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Music at the Opéra

DESIGNED BY CHARLES GARNIER for Napoleon III, the opulent Opéra Garnier with its magnificent marble staircase, its wonderful Marc Chagall painted ceiling, its grand chandelier and its sea of red and gold furnishings must rate as one of the most sumptuous opera houses in the world.

Many famous names are associated with the Opéra Garnier but two seem to have captured the popular imagination. Gaston Leroux and Andrew Lloyd Weber.  Thanks to an underground lake discovered during construction of the Opéra and a falling counterweight from the grand chandelier, Gaston Leroux was inspired to write his famous play, the Phantom of the Opera, subsequently transformed by Andrew Lloyd Weber into a smash-hit musical of the same name.

Since the construction of the modern Opéra National de Paris in Bastille in 1989 (a hideous building on the outside with the appearance of a grand 2,200 seat cinema on the inside … but with acoustics to die for), the majestic Opéra Garnier is now mainly used for ballet performances.

These days, the Opéra Garnier may be more devoted to the ballet than to the opera but it has music running through its veins. On a Saturday afternoon a group of young musicians assembled on the steps of the Opéra Garnier to strut their stuff to an enthusiastic audience of tourists.

On the steps of the Opéra Garnier:

This is far removed from the classic nineteenth-century French operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer including his most famous, Les Huguenots, which was premiered here in 1836 or the ballet Le Corsaire, originally set to the music of Adolphe Adam and premiered here in 1856. The music of Les Huguenots and Le Corsair performed at this magnificent opera house reflected the music of the time – just as these street musicians are reflecting some of the music of our time.  Different maybe – but none the less important.


A Soundwalk in Montmartre

OVER THE LAST YEAR, I’ve collected many sounds in Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement. It’s one of the most visited parts of Paris and it’s easy to see why.

Dominated by the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur sitting atop the hill that is La Butte de Montmartre, Montmartre is a popular and attractive historic village within the city.

People come here to experience the atmosphere, to see the artists at work, to savour the food, to sample the nightlife and to enjoy the magnificent view of Paris.

In this soundwalk I’ve tried to capture some of that atmosphere.

A Soundwalk in Montmartre:

Those of you who have visited Montmartre will recognise some of these sounds I’m sure. For those of you who have never had the Montmartre experience, the soundwalk includes the sound of con men busily ripping off unsuspecting tourists on a Sunday morning at the foot of La Butte de Montmartre. Yes, I’m afraid that Paris does have its ugly side too! We take the funicular to the top of the hill where the bell on the tourist train is beckoning customers. The man making key rings from coloured wool is a permanent fixture, as is his running commentary. A walk along the rue Norvins brings us to the bistro, La Petaudiere and lunch complete with piano. We hear an Edith Piaf sound-alike, one of the better ones in Paris. We cross the Place du Tertre and come upon an altercation, a perfect demonstration of the way the French turn an argument into an art form. I’ve written about this before on this Blog. And finally, we are summoned by bells – the bells of the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur peeling out on a Sunday afternoon.

I hope these sounds give you a flavour of Montmartre and for those of you who have never been, I hope it will tempt you to come and listen to the sounds for yourself.

Montmartre  has its own website so you can catch up with all the news here.


‘Little Jaffna’ – A Parisian Soundwalk

AT THE END OF AUGUST I made a blog piece about La Fête de Ganesh, the annual festival to celebrate Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune. In July, I made a piece about the Passage Brady with its exotic smells and the atmosphere of an Indian bazaar. So yesterday, when I found myself in ‘Little Jaffna’ in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement, I couldn’t help feeling that, unwittingly, a theme was developing.

Stretching from the Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle to the Boulevard de la Chapelle, the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis is a mélange of Turkish, African, and Indian communities. Yesterday, it was the stretch from the Metro station, La Chapelle, to the railway station, Gare du Nord that particularly interested me and it was along here that I did a Soundwalk.

A Soundwalk in ‘Little Jaffna’:

This part of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis is quite distinctive.  It would be easy to call it, “Little India”, but that would be an over-generalisation, even though one of the shops bears that name. The fact is, that what we often refer to as the Indian community here comprises a far wider diversity than just “Indian”.

Of the immigrants originating from the Indian sub-continent who have settled in Paris, only a minority are natives of India proper. Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Punjabis, and Sri-Lankan Tamils form culturally and socially distinct groups in Paris. Something I didn’t know until recently, is that the largest these communities is the Tamil.

Most of the Parisian Tamils fled Sri-Lanka as refugees in the 1980’s during the violent civil war. Over time, they have thrived in a close-knit community in this part of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. The soubriquet, “Little Jaffna”, comes from the name Jaffna, the capital of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, the area from which most of these people are descended.

I began my Soundwalk at the Metro station, la Chapelle, where the African and Indian communities meet.  The distinctive sounds of “M’Ice, M’Ice, M’Ice” and “Vum Ice, Vum Ice, Vum Ice”, are the African ladies outside the metro station busily trying to sell ice cubes from plastic bags tucked away in shopping trolleys. They are a common feature in all the African communities in Paris but I’ve yet to see any of them actually making a sale.

Passing through the entrance to the Metro station, crossing the road and walking towards the Gare du Nord, I leave Africa behind and enter into the world of the Indian sub-continent with all its colour, exotic smells and sounds.

A greengrocer is selling exotic fruit and vegetables outside his shop whilst inside, the checkouts are working at a frantic pace.

An Halal butcher, surrounded by colourful sari and textile shops, is chopping meat. Conversation abounds.

This is so much more than a place to shop; this is a place to see and be seen, a place to meet friends, neighbours and family, a place savour and to enjoy. This is “Little Jaffna” and these are its sounds.


A Conversation With Victoria Fenner … Documentary Poet

VICTORIA FENNER LIVES and works in Canada. With a background in radio and television broadcasting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and in community based media, Victoria is now an independent radio producer, sound artist and successful businesswoman.

Victoria runs a production company producing journalistic and feature material for radio, Internet, podcasts and video. Much of her work on the themes of social justice, the environment, poverty reduction and global women’s rights has been syndicated nationally and internationally. She also runs ‘Sound Out Communications’, a media production, training and distribution company, working with video, audio and still images. Victoria has a special interest in community radio and in the exploration of the artistic possibilities of radio.

Apart from her very successful broadcasting and business career, Victoria is also one of Canada’s leading sound artists. She travels extensively collecting sounds, which she uses to compile wonderful works of sound art. In this increasingly important part of her work she sets out to listen to the world and to hear it in new ways expressed in rhythms, words, textures and harmonies.

When I first discovered Victoria’s work I was captivated by it and I knew that I had to find out more about the person behind these fascinating sounds. I approached Victoria and she readily agreed to speak to Soundlandscapes’ Blog.

A Conversation with Victoria Fenner:

My conversation with Victoria would not be complete without including some her work. When I suggested this to Victoria she readily agreed to share some of her sounds with us.  The selection is important because it covers the spectrum of her work. These pieces have not been edited to appear here, they are what they are – full-length, original works.

The first piece is called Restoration Sinfonietta, a soundscape made entirely of sounds made by hammers, saws, rachets, power drills and other implements of mass construction.

Restoration Sinfonietta:

The next piece, You Can’t Miss It, is an audio map about getting lost in the Appalachian Mountains. Victoria produced this piece when she was living in Kentucky where getting lost seemed to be a full-time occupation 

You Can’t Miss It:

This piece, Qui Chante, was my first introduction to Victoria’s work and so it’s a particular favourite of mine. It’s a soundscape based on the Lourdes Grotto, an outdoor 
cathedral in the busy borough of Vanier in Ottawa. It explores the theme of quiet, silence and the sacred voice in the 
heart of the secular city. We are encouraged to 
think about our human voice connecting with the voice of the divine
 in a sea of noise created by a secular world.

Qui Chante:

And this selection of Victoria Fenner’s work wouldn’t be complete without a piece from her vast radio repertoire. In my conversation with Victoria we spoke about documentary poetry and radio as art space. This next piece beautifully encapsulates both of these concepts. After Exile was commissioned by the Deep Wireless Radio Art Festival and one of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s best programmes, “Living Out Loud”.  Steve Wadhams, the award winning CBC Radio producer, co-produced this piece with Victoria. For me, this piece represents the very best of radio – imagery, emotion, involvement and a sense of really being there and sharing the experience. Never have the terms documentary poetry and radio art seemed so appropriate.

After Exile:

In ‘After Exile’ Victoria Fenner was herself and Edward Moll was the ghost of Raymond Knister.

Today, we are blessed with so many sound artists producing individual and original works of sound art. I listen to many of them and enjoy the compositions they produce. Victoria’s work though appeals to me especially because of its simplicity. She takes simple sounds, sometimes words but often the everyday, often ignored, sounds around us and transforms them into poetry … documentary poetry. And please don’t confuse simplicity with being easy to produce. As one who has wrestled endlessly with simple sounds I can attest that simple is often much harder than you think. I really enjoy the way that Victoria makes her documentary poetry seem simple. That is a great gift aspired to by many but enjoyed by few.

I really hope that you’ve enjoyed listening to my conversation with Victoria Fenner. If this has given you as much pleasure to listen to as it’s given me to produce then it will have all been worthwhile. If you’ve enjoyed it please leave a comment. Victoria and I would really like to know what you think.

Victoria has been extraordinarily generous in sharing both her words and her sounds with us so it just remains for me to say a very big thank you! Thanks Victoria … until the next time!


Footsteps in the Parc Monceau

I DON’T KNOW WHY but I don’t visit the Parc Monceau all that often, which is silly really because it’s quite close to where I live and always well worth a visit.

This English-style park is in the 8th arrondissement and last Saturday, on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I ventured down there for the first time this year.

Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Chartres established a formal garden here between 1769 and 1778 on twenty-eight acres of land he had accumulated. It began life as a French formal garden but the anglophile Philippe had it transformed it into an English-style garden where people were allowed to sit and picnic on the lawn much as they still do today.

During the French revolution Philippe d’Orléans was sent to the guillotine and the Parc Monceau was confiscated and nationalised. It was returned to the Orléans family during the Restoration Monarchy only to be confiscated again at the beginning of the Second Republic. Napoléon III stopped this ping-pong ownership by dividing the property, keeping part of it for the State and returning the rest to the Orléans family. The Parc Monceau we know today is the part retained by the French State.

The Parc Monceau has a relaxed, intimate feel to it and it’s enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Whilst I enjoy the wild flowers, the Greek columns, the lake and the Temple of Mars it’s the sounds that always captivate me. Amongst the sounds of people chattering and children playing are the ever-present sounds of the footsteps over the gravel paths.

There are always people strolling, power walking or jogging and this mélange of footsteps seems to have a rhythmical, almost musical effect. I never tire of listening to it.


Sounds of Euston Station … Under Surveillance!

I SPENT TWO DAYS in the UK this week. At the bottom of my little street I caught the 43 bus to the Gare du Nord in Paris and from there I caught the Eurostar. Two hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Paris I alighted in London St. Pancras station. I still marvel at how quick and convenient this journey is and of course, St. Pancras was looking as wonderful as ever.

There are two other main-line railway stations within a stones throw of St Pancras. Across the street is the ugly and claustrophobic King’s Cross station thankfully undergoing a serious makeover. Further up the Euston Road beyond the British Library is Euston station.

It was here, with some time to spare, that I decided to venture inside and record some of the atmosphere.

In Paris I feel free to record sound and to take photographs in public places without giving it a second thought. I’m sad to say that don’t have the same feeling in London. It’s said that in London you are captured by a video camera three hundred times every day and I can well believe it. Euston station is littered with video cameras at every turn. I would have liked to have taken photographs inside the station to illustrate the sound I was recording … but I didn’t. I just had the feeling that pointing a camera would have brought the wrath of God down upon me.

I completely understand the very real concerns about security and the need for vigilance in our modern world but isn’t there also a case for balance? Who actually watches these miles and miles of video footage?

I have to admit that coming back to Paris was a breath of fresh air.