Talking The Music Of Ghost of Tsushima With Composer Ilan Eshkeri

Recently I spoke with Composers Ilan Eshkeri about his work on the smash hit Ghost of Tsushima

How did you get into composing?

It was sort of by accident! I wanted to be a guitarist in a rock band and when I was 19 I was looking for any job at all in the music business. I was introduced to a composer called Ed Schearmur who was the prodigy of Michael Kamen and I was suddenly thrust into the world of film music and arrangements for bands.

How does scoring a game compare and differ with other forms of composing and which do you prefer?

On the face of it, the different genres that I work in are quite eclectic – film, TV, games, ballet, theatre, shows and song-writing – but what ties my work together is a love of narrative. I like to tell emotional stories through music. In this way, video game music is the same as any of my other work. One of the key differences with video games is the way the music has to be layered. Normally you just think of music in a linear way but with video games, the music might change in intensity whilst also passing through time. The way the game engine achieves that is it plays many layers at the same time and depending on what’s happening on the screen – it chooses one or more of those layers. This means that you have to write for each line of music for each instrument with a great deal of care. This extra dimension in writing is both a technical and artistic challenge that is unique to games. Which do I prefer?…..I love the challenge of different mediums but really, I’m driven by great story telling and something that connects that connects to my soul.

Where do you find your inspiration when composing?

I ask myself this question often and it can give me great anxiety! I wonder why one group of notes sounds random and another group of notes is a great tune and I think it’s because there’s a moment at which the notes become greater than the sum of their parts. They’re not just notes, they suddenly have meaning. I wonder when I find it, if it had always existed or did I breath meaning into it and I really don’t know the answer to that but I think this is the moment of inspiration and I’m grateful that I continue to be able to find it.

What challenges does scoring music for a past historical setting present compared with a more modern setting?

For me, when it’s historical, I aspire to authenticity. In this case, it meant that I needed to research the music of the period and the instruments of the period. On Ghost, this ended up being a huge journey for me. I learnt about Japanese pentatonic scales, I learnt to play Japanese folk songs and listen to Shomoyo (Buddhist chants) and then spent time with masters of Japanese instruments learning how to write naturally for them. On this journey, I discovered a beautiful instrument called the Biwa in many ways this is the most war like of instruments as it was the instrument that Samurai learnt to play and on which they sang the tales of their exploits. The instruments used in the recording are all instruments that would’ve been around during the time of the invasion of Tsushima and the Buddhist monk chants, folk songs and other music that I took inspiration from would have existed at that time. I’m proud to say that there is great authenticity in the music.

Were any Japanese instruments used in the recording?

See above!

What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a project?

It changes from project to project. In this instance, as I said I was inspired by music of the period and instruments that would’ve been used. I also looked at Takemitsu as he combined Western symphonic music with traditional Japanese music and instruments to great acclaim in the latter part of the last century. But I also bring my own set of rules to a project. Over the last few years I’ve been writing in a particular way that uses layers of repeated motifs and melody and one of the reasons I chose this project is because I knew it would fit well into this current way that I like to create.

How much leeway do you have with the creation of the score or did the game’s producers give you the framework that you had to work in or was it more of a collaboration?

It was a total collaboration. Playstation and Sucker Punch admired particular parts of my work and gave me a tremendous amount of freedom to express myself. Whatever crazy plan I came up with, they were happy to support and explore it with me and for that I’m very grateful. However, it its a collaboration and so I must’ve written at least twice as many pieces of music as are in the game as many of them we decided together weren’t quite right for one reason or another.

What do you like to do when you’re not composing?

I like to cook and I like to go on adventures with my four year old daughter!

What else do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?

I will continue to have an enormous amount of fun writing music for the Sims but right now, I’m finishing work on the next David Attenborough TV show for the BBC. It’s called A Perfect Planet and is a really extraordinary piece of work. I can’t wait to be able to share it with the rest of the world! I’m also waiting for the pandemic to die down before going back on the road with my astronaut/space show Space Station Earth.

What can you tell us about composing for The Dark Pictures Anthology in terms of the challenges you faced and the approach you took?

Although it’s a great score and I’d love to do a project like that one day, it wasn’t me!

Looking back on your first game score until now; what would you say is the biggest thing you have learned about scoring games?

When I started writing Sims 7 years ago, I had to learn about the layered approach to writing that I described above but the best thing I’ve learnt is what an exciting and creative industry it is. I feel like we’re in an early golden age! The technology is developing and the possibilities are increasing, everyone I work with in video games is excited and up for exploring new ideas. It’s such a positive creative atmosphere and the fans are also incredibly generous and welcoming.

Does scoring a game change much from studio to studio or is the process fairly consistent?

I’ve only worked with EA and Sony and I’d have to say that it’s quite similar. The technical challenges are similar and the positive attitudes and creative freedom I’ve experienced have been similar. It’s always been a total pleasure and I hope to do more.