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 is Part Two of an interview with sound archivist and field recordist Tessa Elieff. In the previous post Tessa outlined some issues relating to the preservation of sound files. Her advice was pertinent to anyone working in this domain. In this final instalment Tessa talks about her own work, the thought processes involved behind her recordings, and the worthiness of art residencies.
J.L: You recently worked with Chris Watson in a field-recording project along England’s northeast coastline. What was the purpose of the project and what did you learn from working with Watson?
T.E: The purpose was to focus on my skills as a field recordist and develop them over an intensive with (Master) Watson. We discussed the plans for over a year before I finally travelled to England and we met in person. I first met Chris in 2009 during one of his visits to Australia. I had been practising field recording seriously for about two years at that stage and was really looking for a teacher to help me reach a work calibre that honoured the art and the craftsmanship. Chris was encouraging and seemed to understand my fanaticism. It then took me 7 years to reach such a level in my work that I felt I could contact him again and ask if he remembered me. Luckily, he did and so the discussion began. Over a period of more than 12 months, we chatted about ideas – my interests – what we could record and why.
It soon became apparent that the intensive would include more than just the practical of field recording – it would/did include the ethos and thought processes behind the act itself. Reflecting and acknowledging the choices you make in regards to ponderings such as selecting recording sites – when to visit them and why – what you hope to capture – what this means to you – how it connects to the listener. The intensive was almost equal part, field recording and history lesson. Each place we visited to record had a story to it which Chris would tell before we reached the location. I arrived thoroughly prepped, mentally, spiritually and technically – to complete the task.
Then of course – there is the unspoken role of the field recordist to consider. The best field recordists (in my opinion) are the ones that disappear. They need to be invisible at the time of recording yet still be master of their practice. Chris Watson certainly got me on the path to considering not just the practical but also the spiritual role of the craft and how to reflect this in your work. THAT is the difference between holding a microphone and hitting record just to record (which has its time and place) and selectively sculpting your work before you even hit that button.
J.L: You have been involved in several residencies abroad. What is the value in participating in residencies? What have been some of your personal recording highlights while abroad?
T.E: I’d say the most obvious value would be to participate in the international community that supports my practice and to ensure that Australia has a presence here. Being physically so far removed from Europe and the UK can leave you feeling isolated as an artist and I think it’s imperative that Australia keeps the path of opportunity open between us and the ‘other sides’.
In regards to the individual, I’d say that residencies are essential in ensuring that your work keeps up with the international stage, both in quality and in validity. Nothing snaps your creative weaknesses into focus sharper, than presenting in a different country, to a local, unknown audience that is educated in your areas of practice. Sometimes the warm words of praise from your associates back home hinder you rather than push you forward.
In general, I would say that residencies are a baptism of fire all artists must experience if they want to work with the creative community outside of their backyard. Some of the hardest aspects are the logistics and learning how to juggle these demands whilst remaining calm, creative, productive and congenial. If you can achieve that there’s a good chance a wealth of opportunities will open up to you. Then, it’s a matter of navigating them and finding the ones that you believe are best suited to your work (and can afford…).
My recording highlights would have to include creeping around in the dark – through the night at le Abbaye Noirlac in central France. As much as I told myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, I couldn’t quite feel comfortable. It was a perfect headspace for recording the clunks of turning keys and shifting locks as well as groaning doors and creaking steps. At around 7pm, everyone would have left, the lights would be turned off, I was given the keys and left ‘till the morning. The natural reverberation of the space was poetic – really breathtaking and the sounds came to life when left in solitude (cue, my recording time).
One of the most recent experiences would be a field recording I gathered in a wheat field at sunset/early dusk, in Southern Italy – at the base of the mountains to be found near Castel del Monte. The day had been spent winding through the narrow roads, in-between mountains in rural Italy our task – to visit the gentle farmers and cultivators of the land that lived in the areas. My focus was on their harvests – the ritual of the process – their family history related to the practice and how this translates to their life today. The local shepherd owned the last farm we visited. We were met by Claudio, his 23-year-old son (the size of a mountain himself). He welcomed us with a shy nod and very few words. The first field we visited was easily accessible. As long as you kept an eye on the 40-odd wild boar that were nearby there were no real problems. As remote as the land is – I am still plagued by overhead traffic – the ominous drones of unseen crafts are too large in the sonic scape for my liking.
A few quiet words in Italian to Claudio and we got in the car to follow him. We stopped by the front gate, near a solitary stone building. Claudio disappeared inside and reappeared with four wheels of cheese – each, big enough to be too large for him to grasp in his giant hand. They were made by his family and often traded for use of land to graze their sheep on. He handed them over with a smile, we jumped back into the car and continued.
After almost an hour, we emerged from the tight folds of the land, spilled into a valley nestled at the skirts of the enormous mountains whose gaze we’d been working under. Apart from a rough wooden shack, there was no one and nothing that hinted at civilisation to be seen or heard. At my request, my companions loaded into the car and ceased talking. I was granted a window to record through. The sun was falling; it was cold, light shifted from yellow to a surreal lilac that permeated from the earth and sky. I walked into the field, touched the boom pole to the ground and lowered myself, disappearing into the stalks that were tall enough to brush my forehead.
It took a little time for the habitat to settle after our disruption but slowly it came to life. There were two birds, one on either side of the valley – calling to each other in rhythm. They didn’t sound at the same time – they didn’t interrupt each other’s message. One called, there was a pause, a careful listening, and then the other responded. The spacing allowed each note to truly ring within this private chamber. Natural reverb and a slight delay echoed from one end to the other.
The recording itself is as modest as the environment it came from. It’s a natural beauty that best sinks in over time spent in its presence. It took nearly the entire trip spent in Italy, to reach this place and find this sound and once that I’d caught it, I could leave.
J.L: How have these experiences broadened your understanding of field recording and the sonic arts? Have you noticed a greater appreciation towards field recording in certain countries?
These experiences have definitely made me aware of the many ways that field recordings can be (and are being) used and subsequently, how I myself want to use them in my own work.
I will be honest here. There have been positive and negative experiences in this regard and during my travels I have found myself feeling begrudgingly protective of the art form. I think field recording as part of a creative practice, is growing in popularity. With the increasing international concerns regarding our natural environments, wildlife and rural communities, field recording is really coming into its own and being exercised in new and traditional ways and this is exciting – don’t misunderstand me. It is somewhat of a relief to be able to share this way of working with others and the knowledge exchange and community support is absolutely priceless in this regard. It is a solitary practice and connecting with other lone-rangers can help keep your feet on the ground!
What I feel conflicted about is the instances when the work appears disingenuous. Sometimes I worry that it is becoming too faddish and that the quality of work associated with the practice is not being honoured as it should; that people are viewing it in a very shallow way, not caring about the many layers to the work methods, merely hitting the record button so that they can coin the title, ‘Field Recordist’, in an application. So I guess what I’m saying is in my opinion, yes – the sonic arts related to field recording is exploding BUT, I think we still have a way to go in appreciating/understanding the value of sound as a medium and treating it with the same regard as others.
Having said all that – I have come across some startling instances of artists and curators developing projects that honour sound in the most sensitive and astute ways. One of my favourites would be the work of the travelling artist group, ‘ZUR’ (http://www.groupe-zur.com) particularly, their work, ‘point de suspension’. This included giant and small icicles hung from great heights, slowly melting over time – the water dripping onto plates, tins etc. below. The rooms these were in were flooded with natural light and live acoustics. As the day progressed, they morphed and changed, as did the sounds. It was very simple but had an instant impact on the listener – it captivated your attention visually, sonically and mentally. This was in France and I must say that the appreciation of the sonic arts that I experienced whilst in the country was impressive. In regards to field recording specifically, I would say that it was a common term in England and in that sense, yes – they do hold the practice in considerable regard. Proof of this can be seen in their communities such as the Wildlife Sound Recording Society, the British Library Sound Archive’s wildlife recordings collection and individuals such as Chris Watson.
* Upper photo Tessa Elieff, photo by Daniela d’Arielli