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21
Aug

A New Parisian Bus And New Sounds

MY SOUND PRACTICE here in Paris is centred around recording the contemporary sound tapestry of the city – the sounds Parisians hear as they go about their daily lives but seldom stop to listen to.

I’m particularly interested in how the Parisian sound tapestry changes over time and, over the years, I’ve recorded Parisian sounds that no longer exist, sounds that are on the verge of extinction as well as some completely new sounds that have appeared across the city.

Developments in public transport are a prime source for capturing the changing urban soundscape. While the French economy may be lacklustre at the moment France continues to invest heavily in public transport and this investment not only changes the visual landscape, it also changes the sound landscape.

In Paris over recent years we’ve seen old rolling stock retired and new trains introduced on the Paris Métro system, new stations have opened as part of the programme to extend the Métro network into the suburbs and we’ve seen a significant expansion of the tramway network around the periphery of the city and out into the suburbs.

The considerable investment being poured into public transport is designed to improve and extend the transportation system not only for the convenience and comfort of existing passengers but also to make the system more attractive for new passengers. It is hoped that the continuing improvements to the public transport system will encourage more car users to convert to public transport and thus reduce the vehicular emissions that often smother the city.

Although the investment in the Métro and tram network is to be welcomed, 1.1 billion people still use Parisian buses each year and the 4,500 buses in circulation are a worrying source of polluting emissions.

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A diesel engine Parisian bus

Have a listen to this sound:

It’s the sound of a diesel engine Paris bus waiting at traffic lights. It’s an iconic Parisian sound, but it’s a sound that is now on the verge of extinction.

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Image via RATP

Bus 2025 is the plan by RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), the state-owned authority responsible for most of the public transport in Paris and the surrounding Île-de-France region, to eliminate diesel engine buses completely and roll out a new fleet of electric and biogas buses in Paris and the Ile-de-France region, thus meeting the target set out in the Île-de-France urban transport plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption per passenger/km by 20% by 2025.

RATP are not only investing in new electric and biogas buses (80% electric and 20% biogas by 2025) but also in new infrastructure at the bus depots to handle the new technology.

The change from diesel to the new electric and biogas buses cannot be made overnight so there is a transitional phase, which has already begun with the purchase and deployment of some hybrid buses. This will allow RATP to test the new technology in operating conditions and to plan the infrastructure changes required.

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A new Iveco Hybrid bus

Since April this year, a fleet of hybrid Urbanway Citybuses purchased from Iveco, one of several suppliers selected by RATP for the transitional phase, have been plying the 82 bus route that passes by the end of my little street so I’ve had the opportunity to experience what these buses are like.

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At first glance the hybrid buses look little different from the former diesel engine buses, save for the white bulge protruding from the top of the bus and the new upholstery in the interior.

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But ‘under the hood’ the difference is dramatic.

The traction drive on the hybrid bus uses a downsized fuel-effective Euro VI engine with Hi-eSCR exhaust gas after-treatment technology, coupled with an electric-generator engine.

When the bus is decelerating and reaches a speed of 20 km/h, the bus engine cuts out, the batteries take over and the electric-generator kicks in.

The energy accumulated during deceleration is recovered and stored in new generation lithium-ion batteries; this energy is then restored during acceleration. When the bus accelerates and reaches a speed of 20 km/h, the engine takes over.

The elimination of a gearbox results in a smoother drive and jolt-free acceleration.

The Urbanway Citybus has an ‘Arrive & Go’ function, which ensures 100% electric silent arrivals and departures at bus stops, with no pollution or vibrations thus benefiting passengers, the driver and those outside the bus.

Iveco claim that this hybrid technology decreases CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by between 25 and 35%. Using 30% less fuel is equivalent to a reduction of over 25 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle per year, which represents more than twice the weight of the vehicle.

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Iveco’s claim of reduced CO2 emissions and fuel consumption for the hybrid bus is impressive but as a professional listener to Paris I was even more impressed with the dramatic reduction in noise pollution. The reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption is something we can read about but the reduction in the noise emissions is something we can experience at first hand simply by standing beside or by boarding one of these buses.

I hope RATP will carry out some objective measurements of the reduction in the noise level and then broadcast the results alongside the reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption – it’s something worth making a lot of noise about!

Returning from a recording assignment the other day, I recorded a 40-minute journey on the hybrid bus along the 82 bus route from the Jardin du Luxembourg to the bus stop at the end of my little street; a journey from the heart of the Latin Quarter to the west of Paris taking in the Hôtel des Invalides, the École Militaire, the Champs de Mars, the Tour Eiffel and the Palais des Congrès.

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Departure from the Jardin du Luxembourg

Sounds of the new hybrid 82 bus:

Sitting on the bus listening to the engine was impressive since the engine is quieter than the usual diesel engine on a Parisian bus. But listening to the complete absence of engine noise when the bus stopped at a junction, or at traffic lights, or at a bus stop was a strange experience. From time to time I found fellow passengers looking quizzically as though the bus had perhaps broken down.

As a passenger, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the sound of the downsized engine and the electric-generator so I can’t say for certain, but my impression was that the engine on this bus was used for perhaps less than half the journey. I can though say for certain that for most of the journey the sounds of the traffic outside the bus were louder than the sounds on the inside.

An interesting additional sound added to this bus comes from a loudspeaker inside the bus positioned over the front door. On Paris buses passengers enter by the door at the front and leave by the doors in the centre, so when the front door on this bus opens, a voice announces the direction in which the bus is travelling – in this case, “Neuilly – Hôpital American”, that being the last stop on the route. It’s a small, but useful addition since it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve got on an unfamiliar bus and set off in the wrong direction!

Given the importance that RATP attach to the sound architecture of the public transport system, it goes without saying that all the announcements on this bus are made by a real human voice rather than a computerised voice.

Even if you don’t managed to navigate the whole of this recording, I’m sure you will still get a sense of quiet where quiet is not usually found. And it’s certainly worth comparing the sounds of this journey with the sounds of the full-blown diesel engine bus waiting at the traffic lights earlier in this post.

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Arrival at home

As a professional listener to Paris and an archivist of the city’s contemporary soundscape I found the sounds of the Iveco hybrid bus plying the 82 bus route not only interesting but also valuable. The sounds are a vision of the future but they are also transitory sounds – they weren’t here yesterday and they won’t be here tomorrow. They represent a specific moment in the history of the city. Once the diesel engine buses are eliminated and the all-electric and biogas buses become common currency, the hybrid buses and their sounds will disappear from the Parisian soundscape forever – but they will live on in my Paris Soundscapes Archive.

Although the hybrid buses represent a transitional phase, an all-electric bus route has already begun operating in Paris. The 341 bus route from Place Charles-de-Gaulle to Porte de Clignancourt saw the first all-electric bus begin operating in May this year. In all, 20 all-electric buses will operate this route. The buses have a range of 180 km and the batteries are recharged at night to avoid overloading the electrical supply system.

And finally, in case you think the significant reduction, and sometimes the absence, of noise in an all-electric or a hybrid bus makes for a soulless journey, be reassured. Riding over the intermittent stretches of Parisian pavé remains the same bone-shattering experience that it’s always been!

Note:

The sharp-eyed reader will notice that I left the Jardin du Luxembourg on an 82 bus numbered ‘6005’ but the picture of my arrival at home shows an 82 bus numbered ‘6002’. Well spotted! The explanation is that I did complete the journey on ‘6005’ but it moved off before I could take a picture of it after I alighted. So to capture the shot I waited for the next bus to come along, which was ‘6002’.

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The 82 Bus Route

15
Aug

In Search of ‘Quiet’ Paris

Today is August 15th, Assumption Day, a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics in France and a public holiday. It’s a day when most businesses and shops are closed and coming as it does in the midst of the holiday season it’s a day when it seems as though Paris is shut!

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There are only two days of the year when my normally bustling little street is deserted, Christmas Day and August 15th, so at lunchtime today I went out to experience the atmosphere.

The street had a surreal feel to it. In this usually busy street the shops were shut and there were almost no people.

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The Monoprix, the bane of my life, was shuttered:

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The cheese shop was closed:

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And so was the butchers.

Save for the Monoprix, most of the shops in my street are not closed just for today; most of them are closed for the month of August! It has always puzzled me how shopkeepers can afford to do that.

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While I’m perfectly happy to go without chocolate from Jeff de Bruges for a month, I find it much harder to forgive my local hostelry for shutting up shop throughout August.

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So what does my little street sound like in August when it’s empty?

During this year’s holiday season, when sensible Parisians abandon the heat and excessive humidity of the city for more agreeable climes, I’ve been taking advantage of their absence to try to search out ‘quiet’ sounds of Paris. It’s a Sisyphean task, ‘quiet’ is a rare commodity in the Parisian soundscape.

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August sounds in my street:

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Today, my little street was remarkably quiet although ‘quiet’ is a relative term. The incessant sound of the traffic from the eight-lane Avenue Charles de Gaulle in the distance still drifted in on the wind but the usual sounds of people going about their daily lives were absent. Without the sounds of the people my street seemed to take on a melancholy air.

During this holiday season I’ve been thinking about ‘quiet’ and what quiet actually means in the context of the urban soundscape. I’ve concluded that ‘quiet’ isn’t necessarily the absence of noise, but rather it’s a state where individual sounds, which are always there but usually shrouded in a cloak of more aggressive often unwelcome sounds, are allowed for once to speak and tell their own story.

For example, I’ve walked along this street for over seventeen years and never before heard the rustle of the leaves on the trees or the sound of birdsong. I heard both today. The rustle of the leaves and the birdsong have always been there but they’ve always been shrouded in a cloak of dominant man-made sounds – people and endless traffic. Today, a passing car was an event worth listening to rather than a perpetual nuisance.

At the end of August, Parisians will return from their vacances and we will enter that bizarre period known as la rentrée, the fifth season of the French year nestling between summer and autumn. But, despite that, I shall continue my search for ‘quiet’ Paris – something almost as elusive as a pink unicorn!

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9
Aug

Square Danielle Mitterand and its Sounds

THE SQUARE DANIELLE MITTERAND, formerly the Jardin de la rue de Bièvre, is a small green space at N° 20 rue de Bièvre in the 5th arrondissement.

The Jardin de la rue de la Bièvre was created in 1978 but on 8th March 2013, International Women’s Day, it was renamed Square Danielle Mitterand.

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Danielle Émilienne Isabelle Gouze was born in October 1924 at Verdun in the Meuse department in Lorraine in north-eastern France. During the Second World War she was a liaison officer in the French Resistance where she met François Mitterrand. They were married three months after the Liberation, on 28th October 1944. François Mitterand went on to become President of France from 1981 to 1995.

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The Square was named after Danielle Mitterand in recognition of her work in the Resistance movement and her subsequent work for human rights.

In 1986 she founded the Fondation Danielle Mitterand – Frances Libertés, an organisation dedicated to building a fairer and more socially-responsible world by defending human rights and protecting shared assets, specifically by promoting the right to water access for all and ensuring that people’s right to utilise their resources is recognised and respected.

The foundation’s work has three component parts: support for projects run by communities at grassroots level, citizen, civil society and political decision-maker awareness raising work, and finally advocacy work with the public authorities and in the United Nations. The Foundation has consultative status on the UN Economic and Social Council.

Over the years, the Foundation has participated in many issues including the right to free potable water for all, the fight against racism, support for the Tibetan people and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It has also worked for the reconstruction of the educational and social system in Cambodia and on issues surrounding health security in Africa.

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The location of the Square Danielle Mitterand is appropriate since it’s just two doors away from N° 22 rue de Bièvre, the private residence of François and Danielle Mitterand from 1972 to 1995.

Although Danielle lived at N° 22 during that time, François commuted between there and rue Jacob in nearby Saint-Germain and the home he shared with his long-time mistress, Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine.

The Mitterand ménage was undoubtedly complicated but nevertheless seemed to work remarkably well. In 1958 Danielle acquired a long-term lover of her own, a gym teacher who sometimes fetched the morning croissants and then sat down to a friendly breakfast with François.

All this was widely known in Parisian society but a compliant and complacent French press kept it under wraps until the end of Mitterrand’s presidency in 1995.

Both Danielle Mitterand and Anne Pingeot attended Françcois Mitterand’s funeral in 1996.

Danielle Mitterand died in Paris on 22nd November 2011, aged 87.

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Sounds in the Square Danielle Mitterand:

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The Square Danielle Mitterand is not the most elegant square in Paris but I like it. Sitting at the back of the Square on an August afternoon I was content simply to listen to life passing by in the Square and in rue de Bièvre.

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Rue de Bièvre

29
Jul

Rue Dénoyez Revisited

I LAST FEATURED rue Dénoyez, the plein air art gallery in the 20th arrondissement, in this blog in November 2014. At that time, under the banner Sauvons la rue Dénoyez – Save rue Dénoyez, a petition had been drawn up to challenge a plan by the local authority to demolish part of rue Dénoyez and replace the artists’ workshops and galleries with subsidised housing and a community centre.

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‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – November 2014

The other day, I went back to rue Dénoyez to see what has happened since I was last there.

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Rue Dénoyez – July 1016

The development proposal calls for the buildings between N°18 bis and N° 22 bis to be demolished and replaced with 18 subsidised housing units and a crèche as well as the redevelopment of N° 24 and N° 26 rue Dénoyez and N°10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre.

Despite the petition opposing the development receiving 10,000 signatures in six months it seems the project is still going ahead.

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Although the demolition work was due to have been completed by April this year I found that little seems to have happened so far except that the occupants have left and the buildings stand hauntingly empty.

Undaunted though, I found one street artist still leaving his mark.

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A soundwalk in rue Dénoyez:

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At the end of my soundwalk I came upon a man who had lived in rue Dénoyez in the early 1970s and he reflected upon life here in those days.

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If all goes to plan, work on the new development will be completed in the spring of 2018.

While new social housing is to be welcomed one can’t help feeling that some of the character of this unique street will be lost in the process. As the man who spoke to me said, “il faut que ça change”.

You can see the presentation prepared by the local authority about the new development here.

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7
Jul

The Parc de Bagatelle and its Sounds

IN THE WAKE OF the disappointing news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union in the recent BREXIT referendum I was in need of a distraction so I went to one of my favourite gardens in Paris, the Parc de Bagatelle.

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Along with the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, the Parc Floral de Paris and the Arboretum de l’école du Breuil, the Parc de Bagatelle is one of the four jardin botanique de la ville de Paris.

Located on the western end of the Bois de Boulogne, the 24-hectare (59-acre) Parc de Bagatelle is a naturalistic English landscape style garden complete with a neoclassical château, an obelisk, a pagoda, grottoes, waterfalls and sham ruins.

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Château de Bagatelle

The Château de Bagatelle was built on the site of a former hunting lodge originally built for the Maréchal d’Estrées in 1720. In 1775, the hunting lodge was acquired by the Comte d’Artois, younger brother of Louis XVI, who planned to demolish the decaying structure and replace it with something grander. Work began on the new château in September 1777 but in rather unusual circumstances.

Louis XVI’s Queen, Marie-Antoinette, wagered the Comte d’Artois, her brother-in-law, that the new château could not be completed within three months. The Comte accepted the wager and engaged the neoclassical architect François-Joseph Bélanger to design the building and begin construction. Some eight hundred workers were drafted in, around three million livres were spent and the new château was completed in just 63 days. Included in the design was a formal garden surrounding the château, which was subsequently expanded by the Scottish botanist and gardener, Thomas Blaikie, into the Parc de Bagatelle.

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Having escaped the ravages of the French Revolution, the Bagatelle changed hands several times before being bought in 1835 by Francis Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford, a British Tory politician and art collector. When he died in 1848, the Château de Bagatelle was inherited by his son, Richard, the 4th Marquess. Lord Hertford was brought up in Paris by his mother who had become estranged from his father. They lived in a large apartment in Paris and also at the Château de Bagatelle. Their London home was in Manchester Square, now home to the Wallace Collection, which houses the Hertford’s art collection much of which came from the Château de Bagatelle.

Lord Hertford died in 1870 whereupon the Bagatelle passed to his adopted son, Sir Richard Wallace – the same Richard Wallace who donated numerous water fountains (Wallace fountains) to the City of Paris.

Richard Wallace added the Trianon, two sentry pavilions and two terraces around the château.

In 1905, the Château de Bagatelle and the park were purchased by the City of Paris and the French landscape architect, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, began redeveloping the gardens while retaining their style.

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The Trianon

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One of the sentry pavillions

Walking around the Parc de Bagatelle was a perfect way to escape my post-BREXIT referendum depression. I even found a new friend to confide in together with a ‘small model’ version of a Wallace fountain.

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Sounds of the Parc de Bagatelle:

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The soundscape of the northern half of the Parc de Bagatelle is dominated by the sounds of waterfalls and the distinctive sounds of the magnificent pride, muster or ostentation of peacocks (depending upon which collective noun you prefer) that roam freely over the park.

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As well as its neoclassical château and renowned gardens, including a magnificent rose garden with 10,000 rose bushes comprising 1,200 different species, the Parc de Bagatelle has other claims to fame.

In 1777, to celebrate the completion of the château, a party was held in honour of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette during which a new table game was revealed. It comprised a small billiard-like table with raised edges and cue sticks, which players used to shoot ivory balls up an inclined slope with fixed pins. Count d’Artois dubbed the game bagatelle and it was soon to become fashionable throughout France. This 18th century French invention was to evolve into the modern day pinball machine.

And to continue the game theme, the Bagatelle hosted the first French Rugby Union Championship match in 1892 and some of the polo events in the 1924 Olympic Summer Games.

In 1906 an historic event took place.

Three years earlier, across the Atlantic, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.

On 23rd October 1906, the pioneering Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, repeated the feat. In the grounds of the Château de Bagatelle he succeeded in flying a heavier-than-air aircraft for a distance of 60 metres (197 ft) at a height of about five meters (16 ft). This was the first flight of a powered heavier-than-air machine in Europe to be verified by the Aéro-Club de France.

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Alberto Santos-Dumont flew here

On 12th November 1906, also in the grounds of the Château de Bagatelle, Santos-Dumont set the first world record recognised by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, by flying 220 metres (722 ft) in 21.5 seconds

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The 14 Bis, the canard biplane flown by Alberto Santos Dumont in 1906

A less well-known fact is that Santos-Dumont was indirectly responsible for the invention of the wrist watch.

While dining with his friend Louis Cartier in Paris, Santos-Dumont complained of the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance during flight. He asked Cartier to come up with an alternative that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls. Cartier went to work on the problem and the result was a watch with a leather band and a small buckle to be worn on the wrist.

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You don’t need ‘green fingers’ to enjoy the Parc de Bagatelle. For those with a keen interest in gardens and gardening the significant trees and plant species are clearly labelled so you can discover new things and add to your knowledge, but for the rest of us, the history, the wildlife and the tranquillity is sufficient to escape the tribulations of everyday life.

And it’s certainly a perfect antidote to BREXIT – even the peacocks seem to talk more sense than most politicians.

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18
Jun

Enough is Enough!

FOR SEVERAL MONTHS I’ve been following and recording the street demonstrations in Paris in response to the new French labour law, the law El Khomri.

Demonstrations protesting against the new legislation have been taking place on the streets of Paris and across France since March this year and I’ve reported three of them on this blog; one in April, one on 1st May and one towards the end of May, the latter of which found me shrouded in a cloud of tear gas.

The government and many employers argue that the new labour law makes working practices more flexible thus helping to address the high level of unemployment but some unions, particularly the CGT, the country’s largest trade union, see it as toxic; too pro-business and making workers’ positions more precarious.

Since the government forced the legislation through the Assemblée Nationale in May using emergency constitutional powers to avoid a vote that it would almost certainly have lost, the street demonstrations have become increasingly violent.

To coincide with a debate about the new labour law in the French Senate, protestors took to the streets again last Tuesday.

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Organised by the CGT union, who reportedly laid on some 600 buses to ship people in from around France to swell the numbers, Tuesday’s demonstration was one of the largest and certainly the most menacing I’ve seen in my seventeen years of observing street protests in the city.

Sounds of Tuesday’s Manifestation:

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At the head of the demonstration were the casseurs, the hooded and masked youths intent on creating havoc – and that’s exactly what they did.

I followed the demonstration from its starting point in Place d’Italie until it reached Boulevard Montparnasse where violence broke out as demonstrators stormed a building site and began to hurl wooden palettes at riot police. When a group of casseurs then attacked and trashed the ground floor of the Hôpital Necker, the Paris Children’s Hospital, I decided that enough was enough. I stopped recording and left.

Philippe Martinez, leader of the CGT union, blamed hooligan elements on the fringe of the protest for the attack on the hospital saying it was ‘scandalous’ and ‘completely unacceptable’. And he may be right. But hooligans aside, there was a tone to Tuesday’s demonstration that seemed to make violence inevitable.

Recently, I watched again the film Sicko by the American documentary filmmaker, author and activist, Michael Moore, in which there is a quote which says: “The difference between America and France is that in America the people are frightened of the government whereas in France the government are frightened of the people.”

Faced with the current impasse between the French government and the CGT further demonstrations are planned for the 23rd and 28th June. It remains to be seen to what extent the government are frightened of the people, assuming the CGT can be considered to represent the people.

In any event I shall not be there to record what happens. The attack on the children’s hospital was only one of the disgusting acts I saw on Tuesday – and not only from the ‘hooligans’. For me, enough is enough!

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Note:

I did record the sounds of the violence in Boulevard Montparnasse and the trashing of the children’s hospital. The recordings have been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive so they will be available to researchers in the future but I thought the sounds inappropriate to include here.

6
Jun

Paris Flood 2016

SEARCH WIKIPEDIA FOR ‘Paris Flood’ and this is what you will most likely find:

“In late January 1910, following months of high rainfall, the Seine River flooded Paris when water pushed upwards from overflowing sewers and subway tunnels, and seeped into basements through fully saturated soil. The waters did not overflow the river’s banks within the city, but flooded Paris through tunnels, sewers, and drains. In neighbouring towns both east and west of the capital, the river rose above its banks and flooded the surrounding terrain directly.”

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Fast forward a hundred years or so to the beginning of June 2016 and the question on most Parisians’ minds was: “Will history repeat itself?”

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Place Louis Aragon; 4th Arrondissement; June 2016

After a prolonged period of rain last month, the waters of the Seine, Loire and Yonne rivers began to rise alarmingly. In the départements of Loiret and Seine-et-Marne the rivers broke their banks causing what French President, François Holland, described as a “real catastrophe”.

In Paris, the Seine didn’t break its banks but, rising to some 6.3 metres above normal on the night of Friday 3rd June, it came dangerously close.

The sight of dirty brown water and debris floating through the centre of the city was surreal.

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Although the Seine didn’t break its banks in the city, the quais on either side of the river were completely flooded giving a clue at least as to what those in the worst affected départements were experiencing.

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A five-minute walk from my home, the Seine had completely covered an island jutting out into the river. The Parisian green benches, the skateboard park and the honey farm with its beehives were completely submerged.

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A nearby tennis court was looking the worse for wear.

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And the péniches (houseboats) had been cast adrift.

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On Saturday 4th June the news was that although the water hadn’t fallen, at least it had stopped rising and so, with the photograph of the policemen shown at the beginning of this post standing in front of the Viaduc d’Austerlitz in 1910 in mind, I went to the same place to see what I could find.

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Completed in 1904, the Viaduc d’Austerlitz is a 140-metre single-span bridge built to carry the trains of Métro Line 5 over the Seine from the Quai de la Rapée to the Gare d’Austerlitz and back again. With an 8.5 metre wide deck suspended 11 metres above the river the bridge was designed to make it easily navigable for river traffic.

During the recent crisis all river traffic was suspended because the exceptionally high water level made the bridges over the Seine impassable.

Underneath the bridge the quay is usually open to pedestrians and vehicular traffic but on Saturday it was flooded despite a hastily erected barrier being in place.

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What does a flood sound like? Would there be a sound-rich raging torrent of water crashing it’s way through the city?

I thought about this as I watched the water rise over several days and I discovered that it didn’t happen like that. There was no raging torrent but instead, an almost silent, inexorable flow of water calmly engulfing everything in its path.

On Saturday, with the floodwater passing by me and the trains of Metro Line 5 passing overhead, I recorded the sounds around the Viaduc d’Austerlitz. It wasn’t the sounds of the vast quantity of ugly brown water flowing along the river that caught my attention but rather the more delicate sounds on the flooded quais.

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The Paris flood 2016 around the Viaduc d’Austerlitz:

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With a repetition of the catastrophic Paris flood of 1910 avoided, the floodwater is beginning to recede. Water pumps have been drafted in, the clean-up operation has begun and the cost is being estimated somewhere between €600 million and €2 billion.

It’s easy to lament the situation in Paris over the past few days: the flooded quayside bars and restaurants, the péniches cast adrift, the closure of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay to move their collections from ground level to higher floors, the occasional power outage and the closure of some Métro stations and part of RER Line ‘C’.

But let’s not forget the 4 dead, at least 24 injured and thousands of residents in towns such as Nemours and Montargis who saw their homes submerged and shop owners left counting the cost as the town centres were inundated by the floods.

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28
May

All in a Day’s Work

MY WEEK HAS BEEN fascinating. It has stretched from the beautiful city of Wroclaw, the largest city in western Poland and the European City of Culture 2016, to the streets of Paris and a cloud of tear gas!

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Wroclaw, Poland

From the 19th to the 22nd May, the city of Wroclaw hosted the Musica Electronica Nova Festival during which I was invited to perform my field recording composition, Paris – A Sound Tapestry, in the Sound Cinema at the impressive National Forum of Music and then to give a lecture, Listening to Paris, at the Institute of Musicology at the University of Wroclaw.

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The National Forum of Music, Wroclaw

I also had the opportunity to meet up with my friends from the Soundscape Research Studio, part of the Institute of Cultural Studies at the University of Wroclaw, and to do a soundwalk around historic Wroclaw with them. I couldn’t have been in better hands because my friends have written a book about the Wroclaw soundscape: The Sounds of Wrocław, edited by Renata Tańczuk and Robert Losiak, published by Wrocław University Press.

And as a bonus, before flying back to Paris I was taken to see the Hala Stulecia, the Centennial Hall.

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The Hala Stulecia in Wroclaw : Image via Wikipedia

This ‘cathedral of democracy’, a milestone in the history of reinforced concrete architecture, was designed by the architect Max Berg and built between 1911 and 1913. When it was opened, the Hala Stulecia was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My trip to Wroclaw was idyllic; a beautiful city, charming people and glorious sunshine every day. My return to France on the other hand was quite different.

I came back to a country mired in protests and strikes paralysing power stations, oil refineries and the railways and the country’s largest trade union, which at best only represents 3% of the workforce, seemingly determined to bring the government to its knees.

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The turmoil began earlier this year, after the government announced it wanted to make changes to the Code de Travail – a 3,000-page book that sets out all of France’s employment law. Earlier this month, the government forced a watered down version of its new labour law, the Loi El Khomri as it’s known, through the French parliament without a vote. Since then industrial action has escalated sometimes spiralling into violence.

Thursday of this week saw yet another national day of protest against the government’s proposals, the eighth so far. Thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and so, with my sonic journalist’s hat on, I went to record what was inevitably going to be a major news event.

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When you’ve attended as many street protests in Paris as I have it’s easy to become complacent and think that they all follow the same formula and they’re all predictable. And often they are; the same people carrying the same banners, chanting the same slogans and sometimes getting angry but without resorting to violence.

But this demonstration was different.

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Youths wearing face masks, eye protectors, gas masks and crash helmets had clearly not come out for a walk in the park.

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Whilst the vast majority of the demonstrators were content to wave their banners, chant their slogans and get angry, a small minority, mainly youngsters, were intent on taunting the police and instigating violence – and they were clearly equipped for the consequences.

I joined the manifestation as it left Place de la Bastille and made my way to the front where about 100 youngsters were assembled. Some of them broke ranks to leave their mark on nearby shop windows.

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The CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), the riot police, maintain a discreet presence at all demonstrations in Paris. They are seldom to be found on the main manifestation route but rather out of sight in side streets well away from the protestors from where they can be called upon if necessary.

The youngsters at the head of the manifestation, intent on confrontation and responding to the exhortation, “Avancez! Avancez!” by one of their leaders, deviated from the official route into a side street where the CRS were waiting for them. As the youngsters advanced, trashing cars, overturning motorcycles and wrecking a bus stop as they did so, the police formed up across the end of the street and slowly moved forward towards them.

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As the police approached, the youths began hurling stones and any other objects that came to hand at them and at anyone else who happened to be nearby – including me. This provocation produced a response from the police – a fusillade of tear gas.

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All in a Day’s Work:

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Caught between the protestors and the police and smothered in a cloud of tear gas I had no alternative but to join some of the others caught in the mêlée and take flight in search of fresh air.

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In total, sixteen arrests were made during this confrontation while the rest of the manifestation continued on to Place de la Nation without further incident.

Unless the deadlock between the unions and the government is broken, another national day of protest is scheduled for 14th June – enough time then for me to buy a crash helmet and a gas mask!

While my visit to Wroclaw this week was very special – an opportunity not only to see a beautiful city but also to share my work with others and to talk about sound with friends and like-minded people – recording the sounds of a riot in Paris on Thursday was simply all in a day’s work.

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4
May

Manifestation du Premier Mai

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.

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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.

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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.

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Sounds of the Manifestation du Premier Mai:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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24
Apr

La Canopée des Halles – Open for Business

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.

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Image: parisleshalles.fr

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.

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View of Les Halles from Saint-Eustache in 1870

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15746757

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.

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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.”

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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.

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And, of course, let’s not forget the more than 6,000 square metres of underground retail shopping.

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Sounds under La Canopée des Halles:

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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.

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