Ilan Eshkeri is an award winning composer, artist, songwriter and producer. Eshkeri’s work is performed in concert halls, theatres, galleries, on film & television and video games; his eclectic body of work is linked by his love of narrative.

PlayStation contacted me about Ghost and at first I was reticent because I don’t like to work on projects that are just about fighting and blood. – Ilan Eshkeri

Recently he scored Ghost of Tsushima, a highly acclaimed game by Sucker Punch Productions. Here is what he told us about the soundtrack for this production. What brought you to score Ghost of Tsushima?

Ilan Eshkeri: PlayStation contacted me about Ghost and at first I was reticent because I don’t like to work on projects that are just about fighting and blood – not because I have a moral opposition to it but because creatively, artistically, I’m not sure how I connect to that. However what I found intriguing is that Playstation were interested in my score for a Shakespeare film called Corolanius. This was an art house film that I made with Ralph Fiennes (his directorial debut) and the score has a very unusual and singular sound world.

That PlayStation were interested in the niche bit of art I had made for their new triple A game had me intrigued so I went to Seattle to meet the team at Sucker Punch. They walked me through the story of Ghost in a multi-media presentation and by the end of it I was completely blown away. This wasn’t really a game about fighting, Ghost is the story of a man in emotional conflict forced to go against the training and morality of his past in order to save his home and the people he loves. Artistically and emotionally I knew this was going to be very inspiring. The game is set in an epic world of 1274 Japan. Are you interested in Japanese culture and history?

Ilan Eshkeri: I’ve always been interested in Japanese culture and history. I didn’t know about the invasion of Tsushima but I read a lot about it and because the team at Sucker Punch had an ambition for great authenticity, I decided to take on the same challenge with the music and spent a lot of time researching Japanese scales, folk songs, religious music and instruments of the era. It was a fascinating journey. I also worked closely with some great masters of Japanese instruments who very patiently answered my questions so that I could learn to write naturally for the instruments.

This wasn’t really a game about fighting. – Ilan Eshkeri The key part of the soundtrack are traditional Japanese instruments. Was it difficult to obtain and to record them? Were you given any advices by the composers/musicians who play traditional Japanese music?

Ilan Eshkeri: I met with a great professor of Japanese music, David Hughes, who is very well respected around the world and he was able to introduce me to some of the best musicians. He was also able to explain a lot about how to write for the instruments and guide me towards books to read but I learnt most from spending time with the players, asking them questions and having them explain how to write naturally for the instruments. However when it’s not your culture and language, there are many pitfalls.

Whilst learning to write for Taikos I discovered that there is a collection of specific set of sounds that they chant so I used these and placed them in rhythmic orders that I thought worked well for my piece. When we were recording the Taikos in Tokyo, half way through the ensemble burst into hysterical laughter – apparently the way that I had arranged these syllables sounded like a very rude word in Japanese. They were too polite to tell me what it was and very helpful in making an alternative suggestion. What was your intention in blending these instruments with a symphonic orchestra?

Ilan Eshkeri: The score was always about Japanese instruments and Japanese musical tonality. The melodies, scales and rhythmic motors I wrote are all created from Japanese pentatonic (five note) scales. Every part would be playable by traditional Japanese instruments. One of the major challenges however was that in feudal Japanese music there isn’t a tradition of chords so I needed to invent a system of chords that still had a foundation of authenticity so I built these by choosing notes from the pentatonic scales and applied this system across the score. The orchestra used for the score sounds amazing. Where was it recorded?

Ilan Eshkeri: I recorded with the same brilliant orchestra my whole professional life, they are the London Metropolitan Orchestra under the baton of Andy Brown. We recorded the music in the iconic Abbey Road Studio 1. I feel truly blessed to be able to regularly work with some of the greatest musicians in the world on one of the greatest and most famous stages. The other composer of the soundtrack, Shigeru Umebayashi, composed five suites used in the open world of the game. Were you in contact with each other, sharing some ideas?

Ilan Eshkeri: Ume and I once collaborated many years ago on a film called Hannibal Rising so I was delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate with him again. The way that Playstation wanted us to work was for us to focus on different areas of the game so there wasn’t much in the way of collaboration between us although we did share an incredible and memorable dinner in Tokyo together. I’m really pleased to be able to share a credit with Ume again. 

The purpose of music in any kind of story telling is to tell the emotional narrative. – Ilan Eshkeri The game tells a story of war and fighting for freedom. That can be heard very well in the score. What makes an interesting “battle music”, in your opinion? How to portray the conflict the best way?

Ilan Eshkeri: I must confess that I find writing action music a little tedious these days. Once you’ve written a couple of car chases and a couple of sword fights, they begin to feel quite similar. As I said earlier, that was part of my reticence about the game but in Ghost, the battles are filled with powerful and complex emotions and so I was able to write music that was not only energetic and aggressive but more importantly had substance and meaning. This was a great challenge and no more so than at one of the end fights. Without giving a spoiler, there is a fight towards the end of the game where I said to the guys at Sucker Punch, “When the gamer has this fight, they need to have tears in their eyes”. Trying to achieve this was one of the greatest challenges for me and I’m happy find so far from fan feed back that it has succeeded. The soundtrack to Ghost of Tsushima is also very emotional. Do you empathize with the characters of the game? Do you think conveying the character’s emotions through the music is important?

Ilan Eshkeri: The purpose of music in any kind of story telling is to tell the emotional narrative. Music describes what words can’t so conveying the character’s emotions is in my opinion the primary purpose of the music. It is difficult to empathise with an invasion, I’ve never experienced that although I heard many stories from my grandmother who was in the French Resistance against the invading Nazis. However the universal emotion that I think people connect to in Ghost is the idea of rebellion and uprising. We are living through one right now. Every younger generation at some point has fought for change against those that came before them, it’s part of the human condition and it’s what we see Jin struggling with throughout the game. 

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Executive Editor

Izabela Besztocha

Independent games enthusiast, mainly horror games, paying close attention to sound design. Dreaming of becoming a sound designer. Dissonance, distortion and other unpleasant sounds is what she enjoys to listen to most.