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By Jessica Brown On 14 Nov, 2017 At 05:01 PM | Categorized As Featured, Interviews, PC Games, ROG News | With 0 Comments

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Penka Kouneva is an award-winning composer who recently scored the NASA exhibit “Heroes and Legends” at the Kennedy Space Center. She has also provided the soundtrack for The Mummy VR game, worked with composer Steve Jablonsky to score the Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands soundtrack, and has been involved with various other game and film musical scores. Beyond that, she has put out her own albums such as The Woman Astronaut and the recent Rebirth of Id. Overall, Penka has worked on games, films, and other venues which have grossed over $15 Billion combined.

Penka was extremely courteous and was able to answer some of our questions we had for her.

Q: While critics often rave about visuals, graphic quality, and storytelling in video games, I often feel like they overlook another equally important pillar: audio (music and sound). Do you think music gets overlooked sometimes?

Penka Kouneva: Music works the best when it’s perceived subliminally. While engaged in gameplay or watching a film, music should not be too present or too distracting. There are moments where the music really needs to soar for us to experience an emotional payoff. I believe a great, impactful score that fits the aesthetics of the game will always get noticed – consider Bloodborne, Journey, Uncharted scores.

Q: Over the years I’ve come to realize that a game’s soundtrack (or lack thereof) can make or break a game. In fact, there are a few games I think the soundtrack saves from being mediocre. Is this something that you have observed too?

Penka Kouneva: Yes, the music is a very powerful branding tool for the game. Games use music to set themselves apart from the competition. Music makes gameplay emotional and memorable. In every game I’ve ever played, I vividly remember its music, visual style and how the game made me feel playing it.

Q: When coming up with a musical score for a video game, what helps you find your inspiration to come up with appropriate themes?

Penka Kouneva: Conceptual conversations with the developers about their ideas. The vision of the developers. The characters and environments. The past history of the franchise. Music that my collaborators love. Challenges they have experienced in game development. The storytelling, the visual style, the maps. My job is to create a sonic world which the story will inhabit.

Q: I’ve wondered in the past if it would be harder to create a soundtrack for a game or movie vs. coming up with something completely original (such as a personal album)?

Penka Kouneva: When I compose a soundtrack, I collaborate with another artist – with their vision, their ideas and expectations. My music breathes life into their story. I love it! When I write my passion CDs, I work with my own original stories. Rebirth of Id is my third artist album (after The Woman Astronaut and A Warrior’s Odyssey). I returned to my formative inspirations (classical orchestral music and Minimalism) and blended them with innovative electronic arrangements. The album has a unique structure – four mini-soundtracks, each telling its own story. These artist CDs are my own private laboratory where I experiment with new sounds. They make me a better composer! The result is fantastic – these albums lead to bigger and better scoring jobs. The Woman Astronaut lead to scoring the $30 million NASA exhibit Heroes and Legends at the Kennedy Space Center that will live on for decades…

Q: Do you ever find yourself stuck with “composer’s block?”, and if so, how do you cope with it and overcome it?

Penka Kouneva: Yes, it does happen. I deal with it in three steps: A./ I remove myself from the aggravation – usually the computer – and go for a walk to clear my head. B./ I listen to music to inspire me for this project. Sometimes I listen some of my most favorite music that brings me to tears. And C./ is the most personal approach and takes willpower to do – I do a visualization: I remember a moment in time when I felt elated to be a composer (a concert of my music, or praise, or getting an award). I remember how it felt to be a composer at that happy moment. Then, with renewed passion about composing I return to the project where I got stuck. I keep listening to other music and ideas until some idea feels right and I push forward. I’m always on a deadline so I can’t afford to waste too much time in “writer’s block”.

Q: Have you ever come up with a piece that you personally felt was really great, but just didn’t fit the overall mood or theme of what you needed it for? If so, what do you do with “discarded” pieces?

Penka Kouneva: Oh, yes, very much so. If the music is great but just not fitting with the visual media, I write a new piece for my client that they like and eventually release my own music on my passion CDs.

Q: What can you tell us about any upcoming projects you may be working on?

Penka Kouneva: I’m proud of The Mummy VR game available at the IMAX VR Theaters and some arcades. Check out also a terrific supernatural horror feature Devil’s Whisper which tells the story of the 16-year old Alejandro. It’s a beautifully produced and richly layered film about fighting demonic forces, coming of age, courage and perseverance. (Sony Pictures released it on DVD and VOD in November). Two other features are coming out soon – Paul Salamoff’s Sci-Fi thriller Encounter premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, and the drama feature, Blue. If you visit Orlando, FL don’t miss the Kennedy Space Center and their newest attraction Heroes and Legends which I scored.

Q: When you aren’t directly involved in the musical space, what else do you like to get involved with? Do you have any other passions?

Penka Kouneva: I have a family and 11-year-old daughter, and she keeps me busy. I love the outdoors and we hike a lot on the weekends. I am extremely passionate about mentoring the younger generation of composers, so I help a lot of young composers. I love reading (books and articles online), art, and visiting with friends.

Q: I have to ask: Do you play through all of the games that you come up with soundtracks for?

Penka Kouneva: Yes, absolutely. We are a family of big gamers. Right now I am playing COD: WWII and yes, I have played all the games I’ve scored. I wanted to feel how my music works in gameplay. My kid plays mobile games all the time. I pinch myself every day because I’m living my dream. I wish for my readers to follow their dreams!

 

Thank you again for doing this interview.

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I recently had the chance to speak with composer Samuel Laflamme. The composer for such games as Outlast, offered insight into game music composition and game design. Have a read and enjoy.

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JB:  What are your biggest influences in music?

 

 

SL:  I’ve grow up listening so many soundtrack scores tha choosing one is a real challenge. But Danny Elfman’s Batman was the first score I really touched me. I’ve always been in love with all the John Williams Star Wars series and also the Steven Spielberg/John Williams collaborations. As a teenager, I discovered Hans Zimmer’s action scores from the 90s, and it was my king of “rock” period, while my friends at the time were listening to Nirvana and Guns & Roses…Nine Inch Nails, Bjork and Radiohead were, for me, my electro-rock-pop-industrial influences. I really liked other bands like Board of Canada. Or electronic musician like Amon Tobin.

More recently I love what Johann Johannsson brings to Hollywood movies. I’m also a profound lover of old Bernard Hermann scores. To me Vertigo is one of the best masterpieces in Hollywood history.

 

 

JB:  Who inspired you to go into music?

 

 

SL:  Again, Danny Elfman’s Batman score was really important. I listened in loop so many times Descent into mystery. While I’m writing those words, I’m listening to it on a youtube video, and it gives me the chills.

Also John Williams with all his 80s scores, from E.T. to Star Wars, by Indiana Jones… Some tracks at the end of Empire Strikes Back were in my top revealing music experience of all time! (including Darth Vader’s march and Escape from Cloud city).

 

 

JB:  What have been some of the challenges for composing music for video games?

 

 

SL: I’m not a hardcore gamer, nor an intense horror fan… So Outlast was my first video game score, and the reason why I was on this project is that Philippe Morin (co-founder of Red Barreld Games) and I shared the same vision on the role of a score in a movie or a video game. It adds something to the story, or the gaming experience, that you don’t see at the screen. I love to create a score that tells something else beyond the information given to us by images. For example, if you’re only walking in a quiet corridor, I would love to add a strange, uncomfortable score that make you imagine that anything could happen at any moments… Phil named it “free gameplay development” because they didn’t have to invent events to create fear. Another good example, is creating a quiet, soft score in middle of a gory scene. It makes you feel so weird that this amplifies the strangeness of the moment. The Cliché of it is childish music box score used to create something really scary from a music that is supposed to be a lullaby.

 

 

JB:  What styles do you like to experiment with in your work?

 

 

SL: I don’t have any preference on the style, but what’s important for me is to be creative. If I’m forced to compose music from temp tracks, or strongly loved references, I really don’t like it because I will struggle to be inventive with something so restrictive. The most important key is working with creative collaborators who aren’t afraid to let me try new things. I can always step back, but I prefer to try new things and push the limits than just stay within the references.

 

 

JB:  Related to the above, what styles would you like to bring in to your work?

 

 

SL:  Again, it’s all about how creative a score can be to tell the story of a movie, video game, etc. I’ve done so many styles in TV shows during the 10 years before doing Outlast. I had chance to explore all those styles but the greatest music I’ve done was when I was allowed to create something surprising and new. In music for image, you can use whatever kind of music for almost whatever image you’re scoring for. And that’s the beauty of it. The only important thing to consider is what story we want to tell. Do you remember “A Knight’s Tale” using rock music in a medieval movie? It worked well! Or whatever Tarantino movies using surf guitars… Or Hans Zimmer Joker’s theme… Or Bernard Hermann using only strings for Psycho (because of the monochrome aspect of the image) and at the time, strings made reference to love scenes… Now using high pitch staccati strings in cluster is a cliché. All of it is about being creative. How can I use music to tell the story.

Bernard Hermann used Brass in his Vertigo Ouverture to imitate the fog horns of San Francisco. How could I be creative in Outlast 2 compared to Outlast 1, by inspiring myself by the new locations, caracters, etc and then being conscient of all the elements that stay from Outlast 1 to Outlast 2 in the game.

 

 

JB:  What are some of your favourite video games soundtracks?

 

 

SL:  I’m a guy from the 80s. I still REALLY love the Zelda theme. It’s one of the classics I know, but still so, so, so good!! I really liked the Mortal Kombat music during the 90s. It’s might be funny but I do remember some good themes from Echo The dolphin on Sega Genesis.I really liked Joel McNeely’s Shadows of the Empire. To me, he’s the one who should be hired for the next Star Wars when John Williams won’t be able to continue. I do remember the excellent music of the first Warcraft and Starcraft.

 

 

JB:  What would you like to see done with video game music going forward?

 

 

SL:  I think we are in the golden age of video games right now. Movies aren’t as interesting as in the past, We have all those super hero movies, or all those really indie movies that employ more radio tunes then scores. Arrival was a revelation for me, but it is in a rare zone for film industry right now. I think tv shows are more originals than movies, and also some really good games. Because I’m a movie fan, I love great storytelling. I love so much the Paolo Sorrentino’s movies (La Grande Bellezza, Youth). But I know it’s marginal in this whole Hollywood world. I think more cinematic video games are fresh air in the freedom of writing and Outlast is right there. You wouldn’t see this kind of edginess in movies now… I don’t think so. I’m not talking about the goriness, but more about the freedom of the form. The freedom of creating something that good, without asking to the rest of the world their opinion like all those screen test and focus groups. I feel like games and TV shows take risks right now that are really interesting in new avenue of story telling and experiences.

 

 

JB:  Do you feel video game music is held back still by anything?

 

 

SL:  It always depends on the creative people who work on a project. I’ve been really lucky with Red Barrels, they let me try things, and I really appreciate this!

It’s fundamental for me to push out limits and find new way to express myself musically.

The only thing that could stop my ideas would be the small amount of music scoring knowledge a creative director, a game developper or a movie director could have. Then I have to educate what I try to do and it’s really daunting.

 

 

JB:  What are some of the challenges in composing for a horror game?

 

 

SL:  The first main challenge is to be new and original. There are so many clichés it’s so difficult to create something new especially in that genre. I have chance to work with collaborators who invite me to explore and push boundaries. This is the only way I can find something new. It so rare you wake up in the morning with the eureka idea! You have to struggle, explore pitch ideas, and see what’s still strong and stand out at the end.

The second is to be “musical”. It’s easy to just make chaotic music to create fear. The real challenge is to create something scary but hooky and memorable. I think you have to have a tune at the end. What makes the Joker’s theme in The Dark Knight so memorable? It’s a clear, bold and original idea. And it’s repeated a lot in the movie so you can associate it easily to the awesome character. I try to make a brilliant use of the most strong and memorable sounds I could find during the creative process, then I try to make you associate it to whatever I need to. For example, my cymbal sound from Outlast 1 was the icon for me, and I tried to push it at some important moment in Outlast 2.

 

 

 

JB:  What is the mindset that goes into composing for a horror game? How do you get the right ideas to put into your work?

 

 

SL:  I don’t know how the other composers work, but for me it’s a very personal and intimate journey into my deeper feelings. I have to refer and connect to my own fears and emotions. Like an actor probably. If I cannot connect to this, you won’t believe or be touched by what I try to tell. I don’t know why actually, but every time I composed too much using only my intellectual knowledge (analyzing my music), I didn’t keep those ideas at the end. Another good tester for me to see what works, or not, is the time. Because the creation of a game like Outlast 2 can take 2 years, it gives me the chance to see what’s still good after having listening it all this time.

 

 

JB:  Do you feel that horror game music is more intrinsically a part of the games?

 

 

SL:  Yes of course, but not because it’s horror, but because it’s a huge part of the gameplay. It’s part of the core, the DNA of the game. Any romantic movie without excellent score would look like cheesy. When the emotion is a key element of the story or gameplay, the presence of an excellent score or music is fundamental to complete the experience!

 

 

 

JB:  What are some of the ways you innovated with the soundtracks for your games?

 

 

SL: By choosing different instruments for Outlast 2, I based my choice on the locations in this new game. I wanted to try something else. I’m a strong believer that I could tell whatever emotion with whatever instrument. It’s always depend on a good interpretation of the instrument. A good musician can tell the whole range of emotion with his instrument, or at least can try to be creative enough to interpret it. In the case of Outlast 2, I tried to get out of my comfort zone by using guitars and basses, and banjo. I know it can sound ridiculous, but for my, as a non guitar player, it’s a challenge to experiment those instruments and trying to find new original tones and sounds that are iconic and scary. I did use some iconic sounds from Outlast 1 at some key moments where I felt it was important to brand something associated to Outlast sound palette. Also, at one point, I thought I told everything I could with those instruments, my assistants and I had to think about how creating new sounds still familiar to the guitars, basses sound palette but adding something new. After a year and half using the guitars and basses samples, I got rid of them and wanted something new for the next levels… So we invented a simple instrument that we called “the Redneck bass”. A simple piece of wood, with metal string attached on it. And it was captured by a contact microphone. It allowed us to explore a new large variety of scary sounds using a bow. “11 bring back our messiah!” in the album is a good example of the use of this instrument.

 

JB:  What would you like to be able to do with your composing that you cannot do yet?

 

 

SL:  Good question!! There are so many things to do. I don’t think it leads to one specific idea. I hope I will continue to have original ideas though out my career. I only wish to work with tremendous talented people who have confidence in me and let me explore and discover new way to approach my music in storytelling . Again I’ve been lucky with Red Barrels so far, they are real genius and the most important thing is they let me explore ideas. One thing I would love is to explore more Sci-Fi projects or more dramatic stories projects. I’m a fan of great script, original ones like the movie “Arrival” and would love to work with people like the ones on the story driven projects from Naughty Dog or Quantic Dream.

 

 

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Thank you again to Samuel Laflamme for doing this interview. You can follow him on twitter at @Samuel_Laflamme