Sound, Memory and Environmental Awareness, An Exclusive Interview with Cheryl Tipp


Cheryl Tipp needs no introduction in this blog. She is a wonderful person, curator and researcher mainly focused on sound. She lives in London and currently works at the British Library doing curatorial work on nature sound, from where she has also created some publications and also collaborates in the Sound and vision blog. She has been involved with other interesting projects such as the editorial direction of the Caught by the River special on field recording released some months ago and is part of the awesome editorial team behind  The Field Reporter.

I wanted to talk with Cheryl time ago so it was wonderful to finally be able to share some words with such great woman, who shared for Sonic Terrain some of her ideas and approaches towards environmental sound, acoustic ecology and listening. Hope you enjoy it!

Cheryl, please introduce us to you and your work with sound. How did you get started and how has your career progressed?

I’m Curator of Natural Sounds at the British Library and have been working in the Sound Archive for just over eight years. My background is in Zoology, with a little bit of library experience thrown in there as well. These skills, along with a lifelong love of natural history, stood me in good stead when applying for the Assistant Curator’s position – that was my first role at the Sound Archive and I’m still amazed that I actually got the job, having had no previous experience with bioacoustics or indeed sound when I started. It’s impossible not to be inspired when working in this kind of environment and, though the learning curve was steep and difficult at the beginning, the Sound Archive has pretty much taught me everything I know. It has also given me the space and encouragement to develop my own interests within the field recording community.

Could you explain to us what your job as curator of wildlife sound recordings at the British Library involves? What kind of tasks and projects do you work on?

How long have you got! I’m responsible for the Library’s collection of wildlife and environmental recordings, along with a smaller collection of mechanical sounds, and this brings with it many different tasks. Unpublished recordings are at the heart of the collection and it’s my job to acquire and catalogue this material. We have around 160,000 unpublished catalogued recordings and this is constantly growing as more collections come in so I’m certainly kept busy. I’m also responsible for collecting commercially released material that fits within my area, either in the form of pure field recordings or more composed works. We’re able to chart the entire commercial history of recorded sound and it’s important that we maintain this coverage, especially given the explosion of digital releases. There will be gaps, of course, but no other institution in the world has such a comprehensive collection as the British Library. Other tasks include helping researchers with enquiries, providing copies of recordings for use in scientific, educational, artistic and commercial projects, developing our online collections, blogging, organising events, building relationships, publishing both written and audio publications and working on projects to enhance access and awareness of our collection. And anything else that comes along!

whatmattersnow_coverI can imagine how important it is for you to work on archiving sound data and recordings. I recently read a very interesting essay you wrote for “What Matters Now? (What Can’t You Hear?)” where you put forward some great thoughts about how sound archiving is important for retaining aspects of species that could later be driven to extinction. How important is that aspect of conservation in your work? Do you have more stories about that in your career as curator at the library and do you think there should be more people involved with this in different cities?

I think it’s incredibly important. It’s a depressing thought but species will continue to be driven to extinction, mainly because of the actions of the human race, for the foreseeable future. If we can record and archive the songs and calls of these animals then at least all is not lost. Physical specimens of course have their place in preserving the memory of a species but looking at a stuffed bird is not the same as listening to its song recorded in its natural habitat. There just isn’t that emotional connection. To give an example, the British Library’s Sound Archive has recordings of the last surviving K’auai O’o A’a, a songbird from the Hawaiian archipelago that was declared extinct in 2000. The male in the recording is singing to attract his mate, but unbeknown to him she had been killed in a hurricane the previous year. He sings and sings but never receives a response. It’s such a beautiful song and when you know the story behind it, that he was the last of his kind, you can’t help but be touched by this heartbreaking tale. There are various natural history sound collections around the world and I’m sure each one of them will have similar examples. And it’s not only species that face extinction. Whole habitats can be erased. We have examples in the collection of natural habitats that have since been eradicated by urbanisation. What was once thriving woodland is now a car park or a shopping centre and this has completely and irreversibly changed the soundscape of that space. Field recording seems to be an increasingly popular genre and I would encourage recordists, wherever they are in the world, to archive their material with a sound library so that these sounds can be preserved for future generations.

We’ve been approaching very critical points in the development of our society and the sustainability of the earth. How’s your take on ecology and what do you think we could do about it? Giving your focus on wildlife activity, what do you think about noise pollution and the sonic issues we have nowadays in the world?

I think noise pollution is becoming a huge ecological problem, especially for our marine wildlife. I’m no expert but it’s hard not to notice an increasing number of reports and papers that are revealing the impact of manmade noise on these animals. With this increasing awareness though comes hope. The more vocal people are about this unacceptable situation, the more industries and governments will be persuaded to do something about it.

cbtrI recently read a very interesting fanzine you curated with Caught by the River featuring such great artists and writings. Could you explain what we could find in it, how you developed it and what inspired you to create it?

I first worked with Caught by the River when they invited me to write a piece for their anthology ‘On Nature’ (Harpercollins 2011). Since then I’ve contributed material to their fantastic blog and took part in various events, most recently the Field Day Festival in London which was held in Victoria Park earlier this year. When Jeff Barrett invited me to guest edit a special field recording edition of their fanzine An Antidote to Indifference, I jumped at the chance. I’m lucky enough to know a lot of talented field recordists and sound artists and even more lucky that those asked all agreed to contribute original works! The rest of the content came from previous field recording / listening pieces from the Caught by the River blog. The fanzine is incredibly varied and includes pieces from Des Coulam, Mark Peter Wright, La Cosa Preziosa, Jez riley French, Rick Blything, Elin Øyen Vister, Ian Rawes and many more. From recording the urban sounds of Paris and London to field recording trips in Northern India and personal perspectives on field recording and listening, this fanzine should have something for everyone.

Does your interest in wildlife recordings come from a deep connection with animals and nature? What role does wildlife, specifically its sound, play in your whole life and is there any special emotional connection to what you listen to nature?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in nature. This love of the natural world goes right back to my early childhood. My Grandfather was a huge influence. He loved animals and some of that enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me. Summer holidays were spent on the south coast of England where my grandparents had a house – here we had access to both a nature reserve and a beach so I had plenty of opportunities to watch wildlife. I remember these times with a lot of fondness, especially as both my grandparents have now passed away, so yes I would say there is an emotional connection when I listen to nature, especially when I hear the sounds of the sea or the songs and calls of certain animals associated with coastal and wetland habitats.

And giving that perspective you have, how’s your interest in non-wildlife sounds such as urban places, machines, etc?

Over the last couple of years my interest in non-wildlife sounds has really grown. I was initially attracted to the sounds of nature but as I got drawn deeper into the world of field recording I discovered interesting sounds from all manner of sources. From Jez riley French’s wire recordings to Ian Rawes’ wonderful sounds recorded inside London’s Tower Bridge and Des Coulam’s evocative Parisian soundscapes, all capture my interest and have the ability to amaze and inspire me.

I wonder if you also record sounds by yourself or you’re only dedicated to other tasks, If so, how’s your approach to it? If not, why?

I have dabbled with field recording a fair bit but I’m nowhere near as accomplished as other recordists. I find that these days I enjoy taking more of a researcher’s role, immersing myself in discovering new works and keeping track of what everybody else is doing. I write a lot about sound recordings, mainly through my role with The Field Reporter, which I absolutely love. I’m also fascinated with the early history of sound recording, especially from a natural history point of view and am building up my knowledge in that area in order to fuel future writings. I want to share the stories of these early recording pioneers who are largely unknown within our community. Everybody knows about Ludwig Koch but what about Carl Weismann, Vic Lewis, Eric Simms, Sture Palmer and others? These are the people I want to research and celebrate as they deserve recognition. I’m sure I’ll pick up my recorder in the near future but for now I’m content with my writing and research.


How do you like to listen? Is there a way you have to listen sounds acting or placing yourself in your sonic environment? Do you have any special listening story would you like to share with us?

I’m always listening to my surroundings, whether it be in the countryside listening to birdsong or on the Underground listening to the musicality of escalators. I’m no longer physically able to switch off and block out the sounds around me. I guess that comes with the territory when working in a Sound Archive where being able to really listen is crucial. What I really enjoy though is group listening. I’ve both attended and curated organised listening events and I find that there is something special about listening as a collective. The shared experience is a very powerful thing. One of the most memorable listening events I attended was an evening organised by In the Dark. It took place in a tiny greenhouse in East London which could only hold about 12 people. The theme was gardens and the great outdoors so it was very fitting for this to take place in a greenhouse!

What about silence? Do you listen to “it”? What do you think about that concept/experience?

Is there such a thing as silence? Complete silence I mean. I don’t think I’ve ever come across it. Even when you think you’re surrounded by silence little snippets of sound will break through, for example the sound of your own breathing. I’m not interested in trying to find silence. I like quiet and the exploration that comes with this, the trying to focus on all the subtle sounds that are not immediately obvious to the casual listener. But not silence. That’s not for me.

Finally, could you recommend some sounds, places, field recording releases, labels, films, books and/or artists you personally think our community would enjoy?

It’s difficult to pinpoint any particular sounds or places but top of my list would be the British coastline. The sound of the sea is a wonderful thing and, together with the sounds of the various birdlife found there, creates a soundscape that I never grow tired of listening to.

Favourite labels include Impulsive Habitat, Green Field Recordings, Galaverna, Touch, Gruenrekorder and 3Leaves. The quality of both the audio, design and the overall curation is always top class. I also love the material being released by Very Quiet Records.

Books include David Hendy’s remarkable ‘Noise: a Human history of sound & listening’, ‘In the Field: the art of field recording’ and Ludwig Koch’s autobiography ‘Memoirs of a Birdman’.  I also loved Chris Yates’ ‘Nightwalk’ which, though not focused on sound, includes some wonderful descriptions of his sonic encounters during various nocturnal ramblings in the English countryside. It’s a beautiful collection of words and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in nature writing.

There are so many fantastic artists creating new work at the moment that it would be impossible to name them all. Following labels, reading blogs, speaking with friends and being part of field recording groups such as A Quiet Position helps me to keep informed with the latest goings-on in our community. There’s always plenty to explore.

Cheryl Tipp on Twitter

Sound and vision blog @ British Library

The Field Reporter

Miguel Isaza M

Listener, speaker.