Bloody-Disgusting has scored an exclusive interview with composer and orchestrator Penka Kouneva (Midnight Movie, Hostel, Chupacabra, World Of Warcraft, StarCraft II). Her work has paired her up with some of the biggest names in the film and video game industry, including Nathan Barr, Steve Jablonsky, and many more. After the jump, you can read her answers about what it takes to score a horror movie, what the difference between orchestrating and composing it, and what some of her favorite works are.
1) For our readers who might not know some of your work or history, can you please tell me a little bit about your musical background?
I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, began piano lessons at 6, composed incidental music for theater. Upon graduating the Music Academy in 1990 I was awarded a Duke Graduate composition fellowship and arrived in the US. In the 90’s I called myself a “postmodernist” writing tonal music and fusing elements from Eastern and Western cultures, old and modern music, “art” and pop genres. My heart was in collaborating and in films; upon graduating from Duke I chose to become a film composer. I moved to LA in 1999 and supported myself as an orchestrator for the Emmy-winning TV composer Patrick Williams, for Cliff Eidelman, and later for Hans Zimmer, Steve Jablonsky, Nathan Barr and Neal Acree.
2) You’ve composed music for all sorts of movie genres, from romance to drama to sci-fi and more. When it comes to composing, do you find it to be more or less difficult for horror than other genres?
Each genre has specific challenges and requirements. Scoring horror is more involved in a sense that I must develop a complex and unique sonic palette. For “Midnight Movie” I used orchestral effects, electronics, ambiance, modern orchestra, choir (all samples), vintage synths, percussive stingers. It was imperative to develop a large palette so that the film has its own distinctive “musical signature.” For “Chupacabra” for the monster I used strings played with the wood part of the bow (“col legno”) and a trombone theme.
3) How do you enter the proper frame of mind to compose for a horror movie?
I’ve been blessed with some fantastic collaborative experiences that have made me step outside of my comfort zone and grow. First, I watch the film, and then I get inside the director’s creative mind, in order to feel his vision and the needs of the film. I “live” inside his film like a character in it, trying to absorb the characters’ motivation and story. Since the score must create the sonic identity for the film (besides adding emotional depth, subtext and dramatic arc), initially the director and I talk about the style, tone, “building blocks” (themes, orchestration) and overall feel of the score. I love this gestation period but the blank slate of a new assignment is always challenging. It’s a period of intense focus and thinking up ideas. Then I research past films with similar story, style or feel. I sketch my own themes and score a few pivotal scenes to find the film’s “pulse.”
4) You’ve said in an interview, and I paraphrase, that movies driven by characters have to have themes. When you begin composing, how do you determine what is the theme for a character? Or, another way of asking, what do you look for in a character that clicks on the “musical light bulb” for you?
Before writing the first note most film composers (myself included) aim to discover a unique musical environment, unique tone, style, feel and themes so that the score becomes a sonic identifier for that film and its sound is forever associated with it (Think : “Halloween,” “Psycho,” “Jaws,” “Rosemary’s Baby”). Most films are driven by characters. I begin with the basic questions: who is this person, what is their motivation that propels them in the film, what is their character arc, archetype. How has this archetype been scored in film previously, what can I do to distinguish this character from any other, while still making it in the vein. “Midnight Movie” plays with a few metaphors, one of them being fear. The first themes I composed were The Killer’s theme (a 4-note falling motif of the tormented, insane filmmaker who is obsessed with scaring people) and Bridget’s Fear theme (delicate melancholy theme that expressed both instability – fear, and wanting to be strong – she is the heroine).
5) When it came to Midnight Movie, what was it about the film that drew you in and made you want to be a part of it?
I loved the film-within-film structure, the supernatural elements and the story arc of audience members watching a movie and then unwillingly “acting” in it. It was such a clever idea. I also loved the style of the score the director Jack Messitt wanted of me – modern orchestral sound, with shivery textures for suspense, with eerie electronics for the “stalking” moments and explosive orchestral force for the “attacks.” I had a unique challenge – to score a “movie-within-a-movie” with 2 scores: one for the vintage movie that is being made fun of by the audience, and the other for the “movie” we are watching. The greatest joy of my profession is getting to stretch with each score, learning and growing, which I definitely did with Midnight Movie.
6) You’ve also done a lot of work as an orchestrator for many Hollywood films and video games. What do you enjoy about this as opposed to composing?
I love my “dual” career. Orchestrating for other composers inspires me immensely in my own work, and being a composer myself gives me a deep insight into producing scores for my clients – from the smallest to the biggest. I enjoy focusing on the music and not having the pressure of studio politics or reconciling different tastes of directors and producers. Orchestrating influences my own work: I orchestrated “Hostel” for Nathan Barr (2005) and this collaboration influenced “Midnight Movie.” (We both love Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” and shivery viola tremolo & harp ostinato for suspense). Recently I felt greatly energized by orchestrating for Neal Acree, Blizzard’s contributing composer on “World of Warcraft” and “StarCraft II.”
7) What is it like orchestrating for a video game rather than for a movie? Do you find there to be any difference?
For each assignment the most important task is to understand its musical scope and unique challenges, and find approaches that will work the best. Game cues may use reduced orchestration (strings, brass and choir as most percussion is usually produced with samples) but the cues tend to be longer (2-3 minutes) and mostly it’s relentless action music. In film, each cue has to be crafted with great nuance and attention to detail to make sure it’s not stepping on dialogue and “rides” the dramatic arc of the scene.
8) Can you tell me of any upcoming projects you are or will be working on?
I recently completed 2 indie features, ROUGH HUSTLE (drama-romance) and REJOUER (mystery) and currently have another indie drama. I also remain loyal to Steve Jablonsky and just started my 5th video game composing additional music for him. Much of my time is spent also looking for the next scoring assignment, reaching out to game people and building relationships.