An Interview With Ghost of Tsushima Composer Ilan Eshkeri

If you have already played Ghost of Tsushima than you know it has some really, REALLY great music in it. Listening to ‘Jin Sakai’ playing as you ride through a pampas field at the start of the game is one of my favorite gaming moments in recent memory. Ghost of Tsushima takes inspiration from Japanese cinema notably Akira Kurosawa films such as Seven Samurai and Sanjuro. Video game soundtracks can be as evocative and detailed as those in films, offering powerful listening experiences on their own. With Ghost of Tsushima, Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru “Ume” Umebayashi, have created a masterclass in marrying music and plot. For real, they wrote a huge, insanely varied score, full of peaks and valleys, tiny incantations and gigantic set pieces. The best soundtracks are the ones I keep going back to and this one just can’t stop and won’t stop. I got a chance to interview Ilan Eshkeri and if I knew how much of a fan of robots he is, I would have at least mentioned that viral Robot vs Samurai video.

Ilan: Can I begin by saying that I absolutely love robots – I’m totally obsessed with them. I have a few and a robot mug and my daughter asked for a pink cuddly toy robot for her second birthday which I had to have specially made as because of ridiculous gender stereotypes there are no pink cuddly robots so I’m really excited to speak to you guys even though it’s not about robots.

Dagobot: I should have been more prepared (Ha!). Lets start with this, what first sparked your passion for making music?

When I was very young playing the violin (from the age of 4) I always saw colors when I heard the music. Later in life I realized that I have synesthesia and I realized there was a very powerful association between music and color for me. Anyway, at the start, when I saw these colors in my minds eye, they slowly formed into abstract stories around the pieces I was playing so I guess the combination of music and storytelling was always inside me.

Talk about some of your formative musical experiences?

My Mum played Chopin through her pregnancy and my early childhood – that music is ingrained in me. We always listened and played classical music growing up but then 80s pop music became a huge influence for my older brother. As teenage life approached, the music world exploded with NWA and Public Enemy and rap then became an important part of my life. I then got an electric guitar for my 13th birthday Iron Maiden and Metallica appeared. My musical taste was always diverse and eclectic and so the things that informed my own personal language of music are from all over the place.

What was the one score that really influenced you? What inspires you?

The first score I had on vinyl was Back to the Future. I love that music. It made me understand that classical music could be contemporary and cool but I also loved video game scores – Outrun of course springs to mind as well as Chucky Egg and so many more.

How many hours of Ghost of Tsushima music did you compose?

I composed so much more music than is actually in the game – this is always part of my process, writing lots to find the perfect thing. I couldn’t say how many hours it actually was.

What was it like working with Shigeru Umebayashi?

This is the second time that Ume and I have collaborated, the first time was over a decade ago on Hannibal Rising. Our work was more woven together when we did that – on Ghost, the production decided that they wanted us to focus on different areas of the game and that seems to have worked well! We spent some time in the studio together and had a wonderful dinner in Tokyo. I’m really proud to be able to share a credit again with a great master like Ume.

How does the collaborative composition process work for you?

Collaborations, whether it’s in composition or with producers or film makers, are all about connecting with the people you’re working with. If I don’t feel like I’ve got a good creative affinity with someone, even if I loved the idea of the project, I would have to say no to doing it.

What is your process of getting yourself into each distinct mindset of each project you take on?

It’s always about being emotionally engaged and the access to that can come in different ways. For me on Ghost it was a lot about researching the culture, learning the music and reading the stories. Researching the instruments lead me to find the underappreciated Biwa. The art of this instrument was almost lost but for one great master during the last century who taught a few people who still play it today and luckily, we were able to get Junko Ueada (herself a great master and very spiritual performer) to play on the score. I discovered that the Biwa was particularly relevant as Samurai used to learn it as part of their training and often sung their tales of their exploits with it. You can hear Junko performing this instrument in Heart of the Jito.

Along with your orchestral quality, your work has always had a strong sense of melody running through it? Is that an equally intentional stylistic choice?

For me, music is very much about melody. Its how I like to tell stories so although I could and have written textural music and sometimes it is what’s needed, everything I do has a memorable or catchy refrain even if it isn’t a melody. So I suppose that you could say it is an artistic choice.

What draws you into a new project? The alchemy of rich material or personal connection?

I have to feel a connection to both the project and the people I am working with. I often find that I am exploring certain musical ideas at different stages of my career so when I meet on the projects at the start, I tell them exactly what it is I want to do. I love collaborating but I’m never going to be a person who just does anything they’re asked to do. I’m always going to bring my own personal creativity the project.

Can you explain how you approach challenges of composing interactive music? For instance, in a non-linear game when music adapts to follow a player’s actions.

The interactive part of the music is almost like a third dimension for me. You don’t just think about the music in terms of time passing but you think of it in how all the different parts go together. Changes of intensity in the music can be achieved by elements dropping out or coming in. It’s a bit like a Big Mac – there are many layers and they all play an important part but are good on their own too. The biggest challenge though is that, like the brioche in the middle of a Big Mac, the middle bit for a piece of music can be there just as a filler (necessary but not that interesting) but in video game music that bit may be on its own so it has to be musical and interesting. You have to write every single line of music with great care and attention. This is both a technical and an artistic challenge.

When you do find the right sound, do you have to work closely with the studios/devs or do they trust in your vision?

Sucker Punch and PlayStation were incredibly generous with their trust in me. Whatever crazy idea I threw at them and believe me, there were quite a few, they were open to trying it out and this process lead to some really great creativity in the music that I’m very proud of and I’m really grateful to them for believing in me. It’s a really important part of the process.

What moment was the most difficult to compose for Ghost of Tsushima and why?

Without giving any spoilers, there is an incredibly important fight at the end of the game. I wanted the player to have tears in their eyes the whole way through this fight. The music is based on the main theme The Way of The Ghost on the album is called Sacrifice of Tradition – I’d love to know from those who’ve got that far in the game if it had that effect on them.

What is the most fascinating things you learned while creating the music of Ghost of Tsushima?

I learnt so much about Japanese instruments and how to write for them from the incredible players that I worked with and who were so patient with me and all my questions. I also learnt about Japanese scales, harmony, ancient folk songs, Shomiyo monk chants and Taiko drums. The tradition of Japanese music is rich and beautiful and I know that with all I learnt, I’m still only at the tip of the iceberg. I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity.

The official game soundtrack is available now on Milan Records – all digital platforms and as a two-CD set. A vinyl edition is also available for Pre-order.