me to study orchestral music closely. This experience prepared me to cultivate a career as an orchestrator in Hollywood.

2vs8: How has the experience to work alongside of some of the top names in the industry feel and how have they help achieve your goals?

Penka Kouneva: I've been in Hollywood for 11 years now, and have been lucky to connect early on with some top names who then became my mentors. One of my first gigs was with Conrad Pope - proofreading his orchestrations (Conrad is the orchestrator for John Williams and every other A-list composer). My very first gig for him was proofreading SLEEPY HOLLOW scored by Danny Elfman (orchestrated by Conrad). That relationship lead to working on the MATRIX films. Knowing deeply difficult music software (Logic and Finale), on another hand, lead to working with orchestrator/composer Bruce Fowler who is the principal orchestrator for Hans Zimmer. So that lead to working for Steve Jablonsky on the TRANSFORMERS films and many of Zimmer's films (SHERLOCK HOLMES, ANGELS AND DEMONS, PIRATES 3, etc). I was exposed to top professionals who inspire me greatly both as creative minds and also with their approach to technology, collaboration and to our craft. I've always been driven by an insatiable desire to learn and grow.

2vs8: Is the score to "Midnight Movie" your first full release and prior to this, what is your most memorable project?

Penka Kouneva: Yes, it is my first soundtrack CD release. I am exceptionally excited and grateful. "MIDNIGHT MOVIE" was a terrific collaboration with the director Jack Messitt, and a scoring assignment that pushed me to stretch and grow as a composer. This is the most gratifying aspect of being a film composer - always trying new ideas, always stepping outside of one's comfort zone and discovering new grounds.

2vs8: Do you prefer synthesized or a orchestra... and what did you use for "Midnight Movie"?

Penka Kouneva: "MIDNIGHT MOVIE" had a very small budget for music but had a good budget for sound design and film mixing. Being an independent genre film I think they made the perfect strategic decision to elevate the film to a studio level by investing into a top-notch sound mix and sound design. But naturally there was no budget for live orchestra. That's very expensive. The score is entirely with samplers and synthesizer-emulated orchestral instruments. For a live component, I used my "secret weapons" - live eerie vocals and also my own custom libraries of live orchestral effects that I've recorded with various orchestras in Europe. You still hear shivery string effects and eerie textures which are with live orchestra.

2vs8: Could you tell us how you came to score for the film "Midnight Movie" and were you allowed to your own creative ideas?

Penka Kouneva: I was recommended to Jack by my business partners Danny and Ariana Getz who knew the producer of the film. I submitted my compilation of past genre scores, and Jack invited me to watch his film. I really loved it. First, the premise of a "movie character" coming alive and tormenting people is similar to one of my most favorite books from childhood. Then I really liked the whole supernatural aspect: alternate reality where the characters soon find themselves. The film looked great, was fast-paced and I just loved it from the first viewing.
Since it was a film-within-a-film, I had to "score" the "old" film with a cheesy early 70's score that also had to sound detuned and warble (like an old crinkled celluloid) and also had to score the "actual" film with a modern score. That was a pre-requisite. Otherwise, I came up with all themes and material on my own, in close collaboration with Jack.

2vs8: What process do you use in scoring for a horror film, how do you find your inspiration?

Penka Kouneva: The most important task each time is to find the unique tone, sound, "voice" of the film. That special musical imprint that will identify the film and become its unique sonic identity. Just think for a moment of the original HALLOWEEN and Carpenter's theme - how distinctive that is. In horror films I think both in terms of musical themes but also in terms of style, orchestration and sound. I knew I would use orchestral instruments, but also opened up my palette to using modern orchestral effects, lots of electronic textures, noises, sounds. My inspiration comes from watching the film and asking myself the question "what is the sonic world I need to create that would be a perfect match for this film, and what is the musical style that the film will inhabit most organically"

2vs8: How was working with the directors and producers of "Midnight Movie" in order to complete the score?

Penka Kouneva: It was fantastic. Jack Messitt came to weekly playback meetings and gave me good feedback. He revealed thematic ideas and subtext in the film that inspired me and stirred my imagination. He opened up with his ideas which allowed me to understand more deeply his characters, situations, and hero's motivations. He was a straight shooter - really easy to work with, really committed to the collaboration and always open to exploring my ideas too. The producers were also very supportive and enthusiastic. They all gave me great feedback and ideas. It was a happy collaboration and I enjoyed every moment of it.


youngelfman said...

Sounds like an awesome way to start a career as an orchestrator and composer proofreading orchestrations for "Sleepy Hollow." That is certainly one of my favorite Elfman scores. The insights on the process and approach to scoring horror are also very interesting and I can really see the point about creating a "unique sonic identity." That does seem to be true for horror scores in some ways much more prominently than those for other genre of film.

Unknown said...

and to top it she is a very nice lady... and elfman one of my favorites too... thanks for stopping by y.e.