T. Gowdy – Miracles (Constellation Records, 2022)

Constellation Records, the Montréal label indelibly associated with the Godspeed You! Black Emperor family tree, is still alive and well. GY!BE extended relatives like Fly Pan Am and Esmerine still comprise a portion of the imprint’s activity, but this is rounded out by the work of other artists, among them T. Gowdy, a sound producer/engineer and native Montréaler. For the record, The T. stands for Tim.

Gowdy’s name may not be household, but Miracles is a real treat. The basis for this album was an aborted multimedia project around the theme of video surveillance. Gowdy tells me that this project arose around 2016, in Berlin, where he was squatting in one of the recording studios in the Funkhaus – a cultural hub that developed out of an old building located in what used to be East Germany. “The walls still have wires and bugs everywhere,” he tells me. A friend suggested to him that he take analog audio equipment and connect it into video equipment, like old TVs and VCRs, via a video mixer. “The result was this kind of distortion to the image (even if there was no image, just blank) that became a fundamentally life changing moment for me. I went on to start performing audio visual sets using this technique. This is also known as glitch art, something I found out after a while.”

“Anyway, during this time in Berlin, I had some TVs but I had no source, like no video images. I wanted live video images.” He was also inspired by the unique hallways of the Funkhaus building, combined with its history of Soviet-era surveillance. “You’re floating on these massive floors filled with horsehair to combat mold. It feels like you are on a different plane, but just 30 years ago every move was being watched.”

In his travels, he happened upon the perfect resource: a building that was, as he puts it, “a graveyard for old video equipment in West Berlin.” There he picked up a few surveillance cameras, which he connected to his computer via long cables. The idea was to collect this surveillance footage – audio and video – which he could then use to create sound art in a collaged, musique concrete vein. “The video feed was definitely driving the feeling of the sound,” he reflects. “It was sparse and minimal, no beginning or end, kind of ominous, distorted.”

When he returned to Montréal in 2017, he continued to experiment with surveillance footage. Using a video mixer, he would have video footage playing in one channel of his video mixer; however, in the other video channel, he would instead run audio data, which would lead to a distortion of the final image. He sourced his surveillance footage himself, recording video from archetypally urban locations: an underpass, a subway station, the exterior of an office building.

He produced music as a soundtrack to these surveillance collages, which became the initial version of Miracles, though at the time he spelled it “Miraclz.” “These audiovisual pieces captured an essence of something,” he explains. “At this point I was becoming more and more obsessed with the current landscape of surveillance. How it used to be considered, 20 to 70 years ago, an ominous thing but now surveillance is functioning part of the way we relate to one another socially and economically. It’s the foundation of so many things. Algorithmically, watching, listening, packaging, selling, helping us to make our lives easier, connecting.” Some of this project can be seen in a 2018 performance he did for Montreal’s electronic festival, MUTEK:

After this, however, he shelved this project until 2021, when he stumbled upon it while he was experimenting with vactrols, an electronic component that is used in modular analogue synthesizers. This occurred at a time when he was spending time with his friend, visual artist Laura Buckley, who unfortunately passed away this year. They were experimenting with an old camcorder she owned. “We found some old tapes of her using the camera in like the nineties to record some guys building a theatre set,” he says. “There were sparks everywhere it looked really good on the LED screen monitor of the camcorder. This I think played a big part in my new experiments. I wanted to get closer to the sound of electricity and use it musically.”

Gowdy explains that vactrols are “basically frequency filters that open and close very quickly when they hear an impulse. They open and close very quickly because there is a light detector. The impulse can be from anything and when it strikes, the vactrol closes giving a very woody percussive sound. They can open and close so quickly that it sounds like electricity to my ears. Or more like the envelope and speed of electricity with the timbre of wood.”

To create the final Miracles, he took sound from his original Miraclz work and ran it through the vactrols, making them “into woody sparks,” as he puts it. The woodiness indeed comes through, for example in the clipped, thudding rhythms of “Vidisions”. The album also often has a digitally fuzzy sound, like a tenth-generation digital photocopy – a screenshot of a screenshot of a screenshot, ad infinitum. It’s an aesthetic not far from touchstone works like Alva Noto’s Xerrox series and, yes, William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (which is doomed to be perpetually invoked in these cases). Miracles’ main focus is its engrossing synthesized sound, but Gowdy explains there are traces of the audio from the surveillance footage buried within.

Miracles is not the only Gowdy work with a concept revolving around technology. His last album, Therapy With Colour, was based on an unusual device called a sound mind machine, a pseudoscientific apparatus that emits pulses of sound, purportedly to alter the listener’s brainwaves. This has been coopted by charlatans who have marketed them as everything from meditation aids to quick “home hypnosis” solutions for medical illnesses and underwhelming love lives. Though Gowdy doesn’t endorse any of these metaphysical properties, he does tell me that Therapy With Colour was inspired by a positive experience with a sound mind machine. “I discovered the mind machine at [singer/songwriter and Majical Cloudz frontman] Devon Welsh’s mother’s house in San Francisco, while I was on tour playing guitar for his solo project,” he says. “I just put on the headphones and started zoning. I found it to be a useful experience because it could, in a very primitive way, affect the direction of your thoughts. I had been looking for a way to disassociate myself from patterns in my life. The experiments with the sound mind machine showed me that I could disassociate from thought patters by subjecting myself to minute rhythmic shifts, dissolving perceptions. I wanted to direct an album with this in mind.”

One can see a connection between Therapy With Colour and Miracles, in that both records explore highly specific technologies using electronic music. Both are worthy of your attention: they are not excruciating conceptual exercises, but absorbing and compelling digital collages that tickle the brain.

Miracles can be sampled, and purchased at T. Gowdy’s Bandcamp page.

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