AHEAD OF THE PARLIAMENTARY debate about controversial changes to the French labour laws, people took to the streets of Paris again last Sunday. This May Day demonstration was another in a series of protests and strikes opposing the proposed changes embodied in the loi El Khomri.
One characteristic of the opposition to the loi El Khomri is the active involvement of students in the protests.
France has a long history of youth protest movements – from May 1968 to the rallies against pension reform in 2010 – but a relatively new phenomenon has emerged this year, the Nuit Debout (Arise at Night), a movement similar to the Occupy initiative that mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in 2011.
Since 31st March this year, students and others have been ‘occupying’ Place de la République in Paris throughout the night to ‘reflect on the future of our world’, according to their website. Similar movements have also sprung up elsewhere in France.
And students have been particularly vociferous in their opposition to the loi El Khomri.
Leading the official May Day manifestation in Paris were representatives of Force Ouvrière, one of the five main union federations in France and ahead of them, in an unofficial demonstration, were students under the watchful eye of the police.
And, of course, I was there too recording the events.
Sounds of the Manifestation du Premier Mai:
I arrived in Place de la Bastille to find a large collection of musicians occupying the steps of the l’Opéra Bastille. I stopped to listen to them for a while before making my way along the line of demonstrators forming up in Rue de Lyon. At the head of the line was the Force Ouvrière contingent together with burly men forming a protective cordon. Inside the cordon the press pack were gathered, radio, TV and newspaper journalists, and so I joined them.
Surviving in the midst of a predatory press pack could be the subject of a blog post all of its own but suffice it to say that with considerable chutzpah and judicious use of my elbows I managed to get close to the front of the pack to record the secrétaire général de Force ouvrière, Jean-Claude Mailly, speaking to the press. You can listen to what he had to say five minutes into my sound piece above.
When he was asked about the prospect of violence occurring during the demonstration, Monsieur Mailly said that he was only responsible for the actions of his group and not for the actions of others and the police were there to prevent violence.
No sooner had he said that than the first arrest of the day was made just a few metres ahead of us to which the crowd responded.
One of the unpleasant features of the recent demonstrations has been the presence of casseurs (smashers or breakers) – hooded or masked youths infiltrating demonstrations, smashing shop windows, torching cars, beating and robbing passers-by and throwing assorted missiles at the police. The young man arrested close to us was one of these casseurs.
The manifestation processed from Place de la Bastille to Place de la Nation but I didn’t go with them. Instead, I stayed in Rue de Lyon and recorded all of the demonstrators as they passed me, the majority of whom were perfectly good-natured.
As I am writing this, the French parliament are debating the loi El Khomri and protestors are camped out in the streets making their voices heard.
As it stands, the proposed new law pleases neither the unions nor the employers – and certainly not the students. How this impasse is resolved remains to be seen but I can’t help feeling that there could be many more recording opportunities still to come before the matter is settled.
AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS of planning and five years of construction work, La Canopée des Halles was officially opened on 5th April.
Designed by the architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti, La Canopée is a gigantic 7,000-ton steel structure shaped in vegetable-inspired curves covering nearly 2.5 hectares of Les Halles in the 1st arrondissement.
La Canopée stands on the site of the traditional central market of Paris dating from 1183. In the 1850s, Victor Baltard designed the famous glass and iron pavilions, Les Halles, which featured in Émile Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris, (The Belly of Paris), set in the busy market of the 19th century.
View of Les Halles from Saint-Eustache in 1870
In the 1970s, the Les Halles market closed and moved out to Rungis on the outskirts of the city. All of Baltard’s glass and iron pavilions were dismantled, save for two which survived and have since been re-erected, one in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne and the other in Yokohama, Japan.
The Baltard Pavilion at Nogent-sur-Marne
The closure of Les Halles left a vacuum, a vacuum filled by an eminently forgettable spasm of 1970s urban renewal – a claustrophobic underground shopping mall and flimsy street-level pavilions.
Speaking at the Canopée opening ceremony, Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris said, “We had to fix this broken place.”
La Canopée is part of a €1 billion project to ‘fix this broken place’; to re-integrate it into the urban environment and make it a more agreeable experience for everyone who uses it.
With a maximum span of 96 metres, La Canopée incorporates 15 translucent slats made of sheet glass, which provide natural ventilation and, at either end, glass awnings offer shelter to the street-level pedestrian walkways. La Canopée also captures solar energy from photovoltaic panels mounted on the north and south buildings as well as rainwater, which will be used to feed the fountains in the neighbouring, still to be constructed, gardens.
Together, the north and south wings of the Canopée accommodate a number of spacious and diversified cultural facilities including a 2,600 square metre conservatory, offering instruction in music, drama and dance as well as concerts, master classes and lectures. There is a 1,050 square metre library, over 1,000 square metres of public workshop and studio space for amateurs and professionals of all hues, a hip-hop centre where young people can express themselves, as well as a swimming pool and a cinema.
And, of course, let’s not forget the more than 6,000 square metres of underground retail shopping.
Sounds under La Canopée des Halles:
Whether or not the Canopée des Halles becomes what the Mayor of Paris has called, ‘the new heart of Paris’, remains to be seen but for me at least it is certainly an improvement on the ‘broken place’ that preceded it.
LED BY STUDENT GROUPS and labour unions, thousands of people gathered in Place de la République in Paris on Saturday afternoon to step up their campaign against the government’s controversial labour reform bill. This was the latest in a series of strikes and protests against the bill and further protests are expected at the end of April.
The architect of the labour reform bill is Myriam El Khomri, the Minister of Labour, and so the bill has adopted her name, becoming the Loi El Khomri. She says the reforms will encourage businesses to hire more workers by deregulating many aspects of France’s notoriously rigid labour laws.
In 2012, François Hollande was elected French President on a pledge to curb unemployment and make ‘youth’ his priority, yet unemployment in France remains stubbornly high at around 10% and unemployment for the under-25s has crept up to an alarming 26%.
Hollande, currently the most unpopular president in France’s recent history, has said that he will not run again for the presidency in 2017 if he cannot cut the country’s high unemployment figures and he hopes the labour reforms will encourage firms to hire more staff.
However, pressure from the street and from parliament has caused the government to water down the proposals so that they apply only to large firms.
Parliament is set to vote on the reforms in late April or early May.
I went Place de la République on Saturday afternoon to mingle with the demonstrators and to record the sounds of protest.
Sounds of the manifestation contre la Loi El Khomri:
There was an almost festive atmosphere to the manifestation tarnished only by some masked youths who clashed briefly with police near Place de la Bastille.
Trouble at large street demonstrations in Paris is unusual and I believe one reason for that is the power of sound. Sound is an integral part of the demonstration; the chanting, with its subtle use of rhythm and repetition, creates a sound architecture that allows the people to speak and to be heard but it also imposes a discipline on the crowd as well as retaining their interest and enthusiasm.
It seems to me that if the demonstrators feel that they are acting together in an orchestrated way and that their voice is being heard then perhaps they are less likely to resort to indiscriminate violence to make their point.
If you want to know more about the labour reform bill, this is the complete texte du projet de loi El Khomri.
ON SUNDAY MORNING, 41,317 runners representing 149 countries set off along the 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 kilometres) of the 40th edition of the Schneider Electric Marathon de Paris.
The race began in the Champs Elysées and made its way through the city to the Bois de Vincennes in the east before coming back to the Bois de Boulogne in the west and the finish in Avenue Foch.
At the start, the runners take up position in the Champs Elysées in groups based upon their expected finish times.
The Handisport athletes, led by the Handisport fauteuil, the wheelchair competitors, set off some ten minutes ahead of the main field followed by the Handisport debout, the Handisport runners.
Next comes a convoy of the Gendarmerie on motorcycles followed by official cars, the lead timing car and a truck full of press photographers and TV crews. The France Televisions helicopter hovers overhead.
In the convoy’s wake come the elite runners followed by the préférentials, the best of the rest.
The elite runners
In amongst the following pack, the leading women runners appear, including Visiline Jepkesho, in the yellow vest and blue shorts in the picture below, who went on to win the women’s race.
After that, the runners appear in successive waves based upon their expected finish time.
This year, as in previous years, I recorded the sounds of the Paris Marathon from the one-mile post in Rue de Rivoli. I record from here because the runners are still reasonably well bunched up at this point and I’m able to capture the sounds of all the 41,317 runners and their footsteps passing by. This year it took a little over two hours for all the runners to pass me and I recorded the sounds of every one of them.
Paris Marathon 2016:
Although my original recording is over two hours long, I’ve edited it down for this blog to a 20 minute ‘time-lapse’ sound piece, which begins with the wheelchair athletes passing followed by the elite runners and then sounds from each of the following waves of runners.
This year, Cybrian Kotut from Kenya won the men’s race in a personal best time of 2 hours 7 minutes and 13 seconds and for the women, Vaseline Jepkesho, also from Kenya, won in a time of 2 hours 25 minutes and 53 seconds. This meant that Cybrian Kotut crossed the finish line before the last of the runners passed me one mile from the start!
France fielded most runners for this year’s marathon followed by the United Kingdom and the United States. A quarter of the runners were women who weighed in with an average age of 40 and for the men, the average age was 41.
Along with 47 defibrillators and 380 massage therapists, physical therapists, podiatrists and chiropractors; 23 tons of bananas, 16 tons of oranges, 7 tons of apples, 412,500 sugar cubes and 482,000 bottles of Vittel were deployed around the course.
And while most of the runners found it hard going, some managed to negotiate the course in luxury.
The last runner to complete the course finished in a time of 8 hours 11 minutes and 31 seconds.
And spare a thought for the last two runners to leave the Champs Elysées both of whom passed me at the one-mile point comfortingly close to two ambulances.
NAMED AFTER THE French socialist, journalist, songwriter and communard, Place Jean-Baptiste Clément sits atop the Butte de Montmartre between Rue Norvins and Rue Lepic.
To the passing tourists perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Place Jean-Baptiste Clément is an unnamed octagonal structure hidden behind iron railings.
This structure is now home to la Commanderie du Clos Montmartre, an association bringing together wine lovers of Paris, but in the 19th century it was essential to the survival of the inhabitants hereabouts. It is in fact the remains of la fontaine du Château d’eau de Montmartre, the first water tower in Montmartre.
Montmartre sits on top of a hill and because of its altitude and topography getting water up to the 19th century village was a major problem. To alleviate this the water tower, powered by a hydraulic pump installed on the banks of the Seine at Saint-Ouen, was built in 1835. The water tower was abandoned at the end of the 19th century and replaced by reservoirs built close to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
While the water tower and its history is interesting there is, for me at least, another distinguishing feature of Place Jean-Baptiste Clément – the delightful pavé surface of the pavements and the road.
I spent most of a Saturday afternoon recently sitting on a Parisian green bench beside the bus stop in Place Jean-Baptiste Clément listening to the captivating sounds of people walking past over the pavé.
Sounds in Place Jean-Baptiste Clément:
Of course, not everyone thinks that pavé is captivating; it can be uncomfortable for pedestrians and particularly cyclists, some argue that traffic passing over it causes too much noise and it has been known for the pavé to be ripped up to form barricades, something Jean-Baptiste Clément would have been very familiar with.
But on the plus side, the pavé does have at least one environmental benefit, especially in an area like Montmartre. It forms a water-permeable surface that helps to prevent the clogging of sewers and flooding during periods of heavy rain.
And as for the noise …
As a professional listener to Paris, I have long thought that the sound of pedestrians and traffic passing over the pavé is as much part of the fabric of the Parisian landscape as the bricks in the walls. Far from being ‘noise’, these sounds are, to my ear at least, some of the defining sounds of the city.
‘THE LOST GENERATION’ was a phrase coined in the early 1920s by Gertrude Stein, the Paris based American novelist, poet and playwright, to describe the generation who came of age in World War I. ‘Lost’ in this sense didn’t mean disappeared but rather the disorientation, confusion and aimlessness among the war’s survivors in the early post-war years.
Among that lost generation was the young Ernest Hemingway who had enlisted as an ambulance driver in 1918 and was posted to the Italian Front where he was wounded shortly after he arrived. He returned to the United States in 1919 but it wasn’t long before a favourable exchange rate and the post-war spirit of daring and freedom lured him and his wife to Paris.
In the early post-war years Paris was awash with expatriate artists, writers, poverty-stricken intellectuals and political exiles with many of them congregating in Montparnasse, the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris during the 1920s and 30s. They became known as the Montparnos.
Paris. “The Montparnos”. Watercolour by Sem. 1928. Auteur
© Roger-Viollet Image courtesy: Paris en Images
Life for these Montparnos centred around the Montparnasse cafés and particularly Le Dôme, La Rotonde, Le Select, and La Coupole, all located in boulevard du Montparnasse.
In his novel, Les Montparnos, published in 1924, Michel Georges-Michel says:
“What seduced them [the Montparnos] was the café life and the café-sitting, a free and open style of living that they didn’t know either in London or anywhere in Puritanical America; it was an international bazaar, a county fair, a round-robin dance of the Rotonde, the Dôme, the Parnasse where all hours of the day a person could indiscriminately work, drink, play the piano (on Sunday, no less) – even with women one didn’t know, who freely offered to make one’s acquaintance simply for the fun of seeing an American artist close up, or, if they weren’t quite so spontaneously free, then some milk for their hunger, a couple of shots of liquor for their boredom …”
Ernest and Hadley Hemingway arrived in Paris in December 1921 and, after a couple of false starts, they moved to an apartment in rue Notre-Dame des Champs in early 1924. Hemingway worked as a journalist but after their move to rue Notre-Dame des Champs there were some particularly hungry months when he gave up journalism and tried his hand at writing short stories.
While most of the literary crowd were to be found at Le Dôme, La Rotonde, Le Select, or La Coupole, when he wanted to work undisturbed Hemingway preferred a café further along boulevard du Montparnasse closer to his lodgings – La Closerie des Lilas.
Originally a stop on the main coach route out of Paris, La Closerie des Lilas was opened in 1847 on the corner of boulevard du Montparnasse and boulevard St. Michel, next to rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs and l’avenue de l’Observatoire. In the late 19th-century, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Émile Zola, Paul Cezanne and Théophile Gautier were frequent visitors and, at the turn of the 20th century, it became a favoured literary salon for the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire.
In A Moveable Feast, a memoir about his years as a struggling, young, expatriate journalist and writer in Paris in the 1920s, Hemingway says:
“The Closerie des Lilas was the nearest good café when we lived in the flat over the sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and it was one of the first best cafés in Paris. It was warm inside in the winter and in the spring and fall it was very fine outside with the tables under the shade of the trees on the side where the statue of Marshal Ney was, and the square, regular tables under the big awnings along the boulevard.”
A Moveable Feast, p. 81
It was at one of the tables under the shade of the trees that F. Scott Fitzgerald read the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to Hemingway.
I called into La Closerie des Lilas at around three o’clock in the afternoon as the last of the lunch guests were leaving and before the evening diners arrived. I opted for a seat in the corner under the glass roof of the brasserie. When Hemingway was here, he would sit at a table to the right of the bar in the mornings while in the late afternoon he chose a corner table with the low light from the west coming in over his shoulder. He would most likely have ordered his customary café crème as he worked on the first draft of his novel, The Sun Also Rises, a draft he completed here.
Inside La Closerie des Lilas:
Sitting in my corner seat amidst the gentle hum of La Closerie des Lilas I couldn’t help thinking about Gertrude Stein’s Lost Generation. Hemingway thought about it too; he used the phrase as one of two contrasting epigraphs for The Sun Also Rises:
“You are all a lost generation”
– Gertrude Stein in Conversation
“What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
SET IN THE HEART of medieval Paris, rue Maître Albert began life as an unnamed pathway leading from the Seine to the present day place Maubert. In 1300, the plans of Paris show the street with the curious name, rue Perdue – the lost street – and unfortunately, the reason why it acquired that name seems also to have been lost. In the 17th century it became rue Saint-Michel – it was named after a college of the same name – but in 1763 it reverted back to rue Perdue before becoming rue Maître Albert in 1844.
Rue Maître Albert is named after one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of the 13th century variously known as Albrecht von Bollstadt, Albert of Cologne, Albertus Magnus, Albert le Grand and since 1931, Saint Albert the Great, Patron Saint of Christian Scholars.
Born around the year 1200, Albert studied at the University of Padua and later taught at Hildesheim, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Regensburg, and Strasbourg. He then taught at the University of Paris, where he received his doctorate in 1245. He was a philosopher and a natural scientist, gaining a reputation for expertise in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography, metaphysics, and mathematics as well as in biblical studies and theology. Perhaps the most famous of his disciples was Saint Thomas Aquinas. Maître Albert died in Cologne in 1280.
Whether or not Maître Albert actually lived in the street that bears his name is unclear, although he may well have done because we know that he did much of his teaching in the neighbouring place Maubert.
Some say that the name Maubert is a contraction of Maître Albert but an alternative view is that Maubert is a corruption of Jean Aubert, abbot of the Abbeye de Sainte-Genevieve, which owned the land on which la place Maubert stood.
What is known for certain is that from the 15th century place Maubert was a place of execution with one of its most notable victims being the French scholar, translator and printer, Etienne Dolet who was tortured, hanged and burned in the square with his books in August 1546.
Today, rue Maître Albert still runs from the Seine to la place Maubert and it still has a medieval feel to it – save for the modern day traffic of course that often uses it as a short cut from the quai de la Tournelle to place Maubert.
Seine flood. Neighbourhood of the Place Maubert (Rue Maître Albert). View northward. Paris (Vth arrondissement), 1910. Photograph by Albert Harlingue (1879-1963). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. Auteur © Albert Harlingue / BHVP / Roger-Viollet
Image courtesy Paris en Images
I went to explore rue Maître Albert and to capture its atmosphere in sound. Instead of doing a conventional soundwalk along the street I decided to take the contre-flâneur approach and let the street walk past me. I sat on a stone windowsill across the street from the atelier of Philippe Vergain, Ebéniste d’Art, and waited for the street to speak to me.
Sounds of rue Maître Albert:
Close to me on my side of the street was a gallery with a window display that had faint echoes of Maître Albert, the natural scientist.
Listening to the sounds around me is my way of observing the world and listening to the sounds of relatively quiet Parisian streets always stimulates my imagination. What stories lie behind the sounds of the people walking past going about their daily lives, the snatches of half-heard conversations, the doors opening and closing as people pass in and out of buildings? What did this street sound like in medieval times when Maitre Albert was teaching hereabouts, what did it sound like in the 16th century when Protestant printers were being executed at the head of the street in place Maubert or during the great flood of 1910? Only our imagination can provide the answer.
THE YEAR WAS 1889 and Belle Époque Paris was in the midst of a golden age. Relative peace, economic prosperity, technological and scientific innovation and a flourishing of the arts had superseded the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the bloody events of the Paris Commune. A spirit of optimism prevailed across the city.
In Pigalle, Mistinguett, (Jeanne-Marie Bourgeois), later to become the highest paid female entertainer in the world, was performing at the café-concert, le Trianon in Boulevard de Rochechouart, Aristide Bruant, dressed in his trademark red shirt, black velvet jacket, high boots, and long red scarf, was poking fun at the upper-crust guests who were out ‘slumming’ in this lower-crust territory and a new mecca of pleasure and entertainment, the now world-famous, Moulin Rouge, had just opened its doors for the first time.
Across town, the Champ de Mars, the Trocadéro, and the quai d’Orsay were hosting the gigantic Exposition Universelle, the latest of four World Fairs to be held in the city. The newly constructed and then still controversial Tour Eiffel stood at one end of the Champs de Mars at the entrance to the Exposition and at the other end, opposite the École Militaire, stood the Galerie des Machines, a vaulted building spanning the largest interior space in the world at the time.
While the American sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, was performing to packed audiences in Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” at the Exposition, another American, the inventor and businessman, Thomas Edison, was the centre of attention in the Galerie des Machines.
The Edison exhibition occupied two pavilions, one dedicated to electric light and the other to the phonograph. Edison’s phonograph was not the only sound-reproduction device presented at the Exposition but it was the only one to hit the headlines.
No praise seemed too warm for Edison, the man who had ‘tamed the lightning with his incandescent lightening system’ and ‘organised the echoes with his phonograph’.
Thomas Edison, “The Types of Edison Phonographs,” The Paris Universal Exhibition Album (1889), CXLI
While both the Galerie des Machines and the risqué performances of Mistinguett have long since disappeared, Thomas Edison’s legacy lives on just across the street from the Moulin Rouge and le Trianon in Pigalle.
Opened in September 2014, the Phono Museum is one of the newest museums in Paris and the only museum in the city dedicated to the history of recorded sound.
Jalal Aro, Founder of the Phono Museum
The founder of the Phono Museum, Jalal Aro, is passionate about ‘talking machines’, mechanical sound-reproduction devices from an age when ‘music was magic’*. Although he is an enthusiastic collector and restorer of phonographs and gramophones he doesn’t see them simply as interesting objects, he believes they only have real meaning when they come to life and actually speak. Consequently, as well as his enormous collection of phonographs and gramophones he also has an even bigger collection of wax cylinders, records, posters and other memorabilia which occupies every nook and cranny of his Phono Galerie next door to the Phono Museum.
Founding the Phono Museum was Jalal’s way of sharing his passion for the history of recorded sound with a wider audience.
Jalal has a very democratic approach to sound. He believes these precious objects should be accessible to all and that becomes obvious when you enter the museum. For an admission fee of just €10, you can stay for as long as you like, explore the exhibits on your own or, if you prefer, Jalal, Charlotte, or one of the other staff will give you a personal guided tour of exhibits ranging from Thomas Edison’s 1878 tin-foil machine, to Emile Berliner’s 1897 flat-disc machine, magnificent two-horn, two-reproducer, dance hall machines, gramophones cleverly disguised as elegant furniture, talking dolls and lots more. All the exhibits in the museum work so the sound of music fills the air.
Last Sunday morning, before the museum opened, I went along to talk to Jalal about the museum and, very excitingly for me, to record some of the sounds of his ‘talking machines’.
Jalal Aro talks to me about the Phono Museum:
The museum is a non-profit organisation and, with no financial support so far from the City of Paris, it relies solely on ticket sales and voluntary donations to cover its costs.
As Jalal says in the interview, anyone making a donation becomes a valuable stakeholder in the museum. Click on this link to learn more: https://www.ulule.com/phonomuseum/
In 1889, Thomas Edison’s phonograph captured the public imagination at the Exposition Universelle with a dream: ‘that of preserving humanly generated sound for – as the hyperbole went – eternity’**.
Visit the Phono Museum in Pigalle and you can share that dream.
With my thanks to Jalal Aro for giving up his Sunday morning to talk to me and for his permission to share sounds from the Phono Museum on this blog.
The Phono Museum is at:
53, boulevard de Rochechouart, 75009 Paris
* When Music was Magic: history, phonographs and gramophones from 1879 to 1939 / / by John Paul Kurdyla.
** Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair By Annegret Fauser
AVENUE DE CHOISY and the neighbouring Avenue d’Ivry in the 13th arrondissement are the main thoroughfares through the largest ‘Chinatown’ in Paris, although the area is perhaps better described as a quartier asiatique because as well as the Chinese, there are also Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians living in the area.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the Avenue de Choisy recording the sounds of the colourful Chinese New Year parade as it processed around the neighbourhood but, spectacular as these sounds are, they’re reserved for the Chinese festive season and don’t really reflect everyday life in the area. I wanted to go back and explore the Avenue de Choisy and record a soundwalk capturing the ordinary sounds of ordinary people going about their everyday lives.
Start of Avenue de Choisy (leading off to the left) at its junction with Boulevard Masséna
A soundwalk is most commonly described as an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment, but I think sound walking can be much more than that. Soundwalking is my way of observing and exploring the world around me.
Sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, either metaphorically or in reality, all sounds have a context. So for a sound hunter like me, while listening attentively to the sounds around me is important and a great joy, listening to sounds and exploring their social, cultural and historical context never fails to take me on a fascinating voyage of discovery.
My soundwalk along the Avenue de Choisy is a good example of using a soundwalk not only to listen to and record the contemporary urban soundscape but also to explore and learn things I didn’t know before.
The arrow indicates my soundwalk along Avenue de Choisy from Boulevard Masséna in the south to Place d’Italie in the north
The Avenue de Choisy stretches for 1.3 km form Boulevard Masséna in the south to Boulevard Vincent-Auriol and Place d’Italie in the north. Allowing for diversions inspired by my curiosity, it took me almost two hours to complete my soundwalk along the avenue. I’ve edited the soundwalk down to a more manageable length for this blog.
Avenue de Choisy – A Soundwalk:
The Avenue de Choisy began life as part of the Roman road leading from Lutèce (the Roman name for Paris) to Lyon. Later it became the chemin de Vitry and then, in 1672, it acquired the name ‘Choisy’ because it led to the then hamlet of Choisy-le-Roi.
Choisy-le-Roi became significant when a certain Mademoiselle de Montpensier had a château built there, which she bequeathed to the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV.
Mademoiselle de Montpensier was in fact Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier (1627–1693), known as La Grande Mademoiselle, the wealthiest unmarried Princess in Europe.
Château de Choisy at the time of la Grande Mademoiselle
The château became a royal residence becoming for a time an intimate refuge for Louis XV and his chief mistress, Madame de Pompadour. During the French revolution the château was confiscated, its contents sold at auction and its grounds divided into individual lots and sold. The buildings fell into disrepair and were demolished bit by bit during the nineteenth century.
I began my soundwalk at the southern end of Avenue de Choisy, some 10 km north of today’s Choisy-le-Roi.
From here, despite the conspicuous McDonald’s, the Asian character of the street was immediately obvious not only from the sounds but also from the cluster of Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and shops and the group of Chinese women selling exotic food from upturned cardboard boxes in the street. The women didn’t want to be photographed but they’re the ones near the McDonald’s behind the lady with the buggy.
But before reaching the McDonald’s, at N°3 Avenue de Choisy I came upon something that hinted at life in this street before the 1970s wave of immigration brought the Asian influence here.
On the wall leading down to an underground car park I found a mosaic of an early motor car designed and built by the French automobile manufacturer, Panhard & Levassor. But what’s it doing here?
Across the street from the mosaic are a cluster of apartment tower blocks, a shopping centre and an underground car park. These are part of the legacy of the late 1960s and early 1970s Italie XIII project, a vast urban scheme to fundamentally transform some neighbourhoods in the 13th arrondissement. Although never completed, perhaps the best known legacy of the Italie XIII project are Les Olympiads close to Avenue d’Ivry and this complex at the southern end of Avenue de Choisy, L’ensemble Masséna.
Both were built on the principle of vertical zoning. The ground level is a functional level dedicated mostly to car parking and delivery bays built under an esplanade and consequently more or less invisible. The next level, the esplanade, is dedicated to pedestrians, shops and the main entrances to the tower blocks, while the final level comprises the apartments themselves rising to some 104 metres (341 feet).
And the connection with the mosaic on the wall …?
Well, L’ensemble Masséna is actually built on the site of the former Panhard & Levassor automobile plant so I couldn’t resist diverting off the Avenue de Choisy and walking through the tower blocks to see if I could find any trace it.
I found nothing, at least until I’d walked the full length of the complex and emerged into Avenue d’Ivry, whereupon to my great delight I discovered the birthplace of the Panhard & Levassor company still standing.
The original Panhard & Levassor automobile factory opened in 1891
René Panhard and Émile Levassor founded their company in 1887 and sold their first automobile in 1890, based on a Daimler engine licence. In 1891, they built their first model to their own design, a ‘state of the art’ Systeme Panhard consisting of four wheels, a front-mounted engine with rear wheel drive, and a crude sliding-gear transmission that would remain the standard until Cadillac introduced synchromesh in 1928. A front-mounted engine and rear wheel drive was to become the standard layout for automobiles for most of the next century. The same year, Panhard and Levassor shared their Daimler engine licence with bicycle maker Armand Peugeot, who formed his own car company.
An 1895 example of the Systeme Panhard
Over the years, Panhard & Levassor grew as they developed a strong brand and a core of loyal customers but it wasn’t to last. Faced with falling sales and the need to raise cash, the company was sold progressively to Citroën who took full control in 1965 and in 1967 the marque was retired.
Returning to Avenue de Choisy to continue my soundwalk, at N°15 I came upon the Europasie grocery store and I couldn’t resist going in to capture the sounds.
Leaving the grocery store I walked further on to N°27 where I found another reminder of the former industrialisation of this area, l’Église Saint-Hippolyte.
Built between 1909 and 1924 by the architect Jules Astruc, this church was built on land donated by Hippolyte Panhard, only son of René Panhard, co-founder of Panhard & Levassor. Hippolyte Panhard (1870-1957) was a Director and then Chairman of Panhard & Levassor until 1941 and the church was named in his honour after Hippolyte, his patron saint.
The church does perhaps seem a little incongruous now – a neo-Gothic edifice standing in the middle of ‘Chinatown’ – but it’s very peaceful inside and well worth a visit. And of course, I went in and recorded the atmosphere.
And in the shadow of l’Église Saint-Hippolyte is another, much more recent church, Notre-Dame de Chine, dedicated in 2005 by Archbishop André Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris.
Having stopped to look at these two churches I moved on and came upon a surprise.
Looking through some railings I was able to look down on a surviving part of the Petite Ceinture, the Little Belt railway that circled Paris from 1852 until it was abandoned in 1934. La Petite Ceinture never fails to surprise; a couple of weeks ago I found another stretch of it in the 20th arrondissement that I didn’t know was there either.
Across the street at N° 34 is the Fung Shun restaurant, one of many Asian restaurants along Avenue de Choisy, but this one is a little different. It used to be a boulangerie, a bakery with an interior designed by the decorators Benoist et Fils and Albert Raybaud. Benoist et Fils were experts in decoration fixed under glass and their work was carried out for three generations between 1860 and 1935. The storefront and the interior decoration were listed as a monument historique in 1984.
At N° 81 Avenue de Choisy is the Lycée Gabriel Fauré, a high school. Once again, this is a reminder of the area’s industrial past because from 1860 until 1940 this was part of the site of the Chocolaterie Lombart, the Lombart chocolate factory.
Lycée Gabriel Fauré formerly the Chocolaterie Lombart
The Lombart chocolate company, the first chocolate company in France, was founded in 1760 with a shop at 11 boulevard des Italiens.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Chocolaterie Lombart was known as the largest factory in Paris employing some 500 workers. When it closed the site became part of the Panhard & Levassor empire and eventually the Lycée Gabriel Fauré. In 1957, the company was acquired by the Menier chocolate company.
The next stop on my soundwalk was at Kawa, le temple de la vaisselle asiatique, at N° 97. This temple of Asian dishes caters mainly for the catering trade but is open to anyone. If you’ve been to a Parisian Chinese restaurant and admired the plates, the bowls, the dishes or the soup spoons then they probably came from here.
Inside, I was intrigued by a lady seeking help from the proprietor about a very specific purchase but since the conversation was entirely in Chinese I have no idea what she was searching for.
Crossing Rue de Tolbiac, I continued along Avenue de Choisy to the north and the Parc de Choisy. Although looking a bit bare at this time of the year this park is a delight in the spring and summertime.
Designed by the architect Édouard Crevel (1880-1969), chief architect of the City of Paris, the 43 000 m² Parc de Choisy was built in 1937. Like other Paris parks of the 1930s, most of the park was built as a modern version of the French formal garden of the 18th century, rather than the picturesque style of the parks of the Second Empire and the Third Republic.
Édouard Crevel also designed the neighbouring red-brick Fondation George Eastman, a dental institute set up to monitor the dental hygiene of children. It was funded by the US industrialist George Eastman, inventor of photographic film and founder of Kodak, who suffered all his life from violent toothache.
The Parc de Choisy also has an industrial connection. From 1836 to 1937 a huge gasworks belonging to the Compagnie parisienne du gaz stood here.
A short walk from the Parc de Choisy brought me to the Tang Frères supermarket.
Tang Frères (Tang Brothers) is an Asian supermarket chain based in Paris and it’s reputed to be the biggest Asian supermarket chain west of China. They have several retail outlets throughout the city and its immediate suburbs, as well as an outlet in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, from where the company’s founding brothers originate.
“Old courtyard, 178 avenue de Choisy”, Paris (XIIIth arrondissement), 1913. Photograph by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet.
Image courtesy: Paris en Images
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Avenue de Choisy was a rural area outside the Paris city walls. In 1860, along with other surrounding suburbs, it was incorporated into the city and a process of industrialisation and urbanisation began. The Panhard & Levassor automobile plant, the Lombart chocolate factory and the gasworks became the major employers.
Housing conditions though were poor; there were slums and pockets of abject poverty. Many workers’ homes were poorly constructed and were greatly inferior to those of other Parisians.
By the 1960s, things were changing. Industry in the area was in decline, the major employers were closing their factories and a wave of immigration was about to begin.
First to arrive were immigrants from the Maghreb and West Africa and then in the 1970s, as a result of the war in Vietnam and Laos, and the civil war in Cambodia, refugees, particularly from the Chinese communities in those countries, also arrived. Many of those immigrants and refugees made their way to the 13th arrondissement and the area around Avenue de Choisy.
I mentioned earlier the Italie XIII urban development scheme and its tower block legacy at the southern end of the 13th arrondissement around Avenue de Choisy. This high-rise development was designed to rejuvenate the area by attracting high-flying young Paris executives to live there, which it singularly failed to do. Consequently, the towers stood empty. And since nature abhors a vacuum, the newly arrived Southeast Asian refugees occupied this empty accommodation and consequently saved the Italie XIII scheme from total failure.
Since their arrival in the 1970s, this Southeast Asian community has thrived, prospered and brought a vitality to the neighbourhood.
In conclusion, I want to return to the theme of soundwalking.
I don’t criticise at all those who consider soundwalking to be an excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment, that’s a perfectly valid explanation of what a soundwalk can be. In fact, I sometimes soundwalk exactly like that, listening attentively to the sounds around me to the exclusion of everything else.
But sometimes I find that listening to the environment can be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Sometimes, listening to the environment, particularly the urban environment, not only paints a picture of the contemporary soundscape but can also summon up echoes of the past.
And it is searching out the association between the contemporary soundscape and the echoes of the past, the social, cultural and historical context of the contemporary sounds, that I find so compelling.
Listening to the environment is my way of observing and exploring the world around me and I hope that my soundwalk along Avenue de Choisy has helped you to observe and explore this particular corner of Paris.
“Now, what shall we have for lunch?”
MARKETS HAVE BEEN a feature of Saint-Denis since the seventh century. Then the markets were held at Place Panetière, in front of the Basilique de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France; final resting place of 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm. In the 12th century, Abbot Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis, spoke of Place Panetière as a place where “everything to buy or sell may be found”.
Today, Place Victor Hugo and Place Jean-Jaures occupy the former Place Panetière but the markets have survived and nothing much has changed – everything to buy or sell may be found.
Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday an indoor market, housed in the 19th century Grande Halle, opens for business and an outdoor market appears on Place Jean-Jaures and in the surrounding streets.
The outdoor market is rather like an African souk selling everything from clothes and fabrics to a range of footwear, cosmetics, bags, clay cooking pots and other assorted household goods, tools and plants, as well as some high-end, branded goods at suspiciously low prices.
But for me, the indoor market inside the Grande Halle is the main attraction. With its sights, sounds and exotic smells, visiting the Grande Halle is a multi-sensory experience not to be missed.
Sounds inside the Grande Halle, Marché de Saint-Denis:
To get to the Grande Halle I passed a man on the street selling boxes of what he claimed were top-of-the-range perfumes, Givenchy, Dior etc., for knock down prices and a fascinating lady selling couscoussières. I stopped to listen to their sales patter, which you can hear in my sound piece.
Although tempted, I did though decline an invitation from another stallholder to buy a ‘genuine’ Longines watch for the bargain price of six Euros!
The Grande Halle is a food market but it’s also a microcosm of French history, gastronomy and successive waves of immigration and the sounds inside the Grande Halle reflect this cultural kaleidoscope.
Produce from France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and North Africa sits beside Caribbean cooks, spice sellers from Morocco, magnificent displays of fruit and vegetables from around the world and even more exotic fish. The butchers, including Halal butchers and a horse butcher, sell conventional cuts of meat as well as tripe and meat you won’t find in the swanky shops in the centre of Paris including pig’s heads, feet and everything in between. Nothing goes to waste.
Sunday is the busiest day at the market when whole families turn out to hunt for bargains and they seldom leave disappointed.
Just as in Abbot Suger’s day, everything to buy or sell may be found.