An Interview with Aliénor Competition winner Penka Kouneva

Penka KounevaWhat do you do for fun?

Play with my kid Jeanne who is 18 months, go for walks in the parks

When did you come to the US?

In 1990, on a Mary Duke Biddle composition fellowship, to study composition for Masters degree at Duke.

Do you travel back to Bulgaria?

Last time I was in 2004, to record a low budget film. Then Jeanne was born in July of 2006. I plan on going back with her this summer.

Do you have family in Bulgaria?

I brought over my family to Los Angeles. First, my 2 sisters came in 2000 and I helped them with their immigration -- put them through community colleges while they were looking for good jobs. At the same time, I was working as a freelance copyist and orchestrator for film. We lived in a small studio apartment full of computers, furniture and even one piano. It was very, very tough. The small kitchen had 4 bookcases and barely enough space to walk by. There were 2 bookcases right across from the gas stove. In 2003, I moved in with my husband Daniel Schweiger in his beautiful home in Tujunga.

My sister Dessi is just now finishing MBA at Pepperdine while working full time, and Bonnie also has a corporate job.  In 2006, my parents came to help me raise Jeanne. They live in Tujunga near us. They enjoy being in California, but go back home in the summer as it's too hot for them here.  I only have one uncle left in Bulgaria; my other uncle teaches electronics in Tunisia. Really, no family is left in BG except family friends and cousins.

What do you like to cook?

In our home, Daniel is the Cook and I don't challenge his territory. I cook twice a year for the holidays and special occasions. I like to roast fish and sauteed zucchini. I cook tasty chicken and fish but cannot cook beef, steaks and such stuff.

How do you like living in California?

I love California. We live in the north-most suburb of LA, in the foothills of San Gabriel mountains. About LA, I love the most its nature, my job, the people I work with, the opportunities for a freelance composer, and that we live practically in the mountains, yet the commute is not bad. I loved LA from the moment I came here.

I have been very fortunate to have had great mentors here: Patrick Williams, an Emmy-winning TV composer (who is also a Duke alumni) -- my first mentor in LA; Bruce Fowler (the orchestrator of Hans Zimmer who has plugged me as orchestrator on some of the biggest films this year: Pirates 3, Transformers, Bee Movie, etc), and the composer Cliff Eidelman who has given me three important "breaks" as a film composer by recommending me for jobs, and coaching me along the way.

This is something about LA I love the most -- how many great people have been my mentors and have given me crucial support and breaks along the way. I enjoy my work. We travel a lot to national parks -- Yosemite, Sequoia, Monterey Peninsula, Joshua Tree, Santa Barbara, etc. We love that there are so many serene beautiful places in California where we can go for a weekend getaway, or vacation.

What do you like about the USA?

The freedom to be a free citizen of the world. The ability to realize one's greatest potential. The fact that there are strong people who keep (or at least try to keep) the politics in check. The fact that the president is elected every 4 years, and in an year we'll see new beginnings. Finally, that I was able to "earn" my freedom in US as a musician, having come from an impoverished Russian satellite country with $100 in my pocket.

One of the most meaningful moments in my life was receiving the Blue passport and booking a trip to France in Dec. 2004. It was Daniel's 40th Birthday that we celebrated in Paris but it was also my first trip as a free citizen of the world. Growing up in Bulgaria, in a politically repressed family, we could never travel abroad, just like this, to book a family trip. My escape from the dreary daily existence were art books, collections of Renaissance art, and art from various time periods and countries. If you can only imagine what experience it was to go to France and see in an actual gallery all the art I've admired as a kid in books. The following winter (Dec. 2005) we went to Italy, on a 3-city trip and train ride, which I also planned. I was already 2nd month pregnant with Jeanne so that was the last trip for a while. I cried at every museum we went. It was so emotionally and spiritually overwhelming, to travel to these countries and see the actual paintings, and statues and palaces that I've seen on black and white pictures as a kid.

Most importantly, in the US I feel that I am realizing my potential to my best ability, something that I could never do in my home country. I enjoy my profession, the fact that I work at home in my home studio, that I am a freelancer, that I am a business owner and essentially choose my own clients and projects.

How do you spend your day?

These days, I mostly work all day and play with Jeanne in the
afternoon when my folks go home. I sometimes go to concerts. I go to
the gym, and we hike in the mountains nearby.

What are you currently working on now?

I just finished a score to a fantasy film called MIDNIGHT MOVIE (about a possessed movie where the killer from the movie literally drags people from the audience into his possessed film, and we see them initially as audience, and then they become part of his film) and now I am scoring a much light-hearted comedy-romance-adventure. In 2007, I scored action-adventure television films (COLD SNAP, NUCLEAR HURRICANE) and some episodic TV.

Tell me anything else of interest...

I have a large collection of coffee mugs with pictures (photos) of national parks, or foreign cities. I love looking at pictures. I have totally no green thumb and our garden is pretty dismal for California. Nothing grows here unless it's watered to death, and I don't have time to neither water nor tend our garden. So I drool over other people's yards when we take a walk around our beautiful neighborhood where most all houses have a picture-perfect gardens. I dream of the time when I will have a free time to compose a cantata or oratorio, a large choral-orchestral work inspired by Durufle's Requiem, a piece that I very much love. These days I am so busy working on various jobs and films, and have no time to compose something for my own soul. It's all film scores and assignments. I am lucky to be working a lot, and to be very busy always.

Penka Kouneva is a Hollywood film composer blending her native Eastern-European influences with modern orchestra, Medieval chant, rock, and electronica. To date, she has scored 9 independent features, 4 television films for the SciFi channel, and episodic shows on cable TV. These include the slasher MIDNIGHT MOVIE, crime dramas THE THIRD NAIL and RICHARD III (starring David Carradine), family western THE CONNECTICUT KID, sci-fi political suspense film NOVEMBER, four action-adventures for the SciFi Channel (including COLD SNAP), psychological thriller DORIAN GRAY (starring Josh Duhamel), and additional music for FORENSIC FILES on CourtTV, DOG FIGHTS and MODERN MARVELS on The History Channel. Penka has also scored five documentaries, including the environmentalist film FLORIDA KEYS. 

In addition to scoring, Penka is a busy orchestrator on studio films, including TRANSFORMERS, PIRATES 3, HOSTEL I and II, MATRIX 2, 3, ENTER THE MATRIX, LIZZIE MCGUIRE MOVIE, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, and on film trailers for the two biggest trailer houses in LA. Among her mentors, she is most indebted to Cliff Eidelman (who recommended her for three crucial scoring assignments), and to Bruce Fowler, Patrick Williams and Lee Holdridge. 

Penka has been honored with WorldFest's Platinum Remi for Best Score, the Aaron Copland Award and the prestigious Sundance Composer Fellowship. Her scoring demonstrates a broad creative range and stylistic versatility including drama, crime, family, horror, thriller, action-adventure, sci-fi, and period stories. Penka's music possesses a timbre of its own: emotive, haunting and soulful. 

Penka was born and raised in Bulgaria, started piano lessons and 6 and wrote incidental music for children's theater show at 12. Before arriving in Hollywood, Penka enjoyed a successful career as a classical concert composer and composer for theatrical productions. Her orchestral works won prestigious awards including Meet the Composer Fellowship, three Aspen Festival Awards, North Carolina Artist Fellowship, etc.

Penka was awared a Mary Duke Biddle Graduate Fellowship for Graduate studies at Duke University. She studied composition with Stephen Jaffe and with the Dutch postmodern minimalist Louis Andriessen, and orchestration with Scott Lindroth. In 1997, Penka became the first-ever recipient of a Doctorate in composition at Duke.

©Aliénor 2010