Ahead of her performance with the Ulster Orchestra at the Belfast International Arts Festival, video game music composer Eímear Noone chats to Edwin McFee about being the first woman to conduct at Hollywood’s big awards bash in 2020, and blazing a trail for other female musicians
If you’ve ever spent a weekend exploring the world of modern day video games, then I’m willing to wager a case load of platinum-clad PlayStation 5s that you’ve encountered the work of composer, conductor and all-round musical mage Eímear Noone.
Hailed as the Irish queen of game music, the Galway-raised woman has been blazing a trail in the industry over the last decade thanks to her expressive, unmistakable work soundtracking the likes of multi-million-pound franchises such as World Of Warcraft, Overwatch and the Legend Of Zelda.
However, while she spent many a summer during her youth soaking up the sights and sounds of arcades while on holidays in Wexford and her family home was furnished with the standard issue Atari 2600 that was a staple of most Eighties childhoods, conquering the realm of video games was never an ambition at first.
“No, writing for video games wasn’t the plan when I was a teenager,” she begins. “I’ve a completely classical background. It was always the plan to compose music and all through music history composers have collaborated with different media and it just so happens one of those media in the 21st century is video games. So I see myself as carrying on that tradition.
“I fell into the industry by accident. It’s been very rewarding, a lot of fun and the audience never stops surprising me with their generosity. It’s definitely an unexpected road for me to be on — when I was 17 I was writing atonal serial music.”
As technology has come on in leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, so too has the gaming industry, and as the decades progress they become more immersive, and indeed imaginative. In recent times the culture’s image has improved too.
“People’s perceptions of gaming has definitely evolved over the years. I think people are seeing more of the positive sides of gaming now. For example, massive multi-player online games like World Of Warcraft, which I worked on, brings people from different countries, cultures, and religions together on quests and friendships emerge.
“They break down a lot of barriers. Some people who are differently abled also get to participate fully in that world too. I’ve found that the human spirit just loves to play.”
In a cruel irony, while the gaming industry has thrived during Covid, Eímear and her fellow musicians suffered due to lockdown and were banned from performing. After spending her whole life touring the world, conducting the likes of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and many others, she suddenly found her wings clipped.
“I missed performing so much. Musicians are born, not made. It’s not our job, it’s who we are. Not being together with other musicians and not being able to share what you do with audiences was so hard,” she says. “We take them somewhere else mentally and emotionally and it felt like our voices were taken away.”
During that time Eímear, her husband Craig and two young sons decamped from their house in Malibu and came back to her childhood home of Co Galway in a bid to gain some stability while the world began to shake.
“We initially came back to Ireland for six months to score a brilliant animated film called Two By Two Overboard,” says Eímear.
“We came home to see what it would be like splitting the year in two between Galway and California, as we love both sides of life. Then we got locked down.
“We decided we weren’t comfortable taking the kids back to Los Angeles and we decided to move to east Galway to the beautiful countryside I grew up in.”
Eímear’s main motivation for coming home was to ensure that her kids could still enjoy being kids.
“The main reason why we decided to stay in Galway was for our sons. We wanted to give them stability. They had already lived through the fires in Malibu and we were evacuated for six weeks and we wanted them to be somewhere where they felt safe.”
Pretty soon the globetrotting family quickly learned there really is no place like home.
“We all loved being home,” offers Eímear. “We moved our production company here, we bought the house next door to my mother and our boys are so happy here. You’d think the pandemic never happened, which was the goal — to minimise the psychological impact for them.
“Their granny is next door, their uncles and cousins are nearby and in school, we know all the parents of the kids there as they either went to school with me or we’re related to them, so it’s the opposite of Malibu. It’s a rich existence that we’re trying to create for them.”
And speaking of riches, a memory that is worth its weight in gold for Eímear is the moment when she became the first woman to conduct at the Oscars in February 2020.
While she’s no stranger to making history (a then 22-year-old Noone was also the first female to conduct in Dublin’s National Concert Hall), taking the podium at the Academy Awards in front of an audience of hundreds of millions saw her level up, to use gaming parlance.
Eímear tells me that she takes the achievement very seriously and was honoured to metaphorically step into a turbo-charged Mario Kart and bust through all the barriers in her way.
“The main reason why I accepted the job was for visibility,” she considers. “I wanted the girls and women watching to think if she can do it, I can do it.
“I wanted to normalise the job and ensure that being a woman on a podium wasn’t remarkable or rare. I really wanted Irish girls in particular to see that. I was flown to the awards by two Irish female pilots, I was dressed by Claire Garvey, an Irish designer, an aunt did my hair, my other aunt bought my shoes. It was a real team effort from Irish women and it made me proud.”
While Eímear tells me she wasn’t nervous about her performance, she did feel a duty to do her country proud before she took to the podium.
“I remember watching Janelle Monáe rehearse and I thought this girl is unbelievable, I can’t let the Irish girls watching down. I thought about what I would want to see and hear if I was a 15-year-old music mad teenager.
“I wanted girls to see me own the moment and inhabit that moment fully. I put a lot of thought into it.
“The worst thing I could do for those people was be a shrinking violet, to be apologetic. I was given this opportunity and I really felt it wasn’t about me, it was about the performance and what that represented.
“It was absolutely wonderful. I enjoyed every single second of it.”
On October 23, the queen of game music will give locals a very special royal visit as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. Taking place at the Grand Opera House, Eímear and the Ulster Orchestra team up to perform a show dubbed Electric Arcade, and the gifted sonic wizard promises that those lucky enough to have a ticket will be in for a spellbinding night.
“I’m so excited about being able to tour again,” she beams.
“Last week I performed in Scandinavia and it was the first audience I had in a year-and-a-half. I walked out and had a lump in my throat. I had something prepared to say but all I could get out was: ‘I’m so happy to see you!’.
“Our Belfast show will be fantastic.
“Basically, the performance takes the audience on a tour through the history of video game music. It’s got rock, orchestral music, synths, choirs... there’s even a rock opera based on a Russian folk theme.
“The show has to be seen to be believed as it’s so different.
“We go from the Eighties right up to present day. It’s really fun.
“There’s stuff from Fortnite, I get to conduct some of my favourite music from friends of mine and I also have a piece in the programme from my husband Craig [Stuart Garfinkle], who’s an Emmy-nominated composer and Hollywood Music In Media award winner.
“This will be my first time conducting the Ulster Orchestra and I can’t wait to work with them. I hope I don’t scare them too much with my madness.”
Electric Arcade with Eímear Noone and the Ulster Orchestra takes place at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on October 23. Tickets available from www.belfastinternationalartsfestival.com