Music

Games composer, teacher, broadcaster and critic Dan Golding balances his different worlds in a chaos of creativity. By Kate Holden.

Dan Golding

Dan Golding’s studio and workspace.
Credit: Dan Golding

The very industrious Dan Golding is probably best known to the public for his weekly Screen Sounds radio program on ABC Classic, in which he showcases recent and beloved soundtracks to films, television shows and video games. He also co-hosts a film music podcast, Art of the Score, as well as giving pre-concert talks at performances by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

His expertise in music is not purely scholarly: Golding is also an ARIA-nominated composer, mostly for games and podcasts. His work with games extends into expertise on all matters gaming. Golding directed the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne for three years, and has written long-running and award-winning games columns. More recently, he wrote the music for the international indie megahit Untitled Goose Game. The soundtrack itself was released as an album early last year and burned up the classical music charts.

Golding also presents video essays on film and music, and teaches screen studies, TV, film and game topics at Swinburne University of Technology. He is the author of two books, Star Wars after Lucas (2019) and (with Leena Van Deventer) Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the Fight for the Future of Videogames (2016) and is only getting busier. He lives and works in Melbourne.

Your weekly soundtrack show on the ABC has just finished, so is it time for a glass of wine and a sigh of relief?

Er, maybe… It’s a pre-record, which I make here; I haven’t been in to the ABC for a year. I’m working pretty much all from home, yeah. This room is now a lecture theatre, a radio studio, my music-making studio and [for] all the other things that I do. I don’t really mind working from home so much, it’s just that the hours of work have ballooned. I’ve taken on being deputy chair of my department which is great because I can fight for my colleagues, but it also means I have very little time to do anything.

I keep interviewing people who are doing about 15 different creative forms… Good grief, how do you fit it all together, are you a compartmentaliser?

Increasingly I have to base the uni stuff as the central priority, especially on a weekday, and then everything else fits around that. Back in the before times I would go in to the ABC for half a day a fortnight to do the show. Music, to me, that’s a totally different brain space. It’s still weird to me that it’s become a professional activity, because it still seems like it’s just fun leisure-time.

The idea work is something that takes something from you; pay is the compensation for that loss … If you’re an artist, presumably you enjoy it. Is that why we’re all so badly paid? And what happens when you turn it all into your job, and you have to keep producing, on deadline?

I’m sure I’ve heard people joking on that idea of “teach a man to fish…”; well, “teach a man to turn his hobbies into a job and he’ll never enjoy leisure again!” As I’m playing a game or watching a movie, at the back of my mind is: oh, I might be able to use this for a lecture! There might be a case study or an article about it! Which makes the lines – which are already really hard to draw between academic life and life – a little more difficult to find.

As to deadlines, with writing I never had a problem: I don’t know if that’s a bad thing to say! I think it’s partly to do with the sheer repetition. I had a weekly column for five or six years and at the start, it took a week to come up with the idea and write it; by the end, it was more like 45 minutes. Music is interesting, I do get music-writer’s block. It’s a totally different part of my brain. It’s more of a collision between the tools – a keyboard or an instrument – and me.

I’m curious about you working with both words and music. When I write I hear a voice in my head, and I’m also quite musical. Are you like that, or are they really different brain spaces, as you say?

For writing, if I have the first couple of sentences then I sit down and I’m away. Even with academic work, I wrote the bulk of one book in six weeks. It’s like, once you push me to the top of the hill I just keep going. With music I dunno, it’s more of that collision with the tools: the keyboard doesn’t quite do what I wanted, but it might do something I didn’t expect…

Are you a boffin? Do you love the kit?

Ha, I do wonder how I’d go with music before this technical era. The music I did for the Untitled Goose Game, I feel that’s really more of a technical achievement: we use Debussy’s music, I wasn’t writing live, but largely I was arranging. But then it became the creative-technical problem of how to take a piece of 100-year-old music and turn it into something that works with a video game and reacts to what a player does et cetera. And I’m an okay pianist but there’s no way I can play something as complex as Debussy! An online festival asked me recently to play it live for their streaming and I was like, argh, there’s no way that I can perform this live. I would need years of practice.

So you’ve literally got this all set up in your room.

Here’s my keyboard, covered in academic books; my radio microphone; and then I’ve also got a few instruments. I should say, with all those lovely amazing instruments, I play all of them, to the degree that I can fool someone who doesn’t play them. But I play very few of them to the degree that I could fool someone who does!

So how about bad days and obstructions?

I don’t really think too much about creative mistakes or bad days. It almost sounds conceited, but I don’t really feel fazed by that stuff, it’s more about just having the time. Obviously I’m a chronic overworker, but if I’m really into an idea and I want to get it right then – whether it’s writing, or music, or video-editing – I’ll stay up till six in the morning until it’s done.

How luxurious!

It’s a privilege, I know. But I have meetings at 9am every morning this week. I’m starting to track what I do every day on a spreadsheet. So every day I write in, yep, one hour, writing some music… or, “I spent six hours in meetings today”! And, you know, I don’t think any artist gets into doing their art because they enjoy admin.

Now, whenever I have time to do the thing that needs to be done, I do that. It all feels like a weird soup to me, but it does come together sometimes. Late last year I did a public talk, submitted an article, gave a lecture, and one of the radio shows, all in one week, all about silent cinema, and so it’s like radio work, creative work, academic work: all one and the same – and I was like, I finally did it! 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "Dan Golding".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.