A SOUNDWALK ALONG the rue de la Convention in the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon doesn’t I’m afraid reveal some of the more intriguing and delicate sounds sometimes to be found in Paris. It does though reveal sounds that are familiar to all city dwellers and typical of all too many Parisian streets so I thought they deserved to be recorded.
Rue de la Convention from Pont Mirabeau
Rue de la Convention – A Soundwalk:
Rue de la Convention begins at the elegant Pont Mirabeau and stretches for a little over 2km to the southwest to Place Charles-Vallin. The whole street is in the 15th arrondissement and it takes its name from the Convention Nationale, the revolutionary assembly that sat from 1792 – 1795 and which, amongst other things, abolished the French Monarchy and set up the République.
Some places of interest along the street include, at N° 27, the site of the former Imprimerie Nationale. Founded by Cardinal Richelieu this used to be the official printing works of the French Government.
The Imprimerie Nationale ceased to operate from this site in 2003 and the French Government sold the printing machinery to a French printing firm and the buildings to the Carlyle group for 85 million euros. In a staggering display of ineptitude, the same buildings were repurchased by the French Government in 2007 for 376,5 million euros for use by part of the Ministère des Affaires étrangères, the French Foreign Ministry.
At N° 28 is the église Saint-Christophe-de-Javel. Designed by the French architect, Charles-Henri Besnard and consecrated in 1930, the church is built in a modern style making extensive use of reinforced concrete using a method patented by Besnard a few years before.
Inside l’église Saint-Christophe-de-Javel – Image via Wikipedia
Further along rue de la Convention we come to N° 78. Today it’s a school and cultural centre but it was once the Hôpital Boucicaut.
Marguerite Boucicaut, wife of Aristide Boucicaut, founder of the first department store in Paris, Au Bon Marché, funded the building of the hospital. It was opened in 1897 with 206 beds some of which were reserved for employees of Au Bon Marché. The Hôpital Boucicaut was finally decommissioned in the year 2000 when its services were transferred to the then brand new Hôpital Européen Georges-Pompidou.
There are two other reminders of the Boucicaut family in rue de la Convention …
… this bus stop outside the former Hôpital Boucicaut and the Métro station a little further up the street.
The rue de la Convention continues in a more or less straight line up to the next Métro station, Convention, where it crosses the longest street in Paris, rue de Vaugirard.
Beyond the rue de Vaugirard, rue de la Convention goes up to Place Charles-Vallin where it terminates and morphs into the rue de Vouillé.
A soundwalk along rue de la Convention reveals a sonic environment typical of many Parisian streets. The ordinary but often interesting and intriguing everyday sounds are shrouded in a cloak of unremitting noise pollution – and I use the word noise advisedly.
Take the sound of traffic for example. In my experience, certainly in this city, the quantity of sound emitted by the traffic seems to expand in proportion to the width of the street and as it does so, the quality of the sound deteriorates.
In some of the narrow streets of Paris the sound of the traffic can actually be quite appealing. There’s often less traffic, it tends to move more slowly and the sound of rubber gently swishing over the pavé can have a soothing, almost hypnotic effect. The rue de la Convention on the other hand is 34 metres wide and, although not the widest street in Paris, it’s wide enough to attract a copious amount of traffic moving faster than sometimes seems necessary. Consequently, the sound of the traffic loses any appeal to the ear and the individual traffic sounds that can be so attractive in a narrow, cobbled street, seem to meld into an amorphous mass of indistinguishable sounds that turn into unwelcome noise. Inevitably, the other non-traffic sounds get pushed to the margins or consumed altogether.
So, why do a soundwalk in a street on a busy Saturday afternoon when capturing individual sounds is clearly going to be a challenge?
Well, it’s precisely because it is such a challenge that I feel compelled to do it. There must be individual, interesting sounds there – there almost always are, so it’s simply a question of hunting them down. By listening attentively to the sounds around me and distinguishing the wheat from the chaff it is often possible to tease out distinctive, individual sounds from the cloak of noise pollution.
Hildegard Westerkamp, a pioneer of the soundwalk, said that, “A soundwalk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are.”
And soundwalking is one of the techniques I use for capturing the sounds of Paris. It’s an immersive process that involves observing through active listening and it requires intense concentration. The aim of a soundwalk is to capture the mélange of sounds that create the atmosphere of a place and sometimes the individual sounds that might help to define it.
A soundwalk of course never provides a definitive sonic definition of a place, sounds are dynamic, they change in tune with the time of day or night and the seasons of the year, the actors are constantly changing and the rhythm of activity ebbs and flows. But soundwalks are important because they capture the sonic experience of a place at a specific moment and listened to carefully they enable us to experience not only the obvious sounds but the less obvious ones too.
When I do a soundwalk I don’t walk along a street with a microphone and sound recorder simply pointing and shooting, passively capturing the sounds immediately around me – although that is a perfectly legitimate way to do a soundwalk. For me, soundwalking is a very active and intense process. Instead of walking in a straight line pointing and shooting, I meander along the street capturing the general ambience but also exploring, hunting out the individual sounds and deciding how to capture them to best advantage sometimes against a hostile background of incessant traffic noise. Over the years I’ve learned how to employ this technique without interrupting the flow of the soundwalk. It’s all about acute observation, attentive listening and reacting quickly.
By now, you may have listened to my soundwalk in rue de la Convention. Actually, it’s only part of the whole soundwalk that I did. It’s the stretch from the former Hôpital Boucicaut to just beyond the intersection with the rue de Vaugirard – about one quarter of the entire street.
At the start of the street at the Pont Mirabeau the traffic noise is interminable, it’s completely overpowering and there’s simply no escape from it. Coming up the rue de la Convention, the traffic passes in waves in tune with the traffic lights along the street. There‘s a brief intermission just beyond the intersection with rue de Vaugirard where the street narrows and then the traffic noise returns as the rue de la Convention approaches its end at Place Charles-Vallin.
For this blog post I’ve only included the sounds of the intermediate section of the street because it gives the best flavour of the contrasting sounds to be found in the rue de la Convention on a busy Saturday afternoon. The recording of my entire soundwalk from one end of rue de la Convention to the other has of course has been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive for future generations to explore and to study.
Sitting in a café on rue de la Convention after my soundwalk I couldn’t help wondering why, in a city with such an exemplary and affordable public transport system, so many people should choose to use cars for inner city journeys and how many, if any at all, ever contemplate the environmental footprint they selfishly foist upon the rest of us.
And finally … if you’re walking along any street whether you’re soundwalking or not, always remember to look up because fascinating things are often to be found above you.
I ALWAYS THINK it’s better to visit a hospital out of curiosity rather than out of necessity. The other day it was curiosity that led me to the Hôpital Lariboisière in the 10th arrondissement a short step away from the Gare du Nord.
The Hôpital Lariboisière was born out of the cholera epidemic that hit Paris in 1832. The Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris, took the brunt of the epidemic and it is said that by the end of March 1832 every admission to the Hôtel Dieu was for cholera and practically no one was discharged. Almost 20,000 souls died from the six-month epidemic.
L’Hôtel Dieu during the cholera epidemic 1832 – Painting by Alfred Johannot
Devastating though it was, the epidemic did produce some positive results. In the 19th century curing cholera was like clutching at straws so attention turned towards prevention rather than cure. Major steps were taken to improve the city’s hygiene and by the time Baron Haussmann began rebuilding Paris in 1853 the hygienist movement had become the major force in urban planning. Slums were demolished, streets widened, the sewage system improved and a new hospital was built to serve the inhabitants on the Right Bank – the Hôpital Lariboisière.
The French architect, Martin-Pierre Gauthier, designed the new hospital based on the hygienist principles of providing plenty of light and air, a free flow of water and pavilions separated by galleries to prevent cross infection. His design comprised six buildings arranged around a central courtyard connected by colonnaded walkways.
A bequest from Eliza Roy Comtesse de Lariboisière financed the building of the hospital. The Comtesse had no heirs and so she bequeathed her fortune to the City of Paris to create ‘un hospice pour les malades qui portera mon nom Hospice Lariboisière’. The Comtesse died on 27th December 1851 and on 29th July 1853 an Imperial decree confirmed that the hospital was to be named Hôpital Lariboisière, the name by which it’s still known today. The hospital was opened in 1854.
The tomb of the Comtesse de Lariboisière, designed by the Italian born French sculptor, Carlo Marochetti, rests in the hospital chapel.
Today, behind it’s 19th century façade, the Hôpital Lariboisière is a busy, modern hospital with around 1,000 beds. Together with two other hospitals very close by, Hôpital Saint-Louis and Hôpital Fernand Widal, the Hôpital Lariboisière is part of the Groupe Hospitalier Universitaire Saint-Louis, Lariboisière, Fernand Widal, which together offer a comprehensive range of medical services.
I went to explore the Hôpital Lariboisière. I wandered through the gardens outside and along the quadrangle of long corridors inside on the ground floor, the arteries that lead to the ars medicina beyond.
Here are some of the sights and sounds I discovered.
Hôpital Lariboisière – A Soundwalk:
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LAST WEEKEND WAS the annual Journées du Patrimoine, the wonderful weekend in September when it’s possible to visit a wide variety of well-known but usually off-limits places in Paris and indeed in the rest of France. Places like the Elysées Palace, the French Senate, or the Assemblée Nationale as well as a wide variety of theatres, museums, historical monuments and public buildings open their doors to the public for this weekend in September and entry is free. Even my local mayor opened up his office and was there to greet visitors from my neck of the woods as they passed through.
And my choice of place to visit …
I went here to the Quartier des Célestins the home of the cavalry regiment of the Garde Républicaine. The barracks occupy a rather grand building on Boulevard Henry IV in the 4th arrondissement, a short walk from Bastille.
It’s called the Quartier des Célestins because it stands of the site of the former Couvent des Célestins, the Convent of the Celestines. Philip the Fair introduced the Celestines into France in 1300 and the convent was built in 1352 on the site of what was a former Carmelite convent. The convent was closely associated the French Royal family and it became the second most important burial site for royalty after the Basilique Saint-Denis, albeit for minor Royals. By the 18th century the convent was in decline and it’s demise came in 1778. The buildings were demolished in 1847 and the Célestins barracks of the Garde Républicaine, designed by French architect Jacques Hermant, was built on the site of the convent gardens and opened in 1901.
Picture via Wikipedia
The Garde Républicaine, formed in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte as the Municipal Guard of Paris, is part of the French Gendarmerie. Today, it comprises two infantry regiments, including a motorcycle squadron, and a cavalry regiment. It also has several musical formations including a mounted band and fanfare trumpeters as well as an eighty – piece orchestra.
As well as it’s State ceremonial duties, including representing France at international events abroad and receiving important dignitaries at home, the Garde Républicaine is responsible for guarding important public buildings and supporting other law enforcement forces with intervention groups or horseback patrols. It also has responsibility for transporting and escorting organs for transplant.
The cavalry regiment of the Garde Républicaine is the last unit in the French Army to have horses. It comprises around 500 men and women along with some 550 horses. The regiment includes a training school based at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, three squadrons of cavalry, one of which is based at the Quartier des Célestins and a squadron hors rang, also based at the Quartier des Célestins, which includes the musicians, farriers and veterinary services .
And so to my visit to the Quartier des Célestins …
Passing through the cluster of rather burly but not at all unfriendly Gendarmerie at the main gate, my first port of call was the Salle de Traditions, the museum.
It’s a small museum but I found it really fascinating. It covers the history of the Garde Républicaine from its inception to the present day and it includes an array of exhibits covering every aspect of the life and work of the regiment both from its service at home and overseas.
From the museum, I walked to the exercise yard – this is a cavalry barracks after all and horses need plenty of exercise.
I also had a look at the stables …
… and the enormous riding school.
I never go anywhere without my sound recorder and I’m always on the hunt for fascinating sounds to capture. I did record the sounds inside the museum and in the riding school and later on I recorded the man responsible for making the hats for the infantry regiments of the Garde Républicaine explaining how it’s done. But the sounds I want to share with you are sounds that tell a story – the sounds of the farriers at work shoeing a cavalry horse.
The first thing you need to shoe a horse is a horseshoe, a fer à cheval in French, and the Garde Républicaine make their own – lots of them.
The farriers making horseshoes:
Once the horseshoe is made to approximately the right size the process of shoeing the horse can begin. Here are the sounds of the entire process which I recorded standing in the rain sans umbrella amidst a group of inquisitive children who were fascinated by it all.
Shoeing a cavalry horse:
First, you have to remove the old shoe …
Then you have to tidy up the horse’s hoof with lots of scraping and filing. Next, you present the new shoe to the hoof and see what adjustments need to be made to ensure an exact fit. This involves heating the shoe in the forge and then shaping it by hitting it with a hammer. Once the shoe is tailored to the right size it’s edges, in the best military tradition, are ground down to make them bright and shiny. The shoe is then heated again and presented to the horse’s hoof while the shoe is still hot.
It’s a very steamy process!
Once the shoe is fitted, special nails are hammered in to fix the shoe in place. The points of these nails penetrate the hoof and come out the other side. Some of the exposed parts of the nails are pinched off and then a clinch block is set under each nail on the outer hoof wall and the nail head is hit with yet another hammer and the nail is set into the hoof.
All that remains is a final pedicure and the horse is good to go to a round of applause.
I didn’t know any of this until my visit to the Quartier des Célestins. I’d never seen a horse being shod before so not only did I learn a lot, I also recorded it for posterity – and it made my day.
Here are some more sights of the Quartier des Célestins …
I’m sorry madam, candyfloss does not pass muster as a cavalry plume!
RUE DU FAUBOURG DU TEMPLE is an ancient Parisian street dating back to the 12th century although it didn’t get its present name until the early 16th century. It stretches from Place de la République to Boulevard de la Villette and it bisects the 10th and 11th arrondissements.
Rue du Faubourg du Temple from Belleville
The street takes its name from the Temple Gate in the Charles V wall that once surrounded Paris. Built between 1356 and 1383, the wall marked the then city limits. The rue du Temple was on one side of the wall within the city limits and the rue du Faubourg du Temple was an extension of the same street but on the other side of the wall outside the city limits. The clue is in the word Faubourg. All Parisian street names containing the word Faubourg means that they were streets leading out of the city into the suburbs. The history of Paris is a history of ever expanding circles with the city limits expanding outwards from the centre. In a major expansion of the city in 1860, a clutch of outlying suburbs were incorporated into the city but the ‘Faubourg’ streets formerly outside but now inside the city retained their names.
The newly renovated Place de la République
The rue du Faubourg du Temple starts at Place de la République and then makes its way uphill to Boulevard de la Villette and the Belleville district, the former hotbed of exuberant nightlife which, thanks to the then generous tax regime outside the city walls, boasted a multitude of taverns and copious amounts of cheap liquor.
Rue du Faubourg du Temple from Place de la République
The other day, I went to rue du Faubourg du Temple to look at the street and to record a soundwalk. Here are some of the sights and sounds I collected.
A Soundwalk in rue du Faubourg du Temple:
Behind the Théâtre le Temple is the site of the former Amphithéâtre Anglais, the first purpose-built circus in France, opened by the Englishman, Philip Astley, in 1782. It was originally a round theatre constructed in wood with two seating levels and lit by 2,000 candles. The theatre was open for four months of the year and featured equestrian performances interspersed with juggling and other acts.
The Palais des Glaces, or Ice Palace, is a theatre founded in 1876 and still going strong.
Opened in 1923, La Java is now a dance club with rock and pop music and live performances by up-and-coming bands. But in its early life some illustrious names performed here including Django Reinhardt, Jean Gabin, Fréhel, Maurice Chevalier and Édith Piaf.
And the street also includes …
I really enjoy exploring quintessential Parisian streets like this with their history, their sights and, above all, their sounds.
THE RUE DÉNOYEZ in the east of Paris is about as far removed from the tourist guide, Haussmannian, picture postcard Paris as it’s possible to get.
The Rue Dénoyez is a narrow cobbled street near the bottom of the rue de Belleville. It takes its name from the tavern Dénoyez, a mecca of entertainment in the 1830’s. At the head of rue Dénoyez, where it joins the rue de Bellville, still stands the famous café, Aux Folies, named after an 18th century watering hole in the then rural quarter of Courtille, famous for the annual debauches of the city carnival known as the descent de la Courtille. In the 20th century, Aux Folies was a favourite haunt of both Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier.
Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:
Until fairly recently the rue Dénoyez was in a sad state of decline but today it’s been revitalised. Now it’s home to vivacious street art where spraying graffiti onto the walls is not a crime – it’s actually encouraged, turning the rue Dénoyez into one of the most colourful streets in Paris.
And the street artists go about their work with enthusiasm.
I like Belleville. I find the multi-cultural atmosphere exciting, stimulating and fascinating. And every time I go, I visit rue Dénoyez – and every time it’s completely different. The street art on the walls seems to change by the day.
New artists appear expressing their own talents and creating their own art.
Walking along the rue Dénoyez it’s hard not to be seduced by the visual impact – the shapes, the colours and the artists at work. But for someone wired up like me, there is a listening experience to be had in this street too.
My soundwalk in the rue Dénoyez reveals the sounds of the street artists shaking their aerosol cans.
The sounds of pigeons taking flight in the blink of an eye.
And even the sound of a sewing machine in this tailor’s shop.
All these sounds, and more, are contained in my soundwalk along the rue Dénoyez and, for me at least, they provided a counterpoint to the visual assault on my senses as I walked along the street.
It did occur to me though that a series of loudspeakers along the street would provide a wonderful opportunity to add ‘sonic graffiti’ to complement the ever-changing visual street art.
That sounds like a plan that I shall have to investigate.
IN PARIS, THE SUMMER SEASON of colourful celebrations and processions came to an end yesterday with the annual Fête de Ganesh. Organised by the temple de Ganesh de Paris Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam, this Chariot Festival as its known has taken place in Paris each year since 1996.
Genesha is the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune as well as the destroyer of evils and obstacles.
The Fête de Ganesh begins with a religious ceremony at the temple de Ganesh de Paris Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam in rue Pajol after which a colourful procession sets off and meanders through the 10th and 18th arrondissements. I caught up with them in rue Marx Dormoy.
Sounds of the Fête de Ganesh 2013:
I’m afraid that I’m not up to speed with all the symbolism of the Fête de Ganesh but I do know that elephants and coconuts are important.
Piles of coconuts are erected at various points along the procession route and when the procession arrives at each pile the coconuts are picked up and then smashed into the ground.
You can hear the sound of the coconuts being smashed in my sound piece although you might be forgiven for mistaking it for the sound of gunfire or fireworks.
To go with the sounds, here are some more sights of my visit to the Fête de Ganesh 2013.