First Published November 2020
“MUSIC IS WHO I AM” (Part 1)
Those of us who are of a certain vintage in life will be familiar with the name Lynda Carter. The American actress – who was also a singer, songwriter, model, and beauty pageant title holder (Miss World USA 1972, and placed in the Top 15 in the Miss World finals that same year – brought to life the DC Comics superheroine Wonder Woman. That tv show aired first on the ABC network, and later on CBS, from 1975 to 1979. For so many around the world, Lynda, and Wonder Woman, were both inspirational figures because they showed that yes, a woman could be a superhero, too. And a damn
good one at that.
Well, Irish composer and conductor EÍMEAR NOONE is a real-life, real-world, Wonder Woman. And just like Lynda Carter did back then, Eímear – through her enormous musical talent and her pure, magnificent, dream-warrior spirit as a human being – has become a hero and an inspiration on a worldwide scale. And for the record, I definitely count myself among that number, even more so since having the pleasure to spend some time in her company.
Last February, the Galway woman wrote her own page into the history of the Academy Awards when she became the first woman to ever…that’s EVER… conduct the orchestra at the Oscars ceremony. And that was just the latest in a long-as-your-arm list of accolades Eímear has to her credit. Her work has been central to the World of Warcraft, which once held the title of highest grossing video game of all-time, at an astronomical $8.5 billion dollars. She has conducted the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic in London, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and even the Los Angeles ballet, to name just a few of the world-class ensembles she’s held in her charge. Eímear has also toured the world as principal conductor for the Zelda Symphony, a full, four movement symphony, and also with the Video Games Live Tour. As well as a real-life Wonder Woman, make no mistake about this, Eímear is, in essence, a rockstar!
Eímear had asked me to give her a call around 1pm on the day we spoke, and as we began our chat, she explained why. That was when she put her baby down for its nap. So yeah, just take a moment to read that again and let it sink in. One of the busiest and most influential women in the world of music, a history-maker, a woman whose life is destined to become a movie in its own right some day, also had the kindness, the humility, and the grace to grant an interview in the hour or so that her baby was taking a nap. Like I said, Wonder Woman, superhero, and rockstar.
We began our chat around Eímear’s performance at the Oscars earlier this year. Ahead of that event, in speaking about the Rickey Minor, the musical director of the Oscars, Eimear remarked that he was, “…an amazing kindred spirit who endeavours to elevate music and musicians at every possible turn”, and spoke of how generous he was “…to hand over this incredibly poignant moment.” What struck me about that more than anything was Eímear’s selfless grace in turning the spotlight on someone else in what was her own moment of glory. I asked her would it be accurate to say that as a conductor who has to care about everyone in her charge, that sense of care actually reflects an important part of who she is as a person as well, something which reveals itself so easily when she so often takes the time to speak so highly of people?
“Well, I think there’s nothing wrong with showing gratitude. And when somebody bestows an opportunity like that upon you, it’s not just about you. You’re given this spotlight for a moment, but it’s about all of the people that helped you get there as well. Nobody gets there on their own. It’s a moment for humility, and it’s a moment for gratitude. Ricky Minor is just one of those soulful people who believes in good people doing good things. I was there because of my colleagues. There’s another colleague of mine, called Chris Walden, he’s the principal arranger for the Oscars. A lot of the musicians in the orchestra I’d worked with many, many times. They gave me strength. They gave me the courage to get up there and to really, really possess the moment. Not to just get through it, but to really, really live it, enjoy it, and own it. I could do that because standing next to me, filming me on his phone at my feet at the podium, was Ricky Minor, one of the greatest music directors of all time. He was doing that so that I could have it for myself, to watch it afterwards! And then I had the harpist, Gayle Levant, who’s played every Oscars for decades, she’s like my big sister in music ever since I moved to L.A. So any time I just glanced down at her I’d get a big smile and lots of good energy and love. So many of the players I knew. And the tough guys, the brass players who take no prisoners, they’re all pussycats that I’ve worked with forever, ya know! So when you realise that you’ve got there because of your own work, but also because of being championed by your colleagues, I think it’s a moment to celebrate that. And I think it’s a moment for other musicians as well to appreciate our community, and to see that we really do have a professional community. We are a big global family. I also was aware that that moment was a moment I was sort of inhabiting on behalf of female members of my composing and conducting community. It was something that I took very, very seriously. That moment belonged to our community, rather than just to me alone.”
While the Oscars brought Eímear to the attention of the world most recently, she came into the world in Kilconnell in county Galway, where her grandfather, Joseph Shea, a celebrated Irish trad musician, and where also lived until the grand old age of 102, Paddy Fahy, often spoken of as the most lauded composer of the trad music scene. Eímear has said before that she wanted to be a conductor from the age of just seven, so the environment she grew up in, I reasoned, must have greatly shaped her love of music?
“Well, I think just having space, and space to think, and this beautiful east Galway scenery, ya know. I also grew up in a very historic village. The ‘new’ Abbey is from the 13th century, on the site of a 6th century settlement. But Paddy, I mean, having somebody who was a composer in the village, it made it a really normal thing to want to be! I suppose deep down in my mind [I was thinking], Paddy was a composer, so that was a thing you could do [laughs]. And he was an absolutely wonderful man, I adored him. But for me, what really drew me in, was the sound of the orchestra. And I mean, my first experience of the orchestra was on telly, ya know. It says a lot for our national broadcaster RTE that they support the orchestra, because that was my – as an Irish child – first experience [of an orchestra], it was seeing an orchestra on television. I decided wow, this is just the most exciting and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, I have to be a part of it somehow, some way.”
Eímear once referred to music as being “my friends on the page in front of me”, so clearly, music is a huge passion in her life. But I was wondering if she could look back on any specific moment in her life when music first became so much more than something that was just an interest, and instead, became as she has described it, “friends on the page in front of me”?
“I can’t ever remember music being a hobby. It was always who I was. I can never remember all of a sudden going, ‘Oh, maybe I could do this as a career.’ I don’t remember thinking that at all. I just always remember thinking this is who I am. No even thinking, just knowing, that was it.”
As wide-ranging a question as it is – possibly one that it’s not even possible to answer – why does Eímear think it was that way? Why was it music and her?
“I have absolutely no idea. Absolutely none. I just loved it so much. It was exciting to me on an emotional level and an intellectual level. And it also was so deep, with so much to know and so much to learn. Every day I’m learning something new. And I don’t just mean new pieces of music, I mean I’m learning something new about music. It’s just so fascinating. It’s like this magical world to me. It just never stops giving back, there’s so much music to discover, and so much about music to discover. It’s a life-long pursuit. But as a kid, I don’t ever remember it being a hobby, it was just…who I am. Like every child, my first instrument was my voice. I remember…[laughs]…I remember my first time on stage…and I don’t think I’ve actually told this to anyone in an interview before. I was four years old, singing at my aunt’s secondary school in Castleblakeney. There was a talent show [laughs], and I think I was shoved out on stage at four. I sang a song called Little Mammy Birdy [laughs]. And my mother still has the dress I wore my first time on stage, yeah. I was only four, but even then I felt like, yeah, this is what I do. This is me! [laughs].”
Well when Eímear is doing what she does, when she’s conducting, she can have up to ninety people in the orchestra in front of her, and as she had when working on the Warcraft updates a few years ago, a choir of fifty or sixty more people on top of that. What kind of mental preparation does Eímear go through prior to something like that to get herself into the frame of mind she needs to be in?
“It’s important to me to be physically strong. And like a lot of musicians, I’m not super-fond of the gym [laughs]. But I try to be physically strong. But I also do some meditation based on the teaching of a guy called George Mumford, who taught the L.A. Lakers meditation. He understood what it was like to be ‘in the zone’, and to be at your best with a lot of pressure on your shoulders, and a lot of stimulus, and a lot of moving parts. I love his work, so I’ll just sit and listen to him give a lecture on guided meditation. The other thing is I prepare, I prepare like crazy. I will spend a lot of time with the music. And sometimes I don’t get to do that! When we recorded for Warcraft, and when we’re recording in general, I won’t see the music ahead of time. So we’re straight into it in the recording studio, a giant stack of scores lands on the music stand, and we just go from there. Dive straight in. But yeah, I do mentally and physically prepare. There’s no way around that one. You feel so much stronger and so much more in control, and so much better able to serve the audience with adequate preparation.”
Is there a big difference in how Eímear would prepare for something that might be happening in the studio as opposed to for a ‘live’ event, like the Oscars?
“Yes, there is. I mean, when we’re in the studio we don’t have rehearsal. But when we’re ‘live’ we don’t get to do another take [laughs]. And yes, the Oscars is ‘live.’ Everything you heard, we were playing ‘live.’ I try to bring something from what I’ve learned from the ‘live’ performance to the recording studio, and something from the recording studio to the ‘live’ performance. And here’s what I mean by that. When the red light is on in the recording studio, I try and get that electricity, that frisson of energy from myself and from the ensemble, as if we had an audience in front of us. Because it’s a different energy when the audience is there. And you see that right now, where in order to keep some performances going during the pandemic, you see a lot of filmed performances by all kinds of artists. And it definitely feels a little different when the audience isn’t present. And what I bring from the recording studio to a ‘live’ situation is that focus on detail, and that level of detail in the performance that I use in the recording studio. Because I know that it has to be absolutely perfect to live in a recorded format. Otherwise, you spend a lot of time in post-production tidying things up. And when you have hours of music, and millions and millions and millions of notes, you want to avoid that kind of thing because you do have to deliver a project on a deadline and so on. So in a studio, I’m very, very detailed orientated because you also need to know what can and can’t be fixed after the fact. So I bring that kind of head-space to the ‘live’ performance. I want that level of perfection, as if everything I do is being recorded. And it just turns out that at the moment, everything I do is being recorded! [laughs]. So that’s good! I’ve been lucky enough to work in some of the most amazing recording studios on the planet, like Skywalker Ranch, Abbey Road, the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox, Sony Warner Brothers, Capitol Records, just being really spoiled.”
And in the same way that she would prepare for a show or a recording session, does Eímear have any rituals for afterwards, to kind of come-down from that high of performance, and to help her unwind after the intensity of being ‘switched-on’?
“Nobody’s ever asked me that question. Oh my goodness. It is so unromantic, I hate to burst peoples’ bubbles. Generally when I come off stage, especially if I’m on tour, I’ll check in with my family. And when I’m on tour, there will most likely not be anyone in the audience that I know personally. So I’ll come backstage, I’ll see the crew, say hi to all the orchestra managers, the stage-managers, that kind of thing, go into my dressing room…and pack! [laughs]. Then I go back to my hotel room, have something to eat, look at the news online, and stare at the ceiling [laughs]. So unromantic! It’s really hard when you’re on tour as well, because your adrenaline is going after the concert, and you’ve got to get up and travel the next day and do it all over again. So you come back from touring and your adrenal glands have just given up and died! When I was a student in Trinity College, a huge part of doing rehearsals and doing a concert was so you could party afterwards! And nobody told me that when you’re a pro you don’t get to party afterwards, only rarely. Very rarely do you actually get to do that. I remember when I started working at the studios in L.A. first, we’d do six-hour sessions, and afterwards your adrenaline is going mad, and you’re like, ‘Let’s go everybody, what pub are we goin’ to?!’ But everybody’s just like, ‘Ok, see you tomorrow!’ And you’re there like, ‘What?!’ [laughs]. I suppose that’s an Irish was as well. And it’s a healthy thing as well, to go and have a couple of drinks after a show and let that adrenaline just peter out, ya know. But if I have to get up the next day and do it all over again, I won’t even have a glass of wine. I need every brain-cell working at its optimum! Yeah, it’s weird. Especially if you’re dealing with jet-lag as well, things like that. You become this sort of energy-camel, it’s like you’re storing energy for the concert, and you won’t give it up for anything else!”Eímear continued, “I’m looking forward to doing something here with the Symphony Orchestra soon, and even after that, I mean, oh my God, I finally thought I’m doing something in Ireland, I can finally go and party afterwards, but nobody’s partying right now, at all. We can’t. At the moment, we’re waiting for restrictions to lift just so we can get the players together! Let alone the audience. You can’t even put an orchestra on the stage in Ireland at the moment because of the restrictions. And you know what? That’s all fine. We all need to keep each other safe. And we need to keep our musicians safe. That’s absolutely necessary. But it’s tough on all the players, not getting to be together, and not getting to play together. I saw some things about telling musicians to re-tool or whatever, and I thought it was hilarious. God, you may as well tell us to breathe through gills! That’s absolutely futile. You’re also talking about, in an archestra, everyone – every single person – has at least one post-graduate degree. The hoops that they jump through to actually get that seat in an orchestra, to be there…it’s just astronomical what they go through to get that job. Every single person there, they’re not there because they’re good at music, they’re there because they live, breathe, eat, and sleep it!”
~ To stay up to date with everything that Eímear is working on, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Watch this space for Part Two of our chat coming your way in the weeks ahead! ENDS