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July 1, 2013


La Seine – An Alternative View

by soundlandscapes

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


13 Comments Post a comment
  1. usine2013
    Jul 1 2013

    Great piece….really enjoyed it. Particularly liked the contrast of above and below the surface; the return to the surface at the end worked beautifully taking the listener full circle as the alien and ambiguous are replaced by the surprisingly comforting sounds of the city once again.

    • Jul 1 2013

      Thanks. Pleased you enjoyed it. It’s a whole different world under the water so I’m going to investigate it further along the banks of the Seine.

  2. Jul 1 2013

    This is really great 🙂 Starting and finishing with the sounds above the water put the underwater sounds in context – it is fascinating. Considering how much better sound travels underwater, perhaps the drill / engine sound you get is from further away than you can see from your position. Even though it sounds like it is getting closer and going away again, it is possible that it would still be out of sight. Perhaps if you were closer, it would have been deafening!

    • Jul 1 2013

      Thanks. Pleased you enjoyed it. Someone has suggested that perhaps the mystery sound is the sound of the Métro. I hadn’t thought of that so I’m going to investigate.

      • Jul 1 2013

        That’s a good idea. I’d be interested to hear what you find out 🙂

  3. Jul 1 2013

    Fantastic stuff Des. It’s a question I’ve never asked myself, but I was delighted to discover the answer!

    • Jul 1 2013

      Thanks Adam. I found recording these sounds quite fascinating. I’m going on the hunt for some more ‘off piste’ sounds of Paris.

  4. suzi montgomery
    Jul 1 2013

    Beautifully original- really enjoyed this. Down with the bateaus! Suzi

  5. Jul 6 2013

    Hi Des – nice hydrophonic work. It does sound pretty noisy down there, almost like a plane engine at take off. When you read about deep-sea divers they speak of the quiet that surrounds them, an intoxicating escape from the terrestrial noise – but this seems quite the reverse.

    • Jul 9 2013

      Thanks JD. Yes, the number and volume of the sounds did take me a bit by surprise but I think that makes it an even more fascinating alternative view of the city.

  6. hmunro
    Jul 8 2013

    What a fascinating post, Des! I’ve often been dismayed by how we humans have polluted the water we live near — but I’d never considered that our pollution of the Seine might be sonic, as well. I’ll be curious to know what you find out about that drill-like sound; I think the guess about the métro is probably spot-on. In any case, thank you for a wonderfully different take on Paris!

    • Jul 9 2013

      Thanks Heather, I’m pleased you enjoyed it. I’m on the hunt now for more “off piste” sounds of Paris. Who knows what I’ll come up with next!


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