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A Woman Astronaut: Life as a Woman Composer in Hollywood

Features
by Penka Kouneva
March 13, 2014 10:00 AM
11 Comments
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Penka Kouneva
Penka Kouneva
When I first arrived in Hollywood, I had a Ph.D. in music composition, a keyboard, and one connection. While that might not seem like much, it was more than I had when I moved to the United States from my native Bulgaria ten years earlier. I figured if I could make that first transition, Hollywood would be a breeze. In retrospect, while my naivete was laughable, it was also vital in getting me as far as I have today.
 
If you had told me upon my arrival 15 years ago that the first time a woman (Shirley Walker) composed the score to a studio feature film was 1992, I'd have been shocked. If you had told me that over the next 22 years, only eight other female composers would accomplish the same feat, I'd have been disbelieving. And if you'd told me that in 2013, fewer than 2% of all studio features would be composed by women, I might have turned around and gone right back into academia.
 
Luckily, no one told me the odds. So I stayed. And like Shirley Walker, I cut my teeth by orchestrating for other composers. I began at the bottom and worked my way up to the point where, last year, I was the lead orchestrator on two big sci-fi films: Ender's Game and Elysium. If someone had told me back in 1999 that the second woman in history to be the lead orchestrator on two films with budgets over $100 million would be me, I'd be incredulous.
 
Looking back, I see that by doing all that work, I've learned the ins and outs of making a great score for a studio film. Now I'm prepared for when opportunity comes knocking.
 
In the meanwhile, I've developed my own voice as a composer by leaping at every opportunity to score an indie film, even when that entails spending my own money to hire live musicians when there isn't room for it in the budget. Many composers do this because we want to hear our music as we imagined it, but that means we're lucky if we don't lose money on those movies.
 
I went into this profession with the belief that hard work and the talent I hoped I had (and was determined to develop) would eventually win the day. But in the time I've been here, I've realized it takes something more. And part of that is having a great mentor. I've been lucky enough to have had people who believe in me open doors I couldn't. And the women who have broken through that celluloid ceiling are very supportive, but there are just so few of them that progress is slow for women as a whole.
 
Still, the generosity I've received has made me determined to help other women up that ladder once I break through. I'm deeply proud of the mentoring role I've already played for dozens of young men and women, but if we're to shift the gender balance in movie music as a whole, I believe we'll create greater equality the more women mentor other women.
 
I've also finally realized that I can't just wait for an opportunity to come knocking. For the big-budget films, the decision makers need to hear exactly what they'll be getting, so to prove I'm the woman for the job, I'm hiring an orchestra of 70 musicians to record an album of blockbuster sci-fi themes of my own so they'll know I'm a sure bet.
 
I'm calling the album The Woman Astronaut because, after watching Gravity, I look up the stats discovered that 11% of all people who've gone to space have been women. Compare that to the less than 2% of women composers who have scored studio features. That means a woman who wants to be an astronaut has more role models to look up to than a woman who wants to compose music for film.
 
And that's just crazy.
 
But I'm not going to wait around for anyone to change that for me. I'm taking the first step myself. So this next step is a big step for me, and one more small step for Hollywood.
 

Penka Kouneva is an award winning composer and orchestrator in Hollywood. Learn more about her current project, The Woman Astronaut, on her Kickstarter page.

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11 Comments

  • Jeff Broadbent | March 20, 2014 2:23 AMReply

    Great article! Penka is a wonderful composer full of enthusiasm and passion for her work. It's great to hear when people pursue their dreams, develop their talents, and work hard to achieve their goals, becoming an inspiration and motivation to those around them. I have no doubt that she will achieve her goal of scoring a major studio film - it's only a matter of time before it happens. Keep up the great work!

  • Larry Rench | March 18, 2014 2:49 PMReply

    When I first considered becoming a film music orchestrator, there was only one person I knew of that I wanted to be like, and that was Shirley Walker. It was in the late 80s when I first came to notice her work, and I wanted to have a career like hers. Eventually we met and I began working for her in 1990, becoming one of her principal orchestrators as she went on to become a film composer in her own right. She had such a profound influence on a whole generation of film composers, both men and women. I count my time with her until her death in 2006 as one of the most significant experiences of my life.

    I have had the opportunity to work with several other women composers since then, and each of them could hold their own musically as well as professionally with any of the male composers that I worked with. Each has a voice worth hearing, a story worth telling. Each has the strength of character to not only do the job, but to make a real difference in how a project is conceived and delivered.

    Penka Kouneva is in that same stream of voices worth hearing. You can tell by her writing that she would bring skill and passion to everything she does. Just you watch!

  • Terry M. Huud | March 17, 2014 4:18 PMReply

    What a bold and great idea! Would be glad to contribute. I hope many others do too!

  • Nicholas de W | March 17, 2014 4:15 PMReply

    Inspiring to read about and witness how the determination of talent and work ethic can, albeit laboriously, prevail. Congratulations to Ms. Kouneva on all that she has accomplished to date, and on all the wonderful successes drifting ahead of her, in the space beyond.

  • Forrest Proctor | March 17, 2014 3:41 PMReply

    Wonderful article, Penka. I cannot wait to her 'The Woman Astronaut". I wish you luck in your efforts to mentor women and get more inclusion into the composing profession.

  • Jason Staczek | March 17, 2014 3:20 PMReply

    Penka, may you rocket to the moon and beyond! Wishing you all the best for continued success!!

    Jason

  • Scott McRae | March 17, 2014 3:18 PMReply

    Penka is one of the most determined, talented and generous people I've met in the entertainment field. Can't wait to hear this album finished and to see Penka's career soar, as she deeply deserves!

  • Steve Burnett | March 17, 2014 3:17 PMReply

    Loved your work on Elysium. Inspiring article.

  • Tom | March 17, 2014 3:15 PMReply

    Penka,

    Your story is truly inspiring. You're an amazing role model for not only women in the industry but men. Keep up the fantastic work and I can't wait to listen to more of your great work.

    Tom
    SOF Studios

  • M. Cheatham | March 17, 2014 3:13 PMReply

    Congratulations, Penka! Hard work and well deserved. Keep advancing, even when it looks like two steps forward, one step back. The tortoise won, you know!

  • Megan | March 17, 2014 3:09 PMReply

    Penka, you truly are an inspiration for young women composers like me. You go get 'em! :)

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