Tuesday 25 June 2019

The Irish Queen of Games Music - Eimear Noone Interview

Eimear Noone
Eimear Noone

Frank Whelan

Eimear Noone is an award winning Irish composer and conductor, with a resume featuring World of Warcraft, Diablo, Metal Gear Solid, Starcraft 2, Zelda and many other big names that are music to a gamer's ear. Eimear took some time out of her schedule to talk to independent.ie.

Eimear was kind enough to give us a large chunk of her busy schedule and nice enough that it seemed we could have gone on chatting all day. So, to make it easier, we've divided the interview into two separate articles or the full interview can be found below.

Eimear Noone (Photo: Carlos Guana)
Eimear Noone (Photo: Carlos Guana)
Eimear Noone and Tommy Tallarico rocking out with some Halo at Video Games Live
Eimear Noone (Photo: Carlos Guana)
Eimear Noone recieving the 2014 Hollywood Music in Media Award for "Best Video Game Score"
Eimear Noone at work
Eimear and Tommy Tallarico at Video Games Live
Eimear Noone
Eimear Noone

The process, the craft and the industry - Working In Games - The Composer/Conductor with Eimear Noone

World of Warcraft, Diablo III and Blizzard in General - World of Warcraft, Starcraft II and more - Music at Blizzard with Eimear Noone


What got you into composing for games?

Eimear and Tommy Tallarico at Video Games Live
Eimear and Tommy Tallarico at Video Games Live

“Initially it was by accident. It purely stems from a love of the orchestra and orchestral music, so it was basically going to be wherever that took me. Then I suddenly went “my god, this is amazing!” The first time I orchestrated for a game, it was the first World of Warcraft. I was involved in some choral arrangement for Metal Gear Solid, which when I was working on it, I didn’t even know I was working on a game. So when I was in the studio, when I saw the cinematic for World of Warcraft, it just blew my mind.

We’d been a Nintendo house, with Zelda and Mario and everything, but when I saw the cinematic in the studio for the first World of Warcraft, Jason Hayes is the composer on it, I just couldn’t believe it. I was there in the studio, looking up at the monitors going “Oh my god, this is so beautiful.” I don’t think any of us at the time realised, I mean we knew it was important work, the whole Warcraft project was really amazing, but World of Warcraft , I don’t think any of us knew what it was going to do worldwide. I knew in the studio, Jason wrote some iconic themes and it was just jaw dropping.

From there I was working in movies and working on classical performances – Los Angeles Ballet, Repertoire and everything – because I’m a purely classically trained musician. So after doing some films and everything like that, I was giving a master class on conducting for the Society of Composers and Lyricists in Hollywood, and the new audio director for Blizzard, Russel Brower, was in the audience and he hired me to come back into the fold, because they’d had a changeover, and conduct.

The next one I did was Starcraft II, so I’ve done every major orchestral score for them since, and it’s just been fantastic. So, finally after conducting for them for years, Craig Stuart Garfinkle, my husband and co-producer on the Dublin International Games Music Festival, we were both invited to write on World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor independently of each other. It was just fantastic, it was a really really inspiring experience. We were given this stunning artwork to basically draw forth our interpretation of that artwork, what should the sound be that accompanies this incredible Tolkien-esque environment.

Eimear Noone (Photo: Carlos Guana)
Eimear Noone (Photo: Carlos Guana)

Then along the way I became the face of the 25th Anniversary of The Legend of Zelda and did almost between 70 and 80 performances of the Zelda Symphony around the world and recorded the 25th Anniversary album for Nintendo that came out with Skyward Sword. We did the first ever 3D footage of a symphony orchestra for the 3DS, which was a kick because it was only available for download on the 3DS, so it gave me a great buzz thinking of all the Nintendo fans downloading the orchestra. So that was really really fun and we performed all over the world with Zelda, I mean it was Sydney Opera House, Madison Square Garden, Royal Philharmonic and Kennedy Centre, it was just crazy, the fans were incredibly good to us.

And then back to Blizzard again. I just recorded a score for Sony called The Tomorrow Children and I tour a lot with Video Games Live too.

 So, it’s just been so much fun and I’ve become a much bigger gamer myself through being part of the industry and surrounded by these incredibly passionate artists. I really think that video games are the pop art of our generation, it’s just too complex and all consuming to be anything other than art as far as I’m concerned, both on a musical level and I mean the writing behind it – Chris Metzen, the Creative Director at Blizzard is a stunning creative mind – our producers and directors, our cinematics directors are credible artists in their own right, it’s just been a great ride. It’s been fantastic and I couldn’t be involved with a more supportive and rewarding fanbase, it’s just not possible.

You’ve been involved on pretty much all of Blizzard’s big titles, and they’re all known for their massive die-hard fanbase, how is that fan reaction? Is it different coming from a classical background, is it something new?

Eimear Noone and Tommy Tallarico rocking out with some Halo at Video Games Live
Eimear Noone and Tommy Tallarico rocking out with some Halo at Video Games Live

It is different and it’s very very interesting. It’s also very rewarding. The fans are so excited by us going the extra mile to bring them something extra, they’re so appreciative and it definitely informs how we work, because we know things are going to be looked at in such detail and the music is so important to so many people and it really fills you up. I truly believe an artist is a servant of those in their community, so it really is a pleasure to serve this audience, and by serving I mean working really hard at honing our skills, our art, being on the cutting edge of technology, being constantly looking for new and interesting sounds, constantly challenging ourselves, constantly pushing the envelope of what’s possible. It’s having this incredibly vigilant, passionate fan base, I definitely feel that it pushes us to be the best we can be and inspires us. We’re also very close to our fan base, we’re all very accessible and we listen to the fans, we talk, we interact with the fans and that’s unusual, I mean that comes with social media but it’s a new environment for composers and conductors, where we’re very readily available to interact.

It’s been interesting, it’s definitely informed me as a creative and a performer and it just goes straight to my heart when an audience of gamers treats the orchestra like rockstars. I mean, straight away it’s completely inspiring and it just makes me love them all the more. I’ve had concert masters walk out on stage and get such a cheer from an audience of gamers that they look behind them to see if somebody has come on stage behind them.

How does Video Games Live compare to the classical experience?

Well , Video Games Live is more like an orchestral rock concert. The Zelda show was more in the middle, it was a lot more classically orientated and then you have the classic concerts. For me, a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, I can’t think of anything more riveting and more exciting and also I can’t think of anything more riveting and exciting than y’know Halo or Zelda in Video Games Live. It’s all variety and colour and flavour, it gives all these different flavours and makes life exciting and for me as a performer makes my career and my life very varied and colourful and exciting.

I love an informal concert environment, no matter what the concert, personally, and I try and cultivate that, and Tommy Tallarico encourages, nay goads the audience in a concert hall to shout out if you feel like it, express what you feel. I’ve had people come up to me and say “when you took out the Windwaker for Zelda, I burst into tears, because that music means so much to me,” and for people to feel free in the formal environment of the concert hall with the orchestra, for them to feel free to express their appreciation, I think that’s incredibly important. I really love it when at classical concerts people do likewise, rather than feeling like they need to hold back or that the environment is elitist or somehow aloof or inaccessible to them. That’s a perception we need to completely get rid of from the classical environment and I think these game music concerts are helping to do that, breaking down the barriers of perception that stop people going in to see the orchestra.

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

And on that elitist perception, is there any snobbishness amongst your peers around your work in games?

If there is, I don’t see it, or I don’t want to see it. Well the thing is, I always say “if you want to get snobbish, I can go there.” If you want go there, I can go there and you better be ready. I think there’s no place for it. There’s no place for elitism or snobbishness in arts and entertainment. Why would you close yourself off? Why would you close yourself off from learning from another type of music or from a different type of experience? Nobody says Yo-Yo Ma is somebody who sold out or whatever because he does things with Bobby McFerrin or pop music or scores, and then he does an incredible Elgar cello concerto. I don’t understand why any artist would shut themselves off. One of the greatest learning experiences I had, one of the things that informed my Stravinsky performance more than anything, was working with Gladys Knight and her band, and as crazy as that sounds it’s because of the groove, the way that band were, their rhythm was so extraordinary. Learning about the groove is something we don’t really talk about in classical music. And if you can bring that experience to Stravinsky, it’s riveting, it’s exciting, it’s enlivening and for me all of these different types of music inform each other and colour who I am as an artist and I would never cut myself off.

I’m about to go on tour with BT, the father of electronic dance music and I’ve learnt so much from being around him. For instance, if he hears a sound in his mind’s ear, an electronic sound, and it doesn’t exist, he goes and figures out the code to create it. That’s the way he creates. The guy got a scholarship to the Berkley School of Music when he was thirteen and turned it down. He’s as good a musician as I’ve met in the classical environment, he’s somebody who’s so creative, like I said if he hears it in his imagination he goes and learns to write the code to make it happen and then he sells it to all the other music producers. But I’ve learned so much from him and I’ve also learned not to be closed minded, because as a younger musician I may have been more snobbish and then had my ass handed to me by a big band trumpet player whose rhythm at the time just schooled me in the recording studio. And here I am coming from my Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, thinking that I’m superior when in fact I couldn’t have been more wrong. So I reject all snobbishness and elitism, outright.

Eimear Noone recieving the 2014 Hollywood Music in Media Award for
Eimear Noone recieving the 2014 Hollywood Music in Media Award for "Best Video Game Score"

How does it feel to be many children’s first experience of classical music?

Well I’m just one of many people and I’m one of many people who’ve been fortunate enough to be brought into this amazing creative environment by visionaries like the Chris Metzens of our time and the Shigeru Miyamotos and it’s them that have created this opportunity, it’s them that have created this opportunity for us and I’m one of many. We all take it with huge amounts of responsibility. The gaming music community is very very tight and very small, it’s a little family and I have to credit Tommy Tallarico with that, because through Video Games Live and the Game Audio Network Guild, he’s got everybody together and put everybody on stage in front of an audience, people who are normally behind the music.

We did E3 a few months ago and it was like the all-stars of video game music. Everybody was there and everybody came out and did a piece at Video Games Live. It was just so much fun and it was so great. People like Marty O’Donnell and Mike Salvatori were there, the original composers of Halo and so were the producers of Tetris, so was Inon Zur who’s doing the Fantasia game with Disney and so was Austin Wintory from Journey and Banner Saga and Chris Tin – who’s coming to do iDIG Music fest – the first grammy winner for game music, Russell Brower from Blizzard, Neal Acree from Blizzard, all of our Blizzard gang were there. It was so much fun and these are marvellous creatives who take what we do with huge responsibility. We’re constantly challenging each other, we’re constantly collaborating with each other, there’s definitely a cross-pollination, and we want kids to love the orchestra, because we as kids loved the orchestra, and most of us are still kids, y’know, I think we all got to about twelve and stayed there. We’re very passionate about that. Whether we like it or not, we are ambassadors. We’re lucky to be in that position and it’s an honour and a privilege.

In terms of Warlords of Draenor, at what point does the music enter into the creative process?

This one was a very collaborative experience. We did something very unusual in that we were just given some 2D art and we had a group of concept recording sessions where each composer went away and we looked at all the artwork and went towards whichever environment spoke to us the most.

Shadowmoon Valley spoke to me a lot because there’s all this sort of Celtic style symbology in there and things that reminded me of ogham writing, Celtic spirals and things like that. Even some of the writing inside of that environment reminded me of the Millenium Spire in Dublin, so I was very much drawn towards that. Then our audio director, Russel Brower, he’s so intuitive and he really wants us to be our individual artistic selves so he kinda would see us going towards a certain direction and he knows all our personalities very well and we’re all very compatible with each other but very different, and he let us go with it. His musical direction was “I want you to tell me a story through the music” and that’s like the best gift you can give any creative.

So we all went away to our little dark holes with this artwork and came out with what the artists’ work drew from each of us. And it was so interesting to be in the recording session and hearing what everyone else had come up with. Russell’s devious plan also was to have each of us by hearing what we’d come up with in isolation, bringing us into an environment where we’d heard what all the other composers had done and mixing it up a bit and then we went away and all created something that was a little bit influenced by everybody else as well. And then Russell’s job, not only as a composer himself but as the audio director, is to gently guide us towards certain environments in the game and then if he thinks “y’know you may have intended to go in this direction, but I think that really works better over here” or maybe “I want you to work with this person and come up with something for this,” he’s very very good at that and he’s known for it.

We’re very spoiled at Blizzard as well to have him and to have Chris Metzen and to have the people that we work with. They give us free reign to come up with something different, and it’s OK. The other thing is we feel safe if you step a little too much over the line in one direction or if you trip and fall, that’s OK because you might go out on a limb and create something incredible the next time. Draenor was an incredibly creatively stretching experience, and I’m grateful for that.

And once the music is created, is that fed back into the other creative departments?

When we do the concept sessions, first thing we do is create mock-ups in our sequencers, the mock-ups aren’t whole, they’re just creating a kind of a vibe and then we’ll go and write the whole orchestral and choral piece. They aren’t always whole, for the cinematics they will be because there’s a lot of precision editing involved but for the in-game music they may not be.

The artists, designers, writers and everybody will be listening to what we’ve done in the concept sessions, they’ll be given that to producers, directors and everybody. And then that becomes a whole collaborative loop and then Russell can come back to all of us and say “this is going down really well, people are really reacting to this” and he can lead us in a certain direction very subtly, based on what people are feeling.

It starts with the concept, with the stories, the writing, the artwork and it’s constantly evolving and constantly there are different levels of collaboration going on. It’s quite a unique way of doing things and Blizzard is known for pushing the creative boundaries of gaming and I take that on very seriously as well. It’s very exciting.

How did you feel about composing for the interactivity of games, where your score has to respond to the player’s actions and status?

I think that all through music history, composers have been excited to be part of collaborative media, be that ballet or opera or a play, so this is another of those environments and the challenges of what’s physically going on can be limiting and limitations are a help at times, because there’s so much you can do it’s overwhelming when there are no limits at all. Sit in front of a blank page and do anything you want, no limits, and there’s nothing more daunting, but when you start out with a set of parameters set, that you have to stay with these rules and inside of this, that’s actually incredibly freeing creatively and there’s so much we can do with that.

Knowing how the engine works, what’s triggering what, that helps us to get excited about those limitations. I’m not using the word limitation as a negative at all, I’m looking at it as a tool actually. I use that as a positive to cut down the feeling of being overwhelmed by too many possibilities. I find, like a lot of artists have found, that limitations are creatively freeing.

So what should we expect from the Dublin International Games Music Festival?

Basically it stems from Craig Stuart Garfinkle and I being on the road with different productions, and for me especially, I toured all over the world with both the Zelda Symphony and Video Games Live, and we make it a big point in this musical world of interacting with our audience, so we do signings and meet and greets afterwards. I was constantly being approached by Irish gamers in different cities, it was especially poignant in Australia because there were so many. We did three concerts at the opera house and I met so many Irish people who said “oh my god, are you going to do something like this at home?” and of course, being Irish - I still don’t feel like an emigrant because I’m home so often but I did move to LA ten years ago this September -  and being Irish there’s still that huge element of pride.

So I’m backstage at E3 and everybody is there and I say “Hey listen guys, this is really fun... how about we do this in Dublin?!” and everybody said “yeah! Yeah! Make it happen! Brilliant! Brilliant!” and then I went away and said oh god, now we have to make this happen. “Eh, Craig, how do we do this exactly?” So thank god I have a fellow composer who’s also a producer.

I put it out on Twitter one day “If we did a game music festival in Dublin, would you go?” and the next thing Twitter lit up and I’m getting pinged by everybody and this fantastic young game journalist called Chris Rook, who was just graduating from Trinity, who had flown over to interview me with the Royal Philharmonic when I was doing the Zelda Symphony with them, said “can I help?” and I said “I remember you, you were so smart and fantastic!” So yeah, he worked so hard with us since that he’s become the associate producer of the festival. So this isn’t a festival coming from some promoter who’s trying to make a killing from game music fans, this is coming from inside the industry.

 Russell Brower, who is the audio director from within Blizzard, is hugely involved and he’s coming over and he’s going to perform some of his music and he’s going to give a lecture on composing for Blizzard games and how he works as an artist. Christopher Tin, the first grammy award winning composer for games music – which is now being acknowledged as its own genre by the grammys and the BAFTAs , thank you – is coming over to perform some of his music from Civilization. Neal Acree, our chief cinematics composer from Blizzard is coming over. Tommy Tallarico is coming with Video Games Live. You cannot have a festival of games music without Tommy Tallarico and Video Games Live, it’s just not right. Jill Aversa is coming, she’s the biggest name vocalist in games, she’s worked on Halo, Journey, she’s just a superstar herself. Of course I’m conducting, Craig is performing one of his pieces from Warlord’s of Draenor. We’re going to do an expo of the Irish gaming industry, an expo of the educational opportunities in Ireland pertaining to working in games, so basically if you’re someone who always thought “I love video games, how do I get into the industry?” come to the festival, your questions will be answered.

I’m doing a demo on conducting and technology, for the public and for gamers and for professional musicians, for all those three groups of people there will be something in it for you in terms of my demo, because it’s going to be a little bit outside the box and a little bit fun.

We have the Tri-force Quartet coming over from the States to play their Zelda arrangements. The Spoony Bards from Dublin are playing with their fantastic game music arrangements also. We’re having a cos-ball, a costume ball with a brand new young DJ is going to do dance remixes of game music for all the cos-players. It’s just going to be amazing fun!

But the big thing we’re doing is in conjunction with Google Ireland. We’re getting lots of support from all these amazing technology companies, but this is an authentic game music festival. There is no one stamp going to be on this. It’s about the music, it’s about the games industry. But, we have these tech companies who are giving us help to make certain crazy projects happen. For instance the international real-time Youtube orchestra. We’re performing a piece I wrote for Warlords of Draenor with the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, 104 members on stage, with Jill Aversa, myself, Tommy Tallarico, a huge choir and we have musicians and singers from all over the world sending us videos to our Youtube channel which we’re editing together to play with the orchestra live, but also Google and Youtube are working a project with us where at their campuses around the world. At their Youtube studios we’re going to pipe in different instrumental families of the orchestra and the choir to Dublin to perform with us in real time. That’s pretty ambitious and it’s pretty scary and pretty nuts, but we’re going to do it.

That sounds like a logistical nightmare...

It’s an absolute logistical nightmare, but we’re all about that and the thing is, like I said, it’s one thing doing concerts and I love performing and always give 110%, but when it’s for the home crowd, we have to go on to another level . We’re going to bring everything we have, we’re going to go over the top on everything for this, because we want to do something special, something colourful, something fun, and we’re bringing our best friends in game music over to make sure that the real passion is there on the stage and translates to everybody. So it’s a real passion project for us, we’re going way over the top. It goes beyond work, beyond a job, beyond career, it’s for Ireland, so it’s all bets are off basically.

What advice would you give to someone out there who wants to compose for games?

Well first of all, know going in that you’re stepping into one of the most competitive environments that exists, and I’m talking about composing for media in general. Arm yourself to the teeth with skills, I mean compositional skills, orchestrational skills, technological skills, everything, you can’t have enough at your finger tips. H Know your games. Be a gamer absolutely and then once you have your skills together, hone who you are as an artist and an individual.

It’s great to play homage to other composers, you learn a lot by doing it, every composer through music history has done it, I mean Bach walked a hundred miles to hear Buxtehude play the organ, that’s the same tradition. Listen to other composers work and writing things down is a great way to learn, but hone who you are as an individual artist, that’s what will get you really noticed. And then go and meet people. For this [iDIG Music Festival] our hope is that bringing all these people to Ireland creates opportunities for game music people, for performers, for the game music industry in general, because we’re hoping that as the years go on to bring more producers, directors , developers along as well as the composers and audio directors.  We want business to happen organically in a creative way in a really fun environment where everyone is having a great time.  We want people who can benefit from this to benefit from it.

We’ve a very all inclusive ethos and philosophy about this festival, which is why we choose the National Youth Orchestra. This is an incredible body of young artists, a national treasure and we want to expose those young musicians to the best that the game music industry has to offer in terms of the music and the individual composers and performers themselves, and we also want our audience to see gamers in the orchestra, what a difference that’s going to make, because most of the orchestra will be gamers.

One thing I know about gamers is they want authenticity and this is as authentic as it gets, coming from inside not only our industry but inside a very small group of composers and performers and we’re the ones out there doing it every day. Promoters keep saying to us “why don’t you do this in London or New York” but we’re like “well you’ve missed the whole purpose, to do something different for Ireland” so this is going to be as authentic as it gets.  And like I said, Video Games Live, the original longest running show of games music that exists, they have given the premiere of practically every live performance of video game music that’s performed live, it’s crazy, so we want the audience to have the authentic experience.

So onto the last and usually hardest question: What’s your favourite video game?

Oh god. Oh my god, so... ok, there’s so many . I will have to throw in one I didn’t work on, just to show I’m not towing the party line, I do love Skyrim. I mean Zelda is just so special to me, I just, it’s it’s, y’know, it’s, it’s... Zelda is a different part of your gaming experience. ..

So you know now you have to pick your favourite Zelda

Twilight Princess. I really love Twilight Princess. Skyward Sword has a special meaning for me as well.

I love Diablo and I just find the whole drama of it is so intense and I just love the artwork. And Malfiel is so incredibly crazy, it’s just the characters in Diablo that I love and I love Leah and I love when they’re positive. But then again I do love Kerrigan in Starcraft, I love cool female characters. I’m not just toeing the Blizzard party line, but I do love Diablo, it’s just visually so crazy deep, it’s just stunning .

The first Dublin International Games Music Festival, (iDIG Music Fest) will take place in Dublin's Convention Center on the 2nd - 4th of April 2015

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