Penka Kouneva has worked as a composer on blockbuster movies and video games that have grossed some $15bn worldwide. Millions will have heard her music without ever realising it.
Kouneva, who was one of the first female lead orchestrators in Hollywood, has recently been branching out into the world of attractions. She wrote the score for the $30m immersive exhibit Heroes and Legends, which opened in late 2016 at the Kennedy Space Center, near Orlando, Florida, composing music for the 3D films, installations and multimedia.
“The NASA exhibit, Heroes and Legends, was the most unique composing job I’ve had,” Kouneva says. “It tells the stories of the space missions Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. I wrote music that celebrates the American heroes and heartswelling orchestral themes with arrangements to express our fascination with space.”
Kouneva worked closely with experience designers Falcon’s Creative, especially senior sound designer Rick Morris and media editor Jesse James Allen, but reveals hurdles arose when composing for an exhibit environment for the first time.
“The main 3D film is viewed in a spherical space and the acoustics were very challenging,” she says. “The music itself had to create a variety of emotions – heroic; noble; danger, for a malfunctioning rocket; awe, for the Earth seen from space; regret, for a failed mission; hope.
“The objective is similar when composing for an attraction or a film or a video game: to create deeply emotional, engaging, memorable music that helps us remember viscerally the entire experience. The differences are in technology – how the music is implemented, how long the pieces need to be, the arrangements, and so on.”
Road to success
Growing up in Bulgaria, Kouneva’s father, an engineer, gave her books about science, space and astronauts, so working on the Kennedy Space Center project was a special experience.
“Space symbolised freedom for me. Science fiction was huge in Eastern Bloc countries because it’s about longing for a more just future, or offering a critical view of society packaged as a futuristic story.”
When she arrived in Los Angeles, California, almost 20 years ago, Kouneva invested most of her time in developing a strong and individual musical style before she started to gradually pick up work.
“I came to LA with almost 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, I’ve always been intuitive and felt that my greatest capital was my music, my friendships, my people skills and my health. When opportunities fell on my lap, I jumped and made the best out of them.”
Kouneva built her reputation and is now one of the field’s great talents, but working as a freelancer still poses difficulties.
“Getting a substantial job that propels me forward takes much hustling and patience. Understanding the tastes and expectations of my collaborators is not easy, but with experience it gets easier. Also, the balance between being in a creative zone, with running the business, is challenging. I run a tight ship,” she says.
In the realm of attractions, Kouneva scored the soundtrack for Universal’s location-based VR shooter game, The Mummy: Prodigium Strike. “My objective in scoring VR was for the music to blend with the sound design and voiceover. Since VR is such a new frontier, it takes a thoughtful, innovative approach.”
Among many others, Kouneva has composed for the Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, Transformers and World of Warcraft: Legion video games and worked on movies including Elysium, Matrix Reloaded, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Devil’s Whisper.
These projects are reflective of her music, “orchestral mixed with electronics – dramatic and haunting” and suits genres like action, horror, fantasy and sci-fi.
She has also penned three solo award-winning concept albums, including The Rebirth of Id and The Woman Astronaut.