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.
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.
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.