a publisher for other points of view

FOCUS - May 2013

Cheryl Tipp

A Q&A with Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Natural Sounds at the British Library (London) and one of the contributors to What Matters Now? (What Can't You Hear?).

Daniela Cascella:
Your contribution to our anthology, Listening to Lost Voices, presents a number of more or less orthodox examples of recordings that, spanning from science to art, connect the present experience of listening with what you call 'expired voice' and 'the memory of our biophonic past'. When did you discover such recordings and what makes them remarkable for you as a listener and for your area of research? Is there any 'lost voice' in particular that you'd be keen on finding?

Cheryl Tipp:
The recording of the extinct Kaua'i O'o A'a mentioned in Listening to Lost Voices is an incredibly important and poignant part of the British Library's Sound Archive as it represents the song of a species we can no longer hear in the real world. It reinforces the role of sound archives in preserving the sounds of our planet, which of course becomes even more pertinent when species are driven to extinction. I had come across the recording of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker whilst conducting research on the early history of wildlife sound recording and then explored the concept of 'expired voices' further when I was invited to contribute to this anthology. This led me to discover the works of Marguerite Humeau, Wolfgang Müller and Stephen Vitiello. I find it fascinating that human curiosity drives individuals to try to recreate the sounds of extinct species, whether this be through sound composition or sculpture. I love the fact that people place such value in sound and commit themselves to this process.

As Wildlife and Environmental Sound Curator at the British Library, every day you come into contact with countless recordings from all sorts of places and times. In parallel, you are also a prolific writer with texts and reviews published on The Field Reporter and many journals. How do the archiving/cataloguing activity in the Library and the writing co-habit? What captures your attention in a recording to the point that you want to write about it?

It's a difficult juggling act sometimes to balance my everyday curatorial tasks with my writing. There is just so much material that inspires me that it can be tricky to channel that inspiration into a piece of text when everyday new recordings come into the archive. As I have limited time in which to write, a recording or publication really has to speak to me before I commit to writing about it. Sometimes I'm drawn by the sheer beauty of a piece; at other times I'm more interested in the content and what message is trying to be expressed. Sometimes I just like the recording without really knowing why. It can be as simple as that. I'm also fascinated with early sound recording history, especially relating to wildlife sound recording, and so find inspiration in the wealth of material archived in the depths of the British Library.

Our publishing project stems from an idea of expanded listening beyond specialist discourses, thinking of listening as a methodology that includes a myriad voices and languages. How do you inhabit listening?

Working at the Sound Archive has really heightened my awareness of the sounds around me and certainly changed my listening habits. I automatically tune in to the sounds of wildlife, no matter how indistinct, distant or masked by other urban sounds they might be. My altered listening has also made me more aware of just how much other people block out the sounds around them. Many times I've been walking with a friend and heard the song or call of a common bird, for example a Robin or a Great Tit. When commenting on the sound I see the blank look of my companion; they hadn't even registered the sound. To them, it's just another generic sound that forms the wider soundscape around them. To be able to isolate and focus in on those specific sounds takes practice, but the rewards are tenfold.