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Gare de Javel

I WAS MAKING MY WAY to the Parc André Citroën in the 15th arrondissement when I came upon the Gare de Javel.

It’s a train station on Line ‘C’ of the RER, the Paris suburban rail system and it was built for the Exposition Universelle in 1889. It stands on a bridge over the railway line.

The French architect, Jean Juste Gustave Lisch, specialised in designing civic works and especially stations. He designed the main line railway station in Paris, Gare Saint-Lazare. He also designed the Gare de Javel in the Chinese pagoda style that was typical of the time.

Originally, the station was called ‘Pont Mirabeau’ and it’s not hard to see why. It stands close to that magnificent structure which is now a listed historical monument.

Not only was I interested in looking at the station, I was also interested in capturing some sounds of the RER. On my way to the Parc André Citroën, I walked to the Porte de Javel where the RER line is close to the quay. I waited for what seemed like ages and nothing happened and then, in a sudden burst of activity, two trains arrived at once. The first one, coming from the left, was on the line furthest away from me and the second, coming from the right, was on the line closest to me … probably too close I thought.

RER Trains at Porte de Javel:

The Gare de Javel stands next to la Seine on the Quai André Citroën. The word ‘Javel’ in the station’s name derives from the village of Javel where the Comte d’Artois had an enterprise making ‘eau de Javel’, or ‘bleach’. In 1915, André Citroën opened a factory making munitions on this site. This subsequently became the Citroën car factory and it remained so until its closure in 1974. Today, this site is the Parc André Citroën and it’s just a short walk from the Gare de Javel.

After my visit to the Parc André Citroën I returned to the Gare de Javel and caught the RER to the Tour Eiffel, which was the talk of the town at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. This is what the journey sounded like yesterday. Sadly, we can only guess what it sounded like in 1889.

Gare de Javel to Champs des Mars – Tour Eiffel:

Those who follow my Paris Métro sounds, particularly the sounds of Métro Line 5, will immediately notice the difference in the texture of the sounds between the Métro and the RER. On the Métro it’s usually the sounds of the train that dominate the sounds of the people. On the RER the reverse is usually true.


Tour de France 2012

FOR THREE WEEKS EVERY JULY the Tour de France weaves it’s way through France, often dipping into and out of neighbouring countries but always ending up on the final Sunday of the Tour in the Champs Elysées.

This year was the 99th edition of the Tour de France. It began on Saturday, 30th June with a Prologue in Liège in Belgium with 198 riders comprising 22 teams representing 12 countries.  3,488 km later, after nine flat stages, four medium mountain stages including one with a summit finish, five mountain stages including two with a summit finish, two individual time-trial stages and two rest days, 153 riders arrived in the Champs Elysées.  The winner spent a total of 87 hours 34 minutes and 47 seconds in the saddle whilst the last man, affectionately call the ‘lantern rouge’ or red light, was almost 4 hours behind on accumulated time.

It was back in 1985 when Bernard Hinault won the Tour for the fifth time. That was the last time a French rider won the Tour but this subsequent lack of success has not dampened the French enthusiasm for le Tour. It’s an important part of French life and culture. Each year, thousands of people line the route and millions watch on television as the Tour weaves it’s way into the remotest corners of this country.

The Tour this year was very special for the Brits many of whom were lining the Champs Elysées. It seemed that Britain was about to produce a winner of the Tour de France for the first time ever.

I was in the Champs Elysées on Sunday and the atmosphere was electric. This final stage of the Tour was a short stage, just 120 km from Rambouillet to Paris, including eight laps around la plus belle avenue du monde, but the anticipation and the excitement started long before the riders arrived. Some two hours ahead of the riders came the raucous publicity caravan.

The Caravan:

The caravan has been a feature of the Tour since 1930 and it’s a chance for the Tour’s sponsors to show off their names and their wares. It’s made up of decorated vehicles and it’s colourful, loud and lots of fun.

The final stage of le Tour is considered to be a rather ceremonial affair, the overall winner has usually been decided already and providing he can stay on his bike until the finish his win will be confirmed. However, the race to win the final stage itself is far from ceremonial, it is just as aggressive, testosterone-fueled and exciting as any other stage finish.

Team Sky was particularly strong this year. Managed by Dave Brailsford, the mastermind behind their success, the team included Bradley Wiggins, the favourite to win this year, the current World Champion, Mark Cavendish, the brilliant Christopher Froome and the domestiques, the gallant and selfless team members led by Michael Rogers, whose job is to keep the team leader safe and out of trouble and to launch Mark Cavendish to the finish line when it really matters. This year, they did it in style.

The Final Lap:

Team Sky after the race

The excitement was palpable as Mark Cavendish crossed the line to win in the Champs Elysées for the fourth year in a row. Bradley Wiggins finished in 53rd place as part of the group that was nine seconds behind Cavendish but it was enough for Wiggins, the 32 year old, three times Olympic Champion to become the first British winner of the Tour de France.

Ceremonie Protocolaire:

Bradley Wiggins and his son after the race

The Tour de France is one of the world’s toughest sporting events so not surprisingly, the win by Bradley Wiggins is being hailed by some as perhaps the greatest British sporting achievement of all time. And I was there to see it happen.


World Listening Day 2012 – My Contribution

YESTERDAY, WEDNESDAY 18th JULY, was World Listening Day 2012. Organised by the World Listening Project in partnership with the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, World Listening Day is a celebration of listening as it relates to the world around us. People from across the world participate in a variety of ways and I was keen to make my contribution. I gave a lot of thought to what my contribution might be.

I decided that I wanted to share sounds that people would find interesting and enjoyable to listen to, sounds that reflected everyday life here in Paris, sounds that anyone could have easy access to but sounds that are perhaps so familiar they are often ignored. The Paris Métro seemed to have the answer.

A staggering 1.5 billion journeys are made on the Paris Métro each year. About 93 million of these are made on Line 5, the line that crosses the east of Paris from Place d’Italie to Bobigny. When I began to think about it two things occurred to me. First, Line 5 is perhaps the most sonically interesting line on the Paris Métro network and second, I suspect that very few people actually travel the full length of the line from Place d’Italie to Bobigny – Pablo Picasso or back again.

Line 5 is of particular interest to me because its sounds are changing. The current MF 67 trains have been in service for over forty years and they’re now gradually being replaced by the new MF 2000 rolling stock. Before too long, the distinctive sounds of the MF 67’s, the sounds everyone associates with the Paris Métro, will disappear. For some time now I have been collecting and preserving the sounds of the Paris Métro and particularly the sounds of Line 5, but I have never recorded the complete journey from one end of the line to the other. World Listening Day 2012 seemed like an ideal opportunity to do it.

I began my journey at Place d’Italie.

Place d’Italie – On the left an MF 2000 : On the right an MF 67

The journey from Place d’Italie to the other terminus at Bobigny – Pablo Picasso is 14.6 kilometres. It includes 22 stops and it takes about 35 minutes.

Place d’Italie to Bobigny – Pablo Picasso:

The station names on Line 5, like the station names on all the Métro lines, provide a lexicon of French history. It’s easy to get carried away thinking about Napoleon and the Treaty of Campo Formio or the Battle of Austerlitz or Jacques Bonsergent, the first civilian Parisian to be executed by the Nazis during the Occupation all remembered in the station names on Line 5.

The MF 67 train I travelled on

But for me, it’s the sounds that are so fascinating. The ageing MF 67 rolling stock combined with the curves and gradients of Line 5 create a sonic experience unlike any other on the Paris Métro network. So, anyone familiar with Line 5 will be familiar with these sounds.

People don’t usually catch Métro trains just to listen to the sounds … but I do, which is why this recording takes on an extra dimension. I record sounds like this partly as an historical record of the sounds of our time but also for the purely sonic qualities that sounds like this have. Listened to in a train on Line 5 these sounds simply come with the territory, but listened to away from the Métro system, divorced from their context, they become something completely different.

On one level, these completely unprocessed sounds are a colourful sonic record of a journey from Place d’Italie to Bobigny – Pablo Picasso along the full length of Line 5. On another level, they become a sort of self-generated work of sound art, a Matériel Fer tone poem.

Listening as it relates to the world around us is what World Listening Day is all about. These sounds, the sounds of Line 5 of the Paris Métro, are my contribution to World Listening Day and I hope they will enrich others around the world as much as they enrich me.


La Fête Nationale 2012

ON SATURDAY, THE CROWDS gathered, the rain held off and the Champs Elysées was decked out for La Fête Nationale and the annual defilé, the parade to mark 14th July, the French National Day.

Picture from Wikipedia

While the defilé comprising most branches of the French military and civilian services were parading on the ground, overhead, sixty-six aircraft from the Armée de l’Air, led by the French aerobatic display team, la Patrouille de France, flew directly over my apartment and down the Champs Elysées in perfect formation.  From my balcony it seemed that I could almost reach up and touch them. I couldn’t of course, but I was perfectly placed to record their sounds, the sounds that on this day each year become some of the sounds that define Paris.

The Aircraft:

Some ninety minutes later, it was the turn of thirty-two helicopters from the Armée de l’Air, the Armée de Terre, the Gendarmerie Nationale and the Securite Civile, the French Civil Defence Agency.

The Helicopters:

After the morning parade and fly-pasts in the Champs Elysées, culminating with the now customary parachutists landing with pin-point accuracy in front of the Président de la République, members of the government, diplomats and invited guests, the afternoon was taken over with operation  “Les Parisiens et les franciliens accueillent leurs soldats”.

Many of those who took part in the morning’s defilé scattered to various locations in Paris taking their equipment with them.  This was a chance for members of the public to meet the French armed forces and to learn at first hand what they do. It was also a wonderful opportunity to crawl all over very expensive things one would never get the chance to even get close to normally.

I spent the afternoon at the Esplanade of Les Invalides. Some of the helicopters that took part in the morning’s fly-past were now parked here along with some other vehicles.

Of course, I was interested in what was on show but I was also working, hunting for sounds and I wasn’t disappointed.

I found these two men from le Bagad Lann-Bihoué, the very popular French Navy musical ensemble who specialise in playing  distinctive Bretonne and Celtic music.

Music from La Bagad Lann-Bihoué:

And from the Navy to the Army … and representatives from Le Choeur de l’Armée Francaise, the French Army Choir.

The 14th July has become a fixed point in my calendar. I’m not French but I have learned to enjoy La Fête Nationale and all its sights and sounds.

And finally …

Although the defilé in the Champs Elysées is carried out with meticulous precision things don’t always go to plan. This year, the parachutist’s display at the end of the parade was more spectacular than ever. All of them landed inch perfect and bang on target but unfortunately, one of them was injured on landing and, unable to walk, he had to be carried off to one side. These things happen and François Holland, Président de la République, was quick to walk over to have a word with him. C’est la vie!


Viaduc d’Austerlitz

FOR OVER ONE HUNDRED years, the Viaduc d’Austerlitz has swept majestically over la Seine. Its sole purpose is to carry the trains of Métro Line 5 over the river from the Quai de la Rapée to the Gare d’Austerlitz and back again.

The task facing Fulgence Bienvenüe, the architect of the Paris Métro network, was how to get Line 5 across the la Seine without interfering with the river traffic. The answer came from the engineer, Louis Biette, who proposed a single-span bridge with the deck suspended from two elegant metal arches so that no pillars or supports descended into the river.

The single-span stretches for 140 metres, which even today makes it the second longest bridge in Paris. The 8.5 metre wide deck is suspended 11 metres above the river. Two stone abutments support the ends of the metal arches, one on each bank of the river, with each measuring 22 metres x 18 metres.  Each abutment also extends some 10 metres below the river.

The viaduct itself was built between 1903 and 1904 by the Société de Construction de Levallois-Perret which, under a different name, was the same company that built the Eiffel Tower.

Building the viaduct itself was relatively straightforward. Large wooden scaffolding was erected with wooden pillars sunk deep into the river bed to enable the prefabricated metal sections to be put into place. Building the approaches to the viaduct, or at least one of them, was much more complex though.

While the approach from the Gare d’Austerlitz on the Left Bank posed no particular problems, it was a completely different story on the other side. It was decided that it was impracticable to demolish the necessary buildings on the Right Bank to facilitate a straight entry to the viaduct so instead the design called for a sharp 90° turn within a restricted space. But not only that, the line was required to make a sharp climb from under the Place Mazas to the level of the viaduct. The problem was given to the firm Daydé and Pillé who built the Grand Palais in 1900 but were really specialists in metal construction and particularly bridges.

Their solution involved the application of mathematics and the construction of a helicoidal extension to the viaduct. A helicoid I am told is a curve shaped like Archimedes’ screw, but extending infinitely in all directions. This particular helicoid has a radius of 75 metres and a slope of 4% which not only provides a neat solution to the problem but it also makes the ageing MF 67 Métro trains groan with exasperation.

MF 67 trains climbing the slope and negotiating the curve:

Jean Camille Formigé was responsible for the decorations on the pillars, the arches and the abutments of the viaduct which consist of dolphins, shells, seaweed and animal faces as well as the cast iron designs featuring the coat of arms of Paris attached to anchors.

Formigé though was not responsible for this more recent decoration on the abutment on the Left Bank side.

Adam from Invisible Paris usually knows about things like this so I asked him if he could tell me anything about this lady and why she was there. He told me that she, “ is a creation by artists Leo & Pipo (a selection of other creations can be found here, but it seems that both the photos and the places in which they are positioned are pretty random. I think only they know therefore who she is and why they put her there!

Thanks to the foresight of Fulgence Bienvenüe and Louis Biette together with the ingenuity of Daydé and Pillé, Métro Line 5 was successfully navigated across la Seine from Quai de la Rapée to the Gare d’Austerlitz via the Viaduc d’Austerlitz.

I find the Viaduc d’Austerlitz not only visually attractive but sonically priceless. Every time I go there I am acutely aware that the screeching of each MF 67 train is a sound that is fast disappearing. The old trains are gradually being replaced by the swanky new, more efficient, cleaner and quieter MF 2000 trains. That’s clearly the right thing to do … but I can’t help feeling sorry that we will lose one of the sounds that defines Paris in the process.

It seems appropriate therefore to leave you with the sounds of the short ride from Quai de la Rapée station, under Place Mazas, up the slope and round the helicoidal curve, across the Viaduc d’Austerlitz over la Seine to Gare d’Austerlitz station. It’s a journey of one minute and thirty seconds but it spans over one hundred years of history.

Quai de la Rapée to Gare d’Austerlitz:


Carnaval Tropical 2012

LE CARNAVAL TROPICAL DE PARIS winds its way through the streets of the 11th arrondissement every year in July.

And this year was no exception. Yesterday, it took over four hours for the carnival to process from la Place de la Nation to le Boulevard Voltaire, la Place Léon Blum, l’Avenue Parmentier, la Rue du Chemin Vert, le Boulevard de Ménilmontant, l’Avenue Philippe Auguste and back to la Place de la Nation.

Sounds of the Carnaval Tropical:

With the theme of Le sixième continent, the Sixth Continent, some 4,000 people from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Mayotte, La Réunion, French Polynesia, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, China, Vietnam and other corners of the globe took part. This was a wonderful celebration of cultural diversity.

The carnival is organised by the Fédération du Carnaval Tropical and the Direction Générale à l’Outre-Mer, part of the Paris city authority concerned with supporting the welfare and cultural traditions of Parisians born overseas.

I went to la Place de la Nation to see this spectacle and I can share with you some of the sights and sounds.

More Sounds of the Carnaval Tropical:

More Sounds of the Carnaval Tropical:

The best that can be said about our weather this summer is that it hasn’t been great but even so, we don’t usually expect a sudden tropical storm like the one that descended without warning yesterday afternoon.

Undaunted though, the carnival continued with everyone still in high spirits. Even as the last of the procession was making its soggy way into the distance the sounds of the crowd were as enthusiastic as ever.

More Sounds of the Carnaval Tropical:


La Marche des Fiertés 2012

IT’S SUMMER AND AT this time each year la Marche des Fiertés, or the Gay Pride March, hits the streets of Paris.

Around half a million people take part and yesterday, as I stood on the Boulevard Montparnasse at the head of the march, it took over two and a half hours for them all to pass by.

Reporting La Marche des Fiertés is one of those occasions when words seem to become much less important than the sights and sounds which very definitely take centre stage.

Sounds before the start of the march:

For those who think that recording events like this must be simply a matter of pointing a microphone and hoping for the best then think again. It’s actually much more difficult than that.

Sounds of the March:

The seemingly endless, obscenely loud, mind-numbing music plays havoc with those of us trying to capture the much more interesting sounds. Even from the depths of the café, La Consigné, where I retreated to try to escape from this sonic onslaught, the unwelcome sounds penetrated unremittingly.

From inside the café La Consigné:

No, I do not like the excessively loud so-called music that is such a feature of this march every year, but that probably says more about me than it does about the march. There is no doubt that La Marche des Fiertés is an astonishingly well-supported event. The atmosphere is terrific and the people are very friendly and good-natured. Yes, it’s noisy but it’s also very colourful and deliciously outrageous. Long may it continue.