I Am Living Proof Of The American Dream: With Penka Kouneva
“I’m optimistic about the US’s future because its people are conscientious. The people I work with are hard working, honest people — the overachiever type. The privilege of aging is to choose whom I work with, and I surround myself with great people. America truly is the land of unlimited opportunities, because people will open doors for you if you are good. I am a perfect example of it — a hard working, idealistic person who came with raw talent and no money, followed my dreams and succeeded.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Penka Kouneva. Penka is a pioneer woman composer for film, video games and emerging technologies (VR). She is known in Hollywood as an “exquisite talent” (NPR) and has arranged and produced soundtracks on studio blockbuster films and games grossing over $20 billion (Skyscraper, Elysium, Ender’s Game, Ninja Turtles, all Blizzard games — Overwatch, World of Warcraft, StarCraft II; Gears of War, Sims 3, Bloodborne). As a composer on her own, her scoring credits include Prince of Persia and Transformers video games, The Mummy VR game, a NASA attraction Heroes and Legends, and dozens of festival feature films.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria and studied classical music and piano since age 6. I began composing around the same time, and was not discouraged by the condescending attitudes towards a girl composing music — a vocation that for thousands of years has been inaccessible for women.
I earned my first money playing my own compositions for children’s theater at age 12 and this gig gave me my sense of self. In 1990, I graduated from the Bulgarian Music Academy about the same time the Berlin Wall fell down and the communism collapsed. My parents encouraged me to pursue post-graduate degree in composition in the US, and to immigrate.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US?
An US organization supporting classical women composers named International League for Women Composers hosted a competition. A work of mine got awarded and this award enabled me to apply for Masters in composition at Duke University. I was accepted and in 1990 began my graduate studies at Duke.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I came to Duke with a full graduate fellowship given by the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and with … $150 in my pocket. The year after the collapse of communism in Bulgaria was a year of chaos, hyper-inflation and enormous lines in front of all embassies (to receive visas). I knew that there was no going back. I had to sell my beautiful grand piano, Vogel, to buy a one-way plane ticket to Duke. My first American home was Durham, North Carolina. At Duke I felt embraced and encouraged by my mentors, the renowned American orchestral composers Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth. They began opening doors for me — to compose music for the local theater companies, to receive commissions by the local professional ensembles, to participate in conferences. My talent flourished. I lived in a modest boarding home, renting a room for $225 monthly for rent. My weekly groceries budget was about $20 (this is 1990 in North Carolina). I did not have a computer of my own until 1996 — I used the Computer Lab in the library. I felt incredibly inspired and driven by the opportunities at Duke. In my 2nd year the University established a Doctoral degree in composition (which did not exist until that point) and I became the first-ever Ph.D. in composition at Duke. This enabled me to apply for Green card as “alien of extraordinary abilities” which I received in 1997.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My mentor, Stephen Jaffe — he persuaded the Music Department and Duke to establish a Doctoral program in Composition so I could continue for Ph.D. at Duke and not return to Bulgaria. I’m forever grateful to him. He was the most encouraging, kind, inspiring and brilliant mentor. He created an environment for me to feel as a brilliant professional, to dream big, and to flourish. The overall vibe at Duke was “sky is the limit” and this attitude became my motto which helped me later in my Hollywood career.
In hindsight, Jaffe’s support of a woman from Bulgaria coming to Duke with no money was extremely courageous and visionary. Composing as a vocation historically has been inaccessible for women, and even today it’s exceptionally hard to break and sustain a career if you are a woman. It’s one of these art careers where it takes 15–20 years to master the craft, and to develop an individual artistic voice. Composer face constant rejection and hardly ever have a semblance of stability. Composers work long, grueling hours and burn the midnight oil. A momentary flash of success does not automatically mean that a career will be forged; it takes constant, daily effort to sustain the career. It’s hard enough for men to become career composers. But for women it’s exponentially harder.
In Hollywood is even harder, because the entertainment business needs to mitigate risk and hiring unproven talent (women film composers) is a big risk. Less than 2% of the top 250 feature films annually are scored by women, and around 2.5% of commissions by major orchestras go to women. So then, why did I choose a career as a media composer? Composing is my destiny. In my entire life I’ve had a healthy dose of oblivion towards such statistics. I was always driven by passion, idealism and drive to follow my dreams, no matter what. Stephen Jaffe was concerned when I told him I wanted to go to Hollywood, but instead of discouraging me, he helped me again by giving me copyist jobs so I could survive my first year in LA.
So how are things going today?
After Duke I pursued my dream of becoming a film composer and came to LA in 1999 with one contact and tiny savings. In the years since, I’ve made Hollywood history (first woman Lead Arranger on multiple studio blockbusters — Elysium, Skyscraper, Ninja Turtles, Ender’s Game). A shy woman who once came with $150 in my pocket, these days I command million dollar music production budgets as I arrange, orchestrate and produce the soundtracks of studio blockbusters, with hundreds of musicians over many days & weeks of recordings. This summer, I was arranger for the orchestra on the blockbusters Skyscraper, Animal World and The House With a Clock in Its Walls (premiere in September). As a composer on my own projects, I scored Berlinale’18’s closing feature, Aga, Sony Pictures’ Devil’s Whisper which got nominated for a Saturn Award’18 and other exciting VR projects and games which I will unveil in the fall.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m passionate about mentoring, artist growth, and giving back. In Los Angeles I have mentored dozens of young composers, and also wrote blogs on Cultivating a Career for Designing Music Now. I host “career” seminars for emerging composers every year. I serve on the Advisory Board of the Game Developers Conference and previously have served on Sundance Institute and Grammy LA boards. Since I started a family and had my daughter, I built an amazing team of young professionals whom I trained to work at the studio level. All my former assistants have moved on to work at the highest level in the entertainment business — studio films, network TV shows, AAA games. And I’m also giving back to my Alma Mater: to honor my mentors at Duke, Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth, I established a Graduate Orchestra Reading program which enables Duke graduate composers to have their orchestral compositions professionally rehearsed and recorded by the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. This program has already opened amazing doors for some young composers. It gives them great competitive edge as they enter an insanely oversaturated job market.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Hard work, constant growth, never-ending learning of new skills. This is the key to thriving. Our business is very dynamic, changes constantly, and we need to be extremely adaptable and committed to a life-long learning and acquiring new skills. I work hard every day and enjoy it.
2. Consistent, proactive and deep cultivation of meaningful relationships. And I am not talking about “networking” — I am talking about cultivating communities, being of service to one’s peers, being of help, contributing to the others’ success, so that in return they will open doors. This also includes establishing a sterling reputation, being known by many people, and cultivating a large circle of friends, mentors, advocates, champions. I grew up very lonely in Bulgaria and when I got to US I intuitively sought to build meaningful friendships and communities. This is one thing I am proud of. As much as I’m a private and introverted person, I have a very large community of friends, followers, mentees, business associates and fans.
3. Being down-to-earth, positive person, with “can-do” attitude and insane resilience. Also, being humble and enthusiastic — core American values. People appreciate when they see your enthusiasm about the job and your willingness to try your best and stay calm under pressure. I never allowed “success” to get to my head, or to be too focused on external stuff. I kept my warm demeanor, grace and class; focused on growth, learning, building teams and worked my butt off.
4. Investing in artistic growth (or investing in growth, in general). I invested in my artistic solo projects which, in turn, brought me new amazing jobs as a composer. In 2015 the biggest soundtrack label, Varese Sarabande, released my CD titled The Woman Astronaut. It was a passion project — a soundtrack telling a story, without a movie. I mailed it to friends and business associates, and it brought me my best job to-date — composer of a new NASA attraction Heroes and Legends at the Kennedy Space Center. This exhibit celebrates the American Astronauts, will be seen by tens of millions, and will live on for decades.
5. Staying healthy. And by this I don’t only mean, physically healthy. Staying positive, graceful, and energetic, with curious mind and deep empathy. Although it’s hard in the current political climate, I continue to believe in the power of the American democracy to self-regulate and survive.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
• People are conscientious. The people I work with are hard working, honest people — the overachiever type. The privilege of aging is to choose whom I work with, and I surround myself with great people. America truly is the land of unlimited opportunities, because people will open doors for you if you are good. I am a perfect example of it — a hard working, idealistic person who came with raw talent and no money, followed my dreams and succeeded.
• People are socially active, socially conscious. They keep their elective representative accountable, make phone calls, and don’t allow apathy and cynicism to take over.
• The technology for protecting the environment is evolving (sustainable energy, organic farming). My daughter’s generation will have the duty to reverse the global warming, and all humanitarian ills that we are currently dealing with.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Elon Musk, he cares for the environment. Al Gore, for the same reason. In terms of politics, my greatest concerns are global warming, environmental degradation, and social issues.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.