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More Noise Pollution Close to Home

A MICROPHONE PLACED ON my apartment balcony reveals much about everyday life in Paris.

Paris – this wonderful city, the city of light, the most visited city in the world, a city full of beautiful secrets and a city drenched in wonderful sounds – but also a city where everyday life goes on relentlessly.

Yesterday morning, in my neck of the woods, the white van men appeared again and my heart sank at the prospect of the day ahead.

A shower, breakfast and then it started – noise, noise, relentless noise.

The white van men were revealed to be tree pruners – pruning the trees in the garden surrounding my apartment building.  A necessary job that needs to be done – but at what cost?

The sound of the pruning was bearable but the sound of the pruned debris disposal was quite a different matter.

The Relentless Noise of Pruned Debris Disposal:

The men had brought a machine that chews tree branches – feeding the pruned branches in at one end and spewing out sawdust at the other. A very efficient machine no doubt but with a noise exhaust level that exceeds that of a Jumbo jet taking off.

My apartment is pretty well soundproofed but that did not stop the noise invasion. The noise invaded my space and it continued relentlessly all morning.

There was a break at lunchtime but then it started again. I was working from home, or at least trying to, but the noise was so pervasive that I gave up and moved off, Hemingway like, to a café close by where I could work in relative peace.

When I came back home the white vans had gone. The trees looked better for their serious haircut – but what price did we pay for this necessary job?

Sound is important to me – and the abuse of sound annoys me. The white van men were just doing their job so I don’t blame them, but the product of their labour was not just more healthy trees, it was to invade the atmosphere with noise pollution in the extreme.

We protest vociferously about whale hunting, fur coats, animal rights, student fees, global warming and a host of other things … but maybe we should make more noise about noise pollution!


A Disused Railway Line and Parisian Birdsong

A WALK ALONG THE Rue Pouchet in the 17th arrondissement led me to a bridge crossing the railway line of the old Chemin de Fer de Petite Ceinture.

Built between 1852 and 1869, the Petite Ceinture or, Little Belt, railway line was the first public urban transportation service in Paris, and was the forerunner of today’s Paris Métro.

It comprised a thirty-five kilometre line that encircled Paris and it was built mainly for transporting goods between the five main railway stations in Paris, but it also offered a public transport service up until 1934.

The first Paris Métro line opened in 1900 with more central, more modern and more rapid rolling stock, together with more comfortable stations and more competitive prices than the Petite Ceinture. Consequently, the urban passenger service of the Petite Ceinture gradually began to decline. In addition, the local goods traffic grew. The Petite Ceinture operators used the loss of passenger traffic to decrease the number of passenger train movements and increase the number of goods train movements since the transportation of goods was much more lucrative than transporting urban passengers.

Eventually, the urban passenger service ceased on 22 July 1934 and was replaced by a bus service.

Today, twenty-three kilometres of the railway tracks of the Petite Ceinture remain. Large parts have been turned into nature parks and green walkways like the one I found in the 17th arrondissement.

Birdsong Beside the Disused Tracks:

In between part of the disused railway track and the small Rue du Colonel-Manhès is a delightful green walkway, which doesn’t look at it’s best in February but which I expect looks delightful in the springtime.

Even so, on a cold February afternoon, the birds were singing heartily, defying the traffic noise and the rain and keeping the spirit of the Chemin de Fer de Petite Ceinture alive.


The Sounds of Warsaw Airport

ON SATURDAY MORNING, I found myself at Warsaw airport waiting for a flight to Paris. It was a very cold, grey, day and it was snowing.

Warsaw Airport – Terminal 2

Warsaw airport – or to give it it’s proper name these days, Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport or, in Polish, Lotnisko Chopina w Warszawie – is Poland’s largest airport with around one hundred scheduled flights a day. It accounts for around 50% of Polish air traffic and is used by about nine million passengers each year.

Warsaw airport has two terminals. Terminal 2 is the newer of the two. It opened in 2008. Terminal 1 was opened in 1992 replacing the former communist building. I experienced the communist terminal on my first trip to Poland in 1989 – not an experience I would recommend!

Warsaw Airport – Terminal 1

On Saturday I had a couple of hours to spare before boarding my flight and, since Air France flights depart from Terminal 1, I decided to record some of the sounds there.

The Sound Outside Warsaw Airport Terminal 1:

Outside Terminal 1 the sounds comprised mainly traffic passing by in the slush but I was struck by how this was a soft, gentle, almost soothing sound compared to the harsh and often hostile traffic sounds in Paris. A loudspeaker outside the terminal building relays the announcements from inside which I think is a good idea.

Warsaw Airport – Terminal 1

Not surprisingly, inside, Terminal 1 has a much older feel to it than the new Terminal 2. It wasn’t very busy on Saturday but I have been there in the summer when it’s been very crowded and then it’s not a pleasant place to be.

The glider suspended from the roof is an interesting diversion.

The Sound Inside Warsaw Airport Terminal 1:

I have a collection of sounds that I have recorded in airport terminals around the world. In older terminal buildings it is sometimes possible to find distinctive sounds but in today’s new terminals the sounds, in whichever country they are recorded, seem to morph into just one overall airport terminal sound – only the languages are different.

So, having collected sounds from Warsaw airport for my sound archive, it was time to head off for the Mother Ship, Paris … and home.


La Coupole and the Parisian Café

RALPH WALDO EMERSON said that Paris was “a city of cafés and conversation”.  So it was – and so it still is.

Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli – or François Procope as he was known, is considered to be the founder of the first coffee house in Paris in the Foire Saint-Germain in 1686. The Café Procope is still alive and well.

By the end of the 19th century Parisian cafés had become, in the words of the writer Laroy-Beailieu, “places of conviviality, but also of consolation – cathedrals of the poor”.

The years between the end of the First and Second World Wars and the years just after were the hey-day of the Parisian Café when scores of impoverished artists and intellectuals, living beyond their means, sought out the cafés of Paris for refuge, warmth and conversation. They gathered in, amongst others, Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore in St Germain-des-Prés and in the clutch of cafés on the Boulevard Montparnasse – Le Select, La Rotonde, Le Dôme and La Coupole.

Of these four cafés in Montparnasse, each has it’s own atmosphere and style. La Rotonde and Le Dôme have a rather Belle Epoque feel to them whereas Le Select and La Coupole are quite different. Styling themselves as an American Bar in the case of Le Select and a Bar Americain for La Coupole, both reflect the mood and atmosphere of Paris in the inter-war years.  But for me, it is La Coupole that really stands out.

The sound inside La Coupole:

Founded by Anatole Broyard in 1927, La Coupole is an Art Deco feast. From the thirty-two painted pillars that form the supports in the huge dining room each painted by students of Matisse and Fernand Léger, to the light fittings, the clocks and the black and white photographs around the walls – everything is in perfect Art Deco style.

Even the ceiling in the shape of a dome – a coupole in French – is a feast.

As well as the elegant, but not extravagantly expensive, restaurant there are pavement tables where one can sit and enjoy a café crème and take stock of the Boulevard Montparnasse.

La Coupole is the ultimate reminder that Parisian cafés are so much more than just coffee shops. People still seek them out for refuge, warmth and conversation and they still have their share of impoverished artists and intellectuals – as well as, of course, less impoverished tourists. They are places to rest, to work, to meet friends and neighbours, to dine or to simply engage in the quintessential Parisian way of sitting undisturbed, watching the world go by.

Long may they continue.


A Parisian Disgrace

On Saturday I had a very interesting afternoon – a walk in the 17th arrondissement, discovering new sights and sounds. I walked from La Fourche to the Cemetière-des-Batignolles – a walk that one can do along the Avenue de Clichy in fifteen or twenty minutes but which on Saturday took me four hours! I made many diversions discovering new streets and many Parisian secrets that I had not come across before – like this one:

Eglise Saint-Michel-des-Batignolles

The end of my walk brought me to the Cemetière-des-Batignolles.

In life, most of us search for quiet moments of peace and tranquillity. For us city-dwellers that is often hard to come by. But in death, peace and tranquillity must surely be an entitlement. But not it seems if you are entombed in the Cemetière-des-Batignolles!

My visit to this cemetery both engaged and enraged me. It engaged me because I could feel this blog piece coming on – it enraged me because it seems that, when the so-called public interest takes precedence, respect – especially for the dead – seems to fly out of the window. The public interest in this case being the need to build a ring road encircling Paris.  The work began in 1958 and was completed in 1973.

Just think about it – at some point a city official, a fonctionnaire – overpaid, over-holidayed and over-pensioned – decided to attach his (it could have only been a man!) seal of approval to the building of a multi-lane ring road – known as a beltway in the US I believe – or the Périphérique as it’s known here in Paris, right over the top of the graves in this cemetery.

It is simply outrageous and a disgrace!

The lady entombed beneath these flowers is still clearly loved and remembered with affection – the fresh flowers speak volumes. But I can’t help feeling that she rests tormented by the dust and grime gathering around her and the sound of the constant traffic passing over the Periph’ above.

There are no exciting, glamorous or romantic sounds of Paris here – just the constant, repetitive and ugly sounds that the dead have to endure.

I recorded this sound at the foot of the lady’s grave:

The Cemetière-des-Batignolles was here first, long before the Périphérique was even thought of! It was founded in 1833, expanded in 1847 and expanded again in 1883.

The Russian opera singer, Feodor Chaliapin was buried here until the Soviet Union demanded the return of his remains. Chaliapin was lucky because today, the bodies that are buried here are denied any peace and tranquillity – instead they suffer constant noise pollution and for those lying under, or close to, the monstrous structure of the Périphérique overhead, the constant stream of traffic dust lies thick on their graves. “Ashes to ashes – dust to dust” has never been truer than it is here.

To Georges Pompidou, under whose Presidential reign this sacrilege was perpetrated, and to the fonctionnaires responsible for approving the plans, I say again – this is a disgrace. Shame on you!


Place des Vosges

THE PLACE DES VOSGES is a square of perfect symmetry.  Comprising thirty-six grand houses, nine on each side, with deep slate roofs with dormer windows over brick and stone arcades – the Place des Vosges is a Parisian treasure.

The Place des Vosges dates back to King Henry IV and the Grand Siècle.  Henry was somewhat of a city planner and his original idea for the Place Royale as it was then called was to use the shell of the old Tournelles palace in the Marais as a site in which to develop a silk industry which could, he hoped, combat the Italians and boost the domestic economy.  But his scheme quickly took on a different life.  With the aid of his Chief Minister, Sully, the idea of providing a workers’ village in the Place was transformed into creating an elegant urban square dominated by the aristocracy.

The famous literary hostess, Madame de Séveigné, was born here in 1626, Cardinal Richelieu stayed here in 1615, the poet Théophile Gautier and the writer Victor Hugo both lived here in the nineteenth-century.

I find the Place des Vosges attractive at any time of the year but it is in the summer when the tourists flock to this space.

As well as the architecture, the green space in the centre and the history, the tourists can also enjoy the up-market street music.  The Place des Vosges boasts the aristocracy of street musicians in Paris.  On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, especially in the summer, classically trained musicians, including opera singers and classical instrumentalists of the highest standard, perform here for free.

But even in the winter – on a cold Saturday in January – excellent street music can be found.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the Place des Vosges hunting for interesting sounds.  I started recording as I was walking around the Place with no particular objective in mind – and then I came across this – a walk under the arcade arches, past the front of a café and then, further on, three musicians, a bass player, a guitarist and an accordionist, playing to an audience of one – me!  What impressed me was that they were playing music because they thoroughly enjoyed playing music – audience or no audience.

I hope you enjoy the sounds and the enthusiasm of the musicians as much as I do.

I couldn’t help feeling that the ghosts of Madame de Séveigné, Théophile Gautier and Victor Hugo were enjoying it too – but what would Cardinal Richelieu make of it?


The Marché aux Puces and a Nagra III

THIS POST IS DEDICATED especially to those interested in the technical aspects of sound recording and sound recording paraphernalia.  Not everyone’s cup of tea I know so, for those of you who regularly follow this blog for the Parisian street sounds, I have included something for you too.

Yesterday, I went to the Marché aux Pouces at Porte de Clignancourt – the flea market to beat all flea markets.  The Marché aux Puces is actually a collection of individual markets centred around the rue des Rosiers area.  I like all the markets there but my favourite is the Marché Dauphine, a large, two-storey, covered market, less ostentatious and less expensive than the Marché Biron but a cut above the outdoor Marché Vernaison both of which are close by. The Marché Dauphine just seems to have more things that interest me – and more things that I can afford!

All markets are I suppose a voyage of discovery – you start by looking at one thing and then get sidetracked into looking at something completely different.  And so it was yesterday.  I spent a long time in the wonderful section on the first floor dedicated to old prints and photographs which was indeed a voyage of discovery.  I could have happily stayed in there all afternoon – but I’m pleased I didn’t because my next discovery simply made my day.

At this point, the technophiles will be taking a special interest but for the technophobes here is the sound of the Marché Dauphine:

Quite unexpectedly and much to my delight I came across this Nagra III portable tape recorder complete with power supply and microphone.  I had never actually seen one in the flesh before so, for me, this was an exciting moment.  It had a price tag of 1500 Euros and if I were wealthier than I am I would have bought it in an instant simply for the pleasure of owning it.  But alas …

It’s hard now to remember just what a groundbreaking tape recorder this was in its day.  It was the first Nagra tape recorder suitable for use with film and consequently it took Hollywood by storm.

Stefan Kudelski, who founded the Nagra company, had examined several systems for synchronizing the film camera with the tape recorder.  One such system worked from a signal generated by the tape recorder which then slaved a rotary converter feeding a synchronous motor on the camera.  This method had disadvantages and it was very wasteful of power.  At that time, power transistors were not sufficiently developed to allow the elimination of the rotary converter so the method he finally adopted was the reverse of this recorder to camera method.  In the new method, the camera generated a signal which was recorded on the same tape as the sound, thereby reducing the power consumption enormously.

From 1956, Kudelski researched into the possibility of a self-contained tape recorder without a centrifugal speed governor, this latter causing endless trouble with the clockwork drive. This resulted in the Nagra III, which was launched in 1958.

The feature that gave Nagra the edge in quality and film use was Kudelski’s development of the Neo-Pilottone system, where the synchronisation data could be recorded on the tape in the middle of the audio track, but without crosstalk onto the program recording.

The frequency of the pilot signal was 50/60 Hz and was often derived from the mains. The signal was recorded as a twin track signal 180° out of phase so as to be invisible to the full track playback head.  The start point was indicated by the clap of the film clapperboard and the synchronization to the magnetic film was maintained using the pilot signal throughout the take.

Neopilot, as it became known, was the standard synchronization system used in filmmaking until the late 1980s, when timecode became the preferred standard.

So there we are, the Nagra III, an icon of its day – living history in the Marché aux Puces at Porte de Clignancourt.  And alas, there it remains – at least for the moment!  I hope it gives others as much pleasure as it gave me yesterday afternoon.


Another Good Read

The Flâneur by Edmund White

A flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place and in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic. Edmund White, who lived in Paris for sixteen years, wanders through the streets and avenues and along the quays, into parts of Paris virtually unknown to visitors and indeed to many Parisians. Entering the Marais evokes the history of Jews in France, and a visit to the Haynes Grill recalls the presence—festive, troubled—of black Americans in Paris for a century and a half. Gays, Decadents, even Royalists past and present are all subjected to the flâneur’s scrutiny.

In his opinionated fashion, the flâneur visits bookshops and boutiques, monuments and palaces, providing gossip and background to each site, looking through the blank walls past the proud edifices to glimpse the inner human drama. Along the way he recounts everything from the latest debates among French lawmakers to the juicy details of Colette’s life. In this, the first book in The Writer and the City series, Edmund White lures the reader into the fascinating backstreets of his personal Paris. It is an exhilarating adventure with a most seductive companion.

This text was taken from Edmund White’s website which you can find here.

I really enjoyed reading this book. The flavour of Paris simply oozes from the pages. I highly recommend it.


La Cour Damoye

THE PLACE DE LA BASTILLE is one of the most traffic-infested and noisiest parts of Paris.

The constant cacophony of traffic circulating the Colonne de Juillet, beating over the pavé, pollutes the air not only with carbon emissions but also with unwelcome sound.

Burning rubber in the Place de la Bastille:

But, thank goodness, all is not lost … a few steps away, through the archway of N°12, Place de la Bastille, lies a haven of relative peace.

La Cour Damoye, the entrance to which lies discreetly hidden between two cafés, rests for the most part unobserved by the tourists who pass by.

By day it is a discreet pedestrian thoroughfare but, once the gates are locked in the evening, it reverts to the exclusive use of the residents and the tranquil charm and intimate scale of turn-of-the-century Paris.

La Cour Damoye dates from the end of the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century it became home to scrap and rag merchants.

In 1914, the Paris photographer Eugène Atget photographed La Cour Damoye.  By this time it had become the place where cart wheels were repaired. The skilled eye of the photographer captured this working atmosphere—the street lamps, the stored cart wheels on the paving stones, the ladders, and some workshops on the ground floor.

This was a small village where people used to live in harmony in a village-like atmosphere – and today they still do.

La Cour Damoye was renovated in the late 1990’s by the architect Didier Drummond but it still retains its turn-of-the-century character. Now, it is home to four upper stories of residential space, as well as artists, architects, and galleries in the ground-floor ateliers.

The sounds of today’s Cour Damoye:

The sounds of la Cour Damoye are very different today from the sounds to be found there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but, even so, today’s sounds are a great relief from the cacophony that is the rest of the twenty-first century Place de la Bastille.