ANY SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST can’t visit Paris without snapping a picture of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Quai de Montebello. It’s one of the ‘must do’s’ on the Parisian tourist itinerary.
The Quai de Montebello, in the 5th arrondissement, stretches from the Petit Pont to the Pont de l’Archevêché on the Left Bank of the Seine and it’s a popular place for visitors not least because of the spectacular view of the cathedral.
Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather we have in Paris at the moment, I went to the Quai de Montebello the other day and like just about everybody else there I couldn’t resist taking the obligatory photograph.
I don’t consider myself to be a serious photographer, I’m more of a ‘snapper’, but I do have an interest in photography as an art form and I’m particularly interested in the work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Parisian street photographers. In fact, the work I do recording the soundscapes of Paris is inspired to a great extent by the work of these photographers. When I’m recording Parisian soundscapes I often think of myself as a street photographer but with a much longer exposure time.
Street photography is all about the art of observing. From Eugène Atget’s painstaking photographic documentation of a Paris being torn down in the late 19th century to make way for Baron Haussmann’s massive urban development scheme, to Robert Doisneau’s evocative street photography and pioneering photojournalism, Parisian street photographers have always spent much more time observing than shooting.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the doyen of street photography and photojournalism often used to spend hours observing, searching out a scene, or a ‘frame’ for a picture, and then with camera in hand he would wait for something to happen within the frame. Some of his most iconic photographs were made using this technique.
Any sound recordist intending to record urban soundscapes would do well to study the work and techniques of Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson.
While these giants of Parisian street photography are a great inspiration for me in the Parisian soundscapes work I do there is also someone else who has inspired me.
The French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist, Georges Perec, was fascinated by the notion of ‘ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien’ – what happens when nothing is happening. In fact, it was reading Perec’s essay, ‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’, a detailed written record of the minute observations he made of what he could see happening in a Parisian Square while sitting in a café opposite, that launched me on my work to observe and record Parisian life through the city’s soundscapes.
Which brings us neatly back to the Quai de Montebello.
Taking up a position on the Quai I took this picture. It took a fraction of a second to capture the scene.
I then took another picture to the left …
… and one to the right.
But what would happen I wondered if, instead of a using a camera to observe the Quai, I used a pair of microphones? Instead of capturing the scene in a fraction of a second I could observe it for much longer and what might the microphones reveal that the camera didn’t? How would my sonic observations of a quintessentially Parisian ‘street’ scene compare to the observations captured on film by Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson or in words by Georges Perec?
Unashamedly using Cartier-Bresson’s technique of framing the scene and then waiting for something to happen, I set up my microphones, switched to ‘record’ and waited.
A Soundscape of the Quai de Montebello:
Thankfully, capturing scenes of Paris is not a competition between pictures, words or sound. The important thing I think is not the medium but the art of observation.
In our modern world where we’ve got used to being informed by instant pictures, newspaper headlines, 140 characters on social media and 20 second sound bites, it seems to me that we are in danger of losing our ability to stop, look and listen and to make time to observe the real world around us.
Quai de Montebello – Eugène Atget
IT’S PERHAPS BEST SEEN from outside the McDonald’s restaurant at the corner of the Boulevard de la Villette and the Avenue Secrétan in the 19th arrondissement. From here you can see the elegant, sweeping curve of the Paris Métro as it approaches the Métro station Jaurès, one of the four stations aériennes on Métro Line 2.
The elevated viaduct approaching Jaurès station
Although Métro Line 2 arrives at Jaurès station well above ground, the station also hosts two other lines, Line 5 and Line 7bis both of which are below ground.
The original station, called Rue d’Allemagne after a street close by, opened on 23rd February 1903 as part of the newly completed Métro Line 2 running between Porte Dauphine and Nation.
On 31 July 1914 the socialist and pacifist politician Jean Jaurès was assassinated in a Parisian café, Le Croissant, in rue Montmartre, by Raoul Villain, a 29-year-old French nationalist. Just three days later, war with Germany was declared and suddenly German names became unpopular. The street name rue d’Allemagne was expunged and replaced by the avenue Jean-Jaurès. With the change of the street name came the change of the name of the station, rue d’Allemagne became simply Jaurès.
Paris Métro Station Jaurès – A Sound Portrait:
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 2 – Direction Nation
Métro station Jaurès is one of the four stations aériennes on the 2 km elevated section of Métro Line 2 and so the Line 2 platform is well above ground.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 2 – Direction Porte Dauphine
As well as the magnificent glass roof the platform also boasts a rather unusual stained glass window.
Designed by the artist Jacques-Antoine Ducatez, this window was installed in 1989 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. It depicts the people carrying flags marching towards the Bastille prison, the taking of which launched the Revolution.
Line 2 was the first Métro line to open at Jaures station but a further line, or at least part of a line, was added soon after. In January 1911, a branch line of Métro Line 7 to Pré Saint-Gervais was incorporated. This branch line remained until 1967 when it was formerly separated from Line 7 to become Line 7bis, or Line 7a.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 7bis – Direction Louis Blanc
Line 7bis is the deepest of the lines that pass through Jaurès station and, at the moment, it looks by far the most desolate. All the tiles together with most of the fixtures and fittings have been removed in preparation for renovation work which is due to be completed by the end of June this year.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 7bis – Direction Pré Saint-Gervais
Sandwiched between Line 7bis and the aerial Line 2 is Line 5, which crosses the east of Paris from Bobigny to Place d’Italie.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 5 – Direction Place d’Italie
Line 5 arrived at Jaurès station in 1942 as part of the extension of that line from the Gare du Nord to Eglise de Pantin.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 5 – Direction Bobigny
In my sound portrait you can hear the sounds from all three of the Métro lines that pass through Jaurès station, Line 2, Line 5 and Line 7bis.
FOLLOWING ON THE HEELS of Aristide Boucicault’s hugely successful Au Bon Marché, which opened in 1852, Jules Jaluzot and Jean-Alfred Duclos, opened their department store, Printemps, at the corner of Rue du Havre and Boulevard Haussmann in 1865. The store was designed by Jules and Paul Sédille.
The building was expanded in 1874, and elevators (then a great novelty) from the 1867 Universal Exposition were installed. Rebuilt after a fire in 1881, the store became the first to use electric lighting and it was one of the first department stores with direct access to the Métro to which it was connected in 1904.
Like all the big departments stores in Paris, Printemps decorates its windows at Christmas and large crowds gather to try to get a glimpse of the displays. This year, the fashion house, Dior, has taken over the Printemps windows.
Seventy-four hand-made poupettes dressed in Dior haute couture crafted in the Dior atelier in the Avenue Montaigne are to be seen – if you can get close enough!
The cacophony of sound outside the Printemps windows:
By 1900, Printemps was in trouble. Gustave Laguionie replaced Jules Jaluzot as owner after the business came close to collapse. In the early 20th century, the building was extended along the Boulevard Haussmann by architect René Binet in an art nouveau style.
In 2010, the Canadian architectural firm, Yabu Pushelberg, completed a redesign of the interior of Printemps. The award-winning designers, George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg say that, “The Printemps’ retail space is conceived as a series of ‘rooms’, like a large mansion, each with its own unique and identifiable character, to create an exclusive residential ambience in order to avoid commercial stereotypes and promote a relaxing atmosphere.”
Yabu and Pushelberg have done a good job. Their design is trés chic as befits a flagship store – but sound design is clearly not their strong point! I can’t help wondering why they went to so much trouble to perfect the interior design and then infested the entire ambience with mind numbing ‘musac’, not quite loud enough to be annoying but certainly loud enough to be irritating. It seems to add nothing except to raise the ambient sound level for no obvious reason.
Sounds inside Printemps:
Across the street from Printemps I found the Armée du Salut, the Salvation Army, in festive mood.
Armée du Salut:
Not perhaps the best Salvation Army band I’ve heard, but full marks for effort and enthusiasm on a cold winter’s day.
Looking back at Printemps from across the street I was reminded that on 16th December 2008, the store was evacuated following a bomb threat from the FRA (Afghan Revolutionary Front). The bomb disposal services found five sticks of dynamite in a toilet in the store. The FRA claimed responsibility and demanded the withdrawal of 3,000 French soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.
I remember this incident very well and perhaps it’s a reminder that there are more important things in the world than glitz, glamour and bad sound design!
JUST ONE WEEK TO GO and Christmas will be upon us so this seems like the appropriate time to post my audio Christmas card.
My Audio Christmas Card 2012:
This audio card is made up of a handful of the sounds of Paris that I’ve recorded during the past year. It’s been a good year for the Brits in Paris with Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France and Mark Cavendish winning his fourth consecutive stage of le Tour in the Champs Elysées. We also had a presidential election and I was in the Place de la Bastille recording the sounds on that memorable night in May when the crowd erupted as the exit polls showed that François Holland had won. I’ve also included sounds from the Elysées Palace when François Holland was sworn in as Président de la République. There is some of the wonderful street music that enriches our lives in Paris as well as a glimpse of the French Army male voice choir and, of course, the wonderful sounds of the Paris Métro.
This compilation is dedicate to all those who visit this blog regularly as well as to those who happen to drop in as they’re passing by. I extend my grateful thanks to you all.
I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and all that you wish for yourselves in 2013.
THE PARIS MÉTRO SYSTEM is reputedly the second busiest Métro system in Europe after Moscow and the Métro station Châtelet – Les Halles is said to be the largest Métro station in the world.
Métro Châtelet Entrance – Place Sainte-Opportune
Châtelet Métro station is named after the medieval Place du Châtelet, which in turn is named after the Grand Châtelet, a castle over the northern approach to the old Pont au Change over the Seine to the Île de la Cité, which was demolished by Napoléon in 1802. The Grand Châtelet lost its defensive purpose in 1190 when Philip Augustus built a rampart around the perimeter of the city; from then on it served as the headquarters of the prévôt de Paris, the official “charged with protection of royal rights, oversight of royal administration, and execution of royal justice” in late medieval Paris. Amongst other things, the Grand Châtelet was known for its subterranean dungeons and, for the ordinary citizen, it was a place to avoid at all costs.
Nothing much has changed! The Métro station has the feel of a subterranean dungeon, a cavernous place with little to commend it except for its utilitarian use as a means to get from one place to another. Few people come to this place except to pass through it to get somewhere else.
Métro Châtelet Entrance – Place du Châtelet
The station is home to five Métro lines. Lines 7 and 11 run under the Place du Châtelet and the Quai de Gesvre, site of the original medieval river port of Paris, and lines 1, 4 and 14 are towards the Rue Saint-Denis and the Rue de Rivoli.
I found this potted history of the development of the Métro lines at Châtelet via Google and from my knowledge of the Paris Métro, it seems to be a good and accurate summary:
‘The station was opened on 6 August 1900, three weeks after trains began running on the original section of line 1 between Porte de Vincennes and Porte Maillot on 19 July 1900. The line 4 platforms were opened on 21 April 1908 as part of the original section of the line from Porte de Clignancourt to Châtelet. It was the southern terminus of line 4 until the opening of the connecting section of the line under the Seine to Raspail on 9 January 1910.
The line 7 platforms were opened on 16 April 1926 as part of the line’s extension from Palais Royal to Pont Marie with the name Pont Notre-Dame-Pont au Change. It had no direct connection with Châtelet. On 15 April 1934 a connecting corridor was opened to the platforms of lines 1 and 4 and the line 7 station was renamed. The line 11 platforms were opened near the line 7 platforms on 28 April 1935 as part of the original section of the line from Châtelet to Porte des Lilas.
On 9 December 1977 the Châtelet – Les Halles RER station was opened with a connecting corridor with a moving walkway to Châtelet. The line 14 platforms were opened near the line 1 and 4 platforms on 15 October 1998 as part of the original section of the line from Madeleine to Bibliothèque François Mitterrand. On 7 and 8 March 2009 the line 1 platforms were restored during the automation of line 1, including the installation of platform screen doors.’
I’ve passed through the Châtelet Métro station many times but I’ve never visited it as a place itself. The other day, I put that right. I went and explored all five of the Métro lines that connect there although I left the three RER lines for another day.
I recorded the sounds of all five Métro lines, together with sounds of the passengers and the musicians who are a delightful feature of this station. This is what I came up with:
Châtelet Métro Station – A Sound Portrait:
The Moving Walkway
After spending an entire afternoon in the station I came away with some delicious sounds for my Paris sound archive, a snapshot of which you’ve heard here, but I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was in a subterranean dungeon.
For the Métro buffs who take an interest in these things, the trains in my sound piece appear in the following order:
Line 4, Line 11, Line 14, Line 7 and Line 1 … but then you knew that already!
THE GARE DU NORD is one of the six terminus railway stations in Paris and it’s the one I use most often.
It’s reputed to be the busiest railway station in Europe with 190 million passengers passing through it each year. That equates to the population of the United Kingdom, France and Italy combined, or the entire population of Brazil.
From the Gare du Nord French SNCF trains head to northern France, Thalys trains to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and the Eurostar to both Brussels and to the United Kingdom. The station is also home to some French commuter train services.
The original station was opened in 1846 but traffic expanded at such a rate that in the 1860’s the French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff was engaged to redesign and rebuild the station. His creation is the Gare du Nord that we see today.
For me, the Gare du Nord is the only station in Paris that has really distinctive sounds enveloped in their own distinctive acoustics. The other main Paris stations sound rather ordinary by comparison.
Inside the Gare du Nord:
The inside of the Gare du Nord is always busy with constant waves of people ebbing and flowing. Outside, the ebb and flow continues but less with people and more with traffic.
Just behind the Gare du Nord is a very busy bus station, which I know well. It’s from here that I catch my 43 bus home every time I arrive at this station after a rail journey.
Outside the Gare du Nord:
Parisian buses may not be the first thing that leap to mind when one thinks of the Gare du Nord but for me, these sounds are also an integral part of the Gare du Nord’s rich sound tapestry.
I DON’T KNOW WHY but I don’t visit the Parc Monceau all that often, which is silly really because it’s quite close to where I live and always well worth a visit.
This English-style park is in the 8th arrondissement and last Saturday, on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I ventured down there for the first time this year.
Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Chartres established a formal garden here between 1769 and 1778 on twenty-eight acres of land he had accumulated. It began life as a French formal garden but the anglophile Philippe had it transformed it into an English-style garden where people were allowed to sit and picnic on the lawn much as they still do today.
During the French revolution Philippe d’Orléans was sent to the guillotine and the Parc Monceau was confiscated and nationalised. It was returned to the Orléans family during the Restoration Monarchy only to be confiscated again at the beginning of the Second Republic. Napoléon III stopped this ping-pong ownership by dividing the property, keeping part of it for the State and returning the rest to the Orléans family. The Parc Monceau we know today is the part retained by the French State.
The Parc Monceau has a relaxed, intimate feel to it and it’s enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Whilst I enjoy the wild flowers, the Greek columns, the lake and the Temple of Mars it’s the sounds that always captivate me. Amongst the sounds of people chattering and children playing are the ever-present sounds of the footsteps over the gravel paths.
There are always people strolling, power walking or jogging and this mélange of footsteps seems to have a rhythmical, almost musical effect. I never tire of listening to it.
IT’S AUGUST AND Paris is much less busy than usual but, whilst the locals may be away on their summer holidays, there’s no shortage of tourists in town. On Saturday the Beaubourg, the area close to Les Halles, rue Montorgueil and the Marais, with the Centre Georges Pompidou at its heart, was awash with visitors.
The area behind the Pompidou Centre is a magnet for the crowds who come to watch the street entertainers perform. Their talents range from the very professional to the utterly bizarre. In the former category was this superb mime artist and children’s entertainer who had both children and adults enthralled.
Entertaining the Crowd:
In the bizarre category was this man whose performance involved eating razor blades, burning cigarettes and matches. I found it rather gruesome but he too had attracted a large crowd.
Slightly away from the crowds I found this man sitting on a stool looking perfectly content playing his Chinese violin.
The Chinese violin or, to give it its proper name, the Erhu, is a Chinese two-stringed instrument whose roots go back to the Tang dynasty (618-907). It’s one of the huqin family of traditional bowed string instruments used by various ethnic groups of China.
The Sound of the Erhu in the Beaubourg:
A very versatile instrument, the erhu is used in both traditional and contemporary music either as a solo instrument or as part of an orchestra.
The sound of this Chinese violin in the Beaubourg was a great contrast to the laughter generated by the children’s entertainer and the grotesque eating habits of the man with the razor blades and burning cigarettes. But, it’s all part of the rich tapestry that is Paris.
To hear a stunning performance of the erhu in concert click here.
CLOSE TO NOTRE-DAME cathedral and bordering La Seine, the Marché aux Fleurs – the Paris Flower Market – in the Place Louis Lépine, has been here since 1808.
The market is housed in iron pavilions each with a glass roof and it offers a wide range of flowers, plants, shrubs and garden accessories.
Like most places in Paris, the Marché aux Fleurs winds down during the August holidays and, whilst some of the shops and stalls are closed, there is still some activity although much less so than at other times of the year.
This proved to be a plus for your sound hunter. I went to the market on Saturday and without the usual bustle of the crowds I was able to capture sounds that otherwise would have probably gone unnoticed.
Sounds in le Marché aux Fleurs:
Despite its name, the Marché aux Fleurs is not just about flowers. It’s also a flea market as the shop pictured below illustrates … a wonderful cornucopia of hidden treasures.
I especially liked the lanterns.
On Sundays, the Marché aux Fleurs takes on an additional guise when it also becomes the Marché aux Oiseaux – the bird market, where you can find colourful and exotic birds and all the accoutrements to go with them.
The Marché aux Fleurs is open every day from 8 am to 7 pm. The nearest Metro station is Cité on Line 4.
Click here to see a short video about the Marché aux Fleurs and …
THE MOULIN ROUGE in Pigalle is a magnet for tourists. At almost any time of the day or night you will find people standing in front of it queuing to buy tickets or waiting to get in to see the scantily clad dancers perform. Across the street, people with cameras in hand flirt with the traffic trying to capture images of this Paris icon.
Of all the tourists who flock to this place I suspect very few venture a few steps to the left of the Moulin Rouge and explore its next-door neighbour, the Cité Véron.
Named after a local resident and Mayor of Montmartre from 1830 – 1841, this charming cul-de-sac sits cheek by jowl with its more well-known and lively neighbour in quiet contentment. On a beautiful spring day I went to explore the Cité Véron.
This cobblestone alley has an intimate feel. It’s eighty metres long and just three metres wide and in the springtime the lush vegetation leans over to occupy what little space there is for pedestrians.
The sound of the traffic from the busy Boulevard de Clichy close by seems to almost disappear the further along this alley you go. But on the day I went, the sound of the traffic was replaced by a completely different sound.
Not surprisingly on a beautiful spring day, birdsong was in the air but there was something else too … the sound of a piano. The Cité Véron is lined with high walls causing the sound to reverberate so it was difficult to tell exactly where the sound was coming from. I could tell though that it was not coming from an extra loud CD player, this was the real thing – somewhere, someone was playing a piano.
Further investigation eventually led me up some stone steps to an open window and a wonderful surprise. Through the window came the sounds as a répétiteur played the piano accompanying a full-blown ballet class.
This was no children’s Saturday afternoon dance class – this was the real thing. Beautiful, supple young women gracefully pushing their bodies further than bodies should be pushed – all under the command of an authoritative, elderly gentleman issuing his orders in time to the music.
Beautiful young women, arabesques, pliés and the sound of a piano through an open window is not quite what I expected when I arrived in the Cité Véron. But, it seems that this place does, after all, have something in common with its more raucous next-door neighbour.
This post is dedicated to a friend of mine, a former ballet dancer. I’m sure these sounds will bring back mixed feelings for her – the pain of the tortuous practising rewarded only by the joy of performing.