This Job Must Be Dangerous…
December 12, 2022
Penka Kouneva: A Journey Into DRAGON AGE: ABSOLUTION
Interview by Randall D. Larson
DRAGON AGE: ABSOLUTION is an animated streaming television series that premiered on Netflix on December 9, 2022. The series is based on the Dragon Age media franchise centered on a series of fantasy role-playing video games created and developed by BioWare. DRAGON AGE: ABSOLUTION explores mature subjects concerning freedom, power, and corruption set against the backdrop of adult animation. The series is set in the fictional Tevinter Empire, the oldest of several human nations in Thedas. The story focuses on characters within the Tevinter Imperium in the northern region of Thedas, which once subjugated southern Thedas during ancient times, and is governed by a powerful oligarchy of magic-wielding magisters led by an Imperial Archon. The Imperium is known for its strict caste system, which includes slavery. It is also known for its mages who practice sacrificial and forbidden blood magic. The series features new characters as a group of rebels, mages, and thieves go head-to-head against a sinister force possessing a dangerous artifact. The series is created by Mairghread Scott, writer of JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK: APOKOLIPS WAR and is produced by Red Dog Culture House.
The series has been scored by composer Penka Kouneva (PANDORA, MIRA MIRA, ENCOUNTER), who began working in film and television in 1999. She began to score for videogames (Chaos At Hogwarts, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen and others, the latter two featuring themes by Steve Jablonsky). Her music is a blend of Bulgarian influences, classical training, rock sensibility, and modern film and game soundtracks. Kouneva has released several concept albums: Invisible Lifeline (original piano album; 2018, Pan Colony Records), Rebirth of ID (2017, Varèse Sarabande), The Woman Astronaut (2015, Varèse Sarabande/Universal Music Group) and A Warrior’s Odyssey (2012, Howlin’ Wolf Records/Sumthing Else).
Watch the trailer for DRAGON AGE: ABSOLUTION:
Q: How did you become involved in DRAGON AGE: ABSOLUTION?
Penka Kouneva: In 2020 I received a call from the Korean studio, Red Dog Culture House, through a multi-tier referral process by the music leaders at the game studios BioWare and Electronic Arts. I created a handful of original spec demos and sent music from previous projects. I asked my potential collaborators to rate the music (“3, 2, 1”), in terms of how it fits their vision for this project. My top priority was to understand their musical taste and expectations as best I could because this was our first collaboration. Multi-cultural, multi-studio collaborations are very challenging; openness in the communication is paramount.
“The instrumental palette I established featured various dulcimers, lyre, lute, bowed guitar-viol, various acoustic guitars, “Medieval woodwinds, a large percussion palette, lots of modern pulsing synths, and epic orchestral palette featuring strings, brass and brass effects reminiscent of Medieval war calls.”
Q: What were your initial considerations about scoring this project? How did you work with the showrunners in configuring the kind of musical accompaniment they were looking for?
Penka Kouneva: Dragon Age is a franchise with an amazingly rich musical world. In the early 2010’s I had orchestrated for composer Inon Zur on some of his games, including Dragon Age II and was deeply familiar with the musical and instrumental palette that he established, especially how he incorporated Medieval instruments. I had also studied closely Trevor Morris’ score for the Dragon Age Inquisition video game. However, the showrunner Mairghread Scott had other preferences – music by Volker Bertelmann. My initial demos were dark and heavy (inspired by the Dragon Age game scoring), so the greatest adjustment I had to make was to lighten up and incorporate levity for the animated series. Another score I studied intimately was the score for The Witcher, Season 1 by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli. Personally for me, that score was the most musically inspiring approach to a medieval fantasy project. The instrumental palette I established featured various dulcimers, lyre, lute, bowed guitar-viol, various acoustic guitars, Medieval woodwinds, a large percussion palette, lots of modern pulsing synths, and epic orchestral palette featuring strings, brass and brass effects reminiscent of Medieval war calls. I was asked specifically to not use choir and voices, to avoid falling into scoring cliches.
Q: How did this series fit into the overall Dragon Age game franchise, and how did that feed into what you were doing with the ABSOLUTION animated series?
Penka Kouneva: Chronologically, Absolution takes place after the conclusion of Dragon Age: Inquisition, as characters make reference to events in that game, but before the events of the upcoming video game Dragon Age IV: Dreadwolf. The relationship between Miriam and Hira are central to the story and drive it forward. A diverse group of fighters and mages go on a heist mission to take a blood magic artefact which is in the hands of the enemy. I had to balance creating a fantasy score that continues organically the Dragon Age musical world composed by Inon Zur and Trevor Morris, while honoring the contemporary taste of the showrunners and anime audiences (synths and percussion) and while making sure that my music is distinctly “Medieval music” composed in the 21st Century. I had to keep this “gestalt” in mind with every theme and cue, at every step of the way.
Listen to the Opening Credits from DRAGON AGE: ABSOLUTION, via YouTube:
Q: The episodes are quite rich with music throughout – what kind of license were you given to explore and experiment in your score?
Penka Kouneva: My approach was to aim for thematic cohesion and musical “signatures.” Once I established the themes and received the approval of my bosses, then every episode featured variations of these themes. In the process of the revisions (implementing notes by four studios), each cue evolved organically. The score never feels repetitive, though it truly is based on a handful of themes that reappear in every episode.
Q: How did you come up with your main theme?
Penka Kouneva: The dulcimer is the main color, but the action music comes from one of my earlier action demos I did when applying for the job. The action “riff” in the demo has a little DNA from the “Medieval” cue in my album The Woman Astronaut. I didn’t receive the visuals of the opening sequence until much later, when the score was established, so composing the Main Theme happened organically towards the end.
Q: Aside from the main theme, how would you describe your other character themes and other motifs that fit into the franchise?
Penka Kouneva: My score has a touch of humor, in addition to the epic Tevinter theme (falling horn motif), the melancholy rising melody for the love between Miriam and Hira, almost-industrial synth-heavy music for Queen Tassia and her army, and many battle themes for the Circulum, various warriors, the Flashback/childhood theme for Miriam, and of course an epic horn-heavy theme for the Dragon.
“It was very important to distinguish the various warrying factions – Tassia’s army has an industrial modern action sound, the music for Rezaren/Neb/Blood magic has otherworldly action-horror sounds, the bar brawl in Episode 1 has an almost-rock feel, to keep it fun.”
Q: The battle scenes in ABSOLUTION are especially musically vibrant – what were your considerations when crafting the music for the hefty action moments in the show?
Penka Kouneva: It was very important to distinguish the various warrying factions – Tassia’s army has an industrial modern action sound, the music for Rezaren/Neb/Blood magic has otherworldly action-horror sounds, the bar brawl in Episode 1 has an almost-rock feel, to keep it fun. The Spirit/Demon in Episode 2 explores the musical world of fantasy-horror, and the battles with the dragon are traditional, heavy brass-orchestra-and-percussion action compositions.
Q: What was your instrumental palette for this series – and is it a mix of live orchestra and samples?
Penka Kouneva: The dulcimers, Medieval woodwinds and all percussion were samples. The guitar-viol and acoustic guitars were recorded by Dylan Love. Miriam-Hira’s theme and a few battle themes were recorded with live strings and brass. My collaborator Vincent Gillioz crafted custom spectral synths and arrangement for the extended flashback to Miriam’s childhood in the middle episodes. The lute and steel string guitar was played by Phillip Drimatis.
Q: How did you treat, musically, the interaction between Miriam and Hira as the story developed?
Penka Kouneva: Their theme was central to scoring the series. Once I received the animatics, it was one of the first themes I composed. The theme went through many variations – dramatic, mournful, romantic, resolute, deceitful, desperate, tragic. Each episode reveals new aspects of the history between Miriam and Hira; their theme reflects the new twist and turns in the story.
Q: How did you treat the setting of Tevinter musically?
Penka Kouneva: I used a major chord followed by a minor chord to suggest the beautiful and epic Tevinter which is also filled with betrayal, violence towards slaves, deceit and darkness. The theme features dulcimers, expressive horn melody, and orchestra.
“Very clear, proactive, profoundly respectful and sensitive communication is crucial for such multi-continental collaborative projects.”
Q: What was most challenging for you about scoring this project?
Penka Kouneva: This was my first animated series. I’ve composed for feature films, many video games, tons of horror/fantasy/sci-fi films which had prepared me for any challenge, but, still, this was my first foray into scoring an anime series. I began composing to animatics (just contours of the characters) and could not see emotions on the faces (this was done much later). My collaborators loved the score immediately and were incredibly enthusiastic throughout, but there were also many tiny requests for tweaks from the Netflix creative team and also from the Korean studio Red Dog Culture House. As in, “We adore your score; here are 5 pages of small notes.”
Overall, I had to approach certain moments in a more subtle way. Even though this was a game franchise and my initial approach was more of a game composer (epic, hard-hitting music, thick arrangement) a handful of the requests for revisions were to have more levity and humor. Having scored television projects, too, helped me to course-correct. My collaborators were exceptionally skilled with articulating music feedback and asking for specific revisions. It made the revision process straight-forward. This collaboration was a gift that I cherish. Another challenge was the difference of time zones, but I’m experienced from many past collaborations with Asian studios. In my email communications, I never write “today” or “tomorrow” – I always specify the local date/day/time when they would be receiving files from me. Very clear, proactive, profoundly respectful and sensitive communication is crucial for such multi-continental collaborative projects.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
Penka Kouneva: I’d like to thank all the people who helped me in 2021 because it was a difficult year. The score was expertly mixed by my long-time collaborator, mixing engineer John Rodd. My ProTools music editor was Dave Lawrence. Three brilliant young composers helped with some of the revisions, arrangements, and additional cues – Miguel Bezanilla, Charlie Lin, and Catherine Nguyen.
Q: What’s coming up next for you, that you’d be able to mention or talk about?
Penka Kouneva: 2023 is a wide-open slate. I truly enjoyed fantasy-action animation and hope to score more projects for Netflix and other studios. Completed projects with wide release in 2023 include a supernatural drama feature APPLEWOOD,and a documentary about 6th graders who code satellites at the ISS, ZERO GRAVITY.
For more details on the composer, see her website at http://www.penkakouneva.com/