FOR A FEW HOURS in March 2015 Paris became the most polluted city in the world. Excessive vehicle emissions combined with sunshine, a drop in temperature and an absence of wind to disperse the pollutants caused a stagnant cover of warm air to settle over Paris resulting in a toxic haze that enveloped the city.
In response, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, instigated the first Journée sans Voitures, a car-free day. On 27th September 2015, about a third of the city was designated a traffic-free zone save for taxis, buses and emergency vehicles.
The first Journée sans Voitures was a success. Airparif, an air quality monitoring network in the Île-de-France, reported that nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by up to 40% in some parts of Paris and Bruitparif, a noise monitoring network, reported that sound levels fell by half in the city centre.
Yesterday, the Journée sans Voitures was repeated, this time covering a wider area with some 400 miles of the city’s streets being designated a traffic-free zone.
As a professional listener to Paris and an archivist of the city’s soundscapes, the prospect of listening to and recording the city’s sounds without the constant wave of traffic was too good to pass up.
Last year I captured the sounds of the Journée sans Voitures from Place Colette close to the Comédie-Française, the Palais-Royal and le Conseil d’État.
This year I decided to go to three places where I’ve recorded many times before, each of which takes on a completely different hue without a blanket of traffic noise.
My first stop was the Jardin des Tuileries.
For years I’ve been trying to record the sound of the wildlife around the Grand Bassin in the Jardin des Tuileries without traffic noise in the background. On Sunday I had my chance.
Journée sans Voitures – Jardin des Tuileries – Grand Bassin:
My second port of call was a garden whose sounds I have never managed to record successfully because of the overpowering sounds of the surrounding traffic.
The Jardin de la Nouvelle France is a small, English style garden situated at the junction of the Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt and the Cours la Reine in the 8th arrondissement.
The garden is named after Nouvelle France, a North American French colony and one-time vice-royalty of the Kingdom of France. With Québec as its capital, the colony existed from 1534 to 1763.
The garden winds down to below street level and at the bottom is a small waterfall and a pond. Without the traffic above, the sound of the waterfall takes centre stage.
Journée sans Voitures – Jardin de la Nouvelle France:
From the Jardin de la Nouvelle France it was just a short walk to my final destination, the Champs Elysées which, aside from the upmarket emporia lining both sides is, on a normal day, little more than an eight lane racetrack with mind-bending noise pollution to match.
On Sunday there was no traffic, the Champs Elysées was reserved for pedestrians and cyclists and a much calmer sound tapestry prevailed.
Journée sans Voitures – Champs Elysées:
Not only has the Mayor of Paris championed the city’s annual Journée sans Voitures, she has also backed a regular Paris Respire (Paris Breathes) day on the first Sunday of the month, with traffic cleared from the Champs Elysées and a number of surrounding streets.
And today it has been announced that le Conseil de Paris has approved the Mayor’s proposal to permanently close a 3.3 km stretch of la voie Georges-Pompidou on the Right Bank of la Seine to traffic and make it accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists.
Anne Hidalgo has called it a “décision historique, la fin d’une autoroute urbaine à Paris et la reconquête de la Seine.”
The proposal is not universally popular. The Left and the Ecologists on the City Council support the scheme but the Right are opposed to it.
Some argue that the Journée sans Voitures, Paris Respire, removing traffic from part of the banks of the Seine and other schemes to reduce airborne pollution are political stunts and have little tangible effect. I disagree.
Airborne pollution, whether from vehicle emissions or from noise, is a plague that affects us all. Paris may be taking small steps to alleviate the problem but in my view they are steps in the right direction.
The Sound Collector by Roger McGough:
A stranger called this morning
Dressed all in black and grey
Put every sound into a bag
And carried them away
The whistling of the kettle
The turning of the lock
The purring of the kitten
The ticking of the clock
The popping of the toaster
The crunching of the flakes
When you spread the marmalade
The scraping noise it makes
The hissing of the frying pan
The ticking of the grill
The bubbling of the bathtub
As it starts to fill
The drumming of the raindrops
On the windowpane
When you do the washing-up
The gurgle of the drain
The crying of the baby
The squeaking of the chair
The swishing of the curtain
The creaking of the stair
A stranger called this morning
He didn’t leave his name
Left us only silence
Life will never be the same
From All the Best – The Selected Poems of Roger McGough.
FOR THE LAST eight years I’ve been recording and archiving the contemporary soundscapes of Paris. Searching for and capturing the sounds of this city is a fascinating occupation; it has taught me how to listen attentively to the city, it has taken me to places I would never otherwise have visited and it has introduced me to some fascinating people I would have never otherwise have met.
But it’s done more than that. Aware that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, I am always thinking about the social, cultural and historical context of the sounds I find and that has taught me how to explore and appreciate the rich history, complexity and diversity that is Paris.
For example, on Saturday I was exploring the sounds at La Plaine de Saint-Denis on the northern outskirts of the city. Although Saint-Denis and neighbouring Aubervilliers are two of the poorest communes around Paris, La Plaine Saint-Denis has become a vast media city, home to TV giants like Euro Media, Endemol and the Parc E.M.G.P with it’s 12 television studios where some of France’s most popular TV programmes are made.
But had I not been exploring the soundscape around les plateaux de télévision I would never have discovered this:
This is a former station of the Chemin de Fer de la Plaine de Saint-Denis et d’Aubervilliers, part of a 15 km industrial railway network comprising 13 tracks of 200 to 250 meters each, opened by the Riffaud-Civet Company in 1884. The first wagons on this railway were pulled by horses.
And had I not been exploring the soundscape around La Plaine de Saint-Denis I would never have discovered this alien looking building:
This I discovered is the recently opened Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord, a research institute specialising in cultural industries, health and society, globalisation and contemporary cities.
I’ve made a note to seek permission to explore the sounds in the undergrowth at the base of this architectural spaceship.
Having made this foray to La Plaine de Saint-Denis in the far north of Paris, I decided to board Métro Line 12 and travel the 40-minute journey to Issy les Moulineaux on the southern outskirts of the city. There was continuity to my thinking because Issy les Moulineaux boasts more plateaux de télévision; it is home to the TV channels, Eurosport, the Canal + Group and France 24.
Like La Plaine de Saint-Denis, Issy les Moulineaux is a place I have visited before but never really explored.
On Saturday, the first thing I encountered was a statue of General (posthumously Maréchal) Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, or simply le maréchal Leclerc or just Leclerc as he’s best known. Leclerc and his 2nd Armoured Division liberated Paris in August 1944 and it was to Leclerc that the last commander of Nazi occupied Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered on 25th August.
Although Leclerc’s bust was the first thing I encountered when I arrived in Issy les Moulineaux, I would have missed it completely had I not been on my way to record the sounds of the fountain behind the Hôtel de Ville.
After a day’s walking, a bumpy 40-minute Métro ride across Paris (all of which I recorded for my Paris Soundscapes Archive) and several hours of concentrated listening I decided it was time for a visit to a café, the Comptoir d’Issy, for a coffee and well-earned rest.
But even there I couldn’t resist working. I just had to record the sounds in the Comptoir d’Issy to add to my already enormous collection of Parisian café sounds.
But while I was doing that I spied something that caught my imagination.
Sounds in the Comptoir d’Issy:
I know very little about clocks but my first impression was that this one on the wall of the Comptoir d’Issy looked rather like a station clock. Fortunately, there was a clue – the name Paul Garnier on the clock face.
I was anxious to know more so I consulted the lady who lives in my iPhone and in un clin d’œil she revealed that Jean-Paul Garnier, known as Paul Garnier (1801-1869), was a Horloger et Mecanicien a Paris, a Parisian watch and clock maker who, amongst many other things, provided all railway stations in France with station clocks!
Paul Garnier was a member of the French Society of Civil Engineers and also a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. He was honoured for his work on electromagnetic telegraph clocks and, in 1861, he was chosen by the French government to make proposals for the development of the watch industry. He donated his entire collection of watches and clocks to the Musée du Louvre where he has a room named after him. He died in 1869 and is buried in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.
The purpose of my expedition on Saturday was to explore the soundscapes in parts of Paris that I’ve visited but haven’t really explored before. I spent many hours listening and much less time recording. As I get older, I listen more and record less.
But exploring these unfamiliar soundscapes also inspired me to explore my surroundings and helped me to not only put the sounds into context but also to discover new things – things that I would probably never have discovered had it not been for the sounds that surround them.
THE TEMPLE DE LA SIBYLLE may not be the highest point in Paris but it does sit atop a man-made cliff fifty metres above an artificial lake in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Inspired by the Temple of Vesta near Rome, the Temple de la Sibylle is the central feature of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a park opened in 1867 for the recreation and pleasure of the rapidly growing population of the then new 19th and 20th arrondissements of Paris, which had been annexed to the city in 1860.
Situated close to the former Gibet de Montfaucon, the gallows and gibbet of the Kings of France where, up until 1760, the bodies of executed criminals were left hanging as a warning to the public, the site on which the Parc des Buttes Chaumont now stands became, after the 1789 Revolution, a refuse dump and then a place for cutting up horse carcasses and a depository for sewage.
Fascinating as this is, I will leave a more detailed exploration of the park with its former gypsum and limestone quarries, its temple, its lawns, its lake and its grotto for another time. In this post I want to explore something different.
For several years I’ve been visiting the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, partly because it’s a nice place but more importantly because it’s a place that has become a focus for a particularly challenging aspect of my work.
I record urban soundscapes, particularly the soundscapes of Paris, and I’ve learned a lot about how to record urban soundscapes by studying the philosophy, images and techniques of great photographers.
The best photographers seem to be able to condense wisdom into succinct sentences:
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
– Ansel Adams
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
– Robert Frank
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
– Robert Capa
Although the context of these quotations is of course photography they apply equally to sound recording and particularly to the recording of urban soundscapes.
Robert Capa’s dictum, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’, is especially relevant to my work. Key to recording urban soundscapes is to become part of the soundscape without changing the soundscape, in other words to get close to the sounds without changing the overall soundscape. Over the years, and after much trial and error, I’ve developed techniques for doing this.
But there remains a challenge in my urban soundscape recording work that is not covered by Robert Capa’s dictum, in fact it’s the antithesis of it, and it’s a challenge that I’ve been trying to address in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
This is the view over the 19th arrondissement from the Temple de la Sibylle on top of the cliff in the park. The lake is 50 metres below the Temple and the tower blocks in the distance are 1.5 km away.
Although my photograph is unlikely to win any prizes it does I hope reflect the prospect from the Temple de la Sibylle along the Avenue de Laumière to the tower blocks at La Villette. The picture has a sense of perspective with the lake and its surrounding path in the foreground, the road crossing from left to right and the start of the Avenue de Laumière in the centre, the tower blocks in the distance and the hill beyond in the far distance.
My challenge is: how to capture the soundscape associated with an image that took 1/250th of a second to make, which stretches from 50 metres below me to over 1.5 km ahead of me. In other words: how to capture in sound the elusive concept of perspective.
With today’s sophisticated technology it’s possible to manipulate sounds in post-production to create almost any effect you want. But despite all the gadgetry, perspective remains perhaps the only thing that cannot be created in post-production; it has to be captured on location in real time.
If you listen to wildlife recordings you will often hear wonderful examples of perspective captured in sound but capturing perspective in a busy urban environment is an enormous challenge.
Getting Things in Perspective:
This recording is a 20-minute sonic exposure of the scene looking out over the 19th arrondissement recorded from the edge of the cliff directly in front of the Temple de la Sibylle. Whereas Robert Capa’s dictum would require me to be close to the sounds, here I am doing the opposite – attempting to capture a sense of perspective by recording from a distance.
I chose to make this recording in the middle of a weekday afternoon – exactly the wrong time one might argue to achieve a ‘perfect’ recording. It would surely have been better to record at six o’clock in the morning as the area was waking up or at eleven o’clock at night as it was going to sleep. Well, apart from the fact that the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is closed at those times, it depends upon what one means by a ‘perfect’ recording.
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”, Ansel Adams tells us and, in the context of my work in Paris, ‘perfect’ recordings are a fuzzy concept. The Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be, so I try to make good recordings of course, but I’m much more interested in capturing reality than perfection.
Robert Frank suggests that, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks” – good advice that translates well to the world of sound recording. I usually describe myself as a ‘professional listener’ rather than a sound recordist. Time spent listening before pressing the ‘Record’ button is always time well spent.
While hearing is instinctive, listening is an art that has to be learned and while my recording from the Temple de la Sibylle may seem to be dominated by the ribbon of traffic passing across the centre of the scene, attentive listening will reveal much more.
People it seems are wedded to their motorcars so, like in most cities, traffic overwhelms most of the streets of this city. The Mayor of Paris is trying to alleviate this to some extent but I fear she is facing an uphill struggle. In the meantime, the sound of traffic will continue to dominate the Parisian soundscape and subjugate pedestrians to unacceptable levels of noise and noxious pollution. As I said earlier, the Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be!
But underneath the ribbon of traffic other sounds are fighting to be heard.
The sound of ducks in the lake below me can be heard throughout the piece, as can a distant church clock sounding three o’clock and an even more distant church bell chiming.
A testosterone fuelled young man makes an appearance to my right shouting to his friend on the far side of the park, there are the obligatory sirens, this time from the red ambulances of the sapeurs-pompiers de Paris, and in the far distance the very faint sound of a car alarm.
But perhaps the most surprising thing in the piece is one of the shortest and quietest sounds. It occurs twelve minutes into the piece and it’s the sound of an angler sitting on the bank of the lake fifty metres below me reeling in a fish. The sound only lasts for six seconds (it must have been a very small fish) so don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
This recording is one of many I’ve made from the hills in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont over the years attempting to capture the perspective looking out over the 19th arrondissement.
All the recordings are different but so far none of them have quite managed to capture the idyllic perspective I have in my imagination. Chasing that ideal continues to be a challenge – but that’s why it’s so endlessly fascinating.
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
– Elliott Erwitt
Judging an appropriate level to listen to sounds can be a tricky business. As a guide, the traffic at the head of the Avenue de Laumière was approximately 500 metres from my recording position so the level that you listen to these sounds at should reflect that. Less is more!
ORIGINALLY A FOCUS for celebrations in Belleville before that commune was consumed into the City of Paris in 1863, today’s Place des Fêtes in the 19th arrondissement stands in the midst of the experiment that was 1970s urbanism.
Surrounded by 1970s tower blocks, the Place des Fêtes is a large pedestrianised space, 200 metres long and 150 meters wide, occupied for three mornings a week by a popular outdoor market. At its centre is an obelisk created by the Hungarian artist, Zoltán Zsakó.
The obelisk stands on a granite base and is made mostly from translucent glass with bass reliefs surrounding the graffiti encrusted lower portion.
Although I have no idea what the artistic intent behind the obelisk is, it does have a practical purpose. It covers the emergency exit from the underground car park beneath the Place des Fêtes.
Another artistic feature of the Place des Fêtes is la fontaine-labyrinthe, the fountain-maze, created by another Hungarian artist, Marta Pan.
La fontaine-labyrinthe is one of the fountains to emerge from the 1978 competition to create seven contemporary fountains in different squares in Paris. Another winner of that competition was La Fontaine Stravinsky in the centre of the city featured in this blog one year ago.
Sounds in Place des Fêtes:
The sounds I recorded in the Place des Fêtes on a hot August afternoon included the sounds of energetic youths skateboarding and young children enjoying the final days of summer before returning to school on 1st September.
Relief from the 1970s concrete jungle can be found on the western edge of the Place des Fêtes in the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, a garden designed by the ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, Jean-Charles Alphand, who worked for Baron Haussmann and his renovation of Paris in the late 19th century.
The garden was opened in 1863 and redeveloped, along with the rest of the Place des Fêtes, in the 1970s.
Today, the garden honours the memory of Monseigneur Fernand Maillet (1896 – 1963), a parish priest born close by who, in 1924, took over the direction of the renowned boy’s choir, la manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de bois. In 1963 he founded la Fédération internationale des Pueri Cantores, an international association bringing together twenty-seven national choral associations on five continents.
It seems entirely appropriate that the centrepiece of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, the kiosque à Musique, or bandstand, reflects the musical association with Monseigneur Maillet.
At the eastern end of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet is a reminder of the garden in Alphand’s time, a nineteenth-century Wallace fountain.
This is not the classic large model fountain resting on an octagonal pedestal on which four caryatids are affixed with their backs turned and their arms supporting a pointed dome decorated by dolphins. This is the small model version, a simple pushbutton fountain that one can find in squares and public gardens across Paris and on a hot, late August day it was a fountain much in demand.