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December 15, 2011


Sound Hunting and L’Eglise Saint-Séverin

by soundlandscapes

I CAME UPON THIS quotation recently in an article in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television Vol. 24, No. 4, 2004:

“Today’s hunters no longer turn to the woods or fields, but to the noisy big cities. Instead of banging rifles they take their silent tape recorders with them. These modern day hunters call themselves ‘sound hunters’. Instead of hunting for deer, foxes and rabbits, they are after sounds and noises. To be sure, sound hunting is no less exciting than hunting in the green fields.”

This was how the sound tape manufacturer BASF promoted the hobby of sound hunting in the Netherlands in 1964. As a modern day ‘Sound Hunter’ myself I found this a very apt quotation. For me, the excitement of sound hunting comes from hunting the often elusive quarry, the thrill of the chase and the golden moment of the capture.

Last Saturday was a typical sound hunting day for me. I left home thinking that I would try to search out some festive season sounds. After a fruitless search around the Hôtel de Ville and the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame I found myself in the medieval but rather un-Christmas like Rue de la Huchette. I don’t quite know why, but this street and the surrounding area draws me back like a magnet time and time again.

I have many sounds recorded in the Rue de la Huchette in my sound archive and, on Saturday, there seemed to be nothing new to add. It seemed as though the hunt for new sounds had gone cold.

As is so often the case, I couldn’t leave this area without paying a visit to one of my favourite places in Paris, the Eglise Saint-Séverin.

The construction of this church began in the 11th Century and it’s the oldest surviving church on the Left Bank. It’s bells, cast in 1412, are the oldest in Paris. For me, this church always seems to provide a haven of tranquillity in this otherwise hustling, bustling area.

I feel a great affinity with the Eglise Saint-Séverin not least because over the years it’s offered me some golden sound nuggets – although very sparingly.

On Saturday, I arrived at the church in the late afternoon. As always, there were several other visitors looking around. After a day of intense listening I sat down to enjoy an oasis of comparative silence. Presently, I thought I heard a sound. It was fleeting but it sounded like the voice of a singer. It passed; perhaps it was a figment of my imagination. I got up to leave and then I heard the sound again … and this time the hunt was on.

Walking round to the other side of the church I could hear that the sound was coming from behind a closed, heavy wooden door. It was the sound of a choir going through a warm-up routine.

A choir behind a thick wooden door:

I didn’t know if this was a routine choir practice or whether something else was in prospect so I sat down to await developments … and I wasn’t disappointed.

A choir in the Eglise Saint-Séverin:

The choir emerged from behind the heavy wooden door wearing coats and scarves (it was chilly in the church) and lined up in front of the alter and began to sing. It turned out that they were rehearsing for a Christmas concert.

A choir in the Eglise Saint-Séverin:

Sound hunting can be a frustrating business.  That elusive sound, the one that rises above all the others, can often be hard to find and even harder to hunt down. But when the hunt succeeds then all seems well with the world.

As a final note, I recorded another sound of these singers that is extra special but to hear that I’m afraid you will have to wait until Christmas when I shall feature it on this blog.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dec 16 2011

    I love the choir recording! Fantastic!

  2. Dec 17 2011

    Nice to know that we all share the same frustrations relating to the search for new sounds. It’s always good to move away from our familiar terrain in order to experience a new world of sound, but even better to hear something new in the all too familiar.
    The first clip of the choir doing their vocal warm-ups is my favourite here, capturing what seems like the leakage of a private moment into a public space.

  3. Dec 18 2011

    Thanks Jay, Yes, sound does permeate where sight sometimes cannot. The choir warming-up was a private moment made public. This church is very special to me. I’ve captured some of my most beautiful sounds here, always by chance, but sounds that are nevertheless very special to me.

  4. Love this story because I’ve also experienced those random lucky breaks where a simple walk through Paris yields something unexpected and beautiful out of thin air (I stumbled upon Picasso’s first studio in Paris the other day). For my money that’s the true magic of this city. Sometimes when I see something amazing I’m thankful I never leave home without a camera — in this case you were perfectly equipped to capture such an audible surprise. Thanks for sharing!


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