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October 30, 2013

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Parisian Traffic – A Study in Sound

by soundlandscapes

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.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 2.53.59 PM

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.

01

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.

02

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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1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Oct 30 2013

    A very interesting approach. It reminds me of a comment someone left on my blog once. They lived alongside the périphérique motorway and explained that the constant hum of traffic had become a kind of bedtime lullaby. Outside of the city, in places of black and silent nights, they always had problems sleeping.

    Cities would not be cities without this constant soundtrack. It makes it difficult to pick out (and record) individual sounds, but as people I think we adapt to everything.

    Reply

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