Penka Kouneva

Credits:
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
- Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands

Official website

 

Penka Kouneva has been writing music for film and television since 1999. As compositional assistant to film composer Steve Jablonsky, she has worked on the Transformers films and games as well as the latest Prince of Persia game. In this interview, she talks about composing for interactive media, the challenges and rewards of video game scoring and her current and future projects.

Hi Penka, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get into the video game music business?

I was classically trained and started in the 90’s writing concert music for orchestra, choir, and incidental music for theater. I loved collaborating and especially loved film: fantasy, sci-fi, drama. In 1999 I came to Los Angeles to follow my dream and re-invent myself as a film and TV composer. To make a living, I orchestrated for other composers. My mentor Bruce Fowler introduced me to Steve Jablonsky in 2004 and I began orchestrating for him cultivating a great working relationship.

 

Let’s talk about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – The Video Game. When and how did you get involved in that project?

I had orchestrated the first Transformers game and film (2007) and knew Steve Jablonsky’s scores in detail. In November 2008 he asked me to compose additional music for the Transformers 2 game - I was extremely excited about it. I composed a few high-octane action loops and cinematics.

 

How did you approach the score musically and how much creative freedom were you given by the developers to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game?

My assignment was to write some variation on Steve’s Main Theme and other cues that were original yet within Steve’s Transformers style. One of my own favorite cues “Megatron vs. Airforce” had to be similarly sweeping and heroic as Steve’s “Soccent Attack” from the Transformers 1 film. The game’s music had to be original and different from the film, yet within the same style. We received cinematics, prototypes and detailed musical guidance from Activision’s Audio Director Adam Levenson.

 

You co-composed the score with Steve Jablonsky. How does composing in a team work and how closely did the two of you work together on that project?

Steve composed the Game Theme first, established the musical material as well as orchestration, overall tone, style. Then my job was to ensure that whatever I compose seamlessly fits within the sonic world of the score, so that it supports the tone of Transformers (dark, heavy) and that my arrangements (drum grooves, brass melodies and string propulsive motion) match Steve’s music. Yet my music had to be inspired and memorable, not just deconstructing Steve’s theme. I enjoy tremendously working in the capacity of a collaborating composer. He was a wonderful mentor, giving me great feedback.

 

You’ve also written music for Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. What drew you to the project?

This was a dream job - it allowed me to combine my Eastern European upbringing and knowledge of Persian and Indian music with my 11 years of Hollywood experience. This was my first time delivering grand cinematic epic-fantasy sound. I scored the Prince as a hero with an urgent mission, while creating a unique fusion with ethnic instrumental, modal and thematic influences. I did extensive research and also revisited my favorite Persian and Indian music since adolescence (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sussan Deyhim, Djivan Gasparyan.)

 

What were your particular goals with the score? Are you pleased with the end result?

The goals were challenging. I had to write two hours of original music and variations that seamlessly fit within Steve Jablonsky’s style, a score that blends Persian sound/tonalities and Hollywood grand, intense feel while at the same time fulfill Ubisoft’s extremely rigorous directions for an interactive, adaptive game score. I felt incredibly energized by the challenge, and in the end feel deeply satisfied by the result. It was my steepest learning curve to-date but the learning process was tremendous. I was also stepping in some large shoes – a beloved video game franchise with a 21-year history and with iconic scores by Inon Zur/Stuart Chatwood whose work I studied closely – even though we were asked by Ubisoft to change the sound.

 

Your score is dynamic in-game. Could you talk a bit about the process of writing an interactive score and implementing it in the game?

Ubisoft’s approach to interactive scoring on Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands was that for every loop there is an ambient, combat and acrobatic mode. They must be distinctive yet matching in key and tempo, and each mode is delivered in a few levels of intensity. The music adapts instantly with the gamer’s actions so at all times the music must seamlessly transition from acrobatic to combat to ambient and the gamer’s experience of change must be organic. It was achieved through the arrangement, orchestration, and also compositionally.

 

Are there any cues/musical passages that you are especially proud of?

The beginning was difficult due to the change of creative vision “at the top” and also because Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands was only my second game score. In the 3 rd Palace loop I incorporated a short, majestic chord progression which I jotted down during the months of “research.” Ubisoft’s Music Supervisor Simon Landry called that loop “breathtaking.” His approval, along with generous feedback and guidance, gave me wings to explore fearlessly and passionately.

 

Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?

Composers are curious about the “last frontier”: the exponential growth of games in all aspects: conceptual, technological, sonic. Personally, my game composing experiences were most exhilarating and inspiring musically: writing orchestral-choral music and blending non-Western elements. As games have evolved in their storytelling, visuals and especially audio engines, the opportunities for writing tremendous music have exploded. Lately I heard such potent, inspired games scores (Halo: Reach, Uncharted 2, Gears of War 2) and I desire to contribute to the game vernacular.

 

You’ve also written music for television and film. How would you compare movie and game scoring?

Technically, scoring games and film are very different. Conceptually, dramatically and emotionally great music could elevate any media. The ability to write distinctive themes that capture a character’s essence, to underscore grand concepts, sweeping landscapes or spine-tingling suspense are skills that translate from film to games. My commitment to games is fueled by a sense of exponential growth and creative freedom I felt while scoring games.

 

Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?

I am fascinated to see what new narratives will crop up in games, in addition to the already established fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, adventure, military etc. stories. Maybe political thrillers, environmental quests, different dystopia. Music in games will stand shoulder to shoulder with film scores and will become the lasting legacy of 21st Century music, just like film scores have become the enduring legacy of 20th Century music.

 

What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?

Two fundamentals: firstly, assimilating the developer’s vision of the game and the “sonic world” it will inhabit (themes, instrumentation, electronic/organic elements). I immerse myself in the new world and feel absolutely energized. Secondly, understanding the rigor of the “interactivity” – how the audio engine works and how to structure the music vertically (layers, stems, levels, orchestration) and horizontally (flow/continuity: intro, themes). Close collaboration, testing ideas, hard work and total commitment are essential. Once we figure out and test these fundaments, the rest of the creative journey is joyful.

 

What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your mp3 player right now?

Like most composers I have very broad interests: classical (early music, chant, Baroque, 18-20 th Centuries, postmodernism), film and video game music (I listen to new scores daily), rock, 90’s electronica, jazz, roots music, The Lomax Collection, tons of authentic world music starting with a deep knowledge of Bulgarian and Middle-Eastern folklore, and on and on.

 

What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?

A current fantasy game with Steve Jablonsky, Prince of Persia, the Transformers games, Midnight Movie (a supernatural slasher) and another drama feature called The Third Nail.

 

What would be your dream project?

A soulful and epic story or a period romance like Sunshine; dystopia with bold score like Brazil or V for Vendetta; a fantasy that inspires emotional themes and sweeping, grand statements; a subtle, delicate or melancholy score; the next Matrix, or a transformative, sincere human-interest story. I hope to connect with a visionary game developer.

 

What are you currently working on?

I remain loyal to Steve Jablonsky and he keeps me busy with additional composing on his games and work on the Transformers 3 film. I just began my 4 th game with Steve. I am introducing myself to the game community, listening to and playing games daily. In 2011 three of my indie features will be released (Rough Hustle, Rejouer, El Nacional).

 

Do you play PC or console games yourself?

I play console games on “easy”… I usually don’t have time to complete a game, but I do try and play (or watch my husband play) as many games as I can.

 

Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.

Thank you so much for your interest!