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26
May

Soundwalking in Paris – A Personal View

I SPENT A WONDERFUL DAY last week exploring Paris with my friend, Roxanne Escobales.

Roxanne is an independent audio producer and journalist who has decided to slowly take the scenic route away from news and into the sound-based, multimedia world. When she isn’t trying to figure out how to persuade people to give her money for her ideas and production, you can find her at her local pub in South London, appreciating the leafiness of Crystal Palace. You can hear her forays into podcasting with Palace Stories (palacestories.co.uk). You just may hear her news production without realising it if you listen to the BBC World Service.

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During the day, I was privileged to introduce Roxanne to the art of soundwalking – something she took to with great enthusiasm.

Later, I rather hesitatingly asked Roxanne if she would consider sharing the experience of her first Parisian soundwalk by writing a guest piece about it for this blog. No hesitation on my part was required of course because she readily agreed.

And so it is with great pleasure and with my grateful thanks that I share with you Roxanne’s story about her soundwalk in the rue Mouffetard.

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Soundwalking  in Paris – A Personal View From Roxanne Escobales:

Footsteps on my left, laughter just a few meters ahead, and a motorcycle from behind me on the right driving past – watch out! – there’s a car following it and I’m right in its path.

My body instinctively tries to move out of the way, conditioned to save itself by merely hearing the sound of an engine over my shoulder, its wheels on the asphalt.

But at this point, I’m not walking down the street about to be run over by a two-ton killing machine. I’m sitting at a table outside a café on the rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement in Paris, around the corner and down the street from where Ernest Hemingway lived from 1922-3. I’ve got a pair of headphones on, and through my ears I’m re-living the past 20 minutes in binaural stereo. The sound – panning from left to right, or right to left depending on the relative movement of its source in relation to my head at the time of recording – is so realistic, it’s practically 3-D, as if I could touch it, or, in the case of the car, as if it could touch me.

I had just taken a soundwalk with Des Coulam, master of this Soundlandscapes’ blog. He had graciously allowed me to wear his in-ear binaural mics (Soundman OKM II for you knob-twiddling techophiles) to record the whole thing. Honoured, for sure.

“Once you listen back to what you’ve recorded, you’ll be transported to that time and place again,” Des told me over lunch before we set out. I hadn’t realised to what extent said transportation would happen. While I was listening, I could smell the whiff of cheese hanging like a fog around the fromagerie that I had long since passed, and I could see the green jumper and blue jeans of the brown-haired boy whizzing up and down the pavement with his blonde friend as they made tooting noises like sirens, their voices long since silenced.

This was my fifth visit to Paris, and I’ve been working with sound since 2006, so I am no stranger to either. But I had never taken a soundwalk, and it’s changed the way I use my ears, and the way I interact with and understand the world. I felt like a deaf woman who’s heard her child’s voice for the first time.

Before I stuck the mics in my ears, Des tutored me on how to open myself up to the sound of the city – how to acknowledge and distinguish each individual sound instead of filtering it out as a mass of white noise, which is what we normally do every waking moment as we navigate through the aural obstacle course around us.

Then he told me that with the binaural mics I was to pretend my head was the mic shaft, and my ears were now microphones. It’s stereophonic, so it captures a pretty full range. Any sound that I was drawn to I was to slowly turn and/or point my head in that direction.

Thankfully, he used his vast experience with the technology and set the recording levels for me, because, as they are mics and not headphones, you can’t hear how the machine is recording; you can only hear what’s being recorded. Had I been responsible for the recording levels I would most likely have set them too high or too low.

While the result was mind-blowing – those mics pick up quite delicate sounds – the process was an experience itself. Walking down the rue Mouffetard wearing small earbud mics, I blended right in as it looked like I was just listening to music. Concentrating on the soundscape of the street made me aware of a whole new sensory experience. As a fast walker used to busily-busily hurtling down London streets through annoyingly rambling crowds, thinking about the next ten things on my to-do list and not being present in the now, the soundwalk made me stop and hear the roses.

Part of Roxanne’s soundwalk in rue Mouffetard:

Des has graciously edited down a shorter version of the 23’51” piece I recorded for you to enjoy. It’s only one moment in time and space – MY moment. Because you didn’t experience it you probably won’t have the same sense of wonderment that I did upon listening to it. But clamp on a pair of cans for that full stereo effect, sit back and listen to the life of one street in Paris on a sunny May afternoon, and you may just appreciate that moment, because those sounds won’t happen in that order at that place ever again. This is history in a very personal sense.

Maybe, just maybe, it will inspire you to open up your ears and hear the familiar in a startlingly new way.

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20
May

A Celebration Through Sound

I SPEND A LOT of my time walking the streets of Paris listening to and recording the everyday sounds around me, the sound tapestry of the city.

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Recording urban soundscapes is not as easy as you might think. In our modern digital world where we’ve come to expect affordable technology to turn us all into instant experts, one might be forgiven for thinking that recording urban soundscapes is simply a matter of pointing and shooting and hoping for the best – but it doesn’t quite work like that. Capturing the most expressive and lasting images of the sounds around us requires a heady cocktail of active listening, enthusiasm, hard work, endless patience, attention to detail and an ear for a captivating subject, not to mention copious amounts of shoe leather.

Captivating sounds seldom appear to order, they are often elusive and need to be hunted out and to hunt them one needs time, often lots of time. Few things are more frustrating than spending an entire day pounding the streets searching for that special sound only to come home empty-handed. But on a good day, it only takes one chance moment to come home with an absolute gem.

The great 20th century Parisian street photographer, Robert Doisneau, summed up this element of chance by saying, “ChanceYou have to pay for it and you have to pay for it with your life, you pay for it with time – not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”

And sometimes the spending of time can bring a huge reward.

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Les Halles – the former ‘belly of Paris’

Recently, I was wandering around Les Halles, once the huge covered food market known as the ‘Belly of Paris’, and a part of Paris now undergoing much needed renovation. I’ve recorded there many times but this time captivating sounds seemed particularly elusive.  I’d been there for most of the afternoon spending time but recording nothing and I was on the point of giving up and going home when the element of chance that Robert Doisneau spoke about intervened.

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In the distance I could hear the sound of bells, the bells of the Église Saint Eustache, the gothic masterpiece in which the young Louis XIV received communion, the church chosen by Mozart for his mother’s funeral, the church where Richelieu was baptised and where both the future Madame de Pompadour and Molière were married. I followed the sound of the bells and began recording. The sounds led me into a little courtyard at the side of the church. I waited until the sounds of the bells faded and then, spying a very old, well-worn door, I opened it, entered the church and walked into a magnificent wall of sound coming from the Van den Heuvel organ being played by a young man sitting at the giant five manual console in the nave.

The Bells and Organ of Église Saint Eustache:

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“… not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”  And in this place, on this day, the spending of time was an investment richly rewarded.

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Yesterday marked the third birthday of this blog. When I began it the world of blogging was very new to me and I had little idea of what I was doing or what shape this blog would take. All I had was a vague idea that I wanted to share two of my passions – the city of Paris and recording the everyday sounds around me. Now, three years on, this blog has taken on a life of its own with over 200,000 visitors and over 1,000 loyal followers.

To all those who visit this blog regularly, to those who just stop by as they’re passing and to all the friends I’ve made all over the world as a result of this blog I just want to say a heartfelt “Thank You”.

This recording of the sounds of the bells and the organ of Église Saint Eustache is a celebration of the life that this blog has taken on and I dedicate these sounds to you all.

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14
May

Rue Montorgueil – A Soundwalk

WITH ITS COBBLESTONES, bakeries, cheese and wine shops, restaurants and vibrant atmosphere, rue Montorgueil is a quintessential Parisian street ideal for a soundwalk.

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The rue Montorgueil begins in the 1st arrondissement close to the Église Saint-Eustache and the former covered market of Les Halles and it stretches to the north, across rue Étienne-Marcel, into the 2nd arrondissement as far as rue Saint-Sauveur. From there, it continues north where it becomes rue des Petits-Carreaux.

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Rue Montorgueil – A Soundwalk:

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There are some places of note in rue Montorgueil.

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At N° 38 is the restaurant, L’Escargot, easily spotted by its distinctive sign. Founded in 1832, L’Escargot is, not surprisingly, famous for its snails. Sarah Bernhardt, Picasso, Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Proust all dined here and the restaurant still retains its authentic Second Empire décor and its traditional cuisine.

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At N° 78 is Le Rocher de Cancale, famous for its oysters and crumbling facade which was painstakingly restored with gilt panache in 2012.

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It was founded in 1804 and is now a listed historical monument. In times past this was a fashionable place to be seen where its clientele included dandies, courtesans, aristocrats and members of the Jockey Club de Paris.

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At N° 51 is the La Pâtisserie Stohrer, the oldest pâtisserie in Paris. In 1725, Louis XV married Marie Leszczynska, daughter of King Stanislas of Poland. Her pastry chef, Nicolas Stohrer, came with her to Versailles. In 1730, Stohrer opened a bakery at N° 51 where he invented desserts for the King’s Court including the Baba au Rhum or Rum Baba.

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If you’ve never been to rue Montorgueil it’s well worth a visit. Here are some more sights to enjoy while you listen to the sounds of the street.

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7
May

Marche Citoyenne pour la 6éme République

ONE YEAR AGO I stood in place de la Bastille amongst a jubilant crowd as they received the news that François Holland had been elected Président de la République, the first French socialist president to have been elected since François Mitterand back in 1981.  I produced a piece for this blog about that evening in which I said, “As 8.00 pm approached the excitement became palpable and when the result became clear the party began.” 

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Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2012

One year on and the party’s over, the excitement has evaporated and the opinion polls show that François Hollande is now the most unpopular president in modern French history.

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Place de la Bastille – 5th May 2013

On Sunday crowds once again filled place de la Bastille, not to celebrate but to protest at what they see as betrayal. In a nutshell, their argument is that François Hollande was elected last May on the back of a promise to spare France the austerity measures imposed elsewhere in Europe. Instead, the French government has cut spending, increased taxes, reduced hiring in the public sector and introduced plans to allow companies to cut workers’ hours during economic downturns.  Meanwhile, France’s economy has continued to deteriorate, with growth stagnating and unemployment rising above 10%.

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Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets on Sunday. According to the police they numbered 30,000 while the organisers, Le Front de Gauche, put the figure at 180,000. How the police and demonstration organisers always come up with such widely varying estimates of crowd numbers continues to baffle me. All I can say is that I was in place de la Bastille when the demonstration moved off on its march to place de la Nation and I was there three hours later as the tail end of the march was just setting off.

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This demonstration was the brainchild of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche coalition. One time government minister and member of the French Senate, Mélenchon has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. He now heads the Front de Gauche comprising the Unitarian Left (Gauche Unitaire), the Federation for a Social and Ecological Alternative (Fédération pour une alternative sociale et écologique, FASE), Republic and Socialism (République et socialisme), Convergences and Alternative (Convergences et alternative), the Anticapitalist Left (Gauche anticapitaliste), the Workers’ Communist Party of France (Parti communiste des ouvriers de France, PCOF) and The Alternative (Les alternatifs).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon came to national prominence in 2010 during the huge demonstrations against pension reform and in 2012 he represented Le Front de Gauche in the French presidential election where he came in fourth place with 11.05% of the vote.

Marching under the banner Marche citoyenne pour la 6e République, the Front de Gauche want to see, according to one of the leaflets handed to me, a sweeping away of the current constitution and fundamental change to the way things are done – an end to the dominance of the financial markets, a democratisation of the institutions, more power to the people, new and greater rights to employees, a democratisation of elections with proportional representation and genuine independence of justice without conflicts of interest.

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Marche citoyenne pour la 6éme République:

These street demonstrations are always colourful and loud and for the most part good-natured, although I will have something to say about that in a moment.

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On Sunday there was the usual mix of serious minded protestors, occasional eccentrics and endless loudspeaker vans blasting out slogans and music at full volume often drowning out the chants of the marchers. The cacophony of sound can be overpowering especially to promiscuous microphones that pick up anything and everything. So for the sound hunter, capturing the atmosphere of such large demonstrations is a challenge.

In the sound piece above I’ve tried to give you a flavour of the atmosphere and to highlight some of the distinctive sounds. In the next piece, I will give you a flavour of what it’s like to walk amongst a crowd of tens of thousands of people. It’s a walk from the Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette, which on a normal day takes about two minutes. On Sunday it took me closer to twenty minutes (and I was lucky to do it that quickly) as I weaved my way through the throngs of people.

Walking from Opéra Bastille to rue de la Roquette:

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My final sound piece though tells a different story.

As I said earlier, street demonstrations in Paris are usually pretty good-natured and pass off without any trouble. The largest demonstration I’ve attended was the massive protest against pension reform in 2010 when one million people took to the streets. Even with a demonstration of that size and with passions running very high, I saw nothing that could be described as trouble. On Sunday though, I saw something I’ve never seen before and I also learned something about the Front de Gauche.

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This group of Africans were at the very back of the demonstration and it was them that I joined some three hours after the leading demonstrators had left place de la Bastille. True, unlike most of the other demonstrators, they were not protesting specifically about la finance et l’austérité although they all professed sympathy with the aims of the demonstration.

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Their specific concern was for the situation in Côte d’Ivoire. They were demonstrating for the release of political prisoners in that country and in particular for the release of Simone Gbagbo.  You can find out more about the former French colony of Côte d’Ivoire here.

To be honest, I know very little about Côte d’Ivoire other than what I occasionally glimpse on French TV news and, until Sunday, I wasn’t at all sure who Simone Gbagbo was. But these people clearly felt they had a point to make and they were doing it peacefully and with enthusiasm. In my experience it is quite usual for minority groups with off-piste interests to meld into large demonstrations.

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All was well until the time came for them to move off and follow the tail end of the larger demonstration. I had moved slightly ahead of them when I was aware of a scuffle taking place behind me. I turned round to see three or four young white men all sporting Front de Gauche stickers trying to break up the African group. The African stewards were brilliant. They responded swiftly by shepherding the African group away from the trouble and calm ensued. What happened next I simply found beyond belief.

When I turned round to look towards the larger demonstration about twenty or thirty Front de Gauche people, men and women, all white, had linked arms and facing the African group had formed a double cordon to prevent the Africans getting close to the main demonstration. Not only that, but when the Africans remonstrated, the language from the all white cordon was, how shall I say … provocative.

Here’s how events unfolded:

What seemed to have escaped the attention of the all French, all white, cordon was, as one of the Africans told me with passion in her voice, We are all French citizens!”

I must say that for me, the man in charge of the African group  – the man in the orange cap, white trousers and holding the microphone in the picture above, was the hero of the hour. He showed real leadership, not by responding as vocally as some of his group but by exerting the sheer force of his personality, calmly talking to people and getting the music and the chanting going again.

I must also say, that having seen what I did, any sympathy I may have had for Le Front de Gauche, and I did have some, melted away in an instant as their darker side revealed itself.

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The all white, all French, cordon clearly believed that Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is a wonderful thing … so long as you’re white and French. If you’re black and African then it seems to be quite a different story.