Julian Glander is a master of calibration: He knows just how far to go before something he’s making becomes too much. The 3D animator and self-proclaimed “art guy” recently released Art Sqool, a game in which a bespectacled freshman completes homework assignments for an A.I. neural network—who serves as a disembodied faculty advisor—on a campus of floating islands, pastel structures, and lumpy flora, aloft in a purple cloud sea. Art Sqool is an objectively beautiful game, made more so by the serene and captivating soundtrack, which happens to be Glander’s first: it was recorded entirely by himself in one day.
“The last game I put out didn’t have any music, and I was kicking myself because it seemed like a really big missed opportunity,” says Glander, whose animation shorts (some of which have ended up on Adult Swim) often include sing-song-y modulated dialogue and rubbery synth sounds. “I wouldn’t say I’m a musician because I’m not very good at playing instruments. It’s more like I’m running my own little Disney here, where I’m doing everything.” (And just in case you were wondering, no, he didn’t go to art school.)
For the first round, Glander set out with the simple intention of recording musical snippets for the various paint brushes acquired by the player’s character, Froshmin, which are needed to complete the game’s various tasks. Instead of an assemblage of one-offs, though, he wound up with one giant file. Musician or not, he didn’t want to let this cohesive body of sounds go to waste—so, after extracting the necessary sound effects from the file, he went on to carve out 15 distinct songs that would serve as the game’s official soundtrack.
Aside from the hilarious vignettes in which Froshmin sings about specific situations—lamenting their decision to pursue the arts, or leaving voicemails for their mother—the swelling, dreamy soundscapes that make up this album could easily be shuffled into a compilation of Japanese shoegaze and post-rock. This is precisely what Glander was listening to as he designed the Art Sqool prototype. The beats come courtesy of GarageBand’s automatic drummer, synth sounds flutter in randomized arpeggios, and the guitars are completely fuzzed out. “Fuzzy Dinky” sounds like a lost Mogwai B-side, and “C.L.O.U.D.S.” a playful remix of some unheard The xx song. The sparse vocals are generated by Vocaloid, as is signature to Glander’s work.
Much of the soundtrack hits the exact right moment between music and noise that allows the listener to float on the cumulative wave of sound being created, while simultaneously following each individual note’s randomized scamper. The listening experience, for all its manufactured trappings, unfolds meditatively, almost rainfall-like.
Glander carries over this masterful calibration to his visual work as well, as seen in his stylized, squishy .gifs, which he often over-pixelates for a glittery, uncanny effect. That impulse testifies to Glander’s celebration of GarageBand—a medium notoriously scoffed at by music snobs—as well as his tendency toward humor, which is often maligned in the world of fine art.
“I think most people have this attitude that when they go to a museum they actually do want to see work that’s funny,” Glander says. “Like Dave Shrigley or Jenny Holzer are really funny, but it’s in a way where it’s not really a joke, it’s that there’s something kind of off-putting about it, so it has a little bit more staying power.”
Attempted by anyone who doesn’t value the possibility of being off-putting, a heavily computer-generated soundtrack for a game about the ubiquity of computers might come off as on-the-nose or, perhaps worse, insincere. But Art Sqool and its soundtrack, like most of Glander’s work, is so explicitly and earnestly silly that to dismiss it as such would be to become the butt of the joke.
Perhaps as a direct result of the inherent accessibility that comes with being explicit, Glander’s music is also bizarrely intimate. The emotional resonance of the soundtrack is only heightened by Art Sqool’s gameplay, in which the player comes to realize—through the absurdist struggles of making art for a chaotic A.I. interface—that art is best made to delight oneself. Keeping those themes in mind, it’s difficult to view the project as anything else than an audiovisual extension of Glander’s own delight: a labor of love, a staying life-lesson, and a loopy cartoon, all at once.