“The Woman Astronaut” and Penka Kouneva – a Bulgarian composer in Hollywood

Photo: private archive

Penka Kouneva is one of the few female composers in Hollywood. She composes and orchestrates film scores, music for video games and television. In 2015 she released her second album “The Woman Astronaut” which was awarded the prestigious Hollywood Music and Media Award.

Penka Kouneva has been living in USA for more than ten years. She was born in Sofia and graduated the National Music School and then the National Music Academy here. She has been composing music ever since she was a little girl – music for children’s programmes, theatre, pantomime, songs, instrumental pieces. She then decided she wanted to continue her education abroad, she dreamed of living in a different creative environment, of learning about modernism, of different trends in modern art. Penka was the first postgraduate student of composition in the entire history of Duke University in USA.

“I graduated the National Music Academy in Sofia in 1990,” says Penka Kouneva. “Then I got a full scholarship at Duke. Which was a good thing because I didn’t have any money – when I left for USA I had 150 dollars in my pocket. At the university the atmosphere was fantastic, inspiring young composers to find their own place in music, to discover their own propensities. At the time we were really into postmodernism – tonal music, combining elements of Eastern with Western tradition, new with old music styles. Our “star” was Dutch postmodern composer Louis Andriessen. In that period I wrote many opuses of tonal music. Having graduates Duke University I was faced with the question: which direction should I take? What I wanted was to capture the spirit that would truly embody who I really am. I have always had a penchant for composing music for the visual arts – theatre, ballet, movies, and now video games. I also love to work with people with a creative set of mind - that is something that “opens up” my imagination. I decided I wanted to write film music, that this was my dream.”

Penka Kouneva made her dream of composing film music come true. To begin with – without the money or contacts this takes, but with endless amounts of talent and dedication. Now people say she is unique, “a composer of exquisite talent”. She is the first woman in the entire history of Hollywood to have held the position of lead orchestrator for productions with a budget of over 100 million dollars. Penka Kouneva has composed and orchestrated the music for dozens of movies and video games, among them the films Elysium, Ender’s Game, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers; and the video games (together with Steve Jablonsky) Prince of Persia – Forgotten Sands, World of Warcraft… The list really is a long one, as is the list of awards she has received – the grand prix at the Tokyo Young Composers’ Competition, and in USA – the Aaron Copland Award, Sundance, the Independent Music Award and others. Penka has played mentor to dozens of young composers and continues to support their efforts. The talented lady says that she was given her chance overseas because of the standard of academic education in Bulgaria and her own knowledge of music.

“This penchant for music was instilled in me from a very early age. I remember my mother had a record we listened to hundreds of times - Sviatoslav Richter playing Concerto for Piano in A Minor by Grieg. I would listen to it, cry and imagine all kinds of different pictures. I was six, but I shall never forget it! To my mind an emotional bond with music is really important. The education I got at the music school and the music academy in Sofia was really sound. We acquired an in-depth knowledge of orchestration, history of music, music  theory. And it all gave me a professional fundament much appreciated by my employers in Hollywood.”

Her new album “The Woman Astronaut” is, in many ways, connected with Bulgaria. Penka says it is the embodiment of the creative ideas she has nurtured since she was a little girl. “I wrote these pieces to develop as an artist, but also to “deconstruct” my childhood memories of music, of Bulgaria, of my entire life,” she adds. Every artist has such moments of illumination – you see or hear something that stays with you, something that triggers your imagination. I wanted the music to be authentic, genuine.”

English version: Milena Daynova

The audio file contains the following tracks:

- Alarm and Rescue;

- Looking up, feat. Katia Popov, violin;

- In Space, feat. Ayana Haviv, voice.

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