News & InfoEP StoreAcademySupportCommunityProducts by Country
Blog Home

Meet the Composer

A conversation with award-winning orchestrator and composer Penka Kouneva (‘Revenge,’ ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’)
August 2, 2022
EP Blog-WIDE-Meet the composer-Penka Kouneva

“Music is essentially an emotional language,” Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore once said; and there are few tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal that evoke feelings in and audience quite like music. Whether it’s movies, television, or video games, the pairing of powerful images with resonant music can elevate a project to new heights. Try to imagine ‘Jaws’ without John Williams’ ominous score or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ without the grandeur of Maurice Jarre’s music.

For all of music’s importance to visual mediums, those who create the music can often remain enigmatic figures. We spoke with award-winning film, television, video game orchestrator and composer, Penka Kouneva (‘World of Warcraft,’ ‘The Matrix Reloaded,’ ‘Sims 3’) to learn more about the profession and her career.

What is a composer?

“The composer’s most important job is to feel and deeply understand the director’s overall vision of their film,” says Kouneva. Before any musical note is ever written, a director’s musical tastes and where music should appear in the finished project are discussed.

With that creative foundation established, the composer’s work begins. For the contemporary composer, this means  “music that is both modern and timeless, that resonates with audiences,” Kouneva says. “The timeless qualities come from using memorable melodies and orchestral arrangements.” A few tentative themes for characters or scenes are composed, recorded, and shared with the director. If they’re a hit, the composer moves on to create the entire score, making sure the music is enhancing the emotion of every scene.

When the score is finished, it is either arranged for and recorded by an orchestra or by using special keyboard software. Throughout the process, the composer typically receives revision notes from the director, helping to finesse the music to where the director wants it. On bigger projects, more people may be involved. “On studio films, there is a complicated approval process – not only must the director must fall in love with the score, but also the producers, the music supervisor, all studio music executives,” she says.

When everything is approved, the music is handed over to post-production to become part of the project’s sound mixing and finishing process.

How do you become a composer?

Most musicians develop early, and Kouneva is no exception. She began playing piano at six, and by the age of 12 was already identifying as a composer. By the time she was 17, she was winning international young composer competitionsand soon landed at Duke University with an already healthy interest in theater, films, and documentaries. After obtaining a master’s and Ph.D. in composition, she moved to Los Angeles, with the intent of becoming a career composer.

Hers is a path that many aspiring composers may find themselves echoing. Success in the endeavor to become a composer largely depends on a strong background in musical fields (film, or otherwise), a demonstrable understanding of music and composition, and the level of expertise that can only be achieved by putting in the time. Something Kouneva advises no matter what. “Compose tons of music over a long period of time. A craftsman takes decades to become a Master – compose about 100 hours more music than you think you’ll need."

Kouneva TWA session_rs.jpg
Courtesy of Penka Kouneva

Once in Los Angeles, Kouneva started off by orchestrating – translating and arranging scores  to be played by live musicians – for television movies and series. “Having a vast knowledge of the orchestra was a skill that was useful to my clients,” she says. It got her breaks orchestrating for the Wachowski Sisters (‘The Matrix Reloaded’), Robert Rodriguez (‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’), and within the video game industry (‘The Sims 3’, ‘World of Warcraft’).

She quickly learned what most aspiring composers are likely to. “We - all creative people - work in the business of someone opening a door for us. All my scoring jobs have come through a referral by a friend, or a composer client for whom I’ve orchestrated,” she says. It’s why she stresses: “Make tons of friendships. Not just ‘networking’ but meaningful, personal, genuine,” she says.

Still, not every referral is a guaranteed job. If a composer is recommended to a director they’ve never worked with before, there will often be an application process with dependent factors. “Hiring a composer is a combination of a strong referral, the music being a fit, credits, and the composer’s enthusiasm about the project,” Kouneva says.

For women, the path to becoming a composer can, unfortunately, include additional hurdles. According to a University of Southern California study, among the top 100 films at the U.S. box office from 2007 to 2017, only 16 were scored by women. In 2018, only 6 percent of the highest grossing 250 domestic films were scored by women, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Kouneva has experienced the struggle to breakthrough in her own career too. “Intuitively I felt I must be super-professional and better than most, even to be given a chance in the entertainment business,” she says.

Helping change the industry are Organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers, founded in 2014, which has pushed for progress with advocacy, support and education. An Alliance-organized 2016 concert called “Women Who Score,” which featured the work of over 20 composers, was a particular turning point – for the organization, but also Kouneva who participated. There she met writer-director Amy Andersson, with whom she would collaborate on the award-winning ‘Women Warriors: Voice of Change’, a concert highlighting social activists throughout the decades who have pushed for change. Kouneva worked on musical sections covering the AIDS crisis, the Native American protests at Standing Rock, the marches by Israeli and Palestinian women for peace, #MeToo chapter, an Epilogue titled “Honor Her,” and the End Credits.

3 Women Warriors a still from the doc.jpg
Courtesy of Penka Kouneva

There are signs of progress for women composers, too, such as Hildur Guðnadóttir winning Best Original Score at the Academy Awards in 2019 for ‘Joker’ or Germaine Franco being nominated in 2021 for ‘Encanto.’ “I’ve seen positive developments in the last few years. A number of women composers are scoring studio feature films, TV series, games, award-winning documentaries. Their work is getting major awards and recognition. They participate in industry panels and events and have become members of AMPAS, the Emmys. These are all great indicators for women composers,” she says.

What makes a composer successful?

There are three qualities that Kouneva believes makes a successful composer. “[Be a] great human, great collaborator, great composer – in that order,” she says.

By being a “great human,” she means having good people skills, something that goes hand-in-hand with being a great collaborator, as composers must navigating working with different tastes and expectations, and a variety of fellow creators.

As for what makes a great film, television or video game composer? One must have an understanding of the medium. “A great dramatic sense, vast knowledge of all musical genres and styles, genuine love for storytelling, understanding how film and drama work,” are all critical, says Kouneva. Less obvious qualities are required, as well, such as technical fluency (in software, virtual instruments, music production and mixing) and also an entrepreneurial spirit. “We are all freelancers building our own clientele,” Kouneva says. For example, Kouneva has released several albums not just to cultivate her own artistic growth, but to generate new clients and new jobs.

A successful composer should never be stagnant, but driven forward by what Kouneva calls an “insatiable thirst for continuous learning and growth.” That thirst is best quenched with an abiding love for the work. “I’m very intuitive and follow my heart and my passions. Every day, I still ask myself the essential question, ‘What is the meaning and purpose of what I do?’ I seek projects that are aligned with my sense of purpose as an artist.”

Topic: Spotlight

Related Content

EP Blog_SQUARE_1st AC Matt Sanderson

Meet the First Assistant Camera

A conversation with 1st AC Matt Sanderson ('Everything Everywhere All At Once')
Topic: Spotlight

Producing with Purpose

Creative Producer, Kimberly Goodman ('Selling Sunset', 'Project Runway') shares insights on creating...
EP Blog_SQUARE-Sound Mixer-Lora Hirschberg

Meet the Sound Mixer

A conversation with Oscar-winning re-recording mixer, Lora Hirschberg ('Inception', Skywalker Sound)

Meet the Script Supervisor

A conversation with Rachel Connors Phillippe (‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,’ ‘Only Murders in the Building’)
EP Blog_SQUARE_Wes Hagen

Meet the Location Manager

A conversation with award-winning location manager Wes Hagen ('Ozark,' 'Hidden Figures.')
Sian Richards and Queen Latifah-square

A Face Kit for Every Skin Tone

Hollywood makeup artist Siân Richards is transforming the makeup industry for actors of every shade.
EP Blog_SQUARE_Fighting Hollywood Stereotypes-TTEI

Fighting Stereotypes and Rethinking Representation

How TTIE is advancing authentic storytelling in Hollywood by empowering historically excluded writers and...
Oklahoma route 66 sign

A New Frontier in Filmmaking

Oklahoma is becoming a production destination, thanks to new incentives and infrastructure programs.
EP Blog_SQUARE_meet the cinematographer-dan-laustsen

Meet the Cinematographer

A conversation with Dan Laustsen ('John Wick', 'Nightmare Alley').
EP Blog_Marge Dean

Opening Career Doors

How WIA President, Marge Dean, is shaping the future of animation and empowering underrepresented genders
Bradley Cooper-nightmare alley

Meet the Assistant Director

A conversation with Myron Hoffert ('Nightmare Alley')
EP Blog_Uncovering Treasures_IndieCollect

Uncovering Lost Treasures of Independent Film

How IndieCollect is preserving Black independent films to reflect a more honest view of America and of...

Behind the Boom: Why the UK is a Hotspot for Production

Explore the generous industry incentives, talent, and infrastructure available to productions filming in...

Film Community and Industry Jobs Grow in Washington State

Thanks to new funding and a continuous effort by Amy Lillard, Executive Director of Washington Filmworks,...
Changes to UK Pensions Act

Proposed Changes to the UK Pensions Act Could Impact Production Budgets

Reintroduced bill seeks to give UK government the power to extend pensions auto-enrollment to young and...
Topic: UK
UK Gov Growth Plan

Mini Budget; Big Changes: What the UK Government’s Growth Plan Means for Production 

UK Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announces new Growth Plan (aka the “mini budget”) and a big shake up of the...
Topic: UK

Film Industry Booms in Buffalo

Western New York draws top filmmakers with expanded tax incentives, new soundstages, and architectural...
Changes to UK right to work checks

Important Changes to UK Right to Work Checks

On September 30, 2022 the UK rules around right to work checks will change. Here’s what productions need...
Topic: UK
Master Series Square Thumbnail-Film Financing-Crowdfunding

Film Financing Explained: Crowdfunding

Emily Best (Seed&Spark), Stacy Bradford (Indiegogo), and producer Zach Fineblum join us to discuss the ins...
Los Angeles Times logo-sq

Hollywood production in U.K. soars to record levels as crews complain of burnout

Spending on film and high-end television shoots reach record-breaking amounts as production activity...
EP Webinar Panelists - US Production Incentives Update

US Production Incentives Update: New and Expanded Programs in 2022

Film commissioners Colleen Bell and Sandy Lighterman, and production executives Jay Roewe and Ashley Rice,...
Streaming platform on tablet device

The Evolution of Residuals: How Streaming Changed the Model

Understanding how residuals payments are calculated for new content on streaming platforms.
Compliant crew contracting panel-square

Compliant Crew Contracting in the UK

Learn how to ensure your crew contracts are compliant with UK regulations and why the Production Portal is...
Topic: UK
Mount Hood, Oregon

Building on Oregon’s Cinema Legacy

How improved tax Incentives, job training, and production infrastructure is expanding the filmmaking...
Canadian flag flying over Quebec City

5 Reasons to Consider Canada for Your Next Production

Here's why Canada deserves a spot on every producer's shortlist.
Topic: Canada
EP Blog_SQUARE_filmmaking in new mexico

Forging the Future of Filmmaking in New Mexico

As the film industry expands in the Southwest, New Mexico leads the region as top destination thanks to...
EP Blog_Jesse Wente

Supporting Indigenous Storytellers of Canada

How the Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) offers advocacy and funding for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis...
Topic: Canada
Jennifer Liscio

Spotlight: Jennifer Liscio, VP of Tax Incentives and Legal Affairs

Meet EP's Canadian legal affairs and tax incentives domain expert, Jennifer Liscio, and learn how she’s...
EP Blog_Residuals and the streaming model

Residuals and the Streaming Model

How residuals apply to historical content on new media platforms.

Contracting in a COVID-19 World  

The pandemic has affected how UK production companies contract crew. Here’s how to reduce the impact of...

Terms to Include in UK Crew Contracts

Common terms which studios and production companies include in their UK crew contracts.
Topic: UK

The UK GDPR and how Productions can Reduce their Exposure - Q&A with Sheridans

Sheridans’ Associate Krishan Neelendra answers key UK GDPR questions from production companies and...
Topic: UK
KJ Lamb and Simon Donovan

Empowering the Next Wave of Production Accountants

The EP Production Portal team was delighted to participate in the biannual Netflix Assistant Production...
cell phone with sticky note stating sign here

Six e-Consent Myths (and Why They’re Not True)

Sheridans Associate, Sarmad Saleh, debunks some common e-consent myths.
Topic: Legal

Six Elements for Enforceable UK Crew Contracts

Although parties to a crew contract can largely enter into whatever terms they choose, certain elements...
Topic: UK
Master Series Panelists-World Revenues, Foreign Sales, Senior Debt

Film Financing Explained: World Revenues, Foreign Sales, and Senior Debt

Learn how working with agents, international distributors, and gap financiers can all factor into...
recycling conversation

Sustainability in Production: Q&A with Nikki Saunders

Nikki Saunders on sustainable filming practices, COVID-19, and why carbon offsetting isn’t a...
EP Blog_The Race to Net Zero is On for Big Studios

The Race to Net Zero is On for Big Studios

Film and television studios are embracing the green movement in a big way. Here’s what you can expect to...
Master Series Panel-Solving the crew shortage

Solving the Crew Shortage

Learn how EP Academy, the Georgia Film Academy, Reel Works, the New Mexico Film Office, and others, are...
Master Series Women in Animation-thumbnail

Women in Animation: A 3D View

Marge Dean, Mandy Tankenson, and other women leaders from across animation come together to celebrate...
EP Blog-proud to support-square

Proud to Support: Celebrating Client Nominations at the 94th Academy Awards

A look at the evolution of the Oscars and the notable films powered by Entertainment Partners technology.
Anthony De La Rosa-EVP-Residuals

Spotlight: Anthony De La Rosa, Executive Vice President, Residuals

Meet EP’s resident residual domain expert, Anthony De La Rosa, and learn what inspired him to enhance and...
Crew contracting in the UK-panel

Quick and Compliant Crew Contracting in the UK

Neisha Glynternick and Sarmad Saleh from UK-based entertainment law firm Sheridans discuss crew...
Topic: Legal

Meet the Executive Producer

A conversation with Mike Drake ('Just Mercy') on the path to becoming and EP, and the role of social...

Payroll & Finances

PayrollResidualsSmartStartNew SmartTimeProduction PortalEP On LocationSmartAccountingEP LiveSmartPOCASHétPayPaymaster Rate GuideEP Residency

Manage Multiple Productions

AssetHubSmartHubSmartHub Vault
Subscribe now

Be an industry insider with EP's
newsletters and alerts

LegalPrivacy NoticeSecurity
© 2022 Entertainment Partners. All rights reserved.