Le Mont Saint-Michel and its Soundscapes
“BUILD HERE – BUILD HIGH”, commanded the archangel Michael to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, in the year 708. “If you build it … they will come”. The bishop resisted, that is until the archangel poked a hole in the bishop’s skull to emphasise the point. It was built … and they did come.
Perched on a rocky islet surrounded by treacherous sandbanks exposed to powerful tides stands the Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St Michael together with the village that grew within its protective walls.
For centuries le Mont Saint-Michel has been a place of pilgrimage but it wasn’t the search for salvation that brought me to this rocky islet. Instead, it was a chance remark made in November last year by my Minnesotan friend, Heather. That remark led me, Heather and her husband Steve, to decamp from Paris in mid-September this year to spend a couple of days exploring this remarkable place.
A little history …
Le Mont Saint-Michel stands about one kilometre off the coast of northwest France between Brittany and Normandy at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches.
In prehistoric times, the bay in which it now stands was part of the landmass but millions of years of rising sea levels and erosion reshaped the coastline. The granite rock we now know as le Mont Saint-Michel survived the ocean’s wear and tear leaving it standing in an otherwise flat and ever-changing landscape. The first occupants of the rock, then known as Monte Tombe, were Amorican Gauls who used it as a stronghold of Breton culture and power.
Thanks to the intervention of the archangel Michael (or so legend has it) a church was built on the top of the rock in 708. The Benedictines moved in some two hundred and fifty years later creating the abbey that still stands today.
The mount’s rivalry with neighbouring Normandy came to a head in 933 when William “Long Sword” annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the weakened Dukes of Brittany thus making the mount Norman, and Norman ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
During the Middle Ages a village grew up around the abbey, mostly on the eastern side of the island. During the Hundred Years War between France and England the abbey and the village were surrounded by a fortified wall, which successfully fended off repeated attacks by the English.
There were many ups and downs for the abbey and by the time of the French Revolution there were few monks in residence. Post-Revolution the abbey was converted into a prison holding religious and political prisoners.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that a religious presence returned. Today, the abbey is maintained by monks and nuns from the Fraternity of Jerusalem.
The connection between le Mont Saint-Michel and the mainland has changed over the centuries. Once connected by a tidal causeway uncovered only at low tide, this was converted into a raised, permanently dry causeway in 1879, preventing the tide from scouring the silt around the mount.
The coastal flats were polderised to create pastureland, decreasing the distance between the shore and the island, and the Couesnon River was canalised, reducing the dispersion of the flow of water. Together, these developments encouraged the silting-up of the bay.
In 2006, the French Government stepped in with a €164 million project to build a hydraulic dam using the waters of the river Couesnon and the tides to help remove the accumulated silt and to make Mont Saint-Michel an island again. In July 2014 a new bridge, designed by architect Dietmar Feichtinger, was opened linking the island to the mainland. The bridge allows the waters to flow freely around the island and improves the efficiency of the dam.
Approaching le Mont Saint-Michel from the new bridge and then passing through the medieval gate and crossing the drawbridge into the citadel, we discovered the narrow main street, lined with cafés, restaurants and shops selling trinkets, awash with tourists. Of course, a moment’s thought told me that this was nothing new; this same street has been awash with tourists for centuries.
While a good many of today’s visitors may be ticking off yet another item from their bucket-list of ‘things to do before you die’, in the past many of them would have been pilgrims risking their lives crossing the treacherous sandbanks to get here. Then, just like now, this medieval street would have been lined with eating places and traders catering for the needs of the visitors.
Apart from enjoying the company of my friends, my objective during my visit to le Mont Saint-Michel was to capture the atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage Site in sound.
Staying on the island overnight revealed that le Mont Saint-Michel has two quite distinct soundscapes: the soundscape during the day when all the tourists are there and the soundscape overnight when they are not. I set out to discover both.
The soundscape on le Mont Saint-Michel at dawn:
Listening tip: To get the best effect you should listen to these sounds at the same level that I heard them at the time of recording so it’s best not to crank up the volume too much – less is more!
This soundscape reflects le Mont Saint-Michel coming to life at dawn, the golden hour before the tourist invasion begins.
The first part of the soundscape was recorded from over halfway up the mount next to the cemetery just below the entrance to the abbey. The birds are singing from the rooftops and if you listen very carefully you will hear the distant baa of a sheep and the purr of a motor vehicle being carried on the wind from the mainland beyond.
Le Mont Saint-Michel is still medieval in that there are no motor vehicles so the only access is on foot. Consequently, you can hear the sound of two men manhandling boxes of early morning supplies up the steps to a small hotel close to where I was standing and to another small hotel further up the hill. A bell from the cemetery’s clock tower chimes the quarter-hour interrupting their efforts. The brief sounds of footsteps over gravel are from a nun who has come down from the abbey to pick wild flowers from the cemetery.
From the foot of le Mont Saint-Michel we hear the sounds of waves lapping as the tide comes in and the mount is set to become surrounded by water. The abbey bells give a full-throated peel before fading away to the distant sound of a single bell.
The dawn soundscape passes and as the new day’s visitors arrive the soundscape on le Mont Saint-Michel changes dramatically. The sound of a sea of people fills the air.
I wanted to capture the sounds of this sea of people but not simply the sounds of the endless stream of passing tour groups making their way up the Grand Degré, the narrow, steep, main street. Instead, I wanted to capture sounds that inextricably linked these people to le Mont Saint-Michel – sounds that described the location and told a story.
One place on le Mont Saint-Michel with an easily recognisable ambience of course is the abbey and since visiting the abbey is the main reason most people come to the island it seemed to me to be the most appropriate place from which to record the daytime soundscape.
Perched on top of the rock, eighty metres above sea level, on a platform eighty metres long, the abbey church was built in the early eleventh century. The church with its wood-panelled barrel vault roof is mainly Romanesque in style although after the collapse of the Romanesque chancel in 1421 the chancel was rebuilt after the Hundred Years War in flamboyant Gothic style.
The abbey is a complex structure. With the church perched on top of the rock many underground crypts, chapels and gigantic stone pillars had to be built to support its weight.
The soundscape inside the abbey of le Mont Saint-Michel:
Unlike the dawn soundscape, this soundscape was recorded as a long-form soundwalk. I believe that sounds need the space and the time to breathe, to express themselves and to tell their own story. It takes these sounds thirty-six minutes to tell their story. Apart from topping and tailing, this soundscape has not been edited so what you hear is exactly what happened as it happened. To edit the sounds would be to edit the story and by editing the story the integrity of the soundscape as it was in this place at that time on that day would I think be diminished.
To set the scene …
Heather, Steve and I resolved to visit the abbey. We climbed what seemed like an endless number of steps to get to the abbey entrance but once there we heaved a sigh of relief thinking that we’d finally arrived and the hard work was behind us. Imagine our joy then when, having bought our tickets, we discovered that we had another ninety steps still to climb!
But the extra climb was worth the effort.
The soundwalk begins in the abbey church and then follows a prescribed tourist route spiralling down through the abbey around the tip of the rock. As well as the abbey church, the route includes passing through the cloisters, the refectory, the guest’s hall, the great pillared crypt, Saint Martin’s crypt, the monk’s ossuary, the Saint Etienne chapel, the Knight’s hall and the almonry.
We arrived at the abbey quite late in the afternoon, a little before the ticket office closed. As we moved from the abbey church into the cloisters a rather jovial official appeared and gently ushered us on. As we passed through each door on the tourist route this official followed us and closed and locked each door behind us. It was rather like, ‘last one out turn off the lights!’
In fact, this was a blessing. It meant that we had time to see all there was to see without getting snarled up in the crowd. It also helped me to capture a more modulated soundscape than perhaps I would have done at the height of the day.
As you listen to the soundscape you will hear the ambience change as we move from room to room and as the tide of people ebbs and flows. There are rare periods of near silence as I fell back to let the crowd move ahead and there are times when the tour guides have to tell their flocks to ‘Shush’ because they’re making too much noise.
For me, listening attentively to the sounds around me is my way of observing the world. In my all too brief stay on le Mont Saint-Michel I tried to capture the feel of this remarkable place in sound. Capturing the sounds at dawn without tourists and then in the abbey with the tourists in full cry may not reflect all of the intricately woven sound tapestry of the island but it does perhaps reflect a significant part of it.
Had I been there longer I would no doubt have captured many more sounds but economy of opportunity concentrates the mind.
With my thanks to Heather, our brilliant Chef d’Équipe, without whose energy, enthusiasm and meticulous planning this trip would not have happened. And, of course, to Steve whose company it’s impossible not to enjoy.