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The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – Part 1

ALONG WITH THE Canal de l’Ourcq, the Bassin de la Villette, the Canal Saint-Martin, and the Bassin de l’Arsenal, the Canal Saint-Denis is part of the 130 km Réseau des Canaux Parisiens – the Parisian Canal Network.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The Canal Saint-Denis looking from l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre to the Pont de Flandre 

The Canal Saint-Denis links the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement to la Seine in the commune of Saint-Denis, 6.6 km to the northwest. From the Canal de l’Ourcq to la Seine the canal navigates seven remote-controlled locks and one remote-controlled swing bridge and it drops some 28 metres.


The route of the Canal Saint-Denis from the Canal de l’Ourcq to la Seine showing the locks, or ‘écluses’ in French

The canal is 3.2 metres deep at its shallowest point and 3.5 metres at its deepest and its width varies from 30 metres to 140 metres. It can accommodate vessels with a beam of up to 8 metres and a maximum displacement of up to 1,000 tons. It takes about two and a half hours for vessels to navigate the full length of the canal.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

Like the Canal de l’Ourcq, the Canal Saint-Denis was born in the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte. Both canals were intended to provide an efficient means of communication for provisioning Paris but whereas the Canal de l’Ourcq was also intended to provide Paris with a plentiful supply of water, the Canal Saint-Denis was designed as what we might think of today as a ‘by-pass’, a means of reducing the number of ships and barges passing through the centre of the city. As well as being a by-pass for river traffic the Canal Saint-Denis was, and still is, a by-pass for water. By diverting excess water from the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine, the Canal Saint-Denis serves to maintain constant water levels in Paris’s canals thereby helping to prevent flooding.

The building and operating of the Canal Saint-Denis was achieved through what we would now call a public-private partnership. The City of Paris purchased the land and then tendered contracts to private banking firms requiring them to build and operate the canal in return for which they were permitted to collect tolls from traffic using the canal for a term of ninety-nine years.

Work on the Canal Saint-Denis began in 1805 under the supervision of the French ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, Édouard de Villiers du Terrage, and it opened in May 1821, on time and, at an estimated six million Francs, under budget.

I’ve been to explore the Canal Saint-Denis by walking from one end to the other and in this and in subsequent blog pieces I will share with you what I observed.

I began at the beginning, where the Canal Saint-Denis parts company from the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette and runs alongside the Quai de la Gironde.


The green arrow runs along the Quai de la Gironde. The large rectangular building on the right is the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, the Museum of Science and Industry

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The intersection of the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Canal Saint-Denis at the Parc de la Villette

Not only is the Parc de la Villette a large green space (at 35.5 hectares it’s the third largest park in Paris) it also houses one of the largest concentration of cultural venues in Paris, including the Cité des Sciences et de l’industrie (Museum of Science and Industry), three major concert venues and the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The beginning of the Quai de la Gironde

From my starting point at the head of the canal, I had the beginning of the Quai de la Gironde on my left and the entrance to the first lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, on my right.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The start of the Canal Saint-Denis and the entrance to l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre. On the right is the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and the circus Big Top of the Cirque Plume

When the Canal Saint-Denis opened in 1821 there were twelve locks along its length. Between 1890 and 1895 the canal was rebuilt to accommodate bigger vessels and the number of locks was reduced from twelve to seven each comprising two adjacent chambers. The largest lock on the canal is the first lock, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, with a rise of 10 metres which, when it was built, was a world-record. Today, all seven locks and the swing bridge on the Canal Saint-Denis are remotely controlled from l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

L’Écluse du Pont de Flandre

Work is underway to renovate the quays on either side of the canal between l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre and the Pont de Flandre so it was not possible for me to walk close to the water along this stretch. But I was able to walk alongside the canal along the Quai de la Gironde, which has its own history.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

In the early nineteenth-century, the Parisian flour and cereals warehouses were limited to the granary at Bastille and the Corn Exchange at Les Halles but with a rapidly growing population new storage facilities became necessary. The area around La Villette was chosen because of its canals, which provided easy and inexpensive transportation. In 1858-1859, two stores docks and additional warehousing capacity were built along the Quai de la Gironde to store flour, starch, grain, oil, alcohol and commodities from the French colonies.

In May 1871, during the last days of the Paris Commune, the warehouses were burned to the ground but they were rebuilt soon after and served Parisians for the next century.

Canal Saint-Martin

These warehouses alongside the Canal Saint-Denis, together with those at the pont du Crimée and alongside the Bassin de la Villette, were known as the Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux de Paris. Today, they are being redeveloped and turned into up-market office space.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

From the Pont de Flandre onwards, both the canal and the Quai de la Gironde take on a different feel. The slow moving, lumbering barges and the occasional leisure craft contrast with the sleek, high-speed (although not high-speed at this point) TGV trains crossing the railway bridge. And the Quai de la Gironde ceases to become a road and is transformed into a paved thoroughfare accommodating both pedestrians and cyclists.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

The sleek trams of the fairly recently opened Tram Line 3b pass by on one side  …

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

… while the navette fluviale taking visitors to and from the Millénaire shopping complex further downstream passes by on the other side.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde

And all the while the sound of construction work echoes in the background as the former Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux are rejuvenated.

It was from here amidst all the redevelopment work that I decided to pause and listen and to record a sound portrait of this stretch of the canal and the Quai de la Gironde.

The Canal Saint-Denis and the Quai de la Gironde – A Sound Portrait:

Next time, I will explore the canal from the end of the Quai de la Gironde to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, but in the meantime, I will leave you with a view looking back along the canal from the end of the Quai de la Gironde – a very different view from that at its beginning.

Canal Saint-Denis - Quai de la Gironde


Sousa Comes To Paris

I WAS WALKING THROUGH the Jardin du Luxembourg heading for my 82 bus when I came upon something quite unusual, something I couldn’t possibly walk past without stopping to record.

Jardin du Luxembourg

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me on this particular day so here’s a picture of the Jardin du Luxembourg I prepared earlier!

A group of young musicians were assembled on the bandstand and I just caught the very end of their performance. They were high school and college students from the United States called the Virginia Ambassadors of Music and they were on a summer European tour.

Virginia Ambassadors of Music:

Unfortunately, this was one of those rare days when I didn’t have my camera with me but no matter, their spirited performance of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever more than makes up for that.

As you can hear, the audience gathered around the bandstand were very enthusiastic. And special congratulations to the two young lady flute players who earned their own well-deserved round of applause.

The Virginia Ambassadors of Music don’t seem to have a web site, or at least I can’t find one, so if anyone knows more about them perhaps you’d like to get in touch.


Parisian Thunder!

YESTERDAY, I CAME HOME to find that that the workmen had finished erecting the scaffolding on the apartment block on the left of my little courtyard. This was good news because can there be anything worse than the constant clanging of scaffolding poles? The bad news was that I discovered work had started on erecting scaffolding on the apartment block to the right as well.

All this portends weeks of endless noise as they begin to clean the front of these apartment buildings by sandblasting them. It’s not something I’m looking forward to!

Still, the sight of scaffolding on the apartment blocks in my courtyard is a little unusual so I though I would capture the scene.


I had just taken this picture from my balcony and gone back inside when the clouds darkened and it began to rain. During September we’ve been enjoying a glorious Indian summer in Paris but for the last couple of days the wonderful sunshine has been accompanied by uncomfortable humidity, a sure sign that thunder is in the air.

Parisian thunder from my balcony:

And thunder there was!

Thunder is not uncommon in Paris but I seldom seem to be in the right place at the right time to capture the sound of it – but yesterday was an exception. As the rain poured down and the workmen scurried for shelter I set up my microphones on my balcony and listened to nature’s dramatic performance.

After twenty minutes or so the thunder abated, the rain stopped, the sun shone again and life returned to normal. But what a dramatic twenty minutes it was!


Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau and its Sounds

I WAS RETURNING from an expedition to the Pont Marie, one of the oldest bridges in Paris, where I had been on my feet for a little over three hours collecting material for my Paris Bridges Project. It was a sultry afternoon, I was tired and in need of a sit down and some refreshment. I was heading for a café I often frequent when I’m in these parts when I happened upon a short, narrow, medieval Parisian street I’ve walked along many times but never really stopped to take much notice of, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau. For the first time, I was intrigued by this street so I paused to absorb the atmosphere.


Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau lies along the green arrow

The street runs parallel to la Seine and it’s bordered to the east by the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe and by the rue des Barres to the west with the Êglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais de Paris just beyond.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau looking from east to west

As I’ve said, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a short, narrow, medieval street and I was particularly intrigued by its name.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

In French, the word ‘grenier’ means attic or loft so to my mind, “street of the loft on the water” didn’t seem to make much sense. All became clear though when I got home and consulted my bible on these matters, Bernard Stéphane’s ‘Dictionnaire des Noms de Rues’.

It seems that in the early thirteenth-century, a Monsieur Garnier or Guernier owned some houses in the passage between the Êglise Saint-Gervais and the river. In 1241, all of these houses were acquired by the Knights Templar save for one in which Garnier’s goddaughter lived.

The records show that in 1257 the street was known as rue André-sur-l’Eau but by 1391 it had become rue du Garnier-sur-l’Eau. It seems then that the present day rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a corruption of the fourteenth-century name, rue du Garnier sur l’Eau. So nothing at all to do with attics or lofts then!

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Not only was I intrigued with the name of the street, I was also intrigued by its atmosphere. When I arrived, the street was practically empty save for the occasional passers-by pausing to look at the shop at the bottom of the street. Apart from the shop, the only one in the street, and the occasional traffic passing along the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe the street had a very medieval feel to it.

I was also keen to explore the sound tapestry of the street. After all, quiet streets in Paris are relatively rare things.

Those of you who follow this Blog regularly will know that I often use the technique of soundwalking to explore the city’s sound tapestry but the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is not a street that lends itself to soundwalking. It’s a short street and it takes no more than a minute to walk from one end to the other. In my experience, the best way to capture the sound tapestry of a street like this is to do the reverse of a soundwalk, that is to say, stay in one place and let the street walk past you.

And that’s exactly what I did. I positioned myself in the narrowest part of the street, about two-thirds of the way up towards rue des Barres, and from there I began to record and to see what would happen.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Sounds of rue du Grenier sur l’Eau:

As is so often the case, things seldom turn out the way one expects. My microphones revealed that, what appeared to be a quiet, medieval street was in fact a hive of sonic activity.

Ordinary Parisians passing by, some chatting to friends, some purposefully walking from one place to another, some carrying their shopping and looking rather weary and some simply strolling and enjoying the sunshine. Small children gambolling within sight of but not tied to their parents and testosterone-fuelled adolescents jockeying for position in life’s pecking order. And then there were the tourists, mostly in groups, receiving yet another commentary about yet another ‘site of interest’. The sounds of voices, footsteps, children running, a car horn, things falling over, a breathless jogger and rustling shopping bags were all now evident whereas they had been inaudible from further down the street. A bicycle rickshaw rattled past with the driver giving a fleeting commentary on the architecture. And another, more detailed, commentary came from an English-speaking French tour guide who was escorting a small party of Japanese tourists.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

This commentary is actually worth listening to in some detail. The tour guide was talking about this timber-framed house. He tells us, or rather he was telling his tour party, that all the houses in Paris were like this until the seventeenth-century. Wood floating down the river was retrieved and used either as firewood or to make timber frames for the houses. The problem was that, because the streets were very narrow, a fire in one house could easily leap across and set fire to the neighbouring houses. To avoid this hazard, a law was issued around 1600 saying that the wood had to be covered with plaster. It’s only in recent years that some of the plaster has been removed to expose the wood. In the picture above you can see that the timber frame is exposed on the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau side of the house but the plaster remains on the rue des Barres side. This house is now a youth hostel but it’s so popular, especially in the summer, that guests are only allowed to stay for three nights.

I’m not quite sure how much of all this was absorbed by the Japanese tourists but it fascinated me!

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

I spent well over an hour standing in rue du Grenier sur l’Eau observing, but observing through active listening. I suspect that most of the people who passed by were aware to some extent of the soundscape around them but probably only as something in the distant background. For those engaged in conversation, these ‘background’ sounds would probably have passed by largely unnoticed.

For me though, the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau, small as it is, seemed to be huge canvas upon which was woven a colourful and captivating sonic tapestry depicting the fascinating contemporary atmosphere of this medieval street.


Soundwalking in Paris with Antonella Radicchi

LAST MONTH I HAD the privilege of spending a delightful afternoon in Paris with the Italian architect and researcher in urban design, Dr Antonella Radicchi.


Antonella Radicchi

Antonella studied at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (USA) and at the Faculty of Architecture in Florence. She has taught and lectured both in Italy and abroad and since 2011 she has collaborated on research projects with Tempo Reale, the Florence based Centre for Music Research and Education. She has eight years teaching experience at university level and a distinctive record of publications in the field of soundscape studies and urban design.

Her primary research interests centre upon the interaction between people and the environments they inhabit focusing on the involvement of the population into the planning process of urban soundscapes through the development of open source platforms and open data sets.

Antonella is also the editor of the firenzesoundmap, an interactive, open source tool, which has become a collective sound map of the city of Florence through the involvement and the participation of the Florentine population, city users and tourists.

Antonella has kindly agreed to share her reflections about our meeting and also to share the Parisian sounds she recorded.

Soundwalking in Paris by Antonella Radicchi

I have been following the work on Parisian soundscapes by Des Coulam for quite a while and when I was about to leave for Paris in the middle of August I thought I’d drop him a line to ask whether he would be up for soundwalking in Paris. To my great delight, he replied offering to meet up the following Friday. We were to meet in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg at 2pm.

I couldn’t wait!

Since 2007, Des – who describes himself as “a flaneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris, observing through active listening” and, […], capturing “that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed.” – has been recording and archiving the “contemporary sound tapestry” of Paris so carefully and comprehensively that the British Library has been acquiring Parisian field recordings from his archive. Yet, his interest in recording sounds dates back to Christmas Day 1958 when he woke up to find that Father Christmas had brought him a tape recorder!

His idea of a “contemporary sound tapestry” is extremely fascinating: he prefers “sound tapestry” to “soundscape”, which is the widely accepted term, since it always reminds him that our lives are immersed in a complex system of interwoven sounds. Des is used to exploring and binaurally recording the Parisian soundscape through “active” soundwalking, which is quite different from the traditional method – usually practiced along a predetermined path at slow pace with the main purpose of listening to the environment. Whilst Des soundwalks along a predetermined path, which constitutes kind of a reference, he records sounds as if painting a picture: if he hears something special, he immediately goes off the route looking for that, “giving the sounds time to breath and to speak as they all have a story to tell” – as he insightfully commented while we were soundwalking.

So, on August, 15th at 2pm we met in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg and I was immediately surprised by this generous man who offered to let me conduct the soundwalk taking advantage of his binaural recording equipment, which I was very excited to experiment with as I have never used this method before.


Des’ binaural recording equipmentMarantz PMD 661 Mk11 sound recorder and Soundman OKM II Classic in-ear microphones

He also gave me lots of inspiring suggestions about how to soundwalk and about binaural recording techniques.


Me wearing Des’ binaural microphones and listening to Des’ suggestions about how conduct the soundwalk

Then, he was patient enough to answer to all the questions I asked him about soundscape studies, field recording and audio archiving techniques and we ended up debating and formulating hypotheses on the difference between listening to soundscapes in real time and listening to the recorded versions – which so far has remained an open ended question I am still thinking about!


Me and Des chatting about soundscape studies, field recording, and audio archiving techniques.

Finally, it was time to do some soundwalking and recording. We started with a first soundwalk at the Jardin du Luxembourg, which you can listen to here.

Antonella in the Jardin du Luxembourg:


My soundwalk route around the Jardin du Luxembourg

Then we moved to the Latin Quarter, close by the Pantheon and we did two more soundwalks, one along rue Descartes and one along rue Mouffetard, which you can listen to here.

Antonella in rue Descartes:


My soundwalk route along rue Descartes and Place Contrascarpe. Note the domed Panthéon on the left and the oval-shaped Roman Arènes de Lutèce on the right

Antonella in rue Mouffetard:


My soundwalk route along the rue Mouffetard from Place Contrascarpe to the Eglise Saint-Médard. Rue Mouffetard was originally a Roman road running from Roman Lutèce (now Paris) to Italy

I am very grateful to Des for the time he dedicated to me and for having so generously shared his passion and knowledge of field recording the Parisian “sound tapestry”. I came back to Italy full of energy and enthusiasm from the afternoon we spent together and I am still benefiting from that.

I hope I will have the chance to meet Des again to do more soundwalking together before too long.

And please, if you stop over in Paris, do not miss the chance to meet him. It will be a deeply rewarding experience!


La Fête de Ganesh 2014

LA FÊTE DE GANESH, along with the celebrations for the Chinese New Year and the Carnaval Tropical, bring an annual wave of colour and spectacle to the streets of Paris highlighting the city’s cultural diversity.

Indian communities across the world celebrate la Fête de Ganesh at this time of the year and yesterday I went to join the celebrations in Paris.

Fête de Ganesh 2014

The Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol

Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, has a temple dedicated to him in Paris, the Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol in the 18th arrondissement. It was from here that a colourful procession set off yesterday on its tour of the surrounding area.


Strands of jasmine were on sale everywhere

To experience la Fête de Ganesh is to experience a multi-sensory feast with the colourful costumes and the equally colourful sounds overlayed with wonderfully exotic smells.

Unfortunately, I can’t recreate the exotic smells for you to enjoy but I can share with you this year’s Fête de Ganesh in sounds and pictures and let them tell their own story.

La Fête de Ganesh 2014 in sound:



The Deity Ganesha has been represented with the head of an elephant since the early stages of his appearance in Indian art

Fête de Ganesh 2014

Fête de Ganesh 2014

This is the pile of coconuts that you can hear being smashed in my recording

Fête de Ganesh 2014

Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014



Lunch after the parade …  if you can find a seat!  Then the clean up begins …