Features and Columns · Movies

It’s Been Nearly Two Decades Since a Woman Was Lead Orchestrator on a Tentpole Film

By  · Published on September 5th, 2013

Last year I posed the question, “Where are all the female composers?” The answer was not as dire as the question may have suggested. Yes – it may now be a year later and the majority of well-known composers are still male, but female composers such as Rachel Portman, Anne Dudley, and Miriam Cutler are pushing their way through, creating the music for films such as Never Let Me Go, The Full Monty, and Ethel.

So why has it been nearly two decades since a woman was the lead orchestrator for a major studio release?

First, it’s important to clarify just what the differences are between a composer and an orchestrator. Composers write the score for a film, but do not always have the time to break down the specific instrumentation for the orchestra, leaving that job to the orchestrator. Understandably enough, composers don’t usually trust this job to just anyone and often turn to someone they’ve worked with previously or someone recommended to them by someone they trust. Because of this, composers usually end up working with the same orchestrator over and over.

Orchestrator Penka Kouneva recently broke the “boys only” streak when it comes to lead orchestrators for big budget releases, and I turned to her to get her own thoughts on why it took so long for a woman to take on this role again. Kouneva was the lead orchestrator on one of this summer’s biggest releases, Elysium, and she explained that, “Men never ‘took over.’ Historically and traditionally, composing and arranging have always been one hundred percent a male profession that was completely inaccessible for women. In modern times, women have been making strides, but there are still so few role models, so few mentors. And it is really hard to work in a vocation with few role models.”

Back in 2011, the blog The Music Behind The Screen posted a two part series titled “A Fistful of Orchestrators” (Part 1 and Part 2) – a veritable “who’s who” list of lead orchestrators who worked on the major film releases of the few decades. Not surprisingly, there was not a single female orchestrator among the group. But what was surprising was that there is a female composer listed, Rachel Portman, though she was linked alongside orchestrator Jeff Atmajian. Obviously women do not need to work exclusively with other women, but Kouneva brings up an interesting point in when one considers how hard it is to break into a vocation with a major lack of same-sex mentors.

While Portman worked with Atmajian on Cider House Rules, Chocolat, One Day, The Vow, and most recently, Bel Ami, both Anne Dudley and Miriam Cutler have worked with female orchestrators – Cutler with Sonya Belousova on Band of Sisters and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum on Vito, while Dudley herself both composed and orchestrated The Full Monty and Tristan + Isolde.

But if it’s been nearly twenty years since there was a female lead orchestrator on a big budget release, just who was the last lady to take on the role before the decades-long drought? That would be Shirley Walker, who, Kouneva explains was “instrumental in the early careers of Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman as their lead orchestrator, arranger, conductor, and additional composer” and was a “pioneer in a profession which historically has been viewed as a male-only vocation.”

Walker’s last big project was True Lies, which was released in 1994 and had a budget of $115m, making Elysium (which had a budget of around $115m) the first film since 1994 that a woman has been the lead orchestrator a film with a budget over one hundred million dollars.

So how did Kouneva get involved with Elysium (a film that has already proven it has no problem using unconventional methods to select its composer) and break the streak?

It came down to connections and referrals as she explained she was “recommended by John Rodd, a recording and mixing engineer extraordinaire in LA. John knows all the orchestrators in town, but he considered that I’m known as someone who nurtures young composers (by educating them about all variables associated with the production of an orchestral score) and who is experienced with all possible scenarios in recording a massive sci-fi action score.”

So how do we keep the streak broken and keep the door open for female orchestrators to take on these lead roles, even for big budget films with a lot on the line? It seems to come down to the community reaching out to new talent and mentoring them so they become trustworthy referrals.

Kouneva noted that the “number one reason” it has taken this long for another woman to take on the challenge of being the lead orchestrator for a major film is “lack of mentoring for this profession.” But Kouneva also noted that she is “happy to see that changing, and be the change myself.”

And why does any of this matter? Because just as we get excited for the new developments in technology that bring us more immersive 3D and amazing new special effects, it is just as important to recognize the areas where the industry is still stuck in the past and use that knowledge to bring those aspects into the future. The key seems to be bringing this discussion to the forefront and having those in positions of power and influence reach out to and help open the doors for new talent, regardless of their gender.

Kouneva is certainly doing her part by providing employment, training, and opportunities to many young professionals and hopefully as the industry continues to grow and change, these lists of who created a well-known film’s music will be a better mix of not only men and women, but recognizable and new names as well.

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