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
RUE DE STEINKERQUE must be one of the most visited streets in Paris and yet I doubt that few people who pass along it will know it by name. At a little over one hundred and fifty metres long and seven metres wide it’s quite a small street but it has a footfall that far outweighs its size.
Rue de Steinkerque was originally a pathway in the commune of Montmartre. It was formally recognised as a street by decree in 1868 and it was officially named in 1877.
Its name comes from the Battle of Steinkerque fought near the village of Steenkerque, fifty kilometres south-west of Brussels, on 3rd August 1692. The battle was won by the French under Marshal François-Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg against a joint English-Scottish-Dutch-German army under Prince William of Orange.
Today, rue de Steinkerque is a well-trodden tourist trail leading from the Boulevard de Rochechouart and the Métro station Anvers to the Place Saint-Pierre and Montmartre.
And sitting at the top of the street on the summit of la butte Montmartre is the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, which seems to act like a magnet for the swathe of tourists in the street below.
But to get to this towering monument built as a penance for the excesses of the Second Empire and the Paris Commune of 1871, tourists have to negotiate the rue de Steinkerque with the crowds of people, the lines of gift shops, the trinket peddlers – and the thieves determined to surreptitiously remove anything of value from the unsuspecting tourists.
I went to explore rue de Steinkerque the other day and to record a soundwalk and, not for the first time in this street, I arrived at the top find that one of the pockets of my shoulder bag had been completely unzipped without me being aware of it. Thankfully, nothing was taken – this time!
Rue de Steinkerque – A Soundwalk:
Not quite all the shops lining the rue de Steinkerque are gift and trinket shops. At the bottom of the street is the Sympa store, a place to find cheap clothing, often big brand names at unbelievably low prices.
No investment in marketing here, the clothes are just dumped into bins by the roadside for the customers to rummage through.
By contrast, the street also boasts La Cure Gourmande, a renowned maker of biscuits, chocolates and confectionary …
… as well as la Maison Georges Larnicol and le Petit Musée du Chocolat, which is well worth a visit …
… and a couple of antique shops.
A lot of people who come to rue de Steinkerque come as part of a tourist group and so it’s quite common to see tourist guides with their distinctive umbrellas gathering their flocks for the trek up the street.
If you find yourself heading for Montmartre you will more than likely find yourself in rue de Steinkerque at some point. Enjoy the atmosphere – but beware those who might be out to spoil your day!
RUE VAVIN STRETCHES from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to Rue d’Assas in the 6th arrondissement. The street is 375 metres long and 12 metres wide at its widest point and two streets, the Boulevard Raspail and Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, intersect it.
Rue Vavin is named after Alexis Vavin (1792-1863), a French politician who, amongst other things, opposed the coup of Napoleon III. As well as the Rue Vavin, the Avenue Vavin (now a short cul-de-sac) and the Métro station Vavin are also named after him.
The other day I decided to explore the Rue Vavin, to search out the places of historical interest and to do a soundwalk.
I began at the Rue d’Assas outside one of the entrances to the Jardin du Luxembourg and I walked along the street to the Boulevard du Montparnasse at the other end.
Rue Vavin – A Soundwalk:
N° 12 rue Vavin
The first building to catch my eye was N° 12.
For over eighty years this was home to the French publishing house founded in 1901 by the orientalist Paul Geuthner. He specialised in Oriental studies and published essays, texts, language textbooks and travelogues on the Near, Middle and Far East.
Paul Geuthner died in 1949 but the business continued and although no longer here at N° 12 rue Vavin (it’s now moved to 16 rue de la Grande Chaumière close by), and despite a change of ownership, the Société Nouvelle Librairie Orientalist Paul Geuthner is still very much alive and well.
Moving on towards the next building I wanted to see I paused to look at two things at the heart of rue Vavin, both of which are emblematic of Paris – a kiosquier selling his newspapers and a Wallace fountain.
The Parisian newspaper kiosk has been around for a 150 years. Today there are about 350 of them in Paris and they account for almost half of all daily newspaper and magazine sales.
And, like the Parisian newspaper kiosk, the Wallace fountain is another piece of iconic Parisian street furniture.
Named after the English philanthropist, Richard Wallace, who lived in Paris and financed their construction, these fountains were designed by the French sculptor, Charles-Auguste Lebourg. Although originally intended as a source of free, potable water for the poor and also as encouragement to avoid the temptation to turn to strong liquor, everyone uses these fountains today. For the homeless of course, they are often their only source of free drinking water. The fountains operate from 15th March to 15th November (the risk of freezing during the winter months would imperil the internal plumbing) and they are regularly maintained and repainted every two years.
And while the Wallace fountain in rue Vavin might be one kind of watering hole, on the other side of the street there’s another, the Café Vavin.
N° 19 rue Vavin
Further along the street is N° 19.
This building was once home to the École normale d’enseignement du dessin, a school of drawing founded in 1881 by the architect, Alphonse Théodore Guérin. The only private art school in Paris at the time, it was staffed by volunteer teachers and its students paid no fees. The teaching was based on a mixture of workshops and academic classes in decorative composition, perspective, the history of art and anatomy.
N° 26 rue Vavin – Image via Wikipedia
If you’ve seen the film Last Tango in Paris you may recognise the next building I stopped to look at. N° 26 rue Vavin was the creation of the French architects Frédéric-Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin.
In 1903, Sauvage and Sarazin formed the Société anonyme de logements hygiéniques à bon marché, a company whose purpose was to construct good quality, affordable housing for the poorest in society. Built in 1912 as an HBM (Habitation à Bon Marché), N° 26 rue Vavin is a good example of what Sauvage and Sarazin sought to achieve. Designed on the hygienist principles of providing accommodation with plenty of light and air the building has open terraces and is covered with white tiles similar to those found in the Paris Métro which self-clean when it rains.
Unlike with most buildings in Paris, it is forbidden to attach nameplates to the walls of N° 26 partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to avoid damage to the tiles. Consequently, the main door of the building has a very clean and uncluttered look to it.
After pausing to look at a magnificent display of blooms at a flower shop I walked further up rue Vavin to the intersection with the Boulevard Raspail where I found N° 33.
N° 33 rue Vavin
Between the two World Wars, N° 33 rue Vavin was home to the famous cabaret Le Bal de la Boule Blanche. It was here on the evening of 20th February 1931 that Georges Simenon hosted a ball to launch the first two books in the then new but now classic Inspector Maigret series – ‘Monsieur Gallet, décédé’ and ‘Le pendu de Saint-Pholien’.
Crossing the Boulevard Raspail I wanted to find N° 38 rue Vavin, once the home of the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who is perhaps best known for designing the Statue of Liberty. Instead, I found a building site with the inevitable site meeting taking place.
N° 50 rue Vavin
The last stop on my soundwalk along the rue Vavin was at N° 50. Today it’s just one of many boutiques along the street but in the second half of the 19th century this was the Maison Voignier, supplier of organ pipes to, amongst others, one of the world’s greatest organ builders, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Rue Vavin is a fairly typical Parisian street. It’s home to some or a place of business for others, it’s also a thoroughfare from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Jardin du Luxembourg and it’s a magnet for shoppers. It has its own life, its own history and, of course, its own sounds all of which I think are worth exploring.
I RECENTLY PUBLISHED a blog piece about the Musée Curie, which is located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillion of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement in what was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934. In the piece I mentioned that Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre, died in a street accident in Paris in 1906 when, crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
The other day I found myself in Rue Dauphine so I decided to record a soundwalk as I explored the street.
Rue Dauphine dates from 1607 and it derives its name from the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, son of Henry IV and Marie de Médicis. It’s quite a short street, just 288 metres long. It stretches from the junction of the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Quai de Conti (opposite the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf) to the junction of Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and Rue Mazarine.
I began my soundwalk at the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts/Rue Mazarine end of the street and then made my way towards the Pont Neuf ending at the spot where Pierre Curie died.
This is what I saw and heard …
Rue Dauphine – A Soundwalk:
It was while crossing the street at this spot that Pierre Curie slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
IN A RECENT ARTICLE on this blog I explored the Métro station Jaurès in the 19th arrondissement. This Métro station fascinates me partly because it is one of Fulgence Bienvenüe’s Métro stations aériennes, (all his stations aériennes fascinate me), and partly because it is named after a man who particularly interests me, Jean Jaurès.
Jean Jaurès in 1904 – Image via Wikipedia
In the blog piece, I refer to the fact that Jean Jaurès was assassinated in the Café du Croissant in rue Montmartre just days before the outbreak of the First World War.
The other day I found myself in rue Montmartre and, in need of shelter from the rain, I ducked into the nearest café which just happened to be the very same Café du Croissant, or La Taverne du Croissant as it’s now called, in which Jaurès died. Since I had recently published my blog piece about the Métro station Jaurès, and since this year is the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, Jaurès has been much on my mind so coming upon the Café du Croissant like this seemed a curious coincidence.
Café du Croissant – rue Montmartre
La Taverne du Croissant with its dark wooden furniture and its wooden floors has a comfortable feel to it but, save for the plaque on the wall outside, there is little to remind one of the event that took place here a hundred years ago.
Auguste Marie Joseph Jean Léon Jaurès was born on 3rd September 1859 in Castres in the south west of France. He was educated in Paris and admitted to the prestigious École normale supérieure in 1878 to study philosophy. He graduated in 1881 and then spent two years teaching philosophy in southern France before taking up a lecturing post at the University of Toulouse.
Jean Jaurès’ political career began in 1885 when he was elected deputy (member of the legislative assembly of the French Parliament) for the Tarn département. He was initially a moderate republican but by the late 1880’s he had fully embraced socialism.
Over the next few years, Jaurès won and lost seats to the National Assembly several times but in 1902 he was returned as the deputy for Albi, a seat he retained until his death.
As well a being a politician, Jaurès was also a journalist. He edited La Petite République, and was, along with Émile Zola, one of the most energetic defenders of Alfred Dreyfus during the notorious Dreyfus Affair. In 1904, he founded the socialist paper L’Humanité, a newspaper that still exists.
At the end of the 19th century, with its leaders either dead or exiled after the failure of the Paris commune in 1871, French socialism was in disarray. It wasn’t until 1905, with the establishment of SFIO, the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (French Section of the Workers’ International) that the Left gained some coherence. SFIO was led by Jules Guesde and Jean Jaurès, but it was Jaurès who quickly became its most influential figure.
Jean Jaurès was also a pacifist, something that was to cost him his life.
As the dark clouds descended over Europe in 1914, Jean Jaurès passionately believed that it was worth trying to use diplomatic means to prevent war. He tried to promote understanding between France and Germany and then, as conflict became imminent, he tried to organise general strikes in France and in Germany in order to force the governments to back down and negotiate. Jaurès though was swimming against the tide. Defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine still loomed large in the minds of the French establishment; revenge for the former and the return of the latter seemed to overshadow Jaurès’ efforts.
Café du Croissant – Inside
On the afternoon of 30th July 1914, Jean Jaurès returned to Paris from an emergency meeting of the International Socialist Bureau of the Second International in Brussels. Austria had already mobilised and upon his arrival in Paris Jaurès learned that Russia had now mobilised as well.
The following morning, the 31st July, Jaurès had a succession of meetings and then, during the afternoon, he went to his newspaper, L’Humanité, to write a piece about ‘antiwar mobilisation’ for publication the following day.
In the evening he went to the Café du Croissant for dinner with four colleagues. Jaurès sat at a table with his back to an open window shielded from the street by a drawn curtain. In the street outside, a 29 year old archaeology student, a member the League of Young Friends of Alsace-Lorraine and a French nationalist, Raoul Villain, stood poised ready to assassinate a man he had never met. He fired two shots from a Smith & Wesson revolver. One shot missed and lodged into some woodwork, the other pierced Jaurès’ skull and he fell dead.
Reaction to Jaurès’ death was mixed, the Left were understandably angry while some on the Right rejoiced but across Europe the reaction was a wave of shock. This seemed to be yet another link in the chain of uncertainty that was engulfing Europe.
Le Temps, one of Paris’ most influential newspapers at the time, lamented that he was extinguished ‘just at the moment when … his oratory was about to become a weapon of national defence‘.¹
Café du Croissant in 2014:
Sitting in the Café du Croissant in 2014 over a cup of coffee with the rain pattering on the windows close to the spot where Jaurès was shot, I couldn’t help thinking about how normal everything seemed, people engaged in conversation, the sound of crockery clinking, the lady behind the bar going about her work.
I also couldn’t help thinking about Jean Jaurès and his ideals and wondering what might have been if his vision that ordinary people acting in sufficient numbers and with sufficient strength could have prevented the terrible slaughter that subsequently unfolded.
Professor Colin Jones sums it up: “The assassination of the eminent socialist Jean Jaurès … removed a leading figure on the Left who might have prevailed against what became an almost Gaderene rush into war”.²
In death, Jean Jaurès received the ultimate accolade the French can bestow. Ten years after his death, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon.
Astonishingly, in 1919, Raoul Villain was acquitted of the murder of Jean Jaurès. On the 17th September 1936 he was shot and killed during the Spanish Civil War. He is buried in the cemetery of Sant Vicent de sa Cala on the island of Ibiza.
Here is an extract from the article Jean Jaurès wrote for his newspaper, l’Humanité, a few hours before his death on 31st July 1914, just three days before war was declared …
“Le plus grand danger à l’heure actuelle n’est pas, si je puis dire, dans les événements eux-mêmes. […] Il est dans l’énervement qui gagne, dans l’inquiétude qui se propage, dans les impulsions subites qui naissent de la peur, de l’incertitude aiguë, de l’anxiété prolongée. […] Ce qui importe avant tout, c’est la continuité de l’action, c’est le perpétuel éveil de la pensée et de la conscience ouvrière. Là est la vraie sauvegarde. Là est la garantie de l’avenir.”
My translation …
“The greatest danger today is not, so to speak, in the events themselves. [...] It is in the nervousness that grows, in the concern that is propagated, in the sudden impulses that arise from fear, of acute uncertainty, prolonged anxiety. [...] What matters above all is the continuity of action, it is the perpetual awakening of thought and of working-class consciousness. That is the real safeguard. That is the guarantee of the future.”
¹‘Catastrophe’ by Max Hastings (page 83)
²‘Paris – The Biography of a City’ by Colin Jones (page 377)
La Taverne du Croissant, 146 rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris
THE OTHER DAY I was walking along the Quai Branly from the Tour Eiffel towards the Pont Bir-Hakeim, the magnificent double-decked bridge that carries traffic, pedestrians and Métro Line 6 across la Seine.
Pont Bir-Hakeim from Quai Branly
Unusually for early February it was a beautiful day. It was warm, the sun was shining and all was well with the world save of course for the constant stream of traffic hurtling along the Quai Branly. I decided to escape at least some of the traffic noise by negotiating some steps down to the towpath beside the river and continuing my journey from there. This towpath is part of the Promenade du quai Branly that stretches from the Pont de l’Alma to Pont Bir-Hakeim and it follows the old railway track from Invalides to Versailles, which is now RER Line C, on one side and the river Seine on the other. The Seine of course is a working river and so there are many boats berthed here along what is known as the Port de Suffren.
As I walked along the towpath my attention was drawn to these two boats. The larger of the two, the white one, is Le Maxim’s, one of three Bateaux Maxim’s owned by the legendary Maxim’s de Paris. The other boat is a working barge.
It wasn’t the sight of these boats that attracted my attention but rather their sounds. The two boats carried by the waves were rocking gently back and forth with each straining at its moorings.
Boats in conversation at Port de Suffren:
It seemed to me as though the two boats were having a conversation; the flighty, high-pitched, sounds from Le Maxim’s being tempered by the more sonorous interjections of the barge straining against the wire hawser stretched over its bow. Even the ever-present traffic noise from the quai Branly above and behind seemed to be partially mitigated by their conversation.
There were many people walking along the towpath on this sunny afternoon but none of them, save for me, stopped to listen to or even seemed to be aware of this nautical chorus.
THIS STREET WAS OPENED in 1865 as the avenue Millaud but in 1897 its name was changed to rue Crémieux in honour of Isaac Moïse also known as Adolphe Crémieux.
Adolphe Crémieux was a French-Jewish lawyer, statesman and a staunch defender of the human rights of the Jews of France. He had a distinguished career but he is perhaps best remembered for the Crémieux Decree of 1870 that secured full citizenship for the Jews in French-ruled Algeria. This was to play a part in the deteriorating relations between the Muslim and Jewish communities and proved fateful in the Algerian War of Independence.
Rue Crémieux is a narrow pedestrianised street in the 12th arrondissement stretching some 144 metres from rue de Bercy to rue de Lyon. It’s most notable for its two rows of colourfully decorated houses.
Sounds in rue Crémieux:
In January 1910, heavy winter rains gave rise to the great flood that engulfed Paris including rue Crémieux. At N° 8, a plaque on the wall indicates the height to which the water reached.
Here are some more of the colourful sights in this street.
IN THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY rue des Lombards and the area close by was the Wall Street of Paris, the city’s banking centre where a vast amount of money changed hands and fortunes and reputations were made and lost.
The street took its name from the large number of money-changers, natives of Lombardy, who established themselves in Paris at the end of the 12th century. At the time when the King and the lords of his court sold prebendaries, bishoprics and benefices by auction the Lombards lent money at a high rate of interest and made immense fortunes.
The Lombard money-changers were obliged to conduct their activities out in the open on the Grand-Pont linking the Cité to the Right Bank which became known as the Pont des Changeurs (Exchange Bridge) now known as the Pont au Change. Whilst these money-changers worked on the bridge most of them lived close by in rue de la Buffeterie which, in 1322, became rue des Lombards. This imprinting of incorporated trades on the urban landscape was quite common with street names quite often being changed to reflect the occupational specialities of the area.
By the fourteenth century political and economic dislocation caused a xenophobic backlash against the Lombards during which their financial expertise was held against them and they became known less as money-changers lubricating the economy and more pejoratively simply as usurers.
As late as the sixteenth century Gabriel Meurier in his book, Trésor des Sentences, xvie siècle, or book of proverbs published in 1568, quotes:
“Dieu me garde de quatre maisons, de la taverne, du Lombard, de l’hôpital et de la prison.”
“God keep me from four houses, the tavern, the Lombards, hospital and prison.”
The parallel between the Lombards in fourteenth century Paris and today’s Wall Street money-changers, and the popular perception of them both, seemed quite uncanny as I walked along rue des Lombards on a dull early November afternoon recording a soundwalk.
Rue des Lombards – A Soundwalk:
Rue des Lombards begins just off Place Sainte-Opportune at rue Sainte-Opportune and stretches for 228 metres to rue Saint-Martin. It crosses the busy nineteenth century Baron Haussmann creation, the Boulevard de Sébastopol and another medieval street, rue Saint-Denis.
If you listen carefully to my soundwalk you will hear the audio aid for blind people at one of the crossings over the Boulevard de Sébastopol.
Today, rue des Lombards is not only one of the oldest but one of the most vibrant streets in Paris. Although my soundwalk was recorded in the afternoon, the street really comes to life at night. It’s renowned for its three jazz clubs, Le Duc des Lombards at the junction with Boulevard de Sébastopol and Le Baiser Salé and Sunset/Sunside, which sit side by side further along rue des Lombards.
N° 14 rue des Lombards is interesting.
Now a restaurant, this is the site a thirteenth-century house built by the Order of the Knights Templar as a place to conduct their business. Inside is a medieval cellar once used as a chapel. During the French Revolution the clergy used to gather here to celebrate Mass in secret. It was also supposed to be the temporary hiding place of François Ravaillac who, on 14th May 1610, stabbed to death King Henry IV as he was passing in rue de la Feronnerie close to rue des Lombards. Ravaillac was arrested outside N° 13 rue de la Ferronnerie. He was tried, tortured and executed by being pulled apart by four horses, a fate reserved for regicides.
N° 13 rue de la Ferronnerie today
Walking along rue de Lombards it’s worth pausing to catch this view from one of the side streets of La Tour Saint-Jacques listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Rue des Lombards was also once famous for confectionary and in particular for La Renommée, the confiserie owned by Nicolas Appert, inventor of airtight food preservation.
As it has for centuries, money still changes hands along this medieval cobbled street but today you’re more likely to part with your cash in one of the Irish pubs, Auvergne bistros or famous jazz clubs than you are buying bishoprics and benefices.
THERE HAS BEEN a road running in a north-south direction from the banks of the Seine towards the original Romanesque church, which was later to become the Église Saint-Sulpice, since the middle of the 13th century. In 1489, that road was formalised into a street named rue de Seine.
Rue de Seine from North to South
Today, rue de Seine runs for some 665 metres across the 6th arrondissement from quai Malaquais to rue Saint-Sulpice. Whilst the name, quai Malaquais, may not be familiar to you, most visitors to Paris will immediately recognise the magnificent building which is the Institut de France and it is directly behind this building that rue de Seine begins.
Institut de France
In a kind of shorthand, this building is often referred to as the Académie Française but that is only partially true. The Institut de France is a French learned society that groups five academies of which one is the Académie Française. The five academies are: the Académie Française, guardian of the French language, founded in 1635, the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (Academy of Humanities) founded in 1663, the Académie des sciences (Academy of Sciences) founded in 1666, the Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts) founded in 1816 and the Académie des sciences morales et politiques (Academy of Moral and Political Sciences) founded in 1795, suppressed in 1803, and re-established in 1832.
Walking from the Louvre, across the Pont des Arts and thorough the Institut de France, I went to explore rue de Seine the other day where I recorded a soundwalk to add to my Paris Soundscapes Archive and I took some pictures to share with you. I also encountered a complete surprise … of which more later.
Rue de Seine – A Soundwalk:
My soundwalk began at N°1 rue de Seine, the house in which Saint Vincent de Paul, the Catholic priest who dedicated himself to serving the poor, once lived. He was canonised in 1737.
Across the street is the Square Honoré-Champion and the statue of the French enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire.
Also in the Square Honoré-Champion, if less conspicuous, is a statue to the French social commentator and political thinker Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, usually simply known as Montesquieu. He is perhaps best remembered for his articulation of the separation of powers now taken for granted by modern governments.
La fontaine du Marché-aux-Carmes
A few steps away from the Square Honoré-Champion, just across the street, is the Square Gabriel Pierné named after Henri Constant Gabriel Pierné a French composer, conductor, and organist. In the Square is la fontaine du Marché-aux-Carmes, which you can hear in my soundwalk. It was created by the French sculptor and painter, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard in 1830 and it was installed in the Square a hundred years later. It’s now a monument historique.
From the fountain in the Square Gabriel Pierné I began walking along rue de Seine accompanied by the sound of building work taking place on the left hand side of the street close to N° 25. I stopped to have a look at N° 25 because this is where Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan once lived. Born around 1611, d’Artagnan served Louis XIV as captain of the Musketeers of the Guard. He died in 1673 at the Siege of Maastricht in the Franco-Dutch War. A fictionalised account of his life by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras formed the basis for the d’Artagnan Romances of Alexandre Dumas, perhaps the most famous of which is The Three Musketeers.
Next door, at N° 27, is the former home of the French poet, Charles Pierre Baudelaire.
Two doors further along, at N° 31, a plaque above the door reveals that Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant, best known by her pseudonym George Sand once lived here. George Sand was a French novelist but she he is equally well-known for her much publicised romantic affairs with a number of well-known people including Frédéric Chopin.
Some time later, the American dancer, artist, poet and philosopher Raymond Duncan, brother of the dancer Isadora Duncan, also lived here.
Across the street, N° 26 is now a boutique but in 1618 it was opened as the cabaret, Au petit Maure. On 29th December 1661, the poet, libetine, soldier and diplomat, Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant died here.
N° 39, now the Hôtel Prince de Condé, was once home to the French engineer and physicist, Claude-Louis Navier, best known for being one half of the Navier–Stokes equations, which everyone knows (everyone except me that is, I had to look it up!) give a description of the velocity of a fluid at a given point in space and time.
And with that nugget of information under my belt I needed a drink and where better than the Café La Palette.
Now a monument historique, the Café La Palette dates from the 1930’s. It has always been associated with artists – Cezanne, Picasso and Braque were frequent visitors, and it’s a favourite haunt of students from the prestigious art school, l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, which is close by.
Rue de Seine from Rue de Buci
If you know what to look for, rue de Seine is a feast of history and that history continues as we walk beyond La Palette where rue de Seine crosses the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area. Once the haunt of intellectuals and revolutionaries and now a favourite tourist spot, this is the world of Jean-Paul Marat and Georges Danton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Juliette Gréco.
Crossing rue de Buci, but on this day too late to enjoy the wonderful street market, my soundwalk takes us up to and across the busy Boulevard Saint-Germain passing cafés and delicious food shops on the way.
Rue Saint-Sulpice – the southern end of rue de Seine
My soundwalk ends beyond the Boulevard Saint-Germain at rue Saint-Sulpice, the southern end of rue de Seine close to the Église Saint-Sulpice. This is perhaps my favourite church in Paris, not least because it has a François-Henri Clicquot organ magnificently restored and improved in 1862 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This organ is considered to be Cavaillé-Coll’s best ever creation and it is perhaps the most impressive instrument of the romantic French symphonic-organ era. Apart from the installation of an electric blower and the addition of two pedal stops the organ remains almost exactly as Cavaillé-Coll left it. And as if that wasn’t enough, two of the finest Cathedral organists ever were resident organists in this church, Charles-Marie Widor from1870 to1933 and Marcel Dupré from1934 to 1971.
I know I’ve digressed a little but magnificent church organs are one of my passions and the one in the Église Saint-Sulpice is as good as they get.
I haven’t though yet quite finished with the rue de Seine. At the southern tip of rue de Seine close to rue Saint-Sulpice is this gem that takes us back to the early history to be found at the northern end of the street.
Founded in 1643, Maison de Cire Trudon is the oldest candle maker in the world. It supplied candles and candle holders to the royal court of Louis XIV, as well as most of the great churches of France. Cire Trudon still make and distribute candles throughout France and across the world and they still have the original wax recipes as well as the original moulds used to form candles bearing the royal blazons.
When I was out collecting the sounds and pictures for this blog piece I thought that Cire Trudon at the southern end of rue de Seine with it’s historic connection, by date at least, with the northern end of the street where I began my soundwalk would bring this blog piece to an obvious conclusion. And so it would have had I not decided to retrace my steps to head for the Métro station Louvre-Rivoli and home.
I walked back along rue de Seine as far as the Café La Palette where I stopped, found a table outside, sat down, ordered a coffee and took out my rather dog-eared Moleskine notebook to make notes for this blog piece. Pausing to sip my coffee, I looked up and sitting two tables down from me was a man I thought I vaguely recognised. He was casually dressed but there were three men in suits hovering around him and a very smartly dressed young lady sitting by his side. I returned to my notes and then, in one of those lightening flashes that sometimes strikes one, it came to me. The casually dressed man sitting just two tables from me was the former Président de la République, Jacques Chirac.
He seemed to be on good form if more frail than I remember him from the TV and when he came to leave he had difficulty walking and the men in suits had to support him. And, no, I didn’t take a picture or record his voice – it simply didn’t seem appropriate.
It does show though that if you keep your eyes and ears open being a soundwalking flaneur can sometimes throw up the most unexpected surprises.
As a final note, perhaps I can mention that my soundwalk in rue de Seine is one of the longest sound pieces I’ve published on this blog. The conventional wisdom is that people tend not to listen to sound pieces for longer than two or three minutes at a time because they either lose interest or have something more pressing to do. I think it’s a function of the sound-bite world we have become used to.
In my sound recording practice I take the view that it is not the sound recordist or the listener who dictates how long a sound piece should be but rather the sounds themselves. Sounds need both time and space to breath, to speak and to tell their own story – and the sounds themselves will tell you how long they need to speak. A three minute sound-bite of the edited highlights of rue de Seine would be rather like reading a newspaper headline and completely ignoring the article beneath. It simply wouldn’t tell the story or reflect the sonic tapestry of the street.
So, if you have the time, I encourage you to listen to the whole sound piece. It is after all unique. The sound colours and textures are those that I recorded at that time and on that day. Tomorrow, both they and the actors will have changed and the sounds will be different.
A SOUNDWALK ALONG the rue de la Convention in the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon doesn’t I’m afraid reveal some of the more intriguing and delicate sounds sometimes to be found in Paris. It does though reveal sounds that are familiar to all city dwellers and typical of all too many Parisian streets so I thought they deserved to be recorded.
Rue de la Convention from Pont Mirabeau
Rue de la Convention – A Soundwalk:
Rue de la Convention begins at the elegant Pont Mirabeau and stretches for a little over 2km to the southwest to Place Charles-Vallin. The whole street is in the 15th arrondissement and it takes its name from the Convention Nationale, the revolutionary assembly that sat from 1792 – 1795 and which, amongst other things, abolished the French Monarchy and set up the République.
Some places of interest along the street include, at N° 27, the site of the former Imprimerie Nationale. Founded by Cardinal Richelieu this used to be the official printing works of the French Government.
The Imprimerie Nationale ceased to operate from this site in 2003 and the French Government sold the printing machinery to a French printing firm and the buildings to the Carlyle group for 85 million euros. In a staggering display of ineptitude, the same buildings were repurchased by the French Government in 2007 for 376,5 million euros for use by part of the Ministère des Affaires étrangères, the French Foreign Ministry.
At N° 28 is the église Saint-Christophe-de-Javel. Designed by the French architect, Charles-Henri Besnard and consecrated in 1930, the church is built in a modern style making extensive use of reinforced concrete using a method patented by Besnard a few years before.
Inside l’église Saint-Christophe-de-Javel – Image via Wikipedia
Further along rue de la Convention we come to N° 78. Today it’s a school and cultural centre but it was once the Hôpital Boucicaut.
Marguerite Boucicaut, wife of Aristide Boucicaut, founder of the first department store in Paris, Au Bon Marché, funded the building of the hospital. It was opened in 1897 with 206 beds some of which were reserved for employees of Au Bon Marché. The Hôpital Boucicaut was finally decommissioned in the year 2000 when its services were transferred to the then brand new Hôpital Européen Georges-Pompidou.
There are two other reminders of the Boucicaut family in rue de la Convention …
… this bus stop outside the former Hôpital Boucicaut and the Métro station a little further up the street.
The rue de la Convention continues in a more or less straight line up to the next Métro station, Convention, where it crosses the longest street in Paris, rue de Vaugirard.
Beyond the rue de Vaugirard, rue de la Convention goes up to Place Charles-Vallin where it terminates and morphs into the rue de Vouillé.
A soundwalk along rue de la Convention reveals a sonic environment typical of many Parisian streets. The ordinary but often interesting and intriguing everyday sounds are shrouded in a cloak of unremitting noise pollution – and I use the word noise advisedly.
Take the sound of traffic for example. In my experience, certainly in this city, the quantity of sound emitted by the traffic seems to expand in proportion to the width of the street and as it does so, the quality of the sound deteriorates.
In some of the narrow streets of Paris the sound of the traffic can actually be quite appealing. There’s often less traffic, it tends to move more slowly and the sound of rubber gently swishing over the pavé can have a soothing, almost hypnotic effect. The rue de la Convention on the other hand is 34 metres wide and, although not the widest street in Paris, it’s wide enough to attract a copious amount of traffic moving faster than sometimes seems necessary. Consequently, the sound of the traffic loses any appeal to the ear and the individual traffic sounds that can be so attractive in a narrow, cobbled street, seem to meld into an amorphous mass of indistinguishable sounds that turn into unwelcome noise. Inevitably, the other non-traffic sounds get pushed to the margins or consumed altogether.
So, why do a soundwalk in a street on a busy Saturday afternoon when capturing individual sounds is clearly going to be a challenge?
Well, it’s precisely because it is such a challenge that I feel compelled to do it. There must be individual, interesting sounds there – there almost always are, so it’s simply a question of hunting them down. By listening attentively to the sounds around me and distinguishing the wheat from the chaff it is often possible to tease out distinctive, individual sounds from the cloak of noise pollution.
Hildegard Westerkamp, a pioneer of the soundwalk, said that, “A soundwalk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are.”
And soundwalking is one of the techniques I use for capturing the sounds of Paris. It’s an immersive process that involves observing through active listening and it requires intense concentration. The aim of a soundwalk is to capture the mélange of sounds that create the atmosphere of a place and sometimes the individual sounds that might help to define it.
A soundwalk of course never provides a definitive sonic definition of a place, sounds are dynamic, they change in tune with the time of day or night and the seasons of the year, the actors are constantly changing and the rhythm of activity ebbs and flows. But soundwalks are important because they capture the sonic experience of a place at a specific moment and listened to carefully they enable us to experience not only the obvious sounds but the less obvious ones too.
When I do a soundwalk I don’t walk along a street with a microphone and sound recorder simply pointing and shooting, passively capturing the sounds immediately around me – although that is a perfectly legitimate way to do a soundwalk. For me, soundwalking is a very active and intense process. Instead of walking in a straight line pointing and shooting, I meander along the street capturing the general ambience but also exploring, hunting out the individual sounds and deciding how to capture them to best advantage sometimes against a hostile background of incessant traffic noise. Over the years I’ve learned how to employ this technique without interrupting the flow of the soundwalk. It’s all about acute observation, attentive listening and reacting quickly.
By now, you may have listened to my soundwalk in rue de la Convention. Actually, it’s only part of the whole soundwalk that I did. It’s the stretch from the former Hôpital Boucicaut to just beyond the intersection with the rue de Vaugirard – about one quarter of the entire street.
At the start of the street at the Pont Mirabeau the traffic noise is interminable, it’s completely overpowering and there’s simply no escape from it. Coming up the rue de la Convention, the traffic passes in waves in tune with the traffic lights along the street. There‘s a brief intermission just beyond the intersection with rue de Vaugirard where the street narrows and then the traffic noise returns as the rue de la Convention approaches its end at Place Charles-Vallin.
For this blog post I’ve only included the sounds of the intermediate section of the street because it gives the best flavour of the contrasting sounds to be found in the rue de la Convention on a busy Saturday afternoon. The recording of my entire soundwalk from one end of rue de la Convention to the other has of course has been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive for future generations to explore and to study.
Sitting in a café on rue de la Convention after my soundwalk I couldn’t help wondering why, in a city with such an exemplary and affordable public transport system, so many people should choose to use cars for inner city journeys and how many, if any at all, ever contemplate the environmental footprint they selfishly foist upon the rest of us.
And finally … if you’re walking along any street whether you’re soundwalking or not, always remember to look up because fascinating things are often to be found above you.