JUST ONE WEEK on from this year’s Carnaval de Paris the streets of Paris resounded to the sights and sounds of the celebrations for the Chinese New Year.
There are three main celebrations in Paris for the Chinese New Year, one around the Marais, another in Belleville and, the largest of the three, in Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement, the one I attended.
In the Chinese calendar this year is the year of the goat, which is associated with the virtues of kindness, warmth, and artistic sensitivity.
Each year the centrepiece of the Chinese New Year celebrations in the 13th arrondissement is the colourful and sound-rich procession that begins in Avenue d’Ivry and then winds through Avenue de Choisy, Place d’Italie, Avenue d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac, Boulevard Massena, finally arriving back at Avenue d’Ivry some three hours later.
Sounds of the Parisian Chinese New Year 2015:
As usual, I arrived early and like some of those preparing to take part in the procession I had time to grab a quick bite to eat. For some it was a sandwich …
… but for me it was a take-away to eat on the hoof served by two charming young ladies.
Before the parade set off I came upon this man manhandling a rather unruly horse …
… and a couple of stray lions.
Paris has a large and thriving Chinese community and for the Chinese New Year celebrations they, and many other Parisians, either take part in the procession or take to the streets to watch it with crowds standing ten deep in some places along the route.
In crowds like this recording the sounds and taking photographs at the same time is always a challenge. The best place to record the best sounds is seldom the best place to capture the best pictures but with good planning, a journalistic instinct for being in the right place at the right time, and judicious use of one’s elbows it’s usually possible manage to do both. I believe it’s called ‘multi-tasking’.
If it comes to a choice though, I always put capturing the sounds ahead of capturing the pictures because why wouldn’t you want those fabulous Chinese rhythms and sonic textures, not to mention the chorus of Chinese firecrackers, to take centre stage!
THE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS of a colourful carnival procession are guaranteed to brighten up a dull February afternoon.
Last Sunday afternoon, the annual Carnaval de Paris wound its way through the east of Paris from Place Gambetta to Place de la République. The theme for this year’s carnival was “ Chevaliers, dragons et chatelaines” (Knights, dragons and ladies of the manor) and it involved a long procession of people wearing colourful costumes accompanied by dancers and the throbbing rhythms of drums, cymbals and cowbells.
Sounds of the Carnaval de Paris 2015:
The Carnaval de Paris has a long history going back to at least the sixteenth century. In those days it was a time of rejoicing lasting from Epiphany until Lent. People of different origins, professions and social status took part and it was a time of dances, feasts, and marriages. The carnival parade would take place on the Sunday prior to Mardi Gras and was led by the traditional “Promenade du Boeuf Gras”, a decorated live ox.
The Carnaval de Paris continued up to the twentieth century but in 1952 it came to an abrupt end. It was revived though in 1997 by Les Fumantes de Pantruches and Droit à la Culture groups and it has continued every year since.
Although it no longer stretches from Epiphany to Lent, it’s simply a one-day event now, the Carnaval de Paris with its dancers, masks, music and colourful costumes still retains the spirit and exuberance of the medieval festival.
Here are some more sights of the Carnaval de Paris 2015:
THE ENTRANCE TO the Métro station Varenne in Boulevard des Invalides in the 7th arrondissement lies right at the heart of the seat of power. Behind the wall alongside the station entrance with the iron defences on the top are several French government ministries and just round the corner at N° 57 rue de Varenne is the Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the Prime Minister of France.
Métro station Varenne takes its name from the nearby rue de Varenne and it’s on Métro Line 13 which connects the western part of Paris to the suburbs of Saint-Denis, Asnières, and Gennevilliers in the north and to Châtillon and Montrouge in the south.
Image: Paris Métro Line 13 – plan by Otourly – based on an RATP file
The sounds inside Métro station Varenne:
Trains run frequently through this station and their sounds, their rattling and sighing, interspersed with the very clear station announcements make for a lively sonic ambience. Of course, following the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, Paris is still on a state of high alert and this is reflected in the sounds of the station with the repetitive, multi-lingual, security announcements.
The frequency of the trains passing through the station to Châtillon in the south and to Saint-Denis, Asnières, and Gennevilliers in the north, means that you seldom have to wait very long for a train.
However, there is one person sitting in this station who appears to have been waiting for a train for a very long time.
In fact this is one of the twenty or so castings made from the original ‘Le Penseur’ or, ‘The Thinker’, by Auguste Rodin, considered to be one of the most important sculptors of the 19th century.
Along with a Rodin sculpture of the novelist and journalist Honoré de Balzac, which sits at the other end of the station platform, these pieces have been here since 1978. Originally they were accompanied by other Rodin pieces along with a display case of photographs and drawings but these have since been removed. Today, only the Thinker and Honoré de Balzac remain.
Honoré de Balzac by August Rodin
Rodin’s Thinker is perhaps his best known monumental work, first conceived around 1880–1881 as a depiction of poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of the epic poem, the Divine Comedy. The image evolved though until it no longer represented Dante, but all poets.
The work was designed to occupy the centre of the tympanum of The Gates of Hell, which were intended to be a portal of a new Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. The Thinker was designed as an independent figure almost from the time the Gates of Hell were composed and was exhibited in Paris in 1889 at the Exposition Monet-Rodin at the Galerie Georges Petit. A bronze cast dated 1896 at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva reproduces the original twenty-seven inch version. The first over-life-size enlargement was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1904. At this time a subscription was begun for the most famous cast of it, the one for the city of Paris, which was placed in front of the Pantheon.
If you want to see the original over-size version of Rodin’s Thinker you have to leave the Métro station Varenne and walk a few steps to Rue de Varenne and the Musée Rodin.
The Musée Rodin – Rue de Varenne
Dedicated to the works of Auguste Rodin, the Musée Rodin was opened in 1919. The museum occupies two sites, one at the Hôtel Biron and surrounding grounds in central Paris and the other just outside Paris at Rodin’s former home, the Villa des Brillants at Meudon (Hauts-de-Seine). The museum collection includes 6,600 sculptures, 8,000 drawings, 8,000 old photographs and 7,000 objets d’art.
Image via Wikipedia
Sitting waiting for a train at the Métro station Varenne (I actually waited much longer than was necessary because I was so captivated by the soundscape around me), I was struck by the contrast between Rodin’s introspective Thinker sitting silently and immoveable, and the trains, which seemed to be so alive, extrovert and constantly expressing themselves.
Some might consider sitting in a Métro station for longer than is necessary a waste of time but, as Rodin said, “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely”.
The Thinker in The Gates of Hell at the Musée Rodin
Image via Wikipedia
SUZANNE CURCHOD (1737 – 1794) was a French-Swiss woman of letters and hostess of one of the most celebrated salons of the Ancien Régime. She was also the wife of Jacques Necker, Controller-General of Finances under Louis XVI.
After her husband’s fall from power in 1790, the Neckers left Paris and returned to Switzerland. Suzanne died in 1794 but not before she had founded a hospital in Paris that still bears her name, the Hôpital Necker.
Suzanne Curchod – Madame Necker
The Hôpital des Enfants Malades (hospital for sick children) was created by the Conseil général des Hospices in January 1801 on the site of a former hospice for abandoned children, the Maison Royale de l’Enfant Jesus. The newly formed hospital, believed to be the oldest children’s hospital in the world, opened in June 1802 catering for 149 boys and 92 girls aged from 2 to 14 years old housed in separate wings, each containing 30 to 40 beds.
On 1st January 1927 the Necker hospital for adults and the Hôpital des Enfants Malades were merged to become the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades, the name by which its still known today.
Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malade in Rue de Sèvres in 2015
Hôpital Necker in Rue de Sèvres in 1900 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Today, the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades is a university teaching hospital affiliated to the prestigious Université Paris Descartes and it’s part of the public hospital system, the Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris.
The Carré Necker
The hospital has 400 beds for children and 200 beds for adults. It is one of the world’s leading institutions for paediatric medicine and surgery and it’s a referral centre for some rare diseases and particularly complex conditions.
The Carré Necker
Over the years, many eminent physicians and surgeons have worked at the hospital but perhaps none more eminent than the French physician, René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec (1781 – 1826). In 1816, while working at the hospital, Laennec invented the stethoscope and pioneered its use in diagnosing various chest conditions.
As well as having a plaque to mark his invention, Laennec has more recently been distinguished by having the new Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec named after him. This 54,000 M2 facility was opened on 10th July 2013 by François Hollande, Président de la République.
Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec
At a total cost of 215.4 million Euros, the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec caters for paediatric surgery, infant resuscitation, accident and emergency, paediatric imaging, cardiology, nephrology, gastroenterology, maternity and neonatology. It has been designed to centralise these paediatric specialities so as increase the efficiency of clinical care and to reduce the time required to get that care to patients. Special emphasis has also been put on the comfort of the patients and the parents with individual rooms designed on a parent-child-carer model.
On my visit to the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades I went into the reception area of the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec to record some of the atmosphere.
Inside the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec:
The reception area is spacious and well-lit with a cafeteria and bookstall, a gift shop, a reading room full of children’s books, a large children’s play area and a quiet room for mothers and children. Entry into the unit is via huge automatic glass doors that open and close with a gentle swish as people pass through. You can hear these swishing sounds in my recording. These sounds must surely be one of the defining sounds of this place although I suspect that those who come here with much more pressing things on their mind will scarcely be aware of them.
A clown entertaining children in the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades in 1945
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
I SPEND A LARGE part of my time recording and archiving the sounds of Paris. I’m particularly interested in the relationship between sound and place and the extent to which sounds can define, or at least help to define, a place.
It seems to me that as our city soundscapes become increasingly amorphous and homogenous the distinctive sounds that help to define a place have become less obvious, which I suppose poses the question: do the constituent parts that make up a city sound the same, similar or different – does the centre of the city really sound that much different to its periphery for example, or indeed, does Paris really sound that much different to London, New York or Tokyo?
Of course, I’m not the first to ponder questions like this. Some time ago, Ian Rawes, founder and curator of the acclaimed London Sound Survey, embarked upon a fascinating study based on the question, “What does London really sound like?” In his introduction to the study Ian says:
“One of the goals of the London Sound Survey is to treat sound as a means to an end, that of knowing more about the past and present nature of the city and what it’s like to live here. London is now more ethnically varied than at any time in its history with high population churn and rates of income inequality not seen since the early 20th century.
So, despite the homogenising effects of modernity on how public spaces sound, more insights should arise from examining likely patterns of difference around the city than seeking commonalities.”
Although not yet completed, it will be interesting to see what Ian’s study reveals and to see if his findings might provide some empirically based answer.
In the introduction to his study Ian also quotes the pioneering field recordist Ludwig Koch who said, ‘There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris’. Even though this may be a little fanciful, it’s a quotation I use at every opportunity because I understand what Koch meant by it.
The quotation comes from the introduction to a short programme Ludwig Koch made for the BBC in 1952 featuring some of the sounds of Paris that he had recorded. In 2012, I was invited by Cheryl Tipp, curator of natural sounds at the British Library Sound Archive and custodian of the Ludwig Koch archive at the British Library, to follow in the footsteps of Ludwig Koch and record the contemporary sounds of Paris from the same places that he had recorded from sixty years before. It was a fascinating experience. It revealed that over the last sixty years some sounds have disappeared altogether and new sounds have emerged, some sounds have changed and others have stayed remarkably the same.
Although I’ve amassed a huge collection of the sounds of the city, my head tells me that I haven’t yet been able to define precisely what Paris really sounds like in the way that Ian hopes to do for London, but my heart agrees with Ludwig Koch, I am sure that there is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris.
This was brought home to me the other day when I found myself walking along a street in the east of Paris in the rain.
What does Paris really sound like?
For me, the sound of traffic rolling over rain-soaked pavé is a quintessentially Parisian sound that not only defines this part of this particular street but also goes some way towards defining the city itself.
These sounds seem to have a timeless quality to them and for me at least they provide an elegant continuity with Parisian sounds that would have been familiar to Ludwig Koch.
But are these sounds part of Ludwig Koch’s atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris?
Well for me they are even though I don’t have any empirical evidence to substantiate it. What I know for sure is that I find these sounds enormously powerful and evocative and always inextricably linked to Paris.