Mid-Life Gamer Geek

The Music of Ghost of Tsushima: An Interview with Ilan Eshkeri

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“I wanted to be a guitarist in a rock and roll band,” Ilan Eshkeri tells me, “but it all went terribly wrong!”

Given how acclaimed, prolific and talented Ilan Eshkeri is, you might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps things should go terribly wrong more often. Getting his start at the age of 19 with composer Ed Shearmur, Ilan was soon working with one of the most famous film composers of the 20th century, the late Michael Kamen. Moving on to scoring short films and composing for the BBC, a jump into the world of bigger budget films soon followed. Some of Eshkeri’s most high profile projects are the soundtracks to films directed by Matthew Vaughn, such as Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick-Ass. “Matt gave me my big break with Layer Cake – the score wasn’t going very well, they had no money and no time,” Eshkeri mentions. “They needed someone young, cheap and talented,” Eshkeri says, noting also that it took just two weeks from meeting Vaughn to begin recording the soundtrack at Abbey Road – with one small music cue (that ended up in the film) even being written in the back of a taxi, using pencil and paper. “It was real seat-of-your-pants stuff.”

Eshkeri’s work isn’t just confined to TV and movies though, as he composes for the stage too – and beyond that, he provides the soundtrack and musical cues for The Sims 4, the fourth game in EA’s seemingly unstoppable and perennially popular life sim series. “Looking at my career, it’s not really the sort of thing I would do, but we have so much fun – and the spirit of it is so positive and lovely. I never get bored of doing it.”

Was it this ongoing enjoyment had with working on The Sims 4 (the base game was released in 2015, yet the latest expansion emerged in June 2020 – and there’s no sign that support for the game will be slowing down any time soon) that drew Eshkeri to his work on the hugely anticipated PlayStation exclusive Ghost of Tsushima? Not exactly. “I was hugely reticent to work on Ghost of Tsushima,” Eshkeri reveals, “but when I flew out to Seattle to meet with the guys at Sucker Punch and they took me through their plans for the game, I was blown away.”

With The Sims 4 being Eshkeri’s only other video game work to date – and with it being as far from Ghost of Tsushima in style and tone as you could possibly imagine – I suspect that it was something else that caught Sucker Punch’s attention for them to express a desire to collaborate on their open world Samurai game? Perhaps Eshkeri’s work on Ninja Assassin or 2013 Keanu Reeves vehicle 47 Ronin? Oddly enough, it was a different piece of work entirely. “Sucker Punch and the PlayStation music team approached me because they were fans of a score that I’d done for a Shakespeare film, Coriolanus. It was directed by Ralph Fiennes – we ended up making a really unusual score that’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Very few people have ever said anything to me about it, but these guys said ‘hey, we really loved that score.'” It seems that this was quite a surprise for Eshkeri: “This was a real arthouse film, how do you even know about it? You’re making this big blockbuster game and that’s what you’re interested in? That’s the reason I was sitting in the room with them – if you liked that, you’ve got my attention.”

It wasn’t just this appreciation for one of Eshkeri’s lesser known soundtracks that drew him in, however. “When we first began, I went out to Seattle and I had a meeting at Sucker Punch. If I’m completely honest, I was a little bit reticent. Mainly because I don’t like violent films and games – I don’t want to do a story where people are just blowing shit up and killing people for the sake of it. I thought with it being a samurai game, the point of it would just be to go around slicing people up – and I don’t know how I can do that. It’s not a moral objection to it, it’s just that musically and artistically it doesn’t connect to me. At this meeting, they had a storyboard presentation with images, video and acting – they talked me through the entire story. By the end of it, I was blown away. This is a really powerful, emotional story. Of course, there’s a lot of fighting in it, but at its core it’s a story of a young man who has to go against everything he’s been taught, all the traditions he’s been taught, all the morality he’s been taught – he has to go against that and do things that are against all of that in order to save the people he loves. So the character is in a constant state of emotional conflict – and it’s that exact bit of emotional conflict where all the interesting and complex and deep emotions are. That’s what inspired me.”

The Ghost of Tsushima soundtrack is credited to Eshkeri and Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi. “I worked with Ume – as he’s known to his friends – on [2007 movie] Hannibal Rising – and though we didn’t directly collaborate on this game, we spent some time in the studio together and I’m really proud to share a credit with him.” According to Eshkeri, Sucker Punch were clear about what they wanted from each composer; for Umebayashi it was specific pieces for the open world sections, whereas for Eshkeri it was the more character led music that he was responsible for.

There’s an incredible sense of authenticity and attention to historic detail in Ghost of Tsushima. “The guys at Sucker Punch went to great lengths to be authentic and respectful of the cultural elements; a tremendous amount of detail went into the game,” Eshkeri explains – even divulging that leaves were collected from the island of Tsushima to ensure accurate representation of even the smallest details. They wanted the same effect with the music; it needed to feel truly authentic – a challenge which Eshkeri really embraced. “The first thing I did was to start reading about the instruments and the music of that period. I was introduced to a professor of Japanese music, I worked with some incredible masters of Japanese instruments – who were incredibly patient with me and taught me an awful lot. I tried to write in a very stylistically natural way for these instruments.”

I was fascinated to learn from Eshkeri about the biwa. “It’s the instrument that the samurai used to play during this time, for many hundreds of years. They would sing tales of their exploits whilst playing this instrument.” He tells me that the tradition of playing the biwa died out almost entirely in the middle of the 20th century, with the tradition having been passed down orally – and now only a few (“literally, you can count them on your fingers,” Eshkeri stresses) masters of the biwa are alive today. With the biwa being such an important part of Samurai tradition, it features prominently in Eshkeri’s score.

Eshkeri is very enthusiastic about his involvement in Ghost of Tsushima and it’s clear that – though he’s very passionate about his work in general – it’s very special to him. Does he have a favourite piece among the many he composed for the game? “They’re all my babies – I love them all equally!” he laughs. However, one that Eshkeri mentions that he’s particularly proud of is ‘Lord Shimura’, a track which is based on The Tale of the Heike, a very famous biwa piece. Eshkeri also names the main theme, ‘The Way of The Ghost’ – which he cites as a track that embodies the emotional state that the game’s protagonist, Jin, is in throughout the game.

Though not able to divulge the name of the game, Eshkeri did mention that he’s going to be working on a much smaller video game project in the next few weeks. His work on The Sims 4 is, of course, ongoing and will continue to be for the foreseeable future – but beyond that, there’s not currently any more video games related work on the horizon. Eshkeri finds video games a very inspiring medium to work in, however, and would absolutely love to be involved in more (if any developers or publishers out there would like to chat to Ilan about this, please do get in touch!).

Game music – and soundtrack music in general – is a hugely vital part of the atmosphere in any audiovisual or interactive medium, yet it’s one which perhaps gets less recognition or is less understood than other, more immediately obvious aspects. It’s clearly an area in which real creativity and artistry can thrive, however, and is one that more people may well want to move into as they learn about it. What advice does Eshkeri have for aspiring game composers? “The way the industry is now, you have to work across many different mediums; technology is so cheap with which to create music now that you should just go for it. The important bit to remember is that your job is to be a storyteller; a lot of the time, you might just be writing a high note; but once in a while inbetween, you’ll get to write the Indiana Jones theme – and that’s going to be true no matter what you’re doing. Understand narrative storytelling. If you’re trying to get into it, do anything and everything. Make an album. Do short films. Make music. Knock on every single door. Take every single opportunity.”

Great advice for all of us, I think – aspiring musicians or otherwise.

Ghost of Tsushima is released for PlayStation 4 on the 17th July 2020; the soundtrack releases on the same day and can be pre-ordered here. Many thanks to Andrew Krop for arranging the interview and to my good friends Sabine, Mat and Liam for support, encouragement and advice. Above all, thanks to Ilan Eshkeri for taking the time to talk to me.

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