Entertainment Music

Monday 21 October 2019

Her long-distance ode to joy: Eimear Noone's LA odyssey

Home to receive an award in Galway, renowned conductor and composer Eimear Noone spoke to Donal Lynch about grief and anxiety - and about why Botox is the enemy

Eímear Noone, conductor and composer. Photo: Frank McGrath
Eímear Noone, conductor and composer. Photo: Frank McGrath
Hylda Queally
Ruth Anne Cunningham
Tony Kelly

In the dining room of a busy Dublin hotel, Eimear Noone is communing with old ghosts. This is where she first built up the courage to play her own pieces of music in public, trying them out on the piano for lunchtime diners, not all of whom were indifferent: In her mind's eye she can see her father, who passed away from cancer nine years ago, sitting there in a corner with a glass of brandy, watching her quietly. "He would just sit and listen," she recalls. "He was proud of me, he believed in me."

Her late father's belief was well founded. Noone has blazed a trail as the first internationally successful female conductor from Ireland. She was the first woman to conduct at the National Concert Hall, aged 22, and is now arguably the world's leading conductor of video-game scores, with work on World of Warcraft, Zelda and Diablo, among others lighting up her CV. She's conducted at Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas's filmmaking base, and this month she will tour a new show about Maria Callas which will feature a Tupac-style hologram of the tragic Greek chanteuse.

Through it all she's developed a reputation as a gifted performer who is unafraid to take on sexism in her industry and is open enough to let her many fans into the highs and heartbreaks of her singular career.

She just gave birth to her second child, a boy named Mael, a couple of months ago, but has pushed through her "post baby haze" to travel home to Galway, where she received a Laochra Ceoil award for her work as a conductor and composer on March 1.

Noone is from Kilconnell, a small village outside Ballinasloe, where her parents moved, from Dublin, during her childhood. Her musicality was apparent from an early age.

"My parents had just moved and barely had a stick of furniture to their name and my teacher was telling them to buy a piano for me," Eimear recalls. "She figured out I had talent. I was given a tin whistle and she found I could play by ear straight away. The first thing I played were TV theme tunes. That's how children consume music."

As a teenager in the 1990s she was a "huge grunger" and dreamt of moving away to Seattle to play in a rock band. But she was also composing and arranging classical music in those years. She worked with the local musical society, and participated in a young composers' workshop and competition with the National Chamber Choir. After school she did a degree in music at Trinity College Dublin and started to gravitate towards film music, co-founding the Dublin City Concert Orchestra. Even with all this experience, she still struggled to visualise herself in a career in music, however.

"There is this phrase, if you can't see it, you can't be it," she explains. "I didn't really have an example to follow."

She experienced different kinds of sexism, she says. "Many times I was told I couldn't do it. My favourite times were when I was told right to my face I wouldn't make it. It's the tacit lack of encouragement that was the hardest.

"Or the whisper campaigns. There was a conductor I had watched on TV growing up. He said to me, 'what are you going to do with your music degree?'

"He also said to me you have three things going against you: you're young, Irish and female." How did she take that? "I'd like to say I thought 'I'll show you', but, in reality, I thought 'oh maybe he knows what he's talking about'."

But why on earth would anyone think conducting was something that couldn't be done by a woman? "That's the million-dollar question that is still without answer," she says. "Logically, there is no physical reason. A sliver of rosewood (the conductor's baton) is not very heavy. Do you know what it's like to tour when you're in a different city every day and seven months' pregnant? Try that and then let's talk stamina!"

After college she was hired by an orchestration company based on work she did with a Screen Training Ireland course. One of the teachers on the course hired her as his assistant.

"There was a video game he was working on," she recalls. "And he said they don't have the budget I'm used to for film. I was delighted to get the experience: I orchestrated half of it from my apartment in Portmarnock." The game turned out to be World Of Warcraft, which was one of the bestselling computer games of the noughties, an era when that industry was exploding. When she saw the cinematic effects in the game, she was blown away.

"I remember being so impressed seeing the cinematic effects for World Of Warcraft. I'd never seen anything like this. Video game music has been emerging as a genre of its own - and I think really it's a type of 21st Century programme music."

With the Celtic Tiger heating up, she became convinced she would have to leave Dublin to get ahead in music. "My brother joked that when everyone was beginning to do well it became too much for me and I left," she says. "As far as I was concerned I was an artist and that (making loads of money) wasn't going to happen to me anyway. I wasn't going to be investing in properties and drinking pink Champagne."

When she moved to LA, she couldn't drive - a huge disadvantage in the land of the car.

"It was that classic immigrant story where you learn to drive in a day," she recalls. "I distracted the driving instructor, who was Iranian, with my knowledge of Iranian music." She found LA to be, "a hard city, it tests you, but if you pass the test it gives you a chance. I felt like I wasn't getting opportunities in Dublin."

As her star rose in the video games industry, she began to work on bigger titles and composed the original scores for a number of feature films, including Mirrors (2008) and The Hole (2012). She has also conducted performances of games' music with philharmonic orchestras from Dallas to Sydney.

Can she explain the art of conducting to the lay person? "You may not speak the same language but music is universal. You have a certain style of conducting and you string the musical vocabulary along to make sentences, you need to be able to say something meaningful with your voice," she says.

"Your vocabulary is your body language and your energy. There is a huge amount of eye contact - Botox is the enemy of the conductor."

She is an emotional person, she says. At times she has felt herself on the brink of tearing up onstage. And she has learned to manage her anxiety.

"Headspace and mental health is particularly tough for musicians in a city like LA. You can't say, 'let's head down the pub and let steam off'. If you're a freelancer, the pressure is on. I definitely deal with anxiety at times, but I've learned some tools.

"I always thought I was too caffeinated to meditate but I found a news anchor called Dan Harris who had a panic attack live on air and he has a book and an app about quieting the mind, which I use."

She met her husband - Emmy-nominated composer Craig Stuart Garfinkle - when he came to Ireland to teach a music course. "He's a nice Jewish boy from Chicago," she explains. "Even though I dropped out of the course he was teaching, he passed me anyway and if he hadn't done so, I would've been too mortified to speak to him five years later. But it all worked out."

In 2012 the couple were to have a son, Aaron, but the child died two weeks before his birth. Eimear dedicated a song called Malach (meaning 'angel' in Hebrew) to him. In 2014 she told her Facebook followers what the piece means to her: "In 2012 we lost our beautiful boy, two weeks before he was due to enter this magical world. (The song) is the epic adventure he might have had, told through a mother's lullaby."

Since Aaron's death she has had two more children, Eliam (5) and Mael, who was born in January. "I'm just constantly exhausted," she says. "You're up with a newborn all the time and trying to be compos mentis to memorise all these notes while you're completely sleep deprived; it's tough. I worked literally up until the last day I was allowed to fly." Eliam has become used to his parent's work: last year he had 3,500 Chinese audience members sing him happy birthday at a show of Eimear's in that country.

Her father died nine years ago - she took time off work to be at home while he was sick. She still travels home often to visit her mother, who herself divides her time between Galway and India, where Eimear has a brother.

"It's strange looking at Ireland from the outside. I've been gone 14 or 15 years now. I worry about being out of step." She's wary of adopting Americanisms, but she will allow herself the occasional use of the word awesome: "It's obligatory in LA."

She and Craig live on the ocean side of the Pacific Coast Highway with their children. Last year she watched the hills across the street from her LA home ablaze.

"I was in the third trimester of pregnancy on tour. I saw on the news that Malibu was evacuated. A friend put the family up for a week-and-a-half but I had to stay on tour and buy new clothes because none of my clothes fitted any more. I didn't know if the house was going to burn down and I'd lose all my worldly possessions."

Thankfully, in the end the fire did not claim their home but Eimear's tour ended in Paris smack bang in the middle of a series of riots. "I thought this is me paying my karmic debt for not being at home with my family during the aftermath of the fires."

After we speak, she is travelling to Argentina to do another show "where the orchestra meets technology".

"Maria Callas walks onstage in hologram form - it's even more elaborate than the Tupac stuff [the hologram of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur which appeared at Coachella] because I interact with Callas onstage. It's a piece of theatre, with a concert inside it.

"When I'm onstage I feel like I'm seeing the audience watching film for the first time." And between the sleepless nights and long days, her enthusiasm for pushing the musical envelope is undimmed.

"It's exhilarating," she says. "Even with being away from home and working so hard: none of it matters because I'm doing what I love."

@eimearnooneconductor on Facebook and @eimearnoone on Twitter


Three Irish men and women who hit it big in the City of Angels

Tony Kelly

Tony Kelly

Kelly has been described as the Fellini of Irish photography. The former INM snapper has worked in war zones and for the Sunday Independent's LIFE magazine - he shot Lorraine Keane and Glenda Gilson amongst others. He moved to LA on the night that Michael Jackson died and has since then carved out a career as one of the world's leading magazine photographers, shooting spreads for Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Cosmopolitan, with stars such as Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber, Kate Upton, and Daisy Lowe.

Hylda Queally

Hylda Queally

Some Irish people in LA try to keep at least some of their old way of speaking intact - but not Hylda Queally, whose US accent helped her become one of the most sought-after agents in Tinseltown after moving there in 1989. This Clare native once worked for AIB and Aer Rianta but is now the agent of A-Listers like Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet and she has been listed amongst the 100 Most Influential People in America's entertainment industry. She lives in Santa Monica with her husband, Brad, and was last year photographed for Vogue.

Ruth-Anne Cunningham

Ruth Anne Cunningham

LA has never been much of a mecca for Irish people - US East Coast cities have larger Irish populations - but since moving to the West Coast after her Leaving Cert, this 34-year-old Dublin-born songwriter has been making waves in the music industry. The former Billie Barry kid is responsible for writing chart-topping hits such as JoJo's Too Little Too Late and Britney's dance floor banger Work B**ch. Cunningham, who is signed to John Legend's label, has also worked with 1D and Niall Horan, who last year invited her onstage to duet on the song she wrote for him.

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