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



Habitats for metal plants
(Linear Obsessional 2014)

Review by David Vélez


‘Habitats for metal plants’ is a release based the humorous existence of metallic plants in Great Britain.

From the liner notes

‘Plants growing in these environments have, by means of Darwinian natural selection coupled with sheer determination to survive, managed to incorporate various metals into their very DNA. The resulting species display a variety of features only made possible at the point where biology and metallurgy combine.’


‘Abandoned Magnesium Works, Hartlepool’

This piece presents a metallic quality reminiscent of previous Whitehead works. The clanking, rattling and droning sounds lead the listener to a somber path where scale and resonance acquire gigantic proportions. By minute 5′ the piece enters a new stance where the sense of of scale varies drastically. On minute 5′ a series of harsh and noisy textures emerge establishing a microscopic and detailed perception of things. By minute 7′ the large scaled metallic sound return. In addition the sounds of voices and construction machines join the composition creating a horizon where ‘reality’ and illusion blend.

Although the premise of the release is humorous the pieces present a serious and deep listening experience with the exception of piece number three, ‘Trainsition’, which by combining a mouth harp and recordings from a social gathering, achieves some sort of ‘funny’ sonority.

‘Derelict Ball Bearing Factory, Sheffield’

The second piece seems to be less about matter and more about electronics, here we can perceive sounds produced by static and distortion, By minute 2′ a tonal sonority emerges like an emotional aura that takes over and then fades away. By minute 3′ the pieces changes drastically as they enter sounds produced by human voices and what seems like human activity -dragging, throwing-. By minute 5′ we can listen to more ‘musical sounds’ and specifically a drone that sets the mood for the piece. Later we get to listen to something that sounds like a violin mixed with drones and, again, human voices. This model continues and develop until minute 10:30 where some deaf and repetitive sounds arise to just disappear in a similar way than the engine of a car strops running.


The combination of a mouth harp and voices in this piece has a funny thing to it that makes sense with the whole premise of the work.


As someone who writes reviews of sound art and experimental music I am often exposed to new releases all the time. Releases submitted by new labels, through new means of distribution and by new artists presenting new new approaches… I think that the listener often has the sensibility and time to only focus on a few works and artists, and still he will recognize certain elements and approaches that will interest him more than others within the same body of work or even within the same piece.

I have been following the work of Chris Whithead for some time and when you sum his releases, as a listener, you can clearly perceive a formal direction, you tell the kind of formal questions that he is making. But here in particular one can perceive new approaches and questions. Through many points I noticed a greater emphasis on the isolation of certain individual sounds. I recognized too a very rewarding interest in melodic and harmonic patterns and in more musical sonorities in general . I could also tell a more experimental approach to the medium showing a developing interest in noise and distortion.


Subjectively speaking ‘Habitats for metal plants’ stands out because a very fortunate ‘cinematic’ narrative sense that I found on it and that I highly welcome. The sonorities and structure make me feel in front of a movie and more specifically in front of an avant garde film that presents a series of very odd and bizarre actions and images randomly linked and using a highly encoded and hidden symbolism full of appeal and meaning.



[Chris Whitehead]

Chris Whitehead website
Linear obsession website


(Kaon 2014)

 Review by Cheryl Tipp

‘Terraform’ is the latest incarnation of the Taurion River, a body of water in France’s Limousin region that has formed the backbone of Kaon’s ongoing La Rivière series. Inspired by a collection of field recordings made by Cedric Peyronnet, this project has seen various sound artists pick up the acoustic gauntlet and create new compositions using Peyronnet’s archive as a starting point.

Jay-Dea Lopez is the latest artist to fall under the spell of this watery muse. With ‘Terraform’ he has created a piece that resonates with a kind of primal energy, reflecting the response of Lopez’s imagination on listening to the original recordings.

I imagine two parallel worlds, one at the end of its days and the other at its birth; both lie in darkness, cold winds swirl over rocky terrain. We move between the two, witness to a beginning and an end.  

A systolic-diastolic rhythm is a unifying feature of the work,  fading in and out as the composition progresses. Reminiscent of a beating heart, it feels as if we are tapping into the very life force of the river. In between these almost intimate moments, other sounds come to the forefront. Snippets of birdsong gradually materialise, showing us that the river is part of something more. A Blackbird sings, claiming his piece of the Taurion Valley. Perhaps he will raise a family there. Insect-like drones come and go, taking their place alongside the intermittent, pulsating  cadence.

The overall feel is one of uncertainty and transition, a shifting conscience that is neither based in one place or the other. It’s interesting to note that ’Terraform’ was partially composed during a residency in Estonia, 13,000km from Lopez’s home in Australia. I ask myself “How does place affect the creative process? “. A feeling of unfamiliarity and displacement, experienced by Lopez at the time, seems to have fed into his composition. At the same time this is joined by a sense of adaptation, anticipation and change, mirroring his adjustment  to new surroundings. This conjecture seems to fit with Lopez’s own description of his imagined Taurion world.

La Rivière is an exciting project which can only grow in stature as more artists lend their talents to the mix. With ‘Terraform’ Lopez has cemented his position in the Taurion hall of fame with a composition that is fresh, well-balanced and unmistakably him.


[Jay-Dea Lopez]

Jay-Dea Lopez website
Kaon website



Le Cébron / Statics and Sowers
(Aussenraum Records 2014)

Review by Chris Whitehead

I like surfaces. They make things what they are and without them we can’t have depths, because to be deep is to be a long way from the surface in a downward direction, and we need a point to measure from. Surfaces are boundaries between different states of being. The ice on a frozen lake is solid and it divides the gas above and the liquid below and it glints in the winter light and it creaks as the wind buffets it.

The 12″ circle of vinyl that these sounds are embedded in is itself a round lake surface, because it is opalescently ice coloured. A translucent cypher for the subject matter within. Indeed my copy has a dark line running through the material from the outer edge to the central hole, making the record a picture of imminent fracture, of breakage and fissure, like a crack from the perimeter firing through to the core.

In the apprehending of le Cébron (musique concrète du dehors), named after the lake on which it was made, the surface feels tense as a drum skin, stretched and taut as it responds to the actions of Sylvain, Phillipe and Julien – credited here for ‘crashing the ice’. At times sounds reminiscent of those produced in recordings of wire fences or sprung metal are created. The brittleness and hardness of this frozen medium highlights the solidity of it, and yet the ease with which it is broken points out its impermanence. Without doubt it will become thin, disseminate and dissolve into a fluid state with the passage of time.

In small detonations of crackling animation, shards splinter and slide and sprawl and unfold and abrade against each other across the stereo field. Attack and decay made tactile.

Thomas Tilly has angled the work to reflect the truth that this frozen water is completely dependent on the liquid beneath on which it floats and the air above remaining cold enough to sustain it. As ice is forcibly broken the water under it readjusts itself after the trauma by gurgling and trickling back to its predetermined equilibrium again. In the air above waterfowl call quietly in the gently shifting air.

With each side of vinyl devoted to a single track, the second composition, Statics and sowers (for Zbigniew Karkowski) walks the ephemeral tightrope between the worlds of insect produced sound and electronic emission. It has always been a mainstay  of the lazy reviewer to equate the clicks and glitchery of electrons coursing through silicon components to the scrapes and buzzes of insects’ beating wings and rhythmic abrasions. There is a tension between these sounds. Tilly plays with the tension and avoids getting stung.

Immediately the record begins spinning we are dropped into a maelstrom of buzzing bees, a cricket-like clicking forms from below and exists for a while as a symbiotic factor. Oh yes, we are certainly in thrall to the laws of the apian colony, but as if leaking through the hive walls electrical manifestations creep in. Like the free scrawl and crosshatching of Jean-Luc Guionnet’s drawings which adorn the cover, hive life is busy and highly kinetic.

After some time a drop into a plasma field occurs and the insects circle the outside but are never let in. Clouds of luminous vapour and bristling molecules float impermanently. They fade. Their existence is brief. The bees return.

Throbbing obliteration occurs later, suddenly and loudly in a fluctuating and deep envelopment. A connection is broken after several minutes of heavy vortex and with a final glitch-burst the clear air returns. All that remains is the lingering of background static, a few trails of fading squall and of course the bees.

Aussenraum only release vinyl and they do it with great thought, and removing this artefact from the turntable I’m reminded again of the frozen lake. The record is ice, a frozen lake. But outside the sun is shining, and a bee is noisily arguing with the glass in the window. I open the window slightly and carefully guide it out. I watch it fly over the fence and across the street and finally disappear.


[Thomas Tilly]

Thomas Tilly website
Aussenraum website



Exchange between Richard Pinnell and Patrick Farmer

PDF download

Richard Pinell’s The Watchful Ear
Patrick Farmer website



MONTE ISOLA -Myriam Pruvot-
(Wild Silence 2013)

Review by Flavién Gillie

L’île est la figure centrale de cet album paru sur le label Wild Silence.

Pour une raison sémantique tout d’abord, ainsi le projet Monte Isola de Myriam Pruvot est le nom d’une île italienne. Puis d’un continent à l’autre, cette création sonore doit son nom à un séjour sur île chilienne, Niebla en est son nom.

Dès la première piste du disque Myriam Pruvot nous plonge dans une ambiance portuaire, mais loin de s’en tenir à l’enregistrement de terrain, elle évoque avec brio ses souvenirs sonores et leur adjoint des strates, boucles de guitare pour mieux les magnifier.

On se trouve dès lors dans une géographie délicate, un va et vient maitrisé entre le lieu tel qu’il a été vécu et son interprétation intime que l’artiste nous en donne à entendre.

Chaque plage du disque est une archive de cette vie insulaire, nocturne sans doute quand seul le ressac fait grincer un bateau et qu’au loin on entend quelques chiens, le chant de Myriam Pruvot pourrait avoir été enregistré en direct qu’on n’en serait pas étonné, on l’imagine voyageuse sans sommeil, offrant ainsi à l’île son écho de chants issus d’une mythologie que seuls les insulaires connaissent encore.

Et quand en journée la présence des hommes revient pour les travaux d’entretien sans cesse à recommencer, résistance tenace contre des éléments implacables, l’artiste observe, enregistre des conversations quotidiennes, témoignage discret et précieux d’une activité fragile, disparaissante.

Gilles Deleuze est cité dans le dernier morceau, les îles sont d’avant l’homme. Gardons-nous d’une interprétation hâtive, glissons simplement dans notre écoute la convergence du mot désir. Celui d’une rencontre, avec l’île, avec les hommes qui y vivent car tout est vie dans ces prises de son, même la solitude de Myriam Pruvot se retrouve infiniment peuplée, seule avec une meute minimale, de sons, d’instruments, des cordes qui s’étirent, des nappes comme suspendues, dans un équilibre qui n’est pas la syncope, mais la rencontre.

On se souvient par ailleurs que le philosophe n’aimait pas tellement les voyages, les voyageurs, auxquels il préférait de loin les nomades. Il y avait cependant à ses yeux quelques exceptions, Francis-Scott Fitzgerald, JMG Le Clézio, Marcel Proust. Et après de nombreuses écoutes de Niebla, on se prend à penser que Gilles Deleuze aurait peut-être bien aimé le voyage de Myriam Pruvot.


[Myriam Pruvot]

Translation to English -by Sismophone-

The island is the central character of this album released on Wild Silence.

For a sole semantic reason, the Monte Isola project of Myriam Pruvot is named after an italian island. But then, from one continent to another, this sound creation owes it’s denomination to a sojourn on a chilian island, named Niebla.

From the very first track of this disc, Myriam Pruvot plunges us into a harbour atmosphere, but far from restraining herself to field recording, she brilliantly evokes her sound memories and add layers of guitar loops to better intensify them.

Then one moves in a delicate geography, a skillfull back and forth between the place as it was experienced and it’s intimate interpretation that the artist offers to our ears.

Each track of this disc is an archive of this insular life, probably nocturnal when some boat creaks due to the backwash and remotely one hears a few dogs, and having recorded live the singing of Myriam Pruvot would not be surprising, one figures her as a sleepless traveler, offering the island her echo of songs coming from a mythology that only islanders still know about.

And when during the day the presence of men is back for maintenance works to ever start again, persistant resistance against merciless elements, the artist observes, records daily talkings, discrete and precious witnessing of a fragile activity, dying out.

Gilles Deleuze is mentioned in the last track, the islands are from before mankind. Let us step back from a too quick interpretation, but let us slide merely in our listening the convergence of the word desire. The one of an encounter, with the island, with it’s inhabitants as all is life in these sound recordings, even Myriam Pruvot’s solitude ends infinitely populated, alone with a minimal pack, of sounds, instruments, stretching strings, suspended layers, in an equilibrium that is no syncope, but encounter.

One recalls also that the philosopher did not really enjoy travelling, travelers, to which he by far preferred nomads. There were though to him a few exceptions, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, JMG Le Clézio, Marcel Proust. And after numerous listenings of Niebla, one could even think that Gilles Deleuze may very well have enjoyed the trip of Myriam Pruvot.

Myriam Pruvot website
Wild Silence website


Points of Listening #4. Magic and Loss: an evening with David Toop

Review by Cheryl Tipp

On a sunny Wednesday evening a group of listeners came together to join David Toop in an auditory exploration of mystical objects and ancestral sound. The event itself was the latest in a new series of monthly gatherings, organised by Mark Peter Wright and Salomé Voegelin, which seek to encourage and promote collective listening through workshops, soundwalks, screenings, readings, debates and listening sessions.

The chosen venue was London’s Swedenborg Society, established in 1810 with the primary aim of translating and disseminating the works of Swedish scientist and philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg. As the  group gathered in the society’s bookshop, thumbing through titles and catching up with friends, a sense of anticipation and excitement began to drape itself around us.

At 19:00 the doors of the lecture theatre opened, the darkness within calling silently to our curiosity. As a natural hush descended over the audience, Toop took his place at the helm, turntable and vinyl at the ready. Watching Toop in the dimly lit room, the only source of illumination coming from the warm glow of a table lamp and a few shards of light breaking through the heavily-blinded windows, it felt as if we were watching somebody at home, moving between their favourite records as the weather raged outside or sleep remained elusive.

The ethereal song of the Rufous-throated Solitaire, taken from Jean Roché’s fabulous 1971 collection ‘Oiseaux des Antilles’, was a perfect bridge into the world of ritualistic songs, whispers, chants and music that was to come. For the next hour we sat and listened, individually and mutually fixated by the rhythms that snaked their way around us. With no playlist to hand, our imaginations were left to roam free and follow these sounds wherever they might lead us. Toop’s movements were equally ceremonial; a table of contents at the front of the stage was slowly constructed as he worked through the recordings, embellished with instruments, literature and the discs themselves. A subtle hint of incense caught at our nostrils, making us question whether this was real or just an olfactory hallucination summoned up by the imaginings of our minds.

Aside from the natural enjoyment experienced by an audience such as this, with hungry ears that are never sated, the practicalities of the event itself made me consider afresh new approaches to collective listening. How commentary or formal introductions are not always necessary, how a lack of information can help focus the ear and inspire complete immersion in the sound, how conversation post-event can be just as effective and complimentary. Information could be gathered and questions answered once the needle had been lifted for the final time and the lights came up, but for me I was content to go away with just my sonic memories, collected during one of the most fascinating listening sessions I have ever attended.


David Toop website
Points of Listening website


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