WHATEVER THE TIME of year, street musicians can be found all over Paris plying their trade and bringing sunshine to the passers by.
Last Saturday afternoon I came across this gentleman occupying his usual pitch at the corner of the Quai de l’Archevêché and the Pont Saint-Louis. He is a big man who makes a big sound from a very small piano.
A Small Piano – A Big Sound:
WHEN I PUBLISHED my previous blog piece I thought that I’d said everything I needed to say about my local Christmas market – but it turns out there is a post-script.
When I went to get bread from my local boulangerie last Saturday afternoon I discovered a different Jazz band playing in the Christmas market, the Gibsy Quartet. They were very good and so I decided to record them for my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
The Gibsy Quartet
Over the years I’ve learned many lessons about how to record the sounds of urban life around me and one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is never to turn my sound recorder off as soon as I think I have a recording in the bag. Urban sounds can often be quite unpredictable and fascinating sounds can sometimes turn up when you least expect them. Another lesson is that what you might think are fairly ordinary sounds can suddenly become quite extraordinary.
One could argue that recording a jazz band playing in a Parisian street is nothing out of the ordinary, once you’ve heard one you’ve heard them all some might say. But when events have a twist in the tail then the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
I recorded the Gibsy Quartet on Saturday afternoon. They were going to be at the Christmas market for much longer than I was so I recorded them playing two pieces and then I was about to head off for home. As is my practice, after they finished their second piece I left my sound recorder running and then, as I turned to walk away, this astonishing man appeared.
From his lofty perch he began singing and playing his concertina and I, the jazz band and several other people began to gather round him.
He spied the band beneath him and without hesitation he began to sing the Neapolitan song, O Sole Mio, an open invitation to the jazz musicians so used to improvising.
And improvise they did turning the ordinary into something quite extraordinary.
The Gibsy Quartet … and friend:
I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for recording the soundscapes of Paris, but if I ever do I shall listen to this recording and remind myself of why I do it. Capturing unexpected and unrepeatable sounds like this always gives me a buzz and listening to these sounds will always remind me of my local Christmas market, the infectious enthusiasm of musicians and the delicious smell of freshly baked bread in my local boulangerie.
AT THIS TIME OF THE YEAR the Marchés de Noël, or Christmas markets, spring up all over Paris and I have three of them within easy reach of me. To the west is the very large one at La Défense with its 350 châlets standing in the shadow of la Grande Arche, to the east is the most visited Christmas market in Paris stretching along the Champs Elysées and then, at the bottom of my little street, is the one closest to home.
The Christmas markets at La Défense and along the Champs Elysées are very big, mostly swamped with visitors and quite impersonal whereas my local Christmas market is tiny in comparison but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in congeniality.
My local Christmas market is now open for business so I’ve been to have a look, to savour the atmosphere and to capture the sights and sounds.
Contrary to what you might think, the sounds in the big Christmas markets can often be quite bland but in my local Christmas market I enjoyed a sonic treat – two different bands, a street organ and singer, electronic music accompanying butterfly elves on stilts, a balloon sculptress with enormous boots and, of course, the sounds of lots of excited small children.
My local Christmas market in sound:
Alexandre l’Agodas: Le colporteur de rêves et son orgue de barbarie
(The pedlar of dreams and his barrel organ)
Les Elfes-papillons des pôles
(Butterfly elves on stilts)
Sculpture sur ballons avec Bibindum
Swing Connection – New Orleans Jazz
STANDING ON THE SITE of the former convent Sainte Catherine du Val des Ecoliers, the Place du Marché Sainte Catherine is a short walk from its more elegant and illustrious neighbour the Place des Vosges in the Marais district of Paris.
The convent Sainte Catherine du Val des Ecoliers was founded in 1228 and stood on this site until it was demolished in 1767. Some ten years later a market, the Marché Sainte Catherine, replaced the convent.
The market has now also disappeared and today, surrounded by 18th century buildings, the Place du Marché Sainte Catherine is a small traffic-free square lined with trees and surrounded on three sides by restaurants. It’s one of those perfect Parisian squares where both locals and tourists gather to while away a lazy summer afternoon.
I went to the Place du Marché Saint Catherine the other day and found two young musicians adding their own special atmosphere to this delightful place.
Place du Marché Saint Catherine:
Sometimes, these hidden corners of Paris can be just perfect!
LAST SATURDAY I headed off for the rue des Martyrs in the 9th arrondissement to record a soundwalk to add to my archive of Paris Soundscapes. As is often the case, things didn’t turn out quite as I’d planned.
The rue des Martyrs stretches for a little under 1km from rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette to rue Lamartine in Montmartre. The street has had several names during its lifetime beginning with rue des Porcherons, then rue des Martyrs followed by rue du Champ de Repos and then finally, from 1868, once again rue des Martyrs.
I decided to make life easier by beginning my soundwalk at the Montmartre end, which is the street’s highest point and so everything would be downhill from there. When I reached the top of the street I realised that the Place des Abbesses was just round the corner so, before embarking on my task for the day and since I hadn’t been to the Place des Abbesses for a while, I thought I’d go and take a look. It proved to be a most fortuitous diversion.
I discovered a Bretagne weekend in full flow the centrepiece of which was la Fête de la coquille Saint-Jacques, sponsored by le département des Côtes-d’Armor. A dozen or so stalls were selling all things Bretagne from crêpes and craquants au beurre salé to regional wines and wonderful coquille Saint-Jacques, freshly brought from port d’Erquy.
I couldn’t resist stopping to savour the atmosphere and taste a selection of the fare on offer. And then I came upon a complete surprise, something to make a sound hunter’s day complete.
A group of singers were assembled and as I came upon them they began to sing a French song I particularly like, Le Gamin de Paris.
Le Gamin de Paris:
Adrien Marès composed the music for Le Gamin de Paris and Mick Micheyl who, contrary to what you might think, is in fact Paulette Michey, a very popular French singer who later in life became a respected sculptor, wrote the words.
Le Gamin de Paris draws a fascinating picture of a typical 1950’s Parisian ‘kid’ -
“Il est tout l’esprit, l’esprit de Paris qui musarde,
Pantalon trop long pour lui
Toujours les mains dans les poches
On le voit qui déguerpit
Aussitôt qu’il voit un képi”
Roughly translated as:
‘… the spirit of Paris that dawdles, with pants that are too long for him, hands always in his pockets, who takes off at the first sight of a kepi’ (a French policeman).
Whenever I hear this song I am instantly transported to the black & white world of Robert Doisneau and the other great French street photographers who captured so brilliantly the atmosphere upon which this song is based. This particular rendition was unexpectedly, but not unpleasantly, accompanied by the bells of the Église Saint Jean-de-Montmartre which made a dramatic intervention but which I think added a delicious extra atmosphere.
And so, awash with the spirit of Bretagne and the black and white world of 1950’s Paris, it was back to the present day, the rue des Martyrs and a soundwalk along the full length of the street capturing the everyday mélange of sounds that I always find so fascinating.
Rue des Martyrs – A Soundwalk:
Some sights of the rue des Martyrs:
THE MUSÉE DES ARTS FORAINS is a fairground museum housed in the former wine warehouses at Cour Saint-Émilion in the 12th arrondissement.
It’s a private museum created by Jean Paul Favand and it contains a fascinating collection of carousels and funfair stalls, all restored and in working order, as well as costumes and historic works from 1850 onwards.
This is a private collection and so it’s usually only possible to visit the museum by appointment only. They cater mainly for group visits and corporate functions but occasionally the museum opens its doors to the general public. One such occasion has been over this Christmas and New Year period so I took advantage of it and paid a visit.
Having paid my €12 entry fee, I was transported into the world of the funfair, a world full of colour, spectacle and entertainment.
I was captivated by this old cycle carousel and even more captivated by the sounds as the ride got underway and the cycles and their riders trundled round and round. It’s fascinating to think that these are the same sounds that anyone visiting this carousel would have heard over a hundred years ago.
Sounds of the cycle carousel:
The museum comprises themed rooms each with its own take of the world of the funfair. “Les Salons Vénitiens” offers an Italian opera show performed by automatons as well as a gondola carousel. “Le Théâtre du merveilleux” offers a glimpse of the turn of the century world fairs including a superb sound and light show. “Le musée des Arts Forains” is a tribute to the 19th century funfair and the Théâtre de Verdure exhibits splendid gardens.
The museum has many historical funfair games that have entertained generations of adults and children alike. My favourite was the Parisian Waiter Race in which each waiter is moved by rolling balls into holes, complete with running commentary.
The Parisian Waiter Race:
There are outside exhibits too and, this being an open-house day, it wouldn’t be complete without food …
… and, of course, street music.
The Street Musicians:
And I couldn’t end without mentioning the fabulous costumes on display, some of which were once to be seen in that other Parisian palace of fun, the Folies-Bergère.
I wish everyone a Happy New Year and, if you’re in Paris, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Musée des Arts Forains which you can find at:
53 Avenue des Terroirs de France, 75012 Paris
Phone for réservations: 01 43 40 16 22
Métro: Cour Saint-Émilion – Line 14
WHEN THINKING ABOUT which sounds of Paris I might publish here on this Christmas Eve it became obvious that I needed to look no further than the bottom of my little street and what is still my favourite Christmas market in Paris. I went to it this afternoon.
Paris is full of fabulously rich sounds but sometimes the most intimate sounds are to be found closest to home, like the sound of this man singing on the parvis of my local Hôtel de Ville.
Singer at my local Christmas market:
This man on his unicycle provided an interesting diversion.
And then I found this man playing a most extraordinary accordion.
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!
LA DÉFENSE IS A MAJOR business district in the far west of Paris. It lies at the extreme western end of the axis that begins at the Louvre and continues along the Champs Elysées beyond the Arc de Triomphe to La Défense.
At this time each year, La Défense is host to a large Christmas market built in front of La Grande Arche, one of François Mitterrand’s Grands Projets. Designed by Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel, La Grande Arche was built as a monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals.
Standing in front of La Grande Arche last Saturday afternoon, I was struck by the contrast between the 350 tiny wooden châlets and the giant office blocks that surround them. I was also struck by the stark contrast of the traders in the châlets trying to sell their wares to ordinary punters like me with some of the madness associated with these giant buildings.
Take the building on the left for example, Coeur Défense. At the height of the financial madness in 2008, Coeur Défense became the most expensive piece of real estate on the planet when it was bought by Lehman Brothers for an astonishing €2.1bn. They bought it just as the property market peaked and we know what happened next. Property prices fell, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and disposing of Coeur Défense become Europe’s largest distressed property sale.
I was also thinking about Société Générale, France’s second largest bank, whose offices are a short walk from the Christmas Market in La Défense. On January 24, 2008, the bank announced that a single futures trader had fraudulently lost the bank €4.9 billion, the largest such loss in history.
All this stands in stark contrast to the individual stallholders at the Christmas market trying to make a living and bringing some Christmas cheer in the process.
Music at the Christmas market:
Christmas markets in Paris are always enjoyable to visit even if you do tend to see the same stalls in more or less the same places each year selling more or less the same things. Each year, I set off to capture the sounds of the Christmas markets but, as each year passes, I find it more difficult to find something different to record. These musicians for example, good as they are, are always at the Christmas market in La Défense, in the same place and often playing the same music.
So this year, even though the sounds I found at La Défense were pretty much the same as every year, I’ve tried to capture a different emphasis by putting the individual stallholders centre stage as they go about selling their wares.
Consider it a poke in the eye to the ‘suits’ who plundered the pension funds of the unsuspecting public to the tune of billions!
La Défense Christmas Market – A Soundwalk:
AT THIS TIME OF YEAR the air in Paris is filled with music – the music of the streets. I’ve said before that the standard of the street music here is exceptionally high and it’s always a pleasure to listen to. I have an extensive archive of the Parisian street music I’ve recorded but I’m always on the look out for something unusual.
Recently, I stumbled upon this group of musicians in the Rue de Francs-Bourgeois in the Marais district. It was a Sunday, the day when all the shops are open in this neck of the woods and when the street seems to be at its busiest.
Street Music in the Rue de Francs-Bourgeois:
In the midst of the crush of Sunday tourists these musicians were performing. There were five of them, one on bass, one on banjo, two sax players, one of whom also played clarinet, and the leader who sang and played the cornet.
Two things made this ensemble stand out as being slightly unusual for me. The first was the lady who danced endlessly to the music. I don’t know if she was connected with the musicians or just a ‘fan’ but she was certainly very enthusiastic and a joy to watch. The second was the choice of music. “The White Cliffs of Dover” is not quite what one expects to hear on the streets of Paris but I’m sure Vera Lynn would approve.