It is not a secret that the Academy Awards have historically struggled with gender diversity. Though generally critics point to the lack of women nominated in major categories like best director, a critical part of the ceremony itself has also traditionally overlooked women: the Oscars' 42-piece orchestra.
Last night, at the 92nd iteration of the award show, Irish composer and director Eímear Noone became the first woman to conduct the ensemble. Noone made her name composing soundtracks for video games like Overwatch and World Of Warcraft and was also the first woman to conduct at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Ahead of the Oscars, NPR's Michel Martin spoke to Noone about how she was preparing to conduct at the ceremony, why it has taken the Academy so long to give a woman the baton and the impact she hopes her performance has. Read on for highlights from the interview and listen to the full conversation in the player above.
On preparing to conduct at the Oscars
It's the culmination of many different types of skill set[s]. Between synchronizing to pictures, synchronizing to holograms, to your regular classical program, it is everything. It's like I've been preparing for it since day one — and I started by filling in for the nun who taught the orchestra at school when I was 15.
On the lack of women conductors in Oscars history (and in the classical music world, generally)
I think if we go back to the core, which is the educational situation — when I was a student, I didn't feel I got the same encouragement in that way. It was like I was a bad investment because I wouldn't really have a real career. It was quite tacit. It's only now, looking back, I can interpret what I was feeling.
I think a huge part of conducting and learning to be a conductor is failing on the spot, because there's only so much practice you can do by yourself. You need an orchestra. And that is a hard situation to be in, where you have to fail, and fail better, and fail again, and fail better again. But you have to be allowed to fail, and you have to be allowed a second chance. So I think looking at creating a safe space and encouraging people to get back up when they fall down — I think across the arts, in general, be it a female conductor, directors, whatever — I think we need more of that kind of thinking.
On the impact she hopes to have
This is so much bigger than me. [It's] creating normalcy by taking one of the biggest audiences in the world and showing them something they may not have seen before. Kids watching — that have never seen a conductor, anyway — if this is the first time they see a conductor, it'll never be remarkable to them to see a woman on the stage. And what we're trying to do is make it unremarkable, and that's what makes it special, ironically.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tomorrow night is the Oscars. And once again, the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood will fill with the biggest names in the movie business. And while the Academy celebrates the movies for the 92nd time, this year's ceremony will differ from previous ones in one way. For the first time, a woman will conduct the Oscars' 42-piece orchestra. That woman is Irish composer and conductor Eimear Noone. She's known for her work on the soundtracks for video games, like Overwatch and World Of Warcraft.
(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD OF WARCRAFT'S "MALACH, ANGEL MESSENGER")
MARTIN: And Eimear Noone is with us now from Los Angeles to talk more about her big night disrupting the status quo. Eimear Noone, thanks so much for talking to us.
EIMEAR NOONE: Hi, Michel. It's a - it's my pleasure. This is one of my favorite shows on the radio, (laughter) so it's fun.
MARTIN: Oh, thank you for that. No pressure there with the music bites that we'll be playing around this. So we'll just - we'll try to keep calm and carry on. So I understand that you will share the baton, as it were. You're conducting some pieces. And the music director, Rickey Minor - who many might remember from his stint as bandleader for "The Tonight Show" - will be doing others. Do you know which pieces you will be conducting for the Oscars? And did you get to choose?
NOONE: I do know which ones. I am not really at liberty to say exactly at the moment. But, no, they were chosen for me and for a very specific purpose. And it's - you know, it's a great honor to represent film music in this incredible environment.
MARTIN: And as you mentioned earlier, your career is wide-ranging. You have scored films. You've done video games. You've done classical. What skill set is most needed for this assignment? I mean, because the Oscars are so high-profile on the one hand. And yet, you know, I'm sure there's a lot that goes on that we in the television audience don't see. What does it take to do this job well?
NOONE: Well, it takes, basically, everything I've ever done, you know. It's the culmination of many different types of skill set between synchronizing to pictures, synchronizing to holograms to your regular classical program. It is everything. It's like I've been preparing for it since Day 1, you know. And I started by filling in for the nun who taught the orchestra at school when I was 15, you know. I mean, I've been doing it since then. But it's really everything. It's everything. It's my whole life, basically, in a short few minutes.
MARTIN: And no pressure at all. But, you know, sometimes, the audience for the Oscars can be, like, a billion people. And...
MARTIN: ...Does that cross your mind at all? Or do you just think, no, it's the people in front of me? How do you even think about that, like, how many people could be watching?
NOONE: It doesn't cross my mind until every single interview I do when...
MARTIN: I'm sorry.
MARTIN: I'm sorry.
NOONE: It's so fun, no. It's - (laughter) for me, always my first focus is my audience in front of me, which is the musicians. And they are always my focus. And they're also my kind of comfort. So I'll be thinking of that. My big learning moment for me is to try and be present in the moment in a very mindful way.
And that's going to be the most difficult to really feel alive and present and - so that I can really live that moment and be able to remember it and recall it in all its vibrancy and technicolor for the rest of my life rather than have the little voice in the head, talking rubbish at me, you know. So that's my major personal elevating moment. I don't know if I'll get there, but I'm going to try my hardest (laughter). But we'll see.
MARTIN: I was so curious about why - obviously, this is - this honor is well-earned. But I just can't help but think that the Oscars have been happening since 1929. And for you to be the first woman to take the baton, I don't know. What do you think about that? Does it just seem strange? Like what - you know what I mean? I mean, I'm not just picking on the Oscars. I mean, according to a study done by the Women's Philharmonic Advocacy, last year, in the United States, in the 21 top orchestras, out of 142 conductors, only 16 were women.
MARTIN: Why is that?
NOONE: Well, I - everybody asks me this, and I ask me this. And I tried to figure it out. And I think if we go back to the core, which is the educational situation, when I was a student, anyway - that was a while ago now - I didn't feel I got the same encouragement in that way. It was like I was a bad investment because I wouldn't really have a real career or something. And it was very, very - it was quite tacit. It's only now, looking back, I can interpret what I was feeling.
And I think, also, a huge part of conducting and learning to be a conductor is failing on the spot because there's only so much practice you can do by yourself. You need an orchestra. And that is a hard situation to be in, where you have to fail and fail better and fail again and fail better, again. But you have to be allowed to fail, and you have to be allowed a second chance. And I think that's something that deserves looking at since that is part of the career. So I think looking at creating a safe space and encouraging people to get back up when they fall down I think across the arts, in general, be it a female conductor, directors, whatever - I think we need more of that kind of thinking.
MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to speak with us. I know that you're busy getting ready. And before we let you go, again, you know, forgive me. The - not to add any additional pressure, but do you think that people seeing you in this role may lead to change, that maybe - more people will see it as normal to see a woman at the podium?
NOONE: I am just - this is so much bigger than me. And creating normalcy by taking the - one of the biggest audiences in the world and showing them something they may not have seen before, normalizing it and, you know, kids watching just - you know, that have never seen a conductor, anyway - if this is the first time they see a conductor, it'll never be remarkable to them to see a woman on the stage. And what we're trying to do is make it unremarkable. And that's what makes it special, ironically.
MARTIN: That was award-winning composer and conductor Eimear Noone. Tomorrow night, she will become the first woman to conduct the orchestra at the Oscars. Eimear Noone, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations and good luck.
NOONE: Thank you so much, Michel. An absolute pleasure.
MARTIN: So let's go out on one of the songs Eimear Noone helped compose - "A Siege Of Worlds" from World Of Warcraft.
(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD OF WARCRAFT'S "A SIEGE OF WORLDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.