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Interview with Tessa Elieff

by Jay Dea Lopez

Tessa Elieff works as a sound archivist and curator at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.When she is not archiving other people’s recordings Tessa works on her own sound practice. In the past year she has completed residencies in England and Italy, most notably working with Chris Watson to record the sounds of England’s northeast coastline.

This first interview with Tessa Elieff focuses on the importance of archiving sound files in the digital age. Tessa provides practical advice that is of great value to anyone working with digital media. The second half of the interview, to be posted later, centers on the value of artist residencies and Tessa’s own work as a field recordist.

Part I

Jay Dea Lopez (The interview began by asking Tessa to describe the range of recordings held by the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia, and if she could describe some of her favourites).

Tessa Eileff: It’s pretty vast. We have three curatorial sections specific to Sound (as a medium). These are Radio, Oral Histories and Recorded Sound. In addition to these, there are other areas that are not medium specific – but still include sound recordings for example, the Indigenous Collections Branch, Film and Television all include sound tracks, interviews and ethnomusicological field recordings.

I work in the Recorded Sound Branch so we cover all musical (and non-musical) genres as well as any other recordings that ‘don’t fit’. All the typical classifications of music can be found within the archive as well as the not-so-typical (and yes – it is these that really spark my intrigue).

Some memorable sounds and impressive body of works that I’ve stumbled across include the Australian folklore interviews conducted by Rob Willis and John Meredith – in particular – the conversation recorded between Rob and Emily Lyons (known as ‘Tookems’.) Tookems was born in Australia, 1923 to a recently-migrated Navajo mother and a Spanish father. She was adopted by the Lennon Bros Circus at the age of about 18 months at which, her training as an acrobat began. Her daily duties from the age of about 4 years, became feeding and caring for the animals (which she also slept with) as well as performing in the shows and general circus work. She describes her past as ‘a hard life’, but one she loved fiercely.

Other favourites of mine include wildlife recordist – Vicki Powys’s complete database (to-date. Still in the process of ingest), the Seb Chan collection (founder of the cult street magazine, ‘Cyclic Defrost’.) This includes various promotional materials – both hardcopy flyers, magazines, live footage and releases collected by Chan whilst he lived and worked in Australia and lastly, the electronic noodlings and tape explorations of physician and musician, Val Stephen. In the 1960’s Stephen presented the radio program, ‘Beyond the Fringe of Music’, which focussed on international developments in electronic music. He is largely considered to be Australia’s first released electronic music composer and his dabblings in audio tape and synthesised sounds are very satisfying to experience.

JL: Part of the role of any national archive centre is to preserve materials of cultural and environmental significance. Does the NFSA have recordings of animals, languages or technologies that are now extinct?

T.E: Yes we do. Regarding threatened species – we have a number of critically endangered species such as the Regent Honeyeater, the Helmeted Honeyeater and the Gouldian Finch. Extinct species’ that can be found within the archive include the Red-crowned Parakeet, the New Zealand Pigeon and the Southern Boobook (to name a few). These species-recordings can be found in the collections of wild life recordists such as Vicki Powys, David Stewart and John Hutchinson.

Regarding language – our most known material would be the wax cylinder recordings of the Indigenous Australian, Fanny Cochrane Smith. These include traditional songs, war chants and general language of the Tasmanian Aborigines as gathered around 1900 and are the only existing recordings of such.

The idea of ‘extinct technology’ to an archive poses an interesting paradox! Perhaps ‘obsolete’, may be a better term as I feel confident in speaking for all archives when I say we like to believe that there is no technology that we are incapable of preserving….. Actively using it though, is another matter…..

Some interesting examples of the above include wire recordings (most common around 1950) – whereby sound is (was) recorded onto spools of thin stainless steel wire. This was great for field recordists in that the physical medium is pretty hardy when comparing it to delicate wax cylinders or even audio tape. Carting it around – you did not have to worry about its fragility – weight however, was a concern. Whilst this technology is now obsolete – the NFSA has archived not only original recordings on the medium, but also the playback/recording machines by which to use them.

To be honest – I would say that any analogue audio technology is not at threat of extinction or inaccessibility in that, if the archive did receive a sound recording on a medium that we did not have a playback/recording machine archived for, then quite simply – our in-house technicians would build it themselves. While it may not be an authentic module – it would enable us to hear the material and access the physical format.

Digital content is another matter… As strange as this may sound – I would say that early digital formats make up the majority when looking at the list of ‘at-risk’ media.

J.L: At a time when global resources are being redirected away from the arts/humanities, could you describe the socio-cultural importance of having a national sound archive?

T.E: I think there are a few ways to approach this. Firstly, there is the consideration of learning from our past for the benefit of the future. Why sound (particularly field recordings) are so important in this regard, is that they capture a snapshot of an environment that reveals different aspects as to the visual. Increasing traffic noise and sound pollution are perfect examples of this. While a city may look beautiful – a simple recording can illustrate developments that are being tucked under the rug and/or living conditions that are deteriorating due to over development. These observations are also indisputable and a highly effective way of documenting the sonic shift and general decline of a landscape – natural or manmade.

In addition to these concerns of acoustic ecology, there is also the need to preserve, discover and enjoy our achievements in creative composition. An extremely effective way to know about ourselves as individuals and as part of a community is through our past and as we all know, we’re pretty savvy at expressing this through song and lyrics…. I firmly believe in learning about a civilisation not through the official text books written by academics and scholars, but by rummaging through the bits and pieces you can find directly from the people of the time. Their stories, their opinions provide an insight to our history that simply cannot be captured any other way. Some of the voices I have heard in oral history interviews have sent shivers down my spine… The second you lose that through interpretation you are ultimately diluting the source. Who knows what gems of sound are tucked away in the NFSA’s collection but for certain – there are works that are yet to be discovered – artists whose creative ideals have not yet been recognised and (wildlife) sounds that will become extinct, all cared for and waiting to be listened to by a future inquisitor.

In regards to the funding of any publicly owned and financed cultural institution – there will always be those who argue that we spend too much and those who argue it’s not enough. Some of us look primarily at the monetary value (how much could I sell this for?) and some of us believe that the value of these collections as a whole, are so complicated and great that they surpass any form of currency evaluation. I’m sure you know which camp you will find me in.

J.L: What are the inherent dangers in storing field recordings digitally? What would you recommend field recordists do to maintain the longevity of sound files?

If you look beyond the obvious concerns of accidentally wiping your entire personal archive with the click of the mouse or contracting a virus or file corruption or faulty hard drives, I would say that (in)correct management of metadata and ensuring that the details of material’s context and history are also preserved are two of the biggest dangers. For example – the situation is not uncommon whereby we receive reels of audiotape with minimal information provided by the donor. In this instance we often look at the physical item – the tape’s packaging and its canister. You would be amazed at the amount of information you can glean not only from reading scribbled notes on a cover, but also from assessing the general markings and wear and tear of the media itself. With digital – all these identifiers disappear leaving the onus (possibly) completely on the original field recordist to either enter this metadata manually or create a virtual note to accompany the files. Then there is the consideration that even if they do create a ‘notes’ document and even if they are conscientious enough to update it as their material develops (which at this time, it is not unusual for this to be forgotten or simply dismissed), there is no longer a ‘paper-trail’ of the changes. Handwritten notes regularly consist of crossed out items – general musings – rants and personal opinions – none of which you would think to put in an official document – which is how people view the notes they take the time to create virtually therefore, all this information that provides a wealth of insight to both the recordist and the material itself, is lost.

My starting advice would be the following

A)   Record at at least 24 bit/48k. At this point in time this is the industry standard for video production and television broadcast. I personally record at 24 bit/96k. You can always transcode down should you want a smaller file size and continued developments in audio technology are only raising our expectation of sound quality – not lowering it.

B)   Before you start recording, check the details on your recording device that will be stamped into the file’s metadata. Simple things like entering the correct date/time, setting the naming format and erasing old information that does not apply to the current recording are good habits to have.

C)  Always record to lossless format. I recommend .wav files as they seem to be the most commonly/easily handled. Do not use any ‘niche’ formats that can only be opened using selected operating systems both for audio files and text documents alike (I’m thinking of the Apple/Windows problems here…). Assume that any working sessions in proprietary software will be inaccessible in the future.

D)   Don’t be scared of the trusty pen and paper. Keep a small notebook handy to write down anything of note, regarding a certain file. This can be very handy for long recordings that are peppered with interesting sonic happenings. Noting the timestamp and the event’s details can make your life much easier later on – when hunting for those sounds or detailing your personal archive.

E)   Include virtual notes with all your recording sessions. Try to start them as soon as possible and if updating – I’d err on keeping the original text and adding the notes as required.

F)    Have at least three copies of your own archive, each on its own hard drive, in three different locations so if you are robbed/hit by a bus or suffer a faulty drive – you are well covered*. As importantly – make sure someone knows about them.

(Note* At this point in time I would not count ‘the cloud’ as a safe backup device)

G)  Lastly – if you want to preserve your legacy and ensure that it can be discovered by future enthusiasts, academics and practitioners enter your material into (inter)national and publicly accessible archives – the more the merrier. Submit high quality digital recordings if possible and include a biography as well as any other information that may be of interest. Whilst your work may not be hugely recognised at the time of your life, who knows what may happen after you pass….

(To be continued, Part Two of this interview, in which Tessa discusses the importance of artist residencies, will be posted shortly)

* Upper photo Tessa Elieff, photo by Daniela d’Arielli

Tessa Elieff website 1

Tessa Elieff website 2

National Film and Sound Archive website