This past summer I had the tremendous opportunity to speak with composer Ilan Eshkeri about his score for the video game Ghost of Tsushima. Eshkeri attended Leeds University where he studied music and English literature. He also worked at this time with fellow composers Edward Shearmur and Michael Kamen. Notable film scores from his career include (but are far from limited to): Coriolanus (2011), The Young Victoria (2009), 47 Ronin (2013), and The White Crow (2018). He’s collaborated on several films with actor/director Ralph Fiennes.
How did you get started with being a composer?
Well, really I wanted to be a guitarist in a rock band. While pursuing that dream I ended up working for a composer and not long after became close to Michael Kamen. And then I got my first break writing film music. And I really enjoy having such an exciting career that developed from many different directions all at once. It takes me in all sorts of directions.
How did you get connected with Ghost of Tsushima?
Playstation actually reached out and contacted me about this game. I was initially reluctant because I don’t really like violent, action games, that’s not really my thing. I don’t have any great, moral objection to it, I just don’t know how I can connect emotionally to that. Or, as an artist what can I say about that in my music? What peaked my interest is they’d been using music from an art house film that I had done a few years ago, a Shakespeare film called Coriolanus. The score for it is, I think, very unusual, quite extreme and uncompromising. Typically my work with Ralph [Fiennes, the director] is like that. It was amazing to me that this mass entertainment AAA game and video game studio would be coming to me and referencing this extremely unusual art house music that I’d created.
Then I went to Seattle for a meeting with Playstation and they spent 45 minutes to an hour with this incredible multimedia presentation that talked me through the entire plot of the video game. By the end of that I was completely blown away and sucked into it. It wasn’t what I thought. This is a game about a young man who is in a state of emotional conflict because he has been brought up and trained in a certain moral code. However, in order to save his home and the people he loves he has to go against all of that. This was, therefore, a rich place to write emotional and powerful music.
Was it different, working on the score for a video game as opposed to film or television?
No, I don’t think so, because to me it’s all storytelling. It’s the oldest of human art forms. If we look back at the history of humanity, the earliest form of art we have is cave painting. What were they doing in a cave painting? They were telling a story. We moved from cave paintings to songs, the Iliad, the Odyssey, to theater. That developed into dance and acting with operas and plays; you have all these different forms of storytelling and in the last hundred years we’ve had cinema and that came from the invention of new technologies. Since then, the next step in my eyes is video games. A new technology was invented and humans decided to tell their stories through that medium. And the story of Ghost is about the new ways versus the old ways. So really, Ghost is telling a very old story but through a new medium. To answer your question, my job is exactly the same. I tell the emotional narrative of the story through the creation of music. Whether that be theater or ballet or video games, whatever the medium, eventually I’m doing the same thing.
How did you approach scoring Ghost of Tsushima? Was there a lot of research involved in the type of music and sounds that would be appropriate for such a locale and era?
Yes, absolutely. This was inspired by Sucker Punch, they wanted to bring a sense of authenticity to the game, to the extent that they got reeds from the island of Tsushima in order to make it look more naturalistic. I was inspired by this search for authenticity and I wanted to apply the same thing to the music. I found a professor of Japanese music, Professor David Hughes, who is fortunately one of the leading experts here in London and he was very kind to talk to me and explain things and tell me where to look. I was learning about Japanese scales and harmony and how the instruments worked. Then I worked with a lot of amazing musicians and they inspired me a lot. These musicians were very patient and taught me how to write naturalistic music for the instruments.
So I used a lot of instruments that we know here in the West, like the koto and shakuhachi. But my explorations also took me to another instrument called the biwa. In fact it’s called the Satsuma biwa, there being several types of biwas, but the Satsuma biwa was the instrument that the samurai learned to play. And I’d never heard of it before. What happened is that towards the middle of the last century, the art of playing the biwa had been virtually lost. As I understand it there was one master of this instrument left and had taught a handful of people. One of those is a very inspiring lady called Junko Ueda. And she, fortunately for me, lived in Spain so it was easy to get her to come to London. She spent a lot of time explaining about the instrument, she played a lot and you can really hear about the instrument solos in the opening of the piece on the album. She’s a special performer and I was really lucky to be able to include her on the soundtrack.
When was it decided to blend the sounds of traditional Japanese music with a full orchestra?
That was always the plan. The thing was, how do we keep the focus on the traditional Japanese instruments, how do we highlight them? And for me, how do I use the orchestra within that language? All of the music in the orchestra, all the melodies and scales are all based on Japanese scales and I used two of those. And any Japanese instrument could play virtually any orchestral part. I also built my own system of chords using the notes from the pentatonic (five tone) scale. Everything in the orchestra is based on a foundation of Japanese tonality. Where I needed to, for effect, I broke the rules absolutely, but not often. That was the plan behind the orchestra.
How much time did you have to score Ghost of Tsushima? Did you have any game footage to work off of? Or was it more like storyboards?
There was a mixture, because I came on in 2018. When I started working on it there were storyboards, bits of footage. There was some crude gameplay where I got a feel for the character. It was a lot of different things, many bits of inspirational material. I worked on the game on and off for about a year and a half.
I’d like to give a big thank you to Ilan Eshkeri for taking the time to speak with me about his work on the music for Ghost of Tsushima.
Let me know what you think about Ghost of Tsushima’s music (and the game itself) in the comments below and have a great day!
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