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30
Oct

Parisian Traffic – A Study in Sound

I AM A CITY DWELLER and so the sound of traffic is my constant companion. In a busy city like Paris there is no escape from it. Day and night the cacophony of traffic pervades the air enveloping one in a cloak of constant noise pollution.

The Mairie de Paris has produced a fascinating map of road traffic noise in the city and I’ve reproduced a page of it below.

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If you want to explore the on-line version you can do so by clicking here where you can see the road traffic noise levels in each arrondissement measured in dB(A), an expression of the relative loudness of sounds in air as perceived by the human ear.

Academic studies have also been carried out to try to quantify the amount of traffic noise and it’s effect on our lives. I came across a study recently published in the International Journal of Health Geographics entitled ‘Transportation noise and annoyance related to road traffic in the French RECORD study’ which is worth a read.

Frenc Road Traffic Study

Extract from: ‘Transportation noise and annoyance related to road traffic in the French RECORD study’: International Journal of Health Geographics

Although both the sound map of the traffic noise in Paris and the study from the International Journal of Health Geographics are interesting and certainly help to quantify the problem I’m not going to dwell on them here. Instead, I want to focus on traffic noise from my perspective as a sound recordist specialising in recording urban soundscapes and particularly the urban soundscape of Paris.

The conventional wisdom is that traffic noise is the enemy of the field recordist and I can attest to that. I’ve lost count of the number of recordings I’ve made that have been blighted by traffic noise. Unlike my wildlife sound recording friends who will often get up at an unearthly hour and travel for miles to find remote places free from the sound of traffic to hunt their quarry I don’t have that possibility. The sounds I hunt for are much closer to home, in the heart of the city and in the case of Paris, a city that is constantly awash with traffic.

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Over the years I’ve wrestled with the problem of recording the Parisian soundscape while, if not eliminating, then minimising the effect of unwanted traffic noise but there has always been a problem in the back of my mind. Traffic noise IS part of the Parisian soundscape and while it might not always be an attractive part, it is an integral part of the warp and weft of the city’s sound tapestry.

So I’ve decided to stand this problem on its head and rather than seeking to eliminate or minimise traffic noise I’ve decided to feature it – but this of course requires a change in the way we think about traffic noise.

For me, noise is sound in the wrong place and usually in the wrong quantity. But what if we think not of traffic noise but of traffic sounds. What if we think less about traffic as noise pollution and more in terms of traffic as a sound tapestry in its own right. True, it won’t eliminate traffic as a major source of noise pollution blighting our environment but it might help us to come to terms with it a little better and it might even help us to find something engaging rather than something completely hostile. It might even become, if not a friend, then perhaps less of an enemy.

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For the last few months I’ve been recording the sounds rather than the noise of traffic. I’ve been to the traffic hotspots in Paris such as the Champs Elysées, rue de Rivoli, Place de Clichy, Place de la Bastille, Place de la Chapelle as well as to other places less congested. I eschewed the Périphérique, the wall of traffic that surrounds Paris, on the basis that I wanted to record traffic that was actually moving which the traffic there seldom seems to do.

I don’t have a car and so I don’t contribute to the noise pollution caused by traffic – although I do use public transport extensively so maybe I do to some extent – but nevertheless, I tried to listen to the sounds of the traffic dispassionately, as a sound recordist recording yet another urban soundscape.

Parisian Traffic – A Study in Sound:

In this sound piece I’ve stitched together some of the traffic sounds that I’ve recorded. The piece begins with the cacophony of traffic, the dominating, harsh, discordant mixture of sounds that we think of as traffic noise. As the piece develops the sounds of the traffic become less harsh and more distinctive as individual vehicles emerge from the crowd and reclaim their identity. The sounds cease to shout at us and begin to speak in a clearer voice. Finally, pedestrians reclaim the streets although not entirely devoid of traffic but at least sharing them more equitably.

As someone who is passionate about sound I abhor the increasing noise pollution that blights our lives as much as anyone. Traffic noise makes up a large part of that noise pollution and it’s not going to disappear any time soon. At best it can be a nuisance and at worst it can be unbearable.

As a sound recordist capturing the Parisian soundscape I loathe the city’s incessant traffic noise but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least try to tease out some of its few redeeming features and embrace its more captivating sounds.

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24
Oct

Pont Neuf – La Monnaie

PONT NEUF – LA MONNAIE is a station on the Paris Métro network. All the Paris Métro stations, and the bus stops for that matter, are named after people, places or events that are significant to France and the French and in some Métro stations, like Pont Neuf – La Monnaie, the interior design reflects the station’s name and its associations.

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Pont Neuf – La Monnaie station is part of Métro Line 7 and it’s situated on the Right Bank of the Seine. The trains run through the station on an east – west axis parallel to the river. There are two entrances to the station both on the Quai du Louvre, one is right outside the former La Samaritaine department store and the other is across the Quai du Louvre at the northern end of the Pont Neuf.

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Why this Métro station should be called Pont Neuf is obvious since it sits at one end of the Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, which, despite it’s name, is in fact the oldest bridge in Paris. But what about the second part of the station’s name, La Monnaie, where does that come from?

Well, across the Pont Neuf on the Quai de Conti running parallel to the Left Bank of the Seine is the Hôtel de la Monnaie which houses the Monnaie de Paris, the French mint. The Monnaie de Paris has had several homes over the years and for some time it occupied a building in the rue de la Monnaie which today bisects two of the buildings that make up La Samaritaine. One end of the rue de la Monnaie abuts one entrance to the Metro station Pont-Neuf – La Monnaie.

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Created in 864, the Monnaie de Paris is France’s oldest institution and it’s responsible for striking and circulating coins. It strikes the official French Euro currency as well as producing collector’s coins, medals, official decorations, works of art and even jewellery. In addition, it also strikes several foreign official currency coins, whether in their entirety (as in the case of Luxembourg, Monaco, and Malta) or in part (as for Greece, Bangladesh, etc.).

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Employing some five hundred people, the Monnaie de Paris operates from two sites. On the Quai de Conti in Paris they strike special coins, medals and decorations from precious metals but the everyday circulating coins are struck at the site in Pessac in the south west of France.

The Hôtel de la Monnaie on the Quai de Conti is a neo-classical building designed by the French architect, Jacques-Denis Antoine, and built between 1767–1775. Today, it houses the administration of the Monnaie de Paris, a manufactory and a numismatics museum which is open to the public.

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And inside the Métro station Pont Neuf – La Monnaie, as well as listening to the trains passing to and fro, we can see the association with the Monnaie de Paris reflected in the interior design.

Sounds inside the Métro station Pont Neuf – La Monnaie:

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On the station’s platforms are large reproductions of various coins, some on the roof of the station …

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… and some on the walls.

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Display cases show different aspects of the work of the Monnaie de Paris and there is also an historic coin press.

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Visiting a station like Pont Neuf – La Monnaie can turn a mundane wait for a Métro train into a fascinating experience.

And as for the Pont Neuf – well, I’ll come to that in another post.

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18
Oct

Rue de Seine – A Soundwalk … And a Surprise

THERE HAS BEEN a road running in a north-south direction from the banks of the Seine towards the original Romanesque church, which was later to become the Église Saint-Sulpice, since the middle of the 13th century. In 1489, that road was formalised into a street named rue de Seine.

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Rue de Seine from North to South

Today, rue de Seine runs for some 665 metres across the 6th arrondissement from quai Malaquais to rue Saint-Sulpice. Whilst the name, quai Malaquais, may not be familiar to you, most visitors to Paris will immediately recognise the magnificent building which is the Institut de France and it is directly behind this building that rue de Seine begins.

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Institut de France

In a kind of shorthand, this building is often referred to as the Académie Française but that is only partially true. The Institut de France is a French learned society that groups five academies of which one is the Académie Française. The five academies are: the Académie Française, guardian of the French language, founded in 1635, the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (Academy of Humanities) founded in 1663, the Académie des sciences (Academy of Sciences) founded in 1666, the Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts) founded in 1816 and the Académie des sciences morales et politiques (Academy of Moral and Political Sciences) founded in 1795, suppressed in 1803, and re-established in 1832.

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Walking from the Louvre, across the Pont des Arts and thorough the Institut de France, I went to explore rue de Seine the other day where I recorded a soundwalk to add to my Paris Soundscapes Archive and I took some pictures to share with you. I also encountered a complete surprise … of which more later.

Rue de Seine – A Soundwalk:

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My soundwalk began at N°1 rue de Seine, the house in which Saint Vincent de Paul, the Catholic priest who dedicated himself to serving the poor, once lived. He was canonised in 1737.

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Across the street is the Square Honoré-Champion and the statue of the French enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume, Voltaire.

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Also in the Square Honoré-Champion, if less conspicuous, is a statue to the French social commentator and political thinker Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, usually simply known as Montesquieu. He is perhaps best remembered for his articulation of the separation of powers now taken for granted by modern governments.

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La fontaine du Marché-aux-Carmes

A few steps away from the Square Honoré-Champion, just across the street, is the Square Gabriel Pierné named after Henri Constant Gabriel Pierné a French composer, conductor, and organist. In the Square is la fontaine du Marché-aux-Carmes, which you can hear in my soundwalk. It was created by the French sculptor and painter, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard in 1830 and it was installed in the Square a hundred years later. It’s now a monument historique.

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From the fountain in the Square Gabriel Pierné I began walking along rue de Seine accompanied by the sound of building work taking place on the left hand side of the street close to N° 25. I stopped to have a look at N° 25 because this is where Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan once lived. Born around 1611, d’Artagnan served Louis XIV as captain of the Musketeers of the Guard. He died in 1673 at the Siege of Maastricht in the Franco-Dutch War. A fictionalised account of his life by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras formed the basis for the d’Artagnan Romances of Alexandre Dumas, perhaps the most famous of which is The Three Musketeers.

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Next door, at N° 27, is the former home of the French poet, Charles Pierre Baudelaire.

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Two doors further along, at N° 31, a plaque above the door reveals that Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant, best known by her pseudonym George Sand once lived here.  George Sand was a French novelist but she he is equally well-known for her much publicised romantic affairs with a number of well-known people including Frédéric Chopin.

Some time later, the American dancer, artist, poet and philosopher Raymond Duncan, brother of the dancer Isadora Duncan, also lived here.

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Across the street, N° 26 is now a boutique but in 1618 it was opened as the cabaret, Au petit Maure.  On 29th December 1661, the poet, libetine, soldier and diplomat, Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant died here.

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N° 39, now the Hôtel Prince de Condé, was once home to the French engineer and physicist, Claude-Louis Navier, best known for being one half of the Navier–Stokes equations, which everyone knows (everyone except me that is, I had to look it up!) give a description of the velocity of a fluid at a given point in space and time.

And with that nugget of information under my belt I needed a drink and where better than the Café La Palette.

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Now a monument historique, the Café La Palette dates from the 1930’s. It has always been associated with artists – Cezanne, Picasso and Braque were frequent visitors, and it’s a favourite haunt of students from the prestigious art school, l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, which is close by.

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Rue de Seine from Rue de Buci

If you know what to look for, rue de Seine is a feast of history and that history continues as we walk beyond La Palette where rue de Seine crosses the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area. Once the haunt of intellectuals and revolutionaries and now a favourite tourist spot, this is the world of Jean-Paul Marat and Georges Danton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Juliette Gréco.

Crossing rue de Buci, but on this day too late to enjoy the wonderful street market, my soundwalk takes us up to and across the busy Boulevard Saint-Germain passing cafés and delicious food shops on the way.

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Rue Saint-Sulpice – the southern end of rue de Seine

My soundwalk ends beyond the Boulevard Saint-Germain at rue Saint-Sulpice, the southern end of rue de Seine close to the Église Saint-Sulpice. This is perhaps my favourite church in Paris, not least because it has a François-Henri Clicquot organ magnificently restored and improved in 1862 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. This organ is considered to be Cavaillé-Coll’s best ever creation and it is perhaps the most impressive instrument of the romantic French symphonic-organ era. Apart from the installation of an electric blower and the addition of two pedal stops the organ remains almost exactly as Cavaillé-Coll left it. And as if that wasn’t enough, two of the finest Cathedral organists ever were resident organists in this church, Charles-Marie Widor from1870 to1933 and Marcel Dupré from1934 to 1971.

I know I’ve digressed a little but magnificent church organs are one of my passions and the one in the Église Saint-Sulpice is as good as they get.

I haven’t though yet quite finished with the rue de Seine. At the southern tip of rue de Seine close to rue Saint-Sulpice is this gem that takes us back to the early history to be found at the northern end of the street.

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Cire Trudon

Founded in 1643, Maison de Cire Trudon is the oldest candle maker in the world. It supplied candles and candle holders to the royal court of Louis XIV, as well as most of the great churches of France. Cire Trudon still make and distribute candles throughout France and across the world and they still have the original wax recipes as well as the original moulds used to form candles bearing the royal blazons.

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When I was out collecting the sounds and pictures for this blog piece I thought that Cire Trudon at the southern end of rue de Seine with it’s historic connection, by date at least, with the northern end of the street where I began my soundwalk would bring this blog piece to an obvious conclusion. And so it would have had I not decided to retrace my steps to head for the Métro station Louvre-Rivoli and home.

I walked back along rue de Seine as far as the Café La Palette where I stopped, found a table outside, sat down, ordered a coffee and took out my rather dog-eared Moleskine notebook to make notes for this blog piece. Pausing to sip my coffee, I looked up and sitting two tables down from me was a man I thought I vaguely recognised. He was casually dressed but there were three men in suits hovering around him and a very smartly dressed young lady sitting by his side. I returned to my notes and then, in one of those lightening flashes that sometimes strikes one, it came to me. The casually dressed man sitting just two tables from me was the former Président de la République, Jacques Chirac.

He seemed to be on good form if more frail than I remember him from the TV and when he came to leave he had difficulty walking and the men in suits had to support him. And, no, I didn’t take a picture or record his voice – it simply didn’t seem appropriate.

It does show though that if you keep your eyes and ears open being a soundwalking flaneur can sometimes throw up the most unexpected surprises.

As a final note, perhaps I can mention that my soundwalk in rue de Seine is one of the longest sound pieces I’ve published on this blog. The conventional wisdom is that people tend not to listen to sound pieces for longer than two or three minutes at a time because they either lose interest or have something more pressing to do. I think it’s a function of the sound-bite world we have become used to.

In my sound recording practice I take the view that it is not the sound recordist or the listener who dictates how long a sound piece should be but rather the sounds themselves. Sounds need both time and space to breath, to speak and to tell their own story – and the sounds themselves will tell you how long they need to speak. A three minute sound-bite of the edited highlights of rue de Seine would be rather like reading a newspaper headline and completely ignoring the article beneath. It simply wouldn’t tell the story or reflect the sonic tapestry of the street.

So, if you have the time, I encourage you to listen to the whole sound piece. It is after all unique. The sound colours and textures are those that I recorded at that time and on that day. Tomorrow, both they and the actors will have changed and the sounds will be different.

12
Oct

La Samaritaine – Work in Progress

ON 15th JUNE 2005, La Samaritaine, one of the Parisian Grands Magasins closed its doors for the last time.  For the last eight years it has stood empty looking increasingly down at heel and rather sad. Even though work to redevelop the building has just begun the Parisian icon that was La Samaritaine is set to disappear forever.

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In 1856, an aspiring young entrepeneur, Ernest Cognacq, opened a small shop called Au petit Bénéfice in the rue de Turbigo in Paris. The venture was a failure and the shop soon closed. Undaunted, Cognacq took to the streets as a hawker selling fabrics of various kinds. He eventually set up a pitch on the Pont Neuf, on the site of the former Pompe de la Samaritaine, a large hydraulic water pump named after the Samaritan women at the well in St John’s Gospel.

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Pompe de la Samaritaine – The original pump was built in the early 1600’s. This revised version was built between 1712 and 1719. It was demolished in 1813.

Cognacq’s enterprise prospered and by 1869 he was able to rent a small room across the street from the Pont Neuf in the rue de la Monnaie, which he turned into a shop and called La Samaritaine.

Cognacq’s success was assured when, in 1872, he married Marie-Louise Jaÿ. Not only was she a very active and intelligent woman, she had been the première vendeuse au rayon confection, head sales woman of the clothing department in Aristide Boucicaut’s Au Bon Marché – she came with a tidy sum of twenty thousand Francs.

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Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ proved to be a formidable team. Inspired by the success of Aristide Boucicaut’s retail revolution at Au Bon Marché and with the help of Marie-Louise’s twenty thousand Francs combined with Ernest’s more modest savings, they set about expanding the enterprise and building the foundations of what was to become the Grands Magasins de La Samaritaine.

Cognacq’s plan was to establish the ideal, and ideally managed, department store. He arranged La Samaritaine as a collection of individually owned outlets, each managed by petits patrons who operated in concert yet autonomously, a model still found in today’s Grands Magasins.

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The growth of the business was rapid. To increase the sales space Cognacq bought up neighbouring buildings – 19, rue de la Monnaie in 1886; 3, rue Baillet in 1889; 17, rue de la Monnaie in 1891; 20 rue de l’Arbre Sec in1893; the buildings located at the corner of rue Baillet and rue de l’Arbre Sec (5-7, rue Baillet, 22, rue de l’Arbre Sec) and at the corner of rue Baillet (1, rue Baillet, 21 rue de la Monnaie) in 1898 and the buildings between the impasse de Provence and rue des Prêtres-Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois in 1903.

All the buildings were made into four separate stores each specialising in different product ranges and rather unimaginatively but very practically named Magasin 1, 2, 3 and 4. The impact on sales of the additional floor space was astonishing. By 1875, sales had topped eight hundred thousand Francs, by 1882 they had reached six million, by 1898 fifty million and by 1925 sales were over one billion Francs.

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This dramatic expansion included major architectural changes that gave La Samaritaine its characteristic look. Between 1903 and 1907 the French architect, Frantz Jourdain, applied an Art Nouveau aesthetic to the buildings and by 1933 another French architect, Henri Sauvage, had reworked the architecture to reflect the aesthetic principles of Art Déco.

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Towards the end of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s La Samaritaine began to lose its competitive edge and its prosperity began to decline. In 2001, the luxury goods group, LVMH, bought La Samaritaine and it soon became clear that the end was in sight. Magasin 1 and Magasin 3 were leased to other retailers and then in 2005, for safety reasons we were told, LVMH announced that La Samaritaine would be closed and the buildings redeveloped. And it was closed and it remains closed and it is likely to do so until some time in 2016.

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La Samaritaine on rue de la Monnaie, 1923. Image: Ministère de la Culture (France)

So what is to become of La Samaritaine?

Well, it will become a mixed-use development designed by the Japanese architects SANAA. The plans include a luxury hotel, the Cheval Blanc, owned by LVMH, two midsize stores – DFS, a duty-free emporium and Louis Vuitton – both owned by LVMH as well as one department store, as of yet unidentified. In addition, there will be 20,000 square metres of office space, 7,000 square metres of social housing along the rue de l’Arbre Sec side of the building, a day care centre and a crèche to accommodate 60 children.

It’s pretty clear that the new development is aimed at attracting big-spending tourists and especially Chinese tourists. To that end, I understand that it is planned make the entrance to the DFS duty-free store large enough to accommodate tour buses.

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I went to have a look at La Samaritaine the other day and found a demolition crew at work removing the metal beams that formed part of the covered walkway between Magasin 2 and Magasin 4.

La Samaritaine – Work in Progress:

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The site was dominated by the hissing sound of the oxy-acetylene cutting gear cutting through one the beams. Once cut, it was lowered and then cut again into smaller, more manageable pieces and loaded onto a truck.

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In the rue de la Monnaie, where once La Samaritaine stood proud and inviting, it was very much work in progress. I was able to circumvent a rather threatening security guard and peek inside the former Magasin 2 to find that it was a completely empty shell shrouded in dust.

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Some will argue that this renovation project is part of a bold and innovative vision for the future of the city – and they may be right. LVMH clearly think that the vast amount of money they are investing here will give them a competitive edge and reward them with pots of money – and they may be right too.

But glitzy, fashionable, overpriced hotels, offices and department stores with entrances designed to accommodate Chinese tour buses do nothing for me at all. Call me old fashioned, but I mourn the loss of the La Samaritaine that I was so familiar with.

But before I get completely carried away with my romantic vision of the past, perhaps it’s worth remembering that Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jaÿ also had a bold and innovative vision of the future – and they too made pots of money!

6
Oct

Gare de Lyon – A Soundwalk

THE GARE DE LYON is one of the six main line railway stations in Paris. The Gare du Nord with 190 million passengers a year is the busiest railway station in Paris, in France and in Europe so, with around 90 million passengers a year, the Gare de Lyon is some way behind but still ranked as the third busiest railway station in France.

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Named after the city of Lyon, the Gare de Lyon is situated in the 12th arrondissement of Paris and it’s the northern terminus of the Paris – Marseille line. From here high-speed TGV trains travel to southern France as well as to Switzerland, Italy and Spain. The station also hosts regional trains as well as an RER and Métro station.

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The first station on this site was built in 1852 by the Compagnie des chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée (known as PLM). PLM operated chiefly in the southeast of France with a main line connecting Paris to the Côte d’Azur by way of Dijon, Lyon, and Marseille. This station was a rather drab and low-key affair which, even after being enlarged four times, was continually swamped by the number of passengers passing through. By the 1890’s, with the station unable to cope with the volume of traffic and with the prestigious Exposition Universelle coming up in 1900 it was decided to replace the old station with a new one. The task of building of the new station fell to the French architect Marius Toudoire but the work fell behind schedule and the Gare de Lyon that we know today was eventually opened in 1902.

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The design of the Gare de Lyon conceals the working station behind a monumental stone frontage with echoes ranging from the French 17th Century to the northern Italian Renaissance the most significant feature of which is the 64 metre high clock tower positioned so as to be visible from Place de la Bastille.

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Gare de Lyon – A Soundwalk:

The clock tower may be the most significant feature of the Gare de Lyon on the outside but on the inside that accolade must surely go to the magnificent restaurant, Le Train Bleu, once rather unassumingly called the “Buffet de la Gare de Lyon”.

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But an ordinary station buffet it most certainly is not!

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Photo courtesy Le Train Bleu

The Buffet de la Gare de Lyon changed its name to Le Train Bleu in 1963 to celebrate the “Paris-Vintimiglia” service, the luxury French night express train, which operated from 1886 to 2003. Colloquially referred to as Le Train Bleu (the Blue Train) because of its dark blue sleeping cars it gained international fame as the preferred train of wealthy and famous passengers between Calais and the French Riviera.

Inside, Le Train Bleu is richly decorated with caryatides, rococo mermaids, exquisite gilding, mirrors and 41 murals painted by 30 renowned artists depicting scenes of Paris at the time of the Exposition Universelle as well as beautiful French landscapes from the route of the PLM railway.

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My soundwalk in the Gare de Lyon includes a walk along the regional train platforms, the main station concourse, the TGV train platforms and a walk right up to the Paris – Milan TGV train as the passengers were about to board.

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Today, it takes just three hours to travel by TGV from the Gare de Lyon to Marseille, around four hours to Geneva, about seven and a half hours to Milan and about eleven hours to Venice and, with a little forward planning, all at very reasonable prices.

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And while you’re listening to the sounds inside the Gare de Lyon and perhaps musing about taking one of these exotic train journeys, here are some more of the sights inside the station:

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If you’ve enjoyed this post, you might also like my account of the sights and sounds of the Gare du Nord which you can find here.