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Penka Kouneva Wants to Blast Hollywood's Celluloid Ceiling

By Esther Kustanowitz

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Courtesy Penka Kouneva // From left to right, Jeremy Borum, Penka Kouneva and Nathan Furst working on the Dreamworks feature “Need for Speed”

At six, Penka Kouneva was playing piano in her hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. At 12, she was composing music for children’s theater. At 17, a song of hers won a Japanese competition for young songwriters. Standing on a stage in Tokyo, singing her song, Kouneva knew: she was going to be a musician and composer. Today, her determination and talent have helped pave her way to Hollywood, where she is a composer and orchestrator. But as a woman in a male-dominated segment of the industry, she is also experiencing what she refers to as the “celluloid ceiling” — fewer than 2% women composers scored Hollywood top 250 features in 2013.

“In Hollywood, I intuitively felt that I had to be much better than the expectation, to even have a chance to survive,” Kouneva explained over email, shortly after the closing of her Kickstarter campaign for “The Woman Astronaut,” an original score designed to show the world that a woman composer has the right stuff. (Kouneva raised $25,000 from backers, and raised $34,616 of her “stretch goal” of $40,000 — all of the funds will go toward production costs for the album.)

“The film industry or any high-risk industry across most departments views women as inferior,” Kouneva said. “In film composing the gender difference is extreme, because historically composing was considered ‘not a woman’s profession,’ and for centuries remained inaccessible to women.”

It was this very clear celluloid ceiling that inspired the theme for “The Woman Astronaut,” Kouneva explains, citing her passion for sci-fi, fantasy and the cosmos as inspirations for her musical journey. At an event honoring renowned composer Nan Schwartz, Kouneva found herself thinking about the gender imbalance, especially with films in the genres she loved most. She decided to investigate the numbers and learned that women accounted for 11% of astronauts, but less than 2% of composers for Hollywood scores.

In an interview with the Forward, Kouneva shared some of her observations on the success of her campaign and the state of the Hollywood music industry, particularly for women.

Esther Kustanowitz: First, help us learn about the different roles involved…what is the difference between a composer and an orchestrator?

Penka Kouneva: The composer is the creator of the music. The orchestrator is the arranger for the orchestra of already composed themes that have been realized with computer samples (for approval by the director and the studio). I love and enjoy both. As a composer, I am in the driver’s seat, collaborating with another artist, supporting their vision, creating music. As an orchestrator, I am the composer’s support team. I make the composer sound like a million bucks, by crafting glorious arrangements of their music for the orchestra, and thus, propelling them to success.

What is the first film score that you remember making an impact on you?

Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” scored by Michael Kamen, made an enormous impact upon me, with its dystopian view of a bleak future, but also with its fusion of genres — black comedy, dystopia, sci-fi, fantasy, political satire. The score was based on Geoff Muldaur’s escapist 60’s song that appeared in many variations — hopeful, pensive, subversive, overwhelming. This experience ignited my passion for film scoring.

I understand that Jewish music and culture were also an influence during your study. I was at Duke working on my Masters and PhD in composition. Two mentors of mine, George Gopen and Eric Meyers (professors in English and Religion, respectively), commissioned me to set three of the Psalms to music. Professor Gopen spoke about life as a corridor with doors representing the choices we make. Once we open a door and walk through it, other doors close, and we walk forward with the choice we’ve made. Later, while attending the Yom Kippur service at Steve Wise Temple, I realized the Neilah service (the service that closes Yom Kippur) is about that very same idea — opening and closing gates. It was a moment of illumination for me. Right there I decided that I will write an ambitious piece and set this text to music. One of the big tracks in my new CD is based on this text.

Walk me through the process of composing for film. Do you look at the screenplay, watch early cuts of it, etc? Do you talk to the director about what kind of feel he or she wants for each scene?

I read the script, watch an early cut, and most importantly, talk with the director in detail about their vision, their story, characters, motivation, emotions, subtext. I try to get the director to treat me (and the score) as yet another character in their narrative. I ask them to speak to me in emotional, evocative language; then we also talk in musical language — fast, slow; dense, light; and all shades of emotion.

You say your new album will require 70 live musicians — how many people are on a musical team for a typical sci-fi film?

Typical scores for dramatic, epic, action, fantasy, sci-fi studio films are played by 80-90 musicians (strings, brass, drums, percussion, winds) and sometimes a large choir (60 people). This is the world-renowned “Hollywood sound.” (Of course, there are many intimate films with a smaller ensemble, or modern sound with guitars and ambient electronics.)

Why are women composers underrepresented in big studio films?

To create a “big” score, the composer is entrusted (by the studio) with a large score production budget, up to millions of dollars. The composer must deliver and satisfy the expectations of the studio. It’s a “high-risk” industry; hence, the studio heads want to work with trusted composers who have delivered in the past, and won’t blow the budget or get fired.

You also compose for games — how is the process different?

What is similar is creating an evocative musical world that the story would inhabit, capturing the essence of heroes, protagonists and antagonists. The differences are technical — the game music has to interact with the gamer’s moves. There is more formal complexity (themes, loops, intros, etc) and technical rigor (the music is delivered in “stems” — drums, brass, strings, electronics). The game music, just like gameplay, is non-linear — it underscores the entire experience. Film scoring is linear — goes hand in hand with the picture editing and must create a dramatic and emotional arc for each scene, and for the entire film.

You speak very passionately about the need for mentors for women in this business, saying you mentor others. What is the secret to successful mentoring?

Mentoring enables growth and success and this is why I am so passionate about it. In the old “guild” system, the senior craftsmen brought up their young apprentices. Nowadays women composers, too, graduate from music schools. But once they are thrown into the industry, if they don’t have a mentor and professional experiences to prove themselves, their career stalls. I myself nurture many young men and women, and have been mentored by a number of men and a very few women.

Every artist goes on a long and arduous maturation journey — through opportunities, challenges, inspiration by mentors and peers, navigating creative and political waters. When I mentor young people, I am energized by their ambition and fearlessness. I see myself 20 years ago; it’s exhilarating. I feel energized by sharing my experience with young women and men, in ways that are empowering for them, not intimidating.

When I reach out to my own mentors, I am inspired and humbled by their expertise, clarity of vision, generosity and kindness. I am working with a mentor right now, Audio Director Victor Rodriguez, whom I respect and cherish tremendously. He encourages my growth as an artist, guides me in answering my own creative questions, in finding technical solutions. He advises me on how to navigate politically precarious situations. I feel confident reaching outside of my comfort zone. It’s a profound, transformative experience and a privilege I appreciate tremendously.

Looking into a future where you and other members of the “less than 2%” have broken the glass ceiling, where do you see yourself? How do you envision Hollywood changing as a result of more women composing?

My dream is to work on meaningful projects — stories with heart and passion that transform us, inspire us, and enlighten us as a human race. I am extremely passionate about fantasy and science fiction (as much as I enjoy drama) because I love allegories and archetypal hero’s journeys. I wish to see more women pursue opportunities that they thought were inaccessible. I have a few women composer friends who are insanely talented, musical, bold (Laura Karpman, Sharon Farber come to mind). Their music is a gift to us all, it enriches our lives.

Why do you think your Kickstarter campaign resonated with people?

It’s a Cinderella story: a story of prevailing over impossible odds, and a person who is known to be incredibly generous towards her community. It’s the story of a Bulgarian girl who came to Hollywood with one contact, tiny savings, talent and collaborative skills, and with an audacious dream of becoming a Hollywood film composer. She worked insanely hard, struggled, sacrificed a lot, helped others, and ultimately built amazing communities, high-performing teams, a family, and a solid body of work. The Kickstarter’s success has been such a staggeringly happy experience for me; it feels like all the generosity I have put out in the universe has come back to me a hundredfold.


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