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Obscura Day … and Night!

SATURDAY, APRIL 9th, is Obscura Day worldwide, and in Paris Adam, who writes the excellent Invisible Paris blog, is organising two very special events for the day. Both are connected with the curious but fascinating Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale tucked away in a remote corner of the Bois de Vincennes.

The events include a visit to the Jardin in the morning followed by an evening at Dorothy’s Gallery near Bastille where the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale will be brought to life in photo and in sound.

Adam invited me to record the sounds of the Jardin in order to add an extra dimension to the evening event. I have been delighted to do so not least because it has allowed me to become familiar with this intriguing and hitherto invisible part of Paris. Here is a taster …

Sounds of the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale:

Saturday April 9th promises to be an interesting and intriguing day. You can get all the details here.


From One Market to Another

I HAD NEVER BEEN to a horsemeat market before until I visited the Parc Georges-Brassens, a nineteen acre green space in the 15th arrondissement. Where today witch hazel brightens the winter landscape and magnolia heralds the spring, a gruesome past is never far away.

From 1898 until 1978 this was the site of the Vaugirard abattoirs, six groups of buildings surrounding a vast courtyard covering almost six acres where slaughtering and butchering took place on an industrial scale to feed the Parisian appetite.

At the eastern end, bordering the rue Brancion, was the half-acre or so reserved for the slaughtering and butchering of horses.

The only surviving buildings from the original abattoir complex are two former administrative buildings at what was the main entrance in the Rue des Morillons, a campanile where auction sales were held and the iron pavilion of the former horsemeat market.

This pavilion still hosts a market but a less gruesome one than that for which it was originally designed. Each weekend throughout the year a market for old and second-hand books takes place here.

Bibliophiles travel from far and wide to visit this market where everything from comics to rare and sometimes very expensive books can be found.

Inside the market:

Today, this iron pavilion has survived to satisfy a different sort of appetite but the former sounds within it, like the horsemeat, are gone forever.


What’s In A Name?

EACH PARIS METRO station has a name. These names are often taken from current or former street names in the area close to the station, which in turn are associated with people, places or events significant to the French. To travel on the Paris Metro is to travel the gamut of French history.

The station Barbès-Rochechouart is a good example. Situated at the point where the 9th, 10th and 18th arrondissements meet, the station is home to two metro lines, Line 2 and Line 4. At this station, Line 4 is underground and Line 2 becomes another one of Fulgence Bienvenûe’s aerial metro lines.

The sound Barbès-Rochechouart station Line 2:

The station was named after two streets close by – Boulevard Barbès and Boulevard de Rochechouart. These streets were named after two people – Armand Barbès and Marguerite de Rochechouart.

Armand Barbès (1809 – 1870) was a radical politician who twice attempted to overthrow the French Government and twice escaped the worst of the consequences. The first time was an attempted coup in 1832 against the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, the last King of France, for which Barbès was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. Thanks to a petition to the court for leniency by Victor Hugo his sentence was commuted to life in prison. In fact, he was released from prison at the beginning of the 1848 revolution. His second attempt was in May 1848 when he failed to overthrow the Provisional Government. For this he was convicted and imprisoned again until 1854 whereupon he was exiled to The Hague in the Netherlands.

Marguerite de Rochechouart de Montpipeau (? – 1727) was the Abbess of a convent called Les Dames de Montmartre from 1717 to 1727. The Boulevard Rochechouart was laid out on property owned by the Abbey. Being an Abbess of itself probably didn’t qualify Marguerite de Rochechouart to have a street named after her but being the sister of Mme de Montespan, long-time mistress to Louis XIV, probably helped.

The Boulevard de Rochechouart enjoyed a period of notoriety later in the eighteenth-century when it became home to a selection of cabarets one of which was called Aux Armes de Madame l’Abbess and another Le Caprice des Dames – perhaps a more evocative memorial than a mere street name.

But it was not to last. By the mid-nineteenth century the area around the Boulevard de Rochechouart had become a very poor working-class neighbourhood. In his book, L’Assommoir, Emile Zola tells a classic tale of poverty and alcoholism set almost entirely around what is now the metro station Barbès-Rochechouart.

The sound of the Boulevard de Rochechouart:


Recording the Past

IT WAS CREATED BY Father Grégoire in 1794 as a “dépôt des inventions neuves et utiles” – a warehouse for new and useful inventions.

Housed in the former priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in rue Réaumur in the 3rd arrondissement, the Musée des Arts et Metier houses part of the collection of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.

The museum has over 3,000 scientific and technical inventions on display ranging from an astrolabe dating from 1567, to the original Foucault’s pendulum, which demonstrates that the earth really does rotate, to a Cray 2 super computer and lots more.

The museum is arranged in seven categories – Scientific Instruments, Materials, Construction, Communication, Energy, Mechanics and Transportation.

Being a lover of sound, I am always particularly fascinated by the Communications gallery, which begins with the printing of the written word and continues through to a communications satellite. Sound and vision are featured with a collection of early telephones, early televisions, early film cameras and projectors together with early sound reproduction devices.

Ambient sound inside the Communications gallery including a creaky wooden floor:

Tape recorders are represented but, this being a French museum, all the recorders are French – so no historic Nagras feature here unfortunately. The one shown above is from the early 1960’s.

Those shown below are from the 1950’s.

Photographing these objects behind glass in a bright, sunlit, room doesn’t show them at their best but even so, the pictures still excite me when I look at them.

Of particular interest to me was this 1950’s magnetic wire recorder.

And let’s not forget the microphones …

I can’t help wondering how many sounds these devices have recorded and what stories they could tell.

One of the features of the Musée des Arts et Métiers that I enjoy is that there are always lots of wide-eyed children keen to explore, to learn and to have fun.  In the Communications gallery a group were enjoying a magic lantern show – but if it’s magic you want, then the Théâtre des Automates is the place to be.

Sound inside the Théâtre des Automates:

The Théâtre des Automates is a side gallery in the museum full of musical clocks and automatons all exquisitely made and some very rare.  While I was in there recently a demonstrator from the museum was explaining the exhibits to a group of children. Her enthusiasm was absolutely infectious.

I certainly recommend a visit to this museum.


Marché d’Aligre

WHEN IT COMES TO PARIS markets, the Marché d’Aligre is about as lively as they come. Situated between rue de Charenton and rue du Faubourg St-Antoine in the 12th arrondissement, the market actually comprises two markets, the indoor Marché Couvert Beauvau and an outdoor street market.

Sounds inside the Marché Couvert Beauvau:

The indoor market sells a wide variety of food from its fromageries and charcuteries, as well as seafood and a host of other things – but get there early if you want the best choice.

Unlike some indoor markets in Paris, the Marché Beauvau is not all that big so, especially in the mornings, it can be a bit of a crush. However, even at its busiest, it becomes a haven of tranquillity compared to the outdoor market.

The outdoor market consists of a flea market in the square next to the Marché Beauvau where clothes, antiques and a range of bric-a-brac are on sale. But it’s along the adjoining rue d’Aligre where the market really comes to life with the street vendors, many of Algerian origin, doing a frenetic trade in fruit and vegetables.

Sounds of the outdoor street market:

This colourful melange of sound fascinates me. It reaches its peak on Saturday and Sunday mornings when the market is at its busiest. For people busy shopping for their fruit and vegetables these sounds probably go largely unnoticed or, at best, they just become part of the background atmosphere, but for me, fascinated as I am by our sonic environment, these sounds form a rich tapestry and an important part of our social history.

As well as engaging in frenetic shopping it’s also possible find some light entertainment. Wherever there are crowds in Paris there will always be street entertainers to keep them amused.

How to get there:

The Marché d’Aligre is a ten-minute walk from Place de la Bastille and the closest metro is Ledru Rollin on Line 8.


Fine Tuning

I AM FASCINATED BY SOUND – listening to it, recording it and archiving it. My special interest is recording everyday sounds – the sounds that most people either ignore or take only a fleeting interest in – the sounds that create a lasting sense of atmosphere or a sense of place.  Paris is full of such sounds but so too are other places.

Sometimes I seem to stumble across sounds that are not only interesting but also unusual and to find these sounds is always a pleasure.

On a recent visit to Poland I visited St John’s Cathedral in Warsaw. Built in the first half of the 14th century, the original church was almost completely demolished during the Second World War. In 1939 the church was bombed and partly burned and then, after the Warsaw uprising in 1944, in a particularly callous act, German tanks entered the church and completely destroyed what remained.

After the war, with typical fortitude, the Polish people decided that the church should be re-built. By 1956 the reconstruction of the building was complete but it was not until the 1970’s that the restoration of the interior was finally finished.

It was against this background that I found myself, on a very cold Saturday morning, in St John’s Cathedral.

When I visit a church or a cathedral the first thing I look for is the organ. Church and cathedral organs are another passion of mine – sound recording and church organs seem to go hand in glove.

The organ in St John’s Cathedral was built by the Eule company of Bautzen in Germany and it was installed in 1987. This King of Instruments stands proudly in the organ loft above the west door.

The Organ of St John’s Cathedral

On this particular Saturday morning the organ was receiving some special attention. It was being tuned. What I know about organ tuning could be written on the back of a postage stamp but, after listening to the process for over an hour, I came away having learned a lot.

I learned that it takes at least two people to tune a cathedral organ. In this case, a young lady sitting at the organ console pressing keys on cue from the organ tuner who was buried deep inside the bowels of the instrument.

I also learned that organ tuning is in part a long and delicate process demanding an acute sense of pitch from the organ tuner and in part a quite brutal process in which a hammer seems to be an essential part of the organ tuner’s armoury.

Tuning the upper register:

As well a hammer, a selection of pitch pipes are used so that the organ pipes can be tuned to a reference pitch. The combination of the sound of these pitch pipes and the sound of the organ pipes makes for an interesting effect.

Tuning the lower register:

After much hammering and blowing of pitch pipes, it was time for the obligatory ‘road test’. The organ tuner emerged from the bowels of the instrument to take centre stage at the console where he showed that he could do more with his hands than wield a hammer.

The road test:

Job done!

Many famous Polish people are entombed in St John’s Cathedral including Ignacy Jan Paderewski, concert pianist and one time Prime Minister of Poland – a man who I’m sure would appreciate the fine art of organ tuning.


Street Music in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine

WALKING ALONG THE RUE du Faubourg Saint-Antoine from Bastille towards L’hôpital Saint-Antoine, past the clutch of wonderful half-hidden passageways, it’s easy to slip back in time.  Since the 13th century the Faubourg Saint-Antoine has been full of artisans plying their trade. An exemption from guild membership and the associated fees and taxes attracted carpenters, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths, ironworkers and a variety of other craftsmen to the area. Even today, if it’s furniture you want, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine is the place to be.

On a Saturday in late February I found other artisans also plying their trade.  On the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, just beyond the Square Trousseau, I came upon these street musicians thoroughly enjoying themselves.

As someone who is in love with sound, I couldn’t help imagining the cacophony of the 13th century carpenters, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths and ironworkers nearby.

The sounds of the 13th century remain firmly fixed in my imagination but I can share the sound of today’s artisans with you just as they shared them with me … but I can’t help wondering what our 13th century friends would make of it.