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15
Feb

The Pont National and its Sounds

LET’S BEGIN WITH some geography! If you look at a map of Paris you will see that the city is more or less in the shape of a circle with the circumference circumscribed by the wall of traffic that is the Boulevard Périphérique. The Périphérique in effect delineates the Paris city limits, the area within the Périphérique is considered to be Paris and the immediate area beyond, the suburbs.

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As you can see from this map, the River Seine crosses Paris in a semi-circle across the south of the city. The river flows from right to left as you look at the map so it enters the city upstream from the south-east and it leaves downstream from the south-west after passing through the centre of the city. The area within the semi-circle to the south is known as the Left Bank and everything to the north, the Right Bank.

Paris is well known for its bridges and there are thirty-seven of them crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits. However, if you look at a Paris city map and count the named bridges you will come to a total of thirty-five rather than thirty-seven. The discrepancy is accounted for by the two bridges that that carry the Boulevard Périphérique over la Seine, neither of which has an official name. Unofficially though, they do have names: the one that crosses in the south-east is known as Pont Amont, amont being French for ‘upstream’ and the one that crosses in the south-west is known as Pont Aval – and yes, you’ve guessed it, aval is French for ‘downstream’.

I’ve set myself the task of exploring all thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. As well as exploring the history of each bridge I’m also attempting to identify the characteristic sounds of each bridge. I’ve already discovered that some of the bridges do have characteristic sounds, the sounds on, under or around the bridges and in a few cases, and more excitingly, the sounds of the actual bridges themselves.

The work I’m doing on this Paris Bridges project (that’s the working title at the moment) is not specifically designed for this blog but rather for an audio documentary that I plan to produce. I will however publish cameo blog pieces like this one from time to time to illustrate the work I’m doing.

The other day, I went to explore the first of the named upstream bridges, the Pont National.

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Pont National looking from upstream

The Pont National was built between 1852 and 1853 during the Second Empire and was originally named the Pont Napoleon III. It became the Pont National in 1870.

The bridge is 188.5 metres long, it’s made up of five stone arches and it was originally built as a railway bridge to carry the Petite Ceinture across the Seine and to link the fortifications on either side.

Built between 1852 and 1869, the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture, or “little belt railway”, was the first public urban transportation service in Paris and was the forerunner of today’s Paris Métro. It comprised a thirty-five kilometre line that encircled Paris and it was built mainly for transporting goods between the five main railway stations in Paris but it also offered a public transport service up until 1934.

The first Paris Métro line opened in 1900 with more modern and more rapid rolling stock together with more comfortable stations and more competitive prices than the Petite Ceinture. Consequently, the urban passenger service of the Petite Ceinture gradually began to decline. In addition, the local goods traffic grew. The Petite Ceinture operators used the loss of passenger traffic to decrease the number of passenger train movements and increase the number of goods train movements since the transportation of goods was much more lucrative than transporting urban passengers. Eventually, the urban passenger service ceased on 22 July 1934 and was replaced by a bus service. Today, twenty-three kilometres of the railway tracks of the Petite Ceinture remain including the original tracks across the Pont National.

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Picture taken from the centre of the Pont National looking downstream with the surviving Petite Ceinture tracks in the foreground

With the demise of the Petite Ceinture the Pont National lost its original purpose and so in 1936 work began to widen the bridge to accommodate road traffic. When the work was completed in 1944 the bridge had expanded to a width of 34 metres.

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Today, as well as carrying the surviving tracks of the Petite Ceinture and the roadway, the Pont National also carries two footpaths, one on the upstream side of the bridge and one on the downstream side.

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It also carries a cycle lane on the downstream side …

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And, as though bringing the original purpose of the bridge back to life, the Pont National now has two relatively new rail tracks spanning the length of the bridge.

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These tracks don’t carry rail traffic today but they do carry the trams of Tram Line 3, the line that circles Paris following the site of the old military road that ran along the inside of the fortified Thiers Wall, the last defensive wall surrounding Paris.

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And, along with the constant flow of traffic, it is these trams plying back and forth across la Seine that give the Pont National its characteristic sound from on the bridge.

Sounds on the Pont National:


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While we can say that the sound of the trams are the characteristic sound of the Pont National from on the bridge these sounds represent only one sonic perspective of the bridge. What happens if we listen under the bridge?

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Well, it is possible to go under one arch of the bridge and from there we can get a different sonic perspective.

Sounds under the Pont National:


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We can hear the sound of the traffic and the trams passing overhead almost as a mirror image of the sounds on the bridge but with less precise definition. We can also hear the bridge groan from time to time whilst carrying its burden above. The constant sound though on this particular day is the sound of dripping water and this is a very functional sound. It’s the sound of water pouring out of the bottom of a large drainpipe, which is draining rainwater from the roadway above. As I was recording these sounds it was raining heavily and so the drainpipe was working overtime.

As I was about to stop recording under the bridge, a ready-mix concrete lorry passed by me under the arch and this brings me on to another sonic perspective of the Pont National.

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Pont National from the Pont de Tolbiac

The Pont National does not of course stand in isolation, it’s very much part of its environment and since the mid nineteenth-century the area around the bridge has been the industrial heart of Paris.

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At one end of the Pont National is the old and now closed Gare Frigorifique de Paris Bercy. Opened in 1906, this station with its refrigeration facility was built specifically to receive wine destined for the ‘Entrepôt des Vins’ in nearby Bercy, at the time the largest commercial wine distribution centre in the world. In the nineteenth century most wine arrived in Paris by boat and could only be sold in the city after passing through Customs but by the late twentieth century wine could be shipped directly from the French vineyards to the rest of the world without having to pass through Paris and so the need for the ‘Entrepôt des Vins’ declined and eventually it and this station were abandoned.

Today the immediate area around the Pont National has its fair share of large corporate offices but it’s more particularly associated with cement, concrete and aggregates for use in the building industry.

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The French industrial company Lafarge occupies the Right Bank between the Pont National and the Pont de Tolbiac …

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… and the Mexican company Cemex occupies the Left Bank.

Both of these companies rely heavily on industrial barges to bring in their raw materials.

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Industrial barges like this one travel up and down la Seine all the time and so it’s not surprising that their sounds form a third sonic perspective of the Pont National – the sounds around the bridge.

Sounds around the Pont National:


One of the things I find fascinating about these barges is that they leave a long sonic footprint generated by their wake that can last sometimes long after the barge has passed.  I find these sonic footprints as acoustically interesting as the sound of the barges themselves.

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Pont National looking from downstream

I went to explore the Pont National as part of my research for my Paris Bridges audio documentary. So what did I learn?

I learned that bridges like this have a history and associations, which are themselves worth exploring. I learned that this bridge at least does have some characteristic sounds but what those sounds are depends upon where you’re listening from. Although I was able to capture three sonic perspectives of the bridge – on it, under it and around it, the fourth perspective eluded me. Save for hearing the occasional groan of the bridge from underneath, I was unable to capture the sound of the bridge, the sound of the bridge itself speaking.  But I won’t give up, the sounds are in there somewhere and I shall return with my contact microphones and attempt to capture the sounds inside the structure of the bridge to complete the sonic tapestry of the Pont National.

What I also learned was something that I knew already. The contemporary sounds tapestry of the Pont National is not only fascinating but it’s also important.

For the average person crossing or passing by the Pont National, these sounds, if heard at all, will simply be part of the everyday sound tapestry that accompanies their lives, at best taken for granted and at worst, ignored. But these sounds are important because they are not only part of our contemporary urban soundscape but also part of our sonic heritage.

It’s a sad fact, but most of our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded. For example, we can find pictures and written descriptions of the Pont National at the end of the nineteenth-century but we have no record of its sounds, even though the sounds are part of the very fabric of the bridge. What would the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture have sounded like to us if we had stood on or under the bridge as it passed? Would the barges have sounded the same as they do today? What sounds would we have heard then that we don’t hear now?

It is questions like these that compel me to record and preserve the sounds that make up our contemporary urban soundscape. In time these sounds will become history but, unlike in the nineteenth-century and before, we are now able to record and preserve that history for future generations to explore, to study and to enjoy. I think that’s worth doing.

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10
Feb

Paris Celebrates The Year of the Wooden Horse

IT’S THAT TIME OF the year again, Chinese New Year. Last year was the year of the water snake and this year it’s the year of the wooden horse.

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On Sunday, the 13th arrondissement was awash with people participating in and watching the glittering annual parade to celebrate Chinese New Year. The parade began in the Avenue d’Ivry and wound its way along Avenue de Choisy, Place d’Italie, Avenue d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac, Boulevard Massena and back to Avenue d’Ivry in south-central Paris. I along with thousands of others lined the streets to listen to and watch the spectacle. As always, it was a magnificent cavalcade of sound and colour.

Sounds of the year of the wooden horse:


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6
Feb

Boats in Conversation at Port de Suffren

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

31
Jan

Paris Métro Station Jaurès – A Sound Portrait

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.

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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.

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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.

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Paris Métro Station Jaurès – A Sound Portrait:


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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23
Jan

A Small Piano – A Big Sound

WHATEVER THE TIME of year, street musicians can be found all over Paris plying their trade and bringing sunshine to the passers by.

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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:


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16
Jan

Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Suresnes – A Soundwalk

A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago, just before the turn of the year, I spent an afternoon walking along the banks of la Seine from Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Sursenes.  Here, the communes of Puteaux and Sursenes sit on one side of the river and on the other side is the western edge of the Bois de Boulogne on the very edge of Paris.

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I like this walk, I do it three or four times a year, but I’ve never featured it on this blog and it wasn’t my intention to do so on this particular winter’s day. The narration accompanying this walk was intended originally for my personal audio diary but it did occur to me afterwards that it might be of passing interest to those not familiar with this fairly well hidden pathway along the banks of la Seine.  So here is the record of my walk on a perfect winter’s day.

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Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Sursenes – A Soundwalk:


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The Water Tower

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Ouvrages de Suresnes – The Weir

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Pont de Suresnes

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Péniche ‘Pourquoi Pas’

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A Passing Barge – A ‘Pusher’

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La Seine from Pont de Suresnes

9
Jan

Pont Saint Michel And Its Sounds

WHAT DO YOU DO in Paris on a rainy Saturday afternoon in early January?

Well, while the post-Christmas tourists were busy doing their thing, and there seemed to be very many of them this year, I spent the afternoon standing under a Parisian bridge doing what I enjoy doing most – listening. And my bridge of choice for this particular Saturday afternoon was the Pont Saint Michel.

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The Pont Saint Michel is certainly not the most elegant of the many bridges that traverse la Seine, it took only seven months to build, but it does have a particularly rich sound environment which is why I’m attracted to it.

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The present day Pont Saint Michel was built in 1857. It’s 62 metres long, it has three arches each 17.2 metres wide and it links the Left Bank of the Seine to the oldest part of Paris, the Île de la Cité. It’s not though the first bridge to cross la Seine at this point. The first bridge to do so was opened in 1387.

The original bridge was built of stone and like all the medieval bridges in Paris it wasn’t long before houses appeared on it. This proved to be catastrophic when in the terrible winter of 1407 – 1408, one of the longest and most severe recorded in medieval times, ice carried by the frozen river hit the bridge and caused it and all the houses on it to collapse. A wooden replacement bridge was built soon after again with houses on it.

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Pont Saint Michel in 1577  -  Image via Wikipedia

This wooden bridge was replaced in 1623 with a bridge comprising both wood and stone designed to hold two rows of houses. It wasn’t until 1786 that an order was issued to remove all the houses from Paris bridges but even so, the houses remained on the Pont Saint Michel until 1808.

And then in 1857 the present day bridge, designed by the French engineer Paul-Martin Gallocher de Lagalisserie, was built.

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So much for the history – so what about to the sounds around the Pont Saint Michel?

Pont Saint Michel and its sounds:


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On this rainy, rather dreary, Saturday afternoon I approached Pont Saint Michel along the Quai de Conti from the Pont Neuf recording as I went but as the rain got worse I took shelter under the bridge.

Because of the wind, la Seine was a little rougher than usual and as I walked along the Quai de Conti I was able to capture the delicious sound of a boat creaking at its mooring as it gently rode the waves.  I also captured the sounds of a couple of fairly sparsely populated tourist boats as they passed by.

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Standing under the Pont Saint Michel I could see in one direction the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris and in the other direction part of the Pont Neuf, which when seen in all its glory is one of the most elegant bridges in Paris.

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Standing under the Pont Saint Michel I recorded the sounds of the river sloshing its way through the arch of the bridge in front of me. And then, as two more tourist boats approached, I decided to see what they sounded like from underneath the water as they passed. So engrossed was I with getting my microphone into the water in just the right place that I was completely unaware that the wash from the wake of a boat that had just passed was spilling over my vantage point and was about to engulf my feet. So captivated was I listening to the underwater sounds that it was only when I retrieved my microphone from under the water that I realised that my feet were equally as wet as the microphone.

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Undaunted, I continued to record as two more boats passed, a Bateaux Mouches, the largest of the tourist boats to ply la Seine and the one with the loudest commentary which sounds out in several languages. Following the Bateaux Mouches came one of the smaller boats, the Batobus, the hop-on hop-off water bus that stops at eight of the key tourist spots in the city.

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Listening to the sounds around Parisian bridges might not be everyone’s idea of an afternoon’s entertainment but for me it was very enjoyable and time well spent. And my Paris Soundscapes Archive is richer for it.

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3
Jan

Paris – A Personal View

I am delighted to present a new piece in my Paris – A Personal View series.

For each piece in the series I invite a guest who lives in or has a close connection to Paris to visit one of their favourite places or a place in the city that has a special meaning for them. With access to a microphone and sound recorder the guest talks about the place and tell us why it’s special to them.

Today my guest is Heather Munro.

Heather Munro

Heather is a writer, editor and photographer (though not always in that order) who grew up in Great Britain, Mexico and Peru (in exactly that order) before finally settling down in the United States. Whenever she is able, she greatly enjoys travelling and discovering new places and new cultures. But of all the places she’s visited, Paris is still her favourite.

This is Heather’s second contribution to my Paris – A Personal View series. Last year she told us about the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris and why it is important to her. This time her chosen place is …

The Catacombes de Paris – The Empire of the Dead.

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Heather says …

“In January of 2013, I had the privilege of meeting Des and talking about the Notre Dame cathedral. It was such a wonderful experience that Des was among the very first people I contacted when I learned I’d be returning to Paris. Through our correspondence, I discovered that he hadn’t yet visited another of my favourite Paris places. And although the catacombs may seem like an odd choice for soundwalk, I realised in hindsight that a tour of these dark tunnels was in fact the perfect companion to our previous piece about Notre Dame, the monument that for me most symbolizes the City of Light. I extend warm thanks to Des for another extraordinary Paris experience.”

Heather Munro at the Catacombes de Paris:


Stairs into the catacombs

A simple stone staircase takes visitors about 65 feet below the streets of Paris into a small portion of the sprawling network of tunnels known as ‘the catacombs’

Tunnel entrance 2

This curving tunnel is typical of the first half of the catacombs tour. Visitors must walk through tunnels like this for over a mile before they arrive at the ossuary.

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Above and below … The sculptures of Décure

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The Arche Fontis

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A white plastic tag in the roof to measure the movement of the crack

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Above and below … The entrance to the ossuary – The Empire of the Dead

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The Cloche de Fontis

I am very grateful to Heather for giving up so much time on her busy European trip to record this visit to the Catacombes de Paris and for the opportunity to meet her husband, Steve, for the first time. My thanks to them both for their company and hospitality.

You can listen to Heather’s Personal View of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris here and you can catch up with more of her adventures at HeatherBlog and on her website.

Heather Munro narrated this visit to the Catacombes de Paris and took all the photographs. The sound was recorded by me, Des Coulam.

Courtesy Note:

Unlike other sounds on this blog, the sound piece ‘Heather Munro at the Catacombes de Paris’ is not covered by a Creative Commons license. The copyright for this piece rests jointly and exclusively with Heather Munro and Des Coulam.  It follows therefore that the downloading of this piece for any purpose is not permitted without the express permission of both Heather and Des. We have no wish to spoil your enjoyment of this piece but simply ask you to respect that the work is ours. The copyright for the pictures rests exclusively with Heather Munro. Thanks for understanding.

28
Dec

Christmas Day in the Jardin des Tuileries

I SPENT THE AFTERNOON of Christmas Day in the Jardin des Tuileries.  The weather was perfect with bright sunshine and a gentle breeze.

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I had rather expected the Jardin des Tuileries to be a haven of tranquillity, this was Christmas Day after all … but it was not so.  I discovered that lots of other people had also decided to spend the afternoon of Christmas Day in this former garden of the Tuileries Palace created by Catherine de Medicis in 1564.

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On the afternoon of Christmas Day people were doing what they’ve always done here, meeting friends, promenading and relaxing.

And what was I doing? I was listening to the feast of sounds around me – footsteps over the gravel, half-heard conversations, distinctive Parisian park chairs being hauled into just the right place, birds scavenging for their Christmas lunch, tourists admiring the Louvre, a student singing and two Gendarmes on horseback passing in front of the Café Marly.

So here are the sights and sounds I enjoyed on the afternoon of Christmas Day.

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Christmas Day in the Jardin des Tuileries:


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24
Dec

My Audio Christmas Card 2013

CHRISTMAS IS UPON US, so it’s time for me to publish my audio Christmas card for 2013.  It’s made up of just a handful of the many sounds of Paris that I’ve recorded during this year.

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My Audio Christmas Card 2013:


This audio Christmas card is dedicated 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 2014.

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