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Jul

La Seine – An Alternative View

I WOULD LIKE TO offer you an alternative view of the River Seine, the river that cuts through the heart of Paris and the river that for centuries has shaped the city. I would like to share with you my alternative view of the river from here, on the Quai aux Fleurs, in the centre of the city.

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And here, I need to tell you that my alternative view of the river will not be a visual one – it will be a sonic one.

Viewing the Seine is easy, just walk along its banks and you will see the river as it weaves its way through the city. Many great artists and photographers have captured these views. Get on the right flight path leaving from or arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport and you will get a spectacular view of the river from the air. But listening to the river is quite a different matter. Our cities have become so polluted with extraneous noise that listening to distinctive sounds is difficult enough but recording them is sometimes almost impossible. In my work, I record the soundscapes of Paris and that often involves overcoming the impossible.

I know from hard-earned experience that recording the sounds of the Seine is not easy. First, you have to find a place where there are distinctive sounds of the river, waves lapping and boats passing for example, and then you have to find these sounds without the ever-present, often overpowering, chorus of noise pollution. It’s a daunting task.

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The steps leading down from the Quai aux Fleurs take us close to the waterline and it’s from here that we will get our alternative view.

Sitting on a step as close to the waterline as I dare and with the river lapping around my feet I recorded the sounds of the water with the high wall shielding some of the traffic noise. So far so good, but recording waves lapping, even if they are in the centre of a city, is a fairly conventional thing to do. I was looking for something less conventional, an alternative view of the scene, so I reached for an alternative weapon in my sound recording armoury – an underwater microphone, a hydrophone. I was fascinated to know what la Seine would sound like from below the waterline, the sounds the fish hear – if fish can actually hear!

And so, here is my alternative view of la Seine recorded from the steps of the Quai aux Fleurs.

La Seine – An Alternative View:

We begin with the sounds of the river from above and then descend below the surface where the sounds take on a completely different texture quite unlike anything we hear above ground. Initially, the sounds seem quite soothing – that is until I discover that the noise pollution we experience above ground also permeates under the water. First comes a Batobus passing on the far side of the river.

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A Batobus is exactly what the name implies – a river bus service serving eight stops along the river. With an all day ticket you can hop on and off as you please. It’s very good for the tourists above ground but much less so for the underwater inhabitants.

After a moment’s respite from the sound of the Batobus, another sound appears. It sounds rather like an electric drill so I take off my headphones and listen but there is no drill to be heard on the surface. I have no idea what this sound is but underwater it’s quite clear.

This sound is soon consumed by the sound of a passing Bateaux Mouches, one of the most prestigious of the cruise boats that ply la Seine. In the past, I’ve been on a couple of champagne dinner cruises on the floodlit Bateaux Mouches, but never once did I give any thought to the sounds it generates underwater. Well now I know!

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After the sonic footprint of the Bateaux Mouches has passed we return to the surface and the more familiar sounds of the water lapping against the steps and a bell sounding from the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris in the distance.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this alternative view of la Seine. Recording these sounds has whet my appetite to search out more alternative sounds of this wonderful city.