Eímear Noone: ‘I will never forget him saying “Welcome to the Oscars”’
On Sunday night, Noone will become the first woman to conduct at the Academy Awards
Conductor and composer Eímear Noone in Dublin: ‘Being a conductor and a composer is like having a split personality. One is very introverted; the other is the reverse.’ Photograph: Steve Humphreys
Sometime before Christmas, Eímear Noone received a phone call from her old pal Rickey Minor. He was wondering if she could clear some free time towards the beginning of February. Fair question. So busy one wonders if her head ever touches the pillow, the imposing Galwegian had a score to compose for an upcoming animated movie. She was also conducting the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra in Doha. Other diversions were bubbling under. But she could surely find time for the musical director of the Oscars.
“Then I got an email asking a bit more,” she tells me. “My husband is such a glass-half-full person. ‘What’s he about to ask you?’ he said. Then I spoke to him on the phone and he told me I was on a shortlist. That was horrifying. I will never forget him saying later: ‘Welcome to the Oscars.’ That was an amazing moment from an amazing man.”
I am thrilled to wear the work of Claire Garvey. I have worn her before, and she just belongs there
Minor commissioned Noone to conduct selections from the five films nominated for best original score. That makes her the first woman ever to conduct at the Academy Awards. The Last Night at the Proms attracts a mere smattering compared with the audience that will be watching on Sunday night.
Last year’s Oscars drew nearly 30 million viewers in the United States alone (and the figures are on the way up again). We are disappointed to learn that she won’t be playing off stage the winners who witter too long, but this remains a significant achievement in a life already packed with incident.
“My role is to present and interpret the score I am given,” she says. “I have five excerpts from the five original score nominees and we are going to present them back to back, so the audience can appreciate why these brilliant composers are here and get a flavour of the music.”
Word is she will be wearing an Irish designer to the Dolby Theatre.
“I am thrilled to wear the work of Claire Garvey, ” Noone confirms. “I have worn her before, and she just belongs there. We have already had approval on her piece. This is all part of the show. Her creation has to be in line with the vision of the show’s producers. And I think she captured what they created for the show.”
Let’s walk ourselves through one of the nation’s under-celebrated careers. Noone was born in the town of Kilconnell, just outside Ballinasloe. The gathering myth has it that she was hooked on music at an age when most of us are still eating worms and getting erasers stuck up our noses. That enthusiasm eventually led her to a degree course at Trinity College Dublin.
From there she moved into the lucrative and still developing field of composing for video games. Who conducted the lovely, sub-medieval chords you encounter in World of Warcraft? It was Eímear Noone. I must have spent a few hundred hours listening to her music when tromping the fields of Azeroth as 25th-level priest MarkeSmith.
“Oh sorry about that,” she says.
Not at all. It was a pleasure. So what set her on the road?
“I am the absolutely classic product of the Irish education system,” she says. “I was handed a tin whistle in junior infants by my teacher Margaret Blehene – God bless her soul – and she figured out I could play by ear right away. So she marched me up to my parents’ house and said I must study piano. She was so adamant she had her daughter teach me for the first few months. I have had people like that who made a huge difference. I also have a memory of walking past the TV at seven and seeing a conductor with white hair conducting in Vienna. And I thought: I’ll do that. That looks cool.”
An apparently unstoppable whirl of energy, she co-founded the Dublin City Concert Orchestra with her classmate Jillian Saunders and ran the organisation for five years. She brought the orchestra to Mountjoy Prison and, by 22, was conducting at the National Concert Hall.
At the turn of the century, she took a film composing course at UCLA in California and – evidence that the entertainment industry was shifting – eventually landed the job with World of Warcraft. She has since worked on games such as Hearthstone and Diablo III, and on the Gus Van Sant film The Sea of Trees. Her Video Games Live concerts sell out all over the world.
So what is the distinction between scoring for games and movies?
“The approach is similar,” she says. “We get an edit and we score to that edit. But we have a lot more freedom in video games. We are asked often for a big melody that we identify with a scene. Often film directors are afraid that the big melody will be too prominent – it will become a character in itself. That’s how they used to score films. That’s out of fashion in films, but video game directors still like that.”
Work and romance eventually brought her to Malibu. Married to fellow composer Craig Stuart Garfinkle, she makes sure to expose her two children to the culture that raised her and to the culture that brought her fame. It sounds like a tricky juggling act. Last week she was in Doha. This week she is in LA. Next week she could be back by the river Suck.
“I split time between LA and home – Dublin and Galway,” she says. “We spend a good third of the year in Ireland. It’s hugely nourishing to have both. It’s great for our kids to have those two experiences. Those are two contrasting environments in positive ways.”
The children will profit from the example of a mother thriving in a world that was once the near-exclusive preserve of men. Women have long been welcome behind pianos and cellos or with violins and violas wedged beneath chins. It remains more difficult for female conductors to grab prominent batons. The first woman to conduct at the Last Night of the Proms – the inspirational Marin Alsop – did not arrive until as late as 2013. Heck, even the Oscars had given best director to a woman by then (just three years earlier, mind you).
People ask why there are so few women. One thing a conductor needs is the ability to fail and fail better. I feel that often women aren’t given that chance – they aren’t given the benefit of the doubt
Noone recently happened upon the story of Alicia Adélaide Needham. She has become an inspiration. “She was the first woman to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall. She was a suffragette and she was from Dublin,” she says. “I am so passionate about her. I recommended her for a bust recently. I didn’t know she existed. I could have looked at her as a child and thought: ‘There! That’s what I want to be like.’ Please mention her.”
Men stood in Needham’s way. Some surely stood in Noone’s. A quick skirt around the subject finds stories familiar from so many other walks of life: famous male conductors sniffing at the notion of women doing the job and then grumpily complaining they were taken out of context. You need only scratch the carapace to find lingering prejudice beneath.
“I would be lying if I said that didn’t exist. But I retain a positive attitude,” she says. “People ask why there are so few women. One thing a conductor needs is the ability to fail and fail better. I feel that often women aren’t given that chance – they aren’t given the benefit of the doubt. Another journalist recently said: ‘Shouldn’t people prove themselves by their work?’ If you can’t get a seat at the table then you can’t prove anything.”
Fascinatingly, this is word for word what female directors say about their business. Men will be allowed to make two or three flops and still get another chance. If a woman’s debut fails she is invariably kicked back to the bottom of the queue. To use the language of academia, failure is gendered.
“Exactly. You can’t come out on your first attempt and be the fully fledged artist. That is built over time. It is no coincidence that most of the greatest conductors have white hair.”
Noone’s earlier discussion of what she’s wearing to the Oscars reminds us that conducting has always been a performative business. There have been distinguished practitioners who slumped quietly to the front and did their job quietly too, but we better remember the flamboyance of Leonard Bernstein or the austere dominance of Herbert von Karajan. An elegant presence with long blonde hair, Noone can match either for charisma. But the pressure to deliver must be enormous.
“It’s not pressure,” she ponders. “It’s a joy to bring something different to the podium and to share that with the audience. Being a conductor and a composer is like having a split personality. One is very introverted; the other is the reverse. I am definitely a natural introvert. But when you have the power of the orchestra coming at you, it feeds your soul. You have to come out of yourself. I owe that to the audience.”
Once the Oscars excitement is over, she will go back to composing the score for the latest animation from the Irish studio Moetion Films in Galway. She will rally the family. She will continue to straddle continents. There seem to be no limits.
“Scoring is a different animal as well,” she says. “But I am endlessly curious and have a very low boredom threshold. So that’s all good.”