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June 25, 2014

4

Quai de Montebello

by soundlandscapes

ANY SELF-RESPECTING TOURIST can’t visit Paris without snapping a picture of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris from the Quai de Montebello. It’s one of the ‘must do’s’ on the Parisian tourist itinerary.

Quai de Montebello

The Quai de Montebello, in the 5th arrondissement, stretches from the Petit Pont to the Pont de l’Archevêché on the Left Bank of the Seine and it’s a popular place for visitors not least because of the spectacular view of the cathedral.

Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather we have in Paris at the moment, I went to the Quai de Montebello the other day and like just about everybody else there I couldn’t resist taking the obligatory photograph.

Quai de Montebello

I don’t consider myself to be a serious photographer, I’m more of a ‘snapper’, but I do have an interest in photography as an art form and I’m particularly interested in the work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Parisian street photographers. In fact, the work I do recording the soundscapes of Paris is inspired to a great extent by the work of these photographers. When I’m recording Parisian soundscapes I often think of myself as a street photographer but with a much longer exposure time.

Street photography is all about the art of observing. From Eugène Atget’s painstaking photographic documentation of a Paris being torn down in the late 19th century to make way for Baron Haussmann’s massive urban development scheme, to Robert Doisneau’s evocative street photography and pioneering photojournalism, Parisian street photographers have always spent much more time observing than shooting.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the doyen of street photography and photojournalism often used to spend hours observing, searching out a scene, or a ‘frame’ for a picture, and then with camera in hand he would wait for something to happen within the frame. Some of his most iconic photographs were made using this technique.

Any sound recordist intending to record urban soundscapes would do well to study the work and techniques of Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson.

While these giants of Parisian street photography are a great inspiration for me in the Parisian soundscapes work I do there is also someone else who has inspired me.

The French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist and essayist, Georges Perec, was fascinated by the notion of ‘ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien’ – what happens when nothing is happening. In fact, it was reading Perec’s essay, ‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’, a detailed written record of the minute observations he made of what he could see happening in a Parisian Square while sitting in a café opposite, that launched me on my work to observe and record Parisian life through the city’s soundscapes.

Which brings us neatly back to the Quai de Montebello.

Notre Dame - Quai de Montebello

Taking up a position on the Quai I took this picture. It took a fraction of a second to capture the scene.

I then took another picture to the left …

Quai de Montebello

… and one to the right.

Quai de Montebello

But what would happen I wondered if, instead of a using a camera to observe the Quai, I used a pair of microphones? Instead of capturing the scene in a fraction of a second I could observe it for much longer and what might the microphones reveal that the camera didn’t? How would my sonic observations of a quintessentially Parisian ‘street’ scene compare to the observations captured on film by Atget, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson or in words by Georges Perec?

Unashamedly using Cartier-Bresson’s technique of framing the scene and then waiting for something to happen, I set up my microphones, switched to ‘record’ and waited.

A Soundscape of the Quai de Montebello:

Thankfully, capturing scenes of Paris is not a competition between pictures, words or sound. The important thing I think is not the medium but the art of observation.

In our modern world where we’ve got used to being informed by instant pictures, newspaper headlines, 140 characters on social media and 20 second sound bites, it seems to me that we are in danger of losing our ability to stop, look and listen and to make time to observe the real world around us.

2002_73_18

Quai de Montebello – Eugène Atget

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jun 25 2014

    Another lovely post! I like the sudden change when the accordion busker stopped playing, when for some seconds it was the birds singing, then the bell tolling…

    Agree that we are increasingly inundated with information. I multi-task too much and am trying to focus on doing one thing at a time, and doing it well!

    Reply
    • Jun 25 2014

      Thanks Angelina.

      The busker was playing in the distance and I couldn’t see him from where I was recording. I think he’d been playing for some time before I got there so I obviously caught him just before he packed up and moved off. The bells were fortuitous – I was there just at the right time. But I could have missed all this if I hadn’t taken the time to stop and listen.

      Reply
  2. hmunro
    Jun 27 2014

    The Quai de Montebello is very rich with personal history for me, so I was particularly eager to listen to this soundscape — except that it sounded nothing like I remember. In time I will get used to Notre Dame’s new bells, I suppose. But in the meantime this particular post stands as a reminder that Paris is always changing. I’m so glad you’re capturing it for future generations (and at least one armchair traveler). Wonderfully done.

    Reply
    • Jun 28 2014

      Thanks Heather.

      It’s interesting that you mention the sound of the Notre Dame’s new bells. They were especially designed of course to recreate the original 18th century soundscape surrounding the cathedral. The bells installed after the Revolution were only ever a poor substitute for the originals, so the sound of the bells we hear today from the Quai de Montebello are as close to the sound of the original bells as we’re likely to get. I’m not sure that the accordion would have featured in the 18th century soundscape but I’ve no doubt that there would likely have been music in some form.

      You’re right, Paris is always changing and I find observing the changes endlessly fascinating.

      Reply

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