MANY PERIODS OF French history interest and fascinate me but perhaps none more so than the period between 1871 and 1914, years characterised by optimism, relative peace, economic prosperity, technological and scientific innovation and a flourishing of the arts – a period that became known as La Belle Époque.
The term La Belle Époque, which means little more than ‘the good old days’, wasn’t coined until much later when the period could be viewed through the prism of history. Although debate surrounds the precise dates used to define the period, 1871 to 1914 seem the most logical since La Belle Époque was sandwiched between two catastrophes, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the subsequent bloody events of the Paris Commune and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Set against these events, it’s easy to see how the intervening years came to be seen as a golden age.
Hanging on the wall of a gallery in the Musée Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris, is a painting that for me at least epitomises La Belle Époque.
Une Soirée au Pré Catelan (1909): Henri Gervex (1852 – 1929): Musée Carnavalet
Painted by Henri Gervex using oils on canvas, Une Soirée au Pré Catalan is 217 cm high and 318 cm wide and it depicts an evening scene at the prestigious Pré Catelan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne.
In 1905, the architect Guillaume Tronchet was asked by the City of Paris to build Le Pré Catelan, a luxury casino and restaurant. The casino didn’t materialise but the restaurant did. In 1908, the celebrated Parisian restaurateur, Léopold Mourier, owner of the restaurant Foyot, the Café de Paris, the Pavillon d’Armenonville and later Le Fouquet’s, bought Le Pré Catelan and made it one of the most fashionable places in town.
It was Léopold Mourier who commissioned Une Soirée au Pré Catelan, presumably to advertise just how fashionable a place Le Pré Catelan was.
So let’s take a closer look at the picture:
In the foreground we see a group of three people. The lady on the left in orange is Madame Gervex, wife of the painter.
The lady with her back to us is the celebrated American heiress and socialite, Anna Gould, daughter of the financier, Jay Gould. She was married to Paul Ernest Boniface de Castellane, elder son and heir apparent to the Marquis de Castellane. They divorced in 1906 after he had spent about $10 million of her family’s money. The gentleman in the group is Anna Gould’s second husband, Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Sagan, cousin of her first husband.
Inside the restaurant we see three more celebrated figures.
Seated at a table on the right is a rather portly gentleman looking directly at us. This is the Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion de Wandonne, pioneer of the French automobile industry. The Marquis and the engineers, Georges Bouton and Charles Trépardoux, formed a partnership in 1883, which became the De Dion-Bouton automobile company, once the world’s largest automobile manufacturer.
Seated at a table on the far left is the moustachioed figure of the Brazilian aeronaut, Alberto Santos-Dumont. He designed, built, and flew the first practical airship, demonstrating that routine controlled flight was possible. Following this pioneering work, Santos-Dumont constructed a heavier-than-air aircraft, the 14-bis. On 23 October 1906 he flew this to make the first verified powered heavier-than-air flight, certified by the Aéro Club de France and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
And seated at a table in the centre wearing a black hat and a coquettish countenance is Anne Marie Chassaigne, a former dancer at the Folies Bergère, now known as Liane de Pougy, a noted demimondaine and one of the most famous women in France at the time, constantly sought after by wealthy and titled men. Although we can’t see a companion we can assume that she’s not dining alone.
We can see three people leaving Le Pré Catelan.
One is Arthur Meyer, a French press baron. He was director of Le Gaulois, a notable conservative French daily newspaper eventually taken over by Le Figaro. With him are the Count and Countess Greffulhe who are about to get into their car.
Such was the fashionable clientele in Le Pré Catelan one evening in 1909.
Although now owned by Sodexo, the giant French food services and facilities management corporation (that’s a fancy way of saying they provide food and hire out meeting rooms), Le Pré Catelan under it’s head chef, Frédéric Anton, is still a very fashionable place. With three Michelin stars it’s among the best restaurants in Paris.
Today, from the outside, the restaurant is hidden from view behind a large hedge, presumably to deter the paparazzi but inside it remains pure Belle Époque.
Image: Le Pré Catelan
I’ve spent many hours looking at Une Soirée au Pré Catelan, absorbing the atmosphere of La Belle Époque. I can see the optimism in the faces of the Marquis de Dion and Alberto Santos-Dumont foretelling the day when the motor car and air travel will become common currency.
I can see the pride in the face of the Countess Greffulhe under her feathered hat knowing that she helped the artist James Whistler and actively promoted the artists Auguste Rodin, Gustave Moreau and Gabriel Fauré, who dedicated his Pavane to her. She is no doubt proud too that she was a patron of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and helped Marie Curie to finance the creation of the Institut du Radium and Edouard Branly to pursue his researches into radio transmission.
With my Belle Époque eye I can see that it would be perfectly normal for a rich socialite like Anna Gould, or a high-class courtesan like Liane de Pougy, or a press magnate like Arthur Meyer to be found at Le Pré Catalan. They were after all what we would now call ‘celebrities’ and after the ignominy of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the hiatus of the Paris Commune they were surely entitled to a little joie de vivre.
Maybe so, but La Belle Époque was never the reality of life in Paris or in France. There was a large economic underclass who never experienced much of the Belle Époque’s wonders and entertainments. Poverty remained endemic in Parisian urban slums for decades after the Belle Époque ended and the Dreyfus Affair exposed the dark realities of French anti-Semitism and government corruption. No wonder that some of the artistic elite saw the fin de siècle in a pessimistic light.
Today, a hundred years on from the end of the period we call La Belle Époque, Le Pré Catelan remains a preserve of the rich and famous. If you have to look at the prices on the menu then you shouldn’t be there.
But the gardens of Le Pré Catelan are free to all and it was while walking through the gardens that I had time to think and to contemplate how I could express Une Soirée au Pré Catelan not only in words but also in sound.
A simple water sprinkler gave me the answer … use the natural sounds recorded in the Musée Carnavalet sitting in front of the painting, morph to the natural sounds in and around the Jardin du Pré Catelan and then back again to the painting.
And this is the result.
Une Soirée au Pré Catelan:
Even though I bristle at the excesses of the rich and the plight of the economic underclass, both then and now, and although I’m very aware of the danger of slipping into an overly romanticised view of history, I remain fascinated by La Belle Époque. I’m quite sure I shall return to the Musée Carnavalet to contemplate Une Soirée au Pré Catelan and visit the Jardin du Pré Catelan many more times. I shall though leave my rose-tinted spectacles at home!
STEPPING OUT OF the Métro station La Chapelle in the 18th arrondissement it’s easy to forget that you’re in Paris.
Historically a working class area with a predominantly immigrant population, the Quartier de la Chapelle is lively and extremely cosmopolitan. A large Sri Lankan community together with smaller Turkish, Pakistani and Chinese communities as well as an influx over the last ten years or so of ‘bobos’ (a term coined by the American journalist David Brooks to describe a group of “highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success”) make La Chapelle a diverse and fascinating neighbourhood.
The Quartier de la Chapelle straddles the array of railway tracks entering both the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est and it is in rue Pajol, a street alongside the railway approaching the Gare de l’Est, that an impressive urban renewal project has been undertaken.
Originally known as rue de la Gare du chemin de fer de Strasbourg, the name rue Pajol was adopted in 1865 in honour of Général d’Empire Pierre Claude Pajol, a distinguished cavalry officer in Napoléon’s Grande Armée.
An interesting fact about rue Pajol is that in 1870, Joseph Meister and Marie-Angélique Sonnefraud married and settled at N° 22. In 1885, their nine-year old son, also Joseph Meister, was bitten by a rabid dog. He became the first person to be inoculated against rabies by Louis Pasteur and the first person to be successfully treated for the infection.
Today, the Hindu Temple de Ganesh de Paris Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam dedicated to Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, stands at the southern end of rue Pajol while at the northern end, adjacent to the railway tracks of the Gare de l’Est, is the impressive Halle Pajol, which opened early in 2014 after three years of construction work.
The Halle Pajol
Funded by the City of Paris and designed by JAP (Jourda Architectes Paris) led by Françoise-Hélène Jourda, the new Halle Pajol emerged from an old SNCF warehouse built in the 1920s but long since abandoned. The City of Paris bought the site in 2004 and earmarked it for redevelopment. The idea was to enhance the district by providing increased public amenities and improving the urban landscape through the creation of green spaces while preserving the architectural heritage of the original building.
What had become an unsightly piece of industrial archaeology has now been transformed into a centre for the community comprising the largest youth hostel in the capital, a library – the Vaclav Havel Library (named after the former President of the Czech Republic), offices, an auditorium, shops, a bakery and cafés.
The Halle Pajol
The Halle Pajol has been designed with sustainability in mind. Along with its elegant wooden frontage it produces its own electricity from 3,500 M2 of photovoltaic panels in the roof.
As well as the Halle Pajol itself, this urban development also includes some 9,000 M2 of green space. Named after the philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, the Rosa Luxemburg Gardens comprise covered and uncovered gardens stretching alongside the railroad tracks blending in with the surrounding landscape.
As with the Halle Pajol, ecology rhymes with economy. Almost all materials used in the gardens, the crushed tiles, the pavers and the rails, all come from the original building.
Under the Halle Pajol, a 2,500 M² covered garden provides a quiet space; a place to stroll and discover a variety of plant species including birch, cedar, wild flowers and aquatic plants. The garden is irrigated by rainwater collected on the roof.
The covered garden extends outside and includes play areas for children. Outside, the garden is covered with decontaminated soil to a depth of one metre and is planted with local species including pine, ash, mountain ash and flowering cherry.
Alongside the rail tracks, two plots of 100 M2 kitchen gardens have been established and made available to neighbourhood associations. Local residents can go there and grow flowers or vegetables.
In addition, small plots are available for children to create their own gardens.
The sounds outside and inside the Jardin Rosa Luxemburg:
In the north, the garden follows the topography leading pedestrians by successive slopes out onto rue Pajol and rue Riquet.
In the last few weeks a 1,010 M² extension to the Jardin Rosa Luxemburg has been opened with two lawns and a wooden playground suitable for children from 3 to 8 years, which includes a giant wooden elephant, giraffe and crocodile.
Sadly, the award-winning architect and driving force behind the Halle Pajol and the Jardin Rosa Luxembourg, Françoise-Hélène Jourda, passed away on 31st May 2015.
This post is dedicated to her memory.
OPENED IN JANUARY 1825 as la Cimetière des Grandes Carrières (Cemetery of the Large Quarries), Montmartre cemetery was built in the hollow of an abandoned gypsum quarry previously used during the French Revolution as a mass grave. Located near the beginning of Rue Caulaincourt in Place de Clichy its sole entrance was constructed on Avenue Rachel under Rue Caulaincourt.
Avenue Rachel looking towards the entrance to Montmartre cemetery
Halfway between the traffic-strewn Place de Clichy and the fin de siècle Moulin Rouge cabaret, the Avenue Rachel may be a calm and reassuringly quiet street today but in February 1847 this street was lined with hundreds of people gathered to mourn the passing of a French courtesan and mistress to a number of prominent and wealthy men. Charles Dickens was there and reported, “One could have believed that she was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so deep was the general sadness.”
Today, her body lies entombed in the cemetery’s 15th Division. Few flowers adorn the tomb and even the picture once attached to the front of it has gone. It seems that she has been abandoned.
The tomb as it is today
The tomb as it once was: Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Many will know her as Marguerite Gautier, the main character in La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, or as Violetta Valéry, the leading soprano character in Guiseppi Verdi’s opera La Traviata but few will remember her for who she really was, Alphonsine Plessis, who died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three.
Alphonsine Plessis: Portrait by Édouard Viénot
Alphonsine Rose Plessis was born on 15th January 1824 at Nonant-le-Pin in Normandy. She was the daughter of Marin Plessis, an alcoholic who offered her to men from the age of twelve. At the age of fifteen she moved to Paris where she found work in a dress shop and by the time she was sixteen she had become aware that prominent men were willing to give her money in exchange for her company in both private and social settings. One of her suitors, Agénor, son of Duc de Guiche, took care of her education and turned her into a well-mannered lady. By now she preferred to be called Marie and she also added the faux noble “Du” to her name making her Marie Duplessis.
Watercolour of Marie Duplessis at the theatre, by Camille Roqueplan
By the age of twenty, Alphonsine Plessis or Marie Duplessis as she now preferred, had reached the height of the Parisian demi-monde. She was taken up by the elderly and very wealthy Comte de Stackelberg, a former Russian ambassador to Vienna. He kept her in high style, paying her bills, importing her carriage horses from England, and providing boxes in the best theatres in Paris. She was briefly married to one of her lovers, the French nobleman, Count Édouard de Perregaux, as a result of which she became the Comtesse de Perregaux.
Her apartment on the elegant boulevard de Madeleine was filled with 18th-century furniture, paintings, silks and her modest collection of 200 books. Here, many of the brilliant minds of France gathered at her dinner parties, including Honoré de Balzac, Theophile Gautier, and Alexandre Dumas, fils. For almost a year, between September 1844 and August 1845, Alphonsine was the mistress of Alexandre Dumas, fils and then, towards the end of her life, she is believed to have become the mistress of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt, who reportedly wished to live with her.
Alexandre Dumas, fils, was so enamoured of Alphonsine that he based his romantic novel, La Dame aux Camélias, on her. The novel appeared within a year of her death. In the book, Dumas became ‘Armand Duval’ and Alphonsine ‘Marguerite Gautier’. Dumas also adapted his story as a stage play, which in turn inspired Verdi’s opera La Traviata.
Poster for the world premiere of La Traviata
In both Alexandre Dumas’ book and in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera the heroine’s death is described as an unending agony during which she is abandoned by everyone and can only regret what might have been.
In real life, Alphonsine died from what is now called tuberculosis but was then called consumption, a disease that in the nineteenth century accounted for one in four deaths. She was aged twenty-three. Within a few weeks of her death her belongings were auctioned off to pay her enormous debts.
Despite her appalling start in life, Alphonsine aspired to make her way in ‘society’. She became one of the nineteenth century’s grandes horizontales, courtesans who were able to maintain lavish lifestyles and who influenced the dress and tastes of cultured women while inspiring other pretty but poor young women with high ambitions.
She was a popular courtesan with a catalogue of lovers and was not shy about taking advantage of their wealth and position to enhance her own status. She hosted a salon where politicians, writers, and artists gathered for stimulating conversation, she rode in the fashionable Bois de Boulogne, she attended opera performances and had her portrait painted.
But, despite her apparent success, just like Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias and Violetta in La Traviata, Alphonsine died abandoned, regretting what might have been.
I’ve been fascinated by Alphonsine Plessis for a very long time. My first reading of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias captivated me and Verdi’s La Traviata can reduce me to tears in the blink of an eye. Both of course are fictions inspired by Alphonsine Plessis but both I think capture the essence of this ultimately tragic young woman.
Standing beside Alphonsine’s tomb in Montmartre cemetery the other day I decided to produce something to convey my fascination with Alphonsine Rose Plessis:
Alphonsine Plessis – Montmartre Cemetery:
Placing microphones around the foot of Alphonsine’s tomb I recorded the ambient sounds on a sunny summer afternoon. I then added the sounds of the ‘Fantasia sur La Traviata’ composed by Pierre Agricol Genin and played by two exceptional musicians, Barbara Hill on flute and Laurie Randolph on guitar. For those familiar with La Traviata, this music depicts the life and death of Violetta, and by extension, of Alphonsine Plessis. The subdued ambient sounds provide both a contemporary context and echoes of the past, they are after all the sounds that Alphonsine hears and has heard every day lying in this place.
My especial thanks to Barbara Hill for permission to use this recording of ‘Fantasia sur La Traviata’.
Poster for a performance of the theatrical version of La Dame aux Camélias, with Sarah Bernhardt (1896)
IN MARCH THIS YEAR I published a blog piece about the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, the botanical garden set within a large greenhouse complex at the southern edge of the Bois de Boulogne.
In that piece I recounted how these gardens, first established in 1761 under Louis XV, are under threat because of plans by the Fédération Française de Tennis to extend the neighbouring Roland Garros international tennis complex into the south east corner of the gardens. This extension, if it goes ahead, will include the demolition of the nineteenth-century Jean-Camille Formigé greenhouses to make way for a new, semi-sunken, tennis court with seating capacity for 5,000 spectators.
At the time of writing my last piece about the gardens the Paris City Council had just unanimously adopted a resolution that a further study into an alternative plan proposed by local residents associations and supporters of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil should be conducted by an independent organisation so that the Paris City Council could debate and then vote on it.
But now, things have moved on again.
Last Wednesday, despite the unanimous resolution of the Paris City Council, the French Prime Minister, Manual Valls, issued a statement instructing Ségolène Royal, the French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, to sign the Permis de Construire, the building permit required before work on the Roland Garros extension can proceed. So far, Ségolène Royal has not done so.
On Sunday afternoon, as Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic were locking horns on the Philippe Chatrier court in the Men’s Final of the French Open Tennis Championship at Roland Garros, friends and supporters of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil were making their voices heard at the entrance to the gardens on the avenue de la porte d’Auteuil.
I went along to offer my support and I was able to speak to Madame Lise Bloch-Morhange, Speaker of the Comité de Soutien des Serres d’Auteuil, the lead opposition group to the proposed extension. This is what she told me:
The recently opened Fondation Louis Vuitton, the privately financed modern art gallery designed by Frank Gehry, has, with government acquiescence, encroached on to what was supposed to be an environmentally protected part of the northern Bois de Boulogne. The government claims to have conceded to the choice of site because of the prestige the gallery brings to the city.
In the southern Bois de Boulogne the Fédération Française de Tennis claims that retaining the prestigious French Open Tennis Championship at Roland Garros depends upon extending their facilities and that the only credible plan is to extend into the Jardin des Serres. In addition, France intends to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games and it is claimed that, as part of that bid, an extended Roland Garros is essential.
Undoubtedly, a Frank Gehry designed modern art gallery, the French Open Tennis Championships and the Olympic Games are smothered in prestige, probably adding millions if not billions to the economy. But one is surely entitled to ask, at what cost?
Imagine a desecrated Jardin des Serres with a semi-sunken tennis court with seating capacity for 5,000 spectators standing empty and completely unused for fifty weeks of the year. The cost of that would not be measured in millions or billions of Euro’s but in a more intangible and equally important currency, what the French call patrimoine, our heritage, the value of which lies in our hearts not in our pockets.
My thanks to Lise Bloch-Morhange for taking time out of her very busy afternoon to stop and record these comments.
HAVING BEEN IN hospital recently for surgery to replace my portable life support system with a newer model I thought I would take this opportunity to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Soundlandscapes’ Blog by posting something close to my imperfect heart.
For the last seven years or so I’ve been recording and archiving the sounds of Paris, the agglomeration of individual sounds which, when woven together, form the sound tapestry that surrounds our everyday lives in this city. When people ask me what I do I usually say that I’m a professional listener, or that I’m a flâneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris observing through active listening.
My sound work in Paris is influenced to a large degree by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century street photographers including, but not confined to, the work of Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Brassaï. Eugène Atget for example created a tremendous photographic record of the look and feel of nineteenth-century Paris just as it was being dramatically transformed by modernisation while the others featured the human condition in public places. I’ve learned a lot about recording the sound tapestry of Paris from studying the work and techniques of these photographers.
While these great photographers certainly influence my work the inspiration to begin my detailed exploration and documentation of the contemporary sound tapestry of Paris came from a different source, the French novelist, essayist, and filmmaker, Georges Perec.
Georges Perec 1936 – 1982
Georges Perec was born on 7th March 1936 in Belleville in the east of Paris, the only son of Polish Jewish parents who had emigrated to France in the 1920s. Both his parents died during WWII, his father from untreated wounds whilst serving in the French army and his mother in Auschwitz.
Adopted by his parental aunt and uncle in 1945, Georges went on to study history and sociology at the Sorbonne, he spent a year in the army as a parachutist, got married and then took up a job as an archivist in the research library at the Neurophysiological Research Laboratory at the Hôpital Saint-Antoine, a job he retained until four years before his untimely death at the age of 45.
Georges Perec’s talents ranged from writing fiction to compiling crossword puzzles for Le Point to creating the longest palindrome ever written to working in radio and making films. In 1965 his first novel Les Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties) won the prix Renaudot and in 1978 his most acclaimed novel, La Vie mode d’emploi (Life a User’s Manual) won the prix Médicis and finally brought him financial and critical success.
Perec was a member of Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians devoted to the discovery and use of constraints to encourage literary inspiration. One of their most famous products was Perec’s own novel, La disparition (A Void), written entirely without the letter “e.”
Journaux Place St Sulpice : [photographie] / [Atget]
Just over eight years ago I emerged from a Parisian hospital after an uncomfortably close brush with death. Having been given a second chance in life’s lottery I was in need of a new challenge … but what?
The answer came unexpectedly. Browsing around a musty second-hand bookshop one day I came upon a small French book, just sixty pages or so, written by Georges Perec, someone I’d never heard of. Scanning through it my first impression was that it was a journal of some sort, lists of what seemed like random observations. I was curious so I bought it for next to nothing. As I left the bookshop I could never have imagined what an impression this little book would have on me and how it would fundamentally shape my work in Paris.
The book is called, Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien, published in English as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, and it’s a collection of observations that Georges Perec wrote down as he sat in Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The point of these observations was to record “ce qui se passe quand il ne rien se passe”, what is happening when nothing is happening.
For three consecutive days in October 1974, Georges Perec flitted from one café to another in Place Saint-Sulpice recording everything that passed through his field of vision. Rather than describing impressive or notable things such as the architecture, he describes all the things that usually pass unnoticed.
In Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien Perec begins by setting the scene:
Il y a beaucoup de choses place Saint-Sulpice, par exemple : une mairie, un hôtel des finances, un commissariat de police, trois cafés dont un fait tabac, un cinéma, une église à laquelle ont travaillé Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni et Chalgrin et qui est dédiée à un aumônier de Clotaire II qui fut évêque de Bourges de 624 à 644 et que l’on fête le 17 janvier, un éditeur, une entreprise de pompes funèbres, une agence de voyages, un arrêt d’autobus, un tailleur, un hôtel, une fontaine que décorent les statues des quatre grands orateurs chrétiens (Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier et Massillon), un kiosque à journaux, un marchand d’objets de piété, un parking, un institut de beauté, et bien d’autres choses encore.
But it’s the last paragraph that outlines his intention:
Un grand nombre, sinon la plupart, de ces choses ont été décrites, inventoriées, photographiées, racontées ou recensées. Mon propos dans les pages qui suivent a plutôt été de décrire le reste : ce que l’on ne note généralement pas, ce qui ne se remarque pas, ce qui n’a pas d’importance : ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien, sinon du temps, des gens, des voitures et des nuages.
My rough translation :
Many, if not most, of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, recounted or recorded. My purpose in these pages was instead to describe the rest: what one generally does not notice, that which does not matter: what happens when nothing passes but time, people, cars and clouds.
Georges Perec made his observations while sitting in three cafés facing the Place Saint-Sulpice, the Tabac Saint-Sulpice, the Café Fontaine Saint-Sulpice and the Café de la Mairie. When he got tired of one he would move to another. Today, only the Café de la Mairie remains.
Café de la Mairie, 8, Place Saint-Sulpice
The other day I went to the Café de la Mairie with my second-hand copy of Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien. I took a seat outside by the door and turned to one of Georges Perec’s entries for 18th October 1974:
La date : 18 octobre 1974
L’heure 12 h. 40
Le lieu Café de la Mairie
Plusieurs dizaines, plusieurs centaines d’actions simultanées, de micro-événements dont chacun implique des postures , des actes moteurs , des dépenses d’énergie spécifiques : discussions à deux , discussions à trois, discussions à plusieurs : le mouvement des lèvres, les gestes , les mimiques expressives
modes de locomotion : marche, véhicule à deux roues (sans moteur, à moteur), automobiles (voitures privées, voitures de firmes, voitures de louage, auto-école), véhicules utilitaires, services publics, transports en communs , cars de touristes
modes de portage (à.la main, sous le bras , sur le dos)
modes de traction (cabas à roulettes)
degrés de détermination ou de motivation attendre , flâner , traîner , errer , aller, courir vers, se précipiter (vers un taxi libre, par exemple), chercher , musarder, hésiter, marcher d’un pas décidé
positions du corps : être assis (dans les autobus , dans les voitures , dans les cafés, sur les bancs)
être debout (près des arrêts d’ autobus , devant une vitrine (Laffont, pompes funèbres), à côté d’un taxi (le payant)
Trois personnes attendent près de l’arrêt des taxis. Il y a deux taxis, leurs chauffeurs sont absents (taxis capuchonnés)
Tous les pigeons se sont réfugiés sur la gouttière de la mairie.
Un 96 passe. Un 87 passe. Un 86 passe. Un 70 passe. Un camion « Grenelle Interlinge » passe.
Accalmie. Il n’y a personne à l’arrêt des autobus .
Un 63 passe. Un 96 passe
Une jeune femme est assise sur un banc, en face de la galerie de tapisseries « La demeure » elle fume une cigarette.
Il y a trois vélomoteurs garés sur le trottoir devant le café.
Un 86 passe. Un 70 passe.
Des voitures s’engouffrent dans le parking
Un 63 passe. Un 87 passe.
Il est une heure cinq. Une femme traverse en courant le parvis de l’église .
Un livreur en blouse blanche sort de sa camionnette garée devant le café des glaces (alimentaires) qu’il va livrer rue des Canettes.
Une femme tient une baguette à la main
Un 70 passe (c’est seulement par hasard, de la place que j’occupe, que je peux voir passer, à l’autre bout, des 84)
Les automobiles suivent des axes de circulation évidemment privilégiés (sens unique , pour moi, de gauche à droite) ; c’est beaucoup moins sensible pour les piétons : il semblerait que la plupart vont rue des Canettes ou en viennent.
Un 96 passe.
Un 86 passe. Un 87 passe. Un 63 passe
Des gens trébuchent. Micro-accidents.
Un 96 passe. Un 70 passe.
Il est une heure vingt.
Retour (aléatoire) d’individus déjà vus : un jeune garçon en caban bleu marine tenant à la main une pochette plastique repasse devant le café
Un 86 passe. Un 86 passe. Un 63 passe.
Le café est plein
Sur le terre-plein un enfant fait courir son chien (genre Milou)
Juste en bordure du café, au pied de la vitrine et en trois emplacements différents, un homme, plutôt jeune, dessine à la craie sur le trottoir une sorte de « V » à l’intérieur duquel s’ébauche une manière de point d’interrogation (land-art ?)
Un 63 passe
6 égouttiers (casques et cuissardes) prennent la rue des Canettes .
Deux taxis libres à l’arrêt des taxis, un 87 passe
Un aveugle venant de la rue des Canettes passe devant le café ; c’est un homme jeune, à la démarche assez assurée.
Un 86 passe
Deux hommes à pipes et sacoches noires
Un homme à sacoche noire sans pipe
Une femme en veste de laine, hilare
Un autre 96
(talons hauts : chevilles tordues)
Une deux-chevaux vertpomme.
I haven’t included the full entry for this particular observation session but you can see from this extract, whether you understand French or not, that Georges Perec is what one might call a contra-flâneur; he sits still and observes as the world moves by. Incidentally, the numbers that he lists are the numbers of the buses that pass and, as I could see for myself the other day, buses with the same numbers still pass.
From the time I first discovered it, Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien made a huge impression on me. I could immediately see how Georges Perec’s detailed observations of everyday life, his quest for the infraordinary: the humdrum, the non-event, the everyday “what happens when nothing happens” could be replicated equally compellingly in sound. That revelation inspired me to begin my own observations of Paris, detailed observations of the city through its intricate and multi-textured sound tapestry.
Because Georges Perec inspired me to undertake my exploration of Paris in sound I couldn’t possibly have left the Café de la Mairie without making my own infraordinary observations of the Place Saint-Sulpice.
‘Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien’ in sound:
From my contra-flâneur’s seat outside the Café de la Mairie, probably a seat once occupied by Perec himself, I recorded my own Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien, ‘what is happening when nothing is happening’, which is both my homage to Georges Perec and my ‘Thank You’ to all the loyal visitors to Soundlandscapes’ Blog who have supported me over the last five years and who inspire me to continue with this work.
FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to a bridge in the centre of Paris adjacent to the Palais du Louvre, the Pont du Carrousel.
Connecting the Quai des Tuileries on the Right Bank to the Quai Voltaire on the Left Bank the reinforced concrete bridge we see today is the second bridge to bear the name Pont du Carrousel.
Pont du Carrousel looking upstream
Construction of the first bridge, originally called Pont des Saints-Pères, began in 1831. With the work completed the bridge was inaugurated in 1834 by King Louis-Philippe. It was renamed Pont du Carrousel because on the Right Bank it faced the Palais du Louvre near to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Place du Carrousel, a public square located at the open end of the courtyard of the Palais du Louvre.
The Place du Carrousel was the site of the Palais des Tuileries, the Parisian residence of most French monarchs from Henry IV to Napoleon III until it was burnt down during the Paris Commune in 1871.
The name, Place du Carrousel, dates back to 1662 when Louis XIV used this space for equine displays of military dressage known as a carrousel, which is why many of today’s fairground carousels still feature horses.
On a more gruesome note, during the French Revolution Place du Carrousel was one of the homes to Madame Guillotine. From 21st August 1792 until 11th May 1793, with two short interruptions, thirty-five people were guillotined in Place du Carrousel.
Pont du Carrousel looking downstream
The first Pont du Carrousel, built on an axis connecting the Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare railway stations, was the creation of the French engineer, Antoine-Rémy Polonceau. In the 1830s many Parisian bridges were suspension bridges but in such a prestigious location the use of the towers and cables associated with a suspension bridge was unacceptable and so Polonceau designed a 169 metre long and 11.5 metre wide three-arched bridge made of iron and wood.
At each corner of the bridge he erected classic style stone allegorical sculptures by Louis Petitot representing Industry, Abundance, The City of Paris and The Seine.
By the turn of the century the Pont du Carrousel was showing its age. Seven decades of continuous use meant that a major restoration was required. In 1906 the wooden elements, including the wooden deck, were replaced with beaten iron but this was not enough to secure the long-term survival of the bridge. As the twentieth century progressed it became clear that the Pont du Carrousel was too narrow to cope with the increasing flow of traffic over the bridge and too shallow for the larger river traffic to pass underneath it and so drastic action was required.
In 1930 it was decided to scrap the first Pont du Carrousel and to build a completely new bridge a little further downstream opposite the gates to the Louvre.
The task of designing the new bridge fell to the French architects Gustave Umbdenstock and Georges Tourry and the French engineers Henri Lang and Jacques Morane. A draft design was presented in 1932, the work was authorised by a decree of the State Council of 26 August 1933 and the final green light to proceed was given on May 23, 1935.
The new bridge retained the three-arch design of the first bridge but this time it was made from reinforced concrete.
Apart from the original allegorical sculptures by Louis Petitot which were retained, perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the new bridge are the réverbères télescopiques, the Raymond Subes designed telescopic lamps that adorn the bridge.
A graduate of l’École Boulle and l’École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs, Raymond Subes was one of most celebrated French artists specialising in wrought iron during the Art Deco period. His lighting for the bridge, set up in 1946, comprised an ingenious system of telescopic lamps rising from 13 metres in the daytime to 20 metres at night. Unfortunately, the telescopic mechanism broke down shortly after commissioning but it was successfully restored in 1999.
The Palais du Louvre from on the Pont du Carrousel
In my Paris Bridges Project I’m not only looking to explore the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, I’m also trying to seek out the characteristic sounds of each bridge and trying to identify any sounds that might be unique to each bridge.
My exploration of the sounds of the Pont du Carrousel began on the bridge.
Sounds on the Pont du Carrousel:
The view from my recording position on the Pont du Carrousel looking downstream
It is sometimes said that the sound of traffic exists only to blight the work of the urban field recordist and after years of recording urban soundscapes in Paris I have some sympathy with that view. But I also recognise that the sound of traffic is an integral part of every city soundscape so it would be disingenuous if my exploration of the Pont du Carrousel did not feature the sounds of the traffic passing over it. After all, the sounds of the traffic passing over the pavé on this bridge are as much a part of the fabric of the bridge as the reinforced concrete it’s made from.
After recording the sounds on the bridge I went to explore the sounds under it. An archway on the Right Bank led me under the bridge from where I found a position from which to record.
Sounds under the Pont du Carrousel:
My recording position under the Pont du Carrousel
From here I was not only able to capture the characteristic sounds under the bridge, the tourist boats passing along la Seine and the sounds of people passing under the bridge, but also the sounds of a creaking pontoon permanently tethered to the quai alongside the bridge – the unique sounds of the Pont du Carrousel.
THE AREA TO THE EAST of Bastille, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was traditionally a working class neighbourhood with a focus on craft industries. Its proximity to the Seine with its plentiful supply of wood saw the area develop into an important centre for the furniture industry, which it still is today.
Many of the skilled craftsmen didn’t work in the main streets preferring instead to set up their workshops in the plethora of small, cobblestone, passageways leading off the main thoroughfares. Many of these passageways survive today and some still accommodate skilled craftsmen.
A set of double doors at N°26 rue de Charonne lead into one of these surviving passageways, the Passage l’Homme.
Stretching for 122 metres the Passage l’Homme is lined with ateliers on the ground floor with apartments above. In prime position close to the entrance is an amazing toyshop.
Further along the passage is the atelier of Alain Hollard whose family firm was established here over a hundred years ago. He specialises in a traditional craft long associated with this part of Paris, Vernissage au Tampon, known in English as French polishing.
For me, the most striking thing about the Passage l’Homme is not the sights, delightful though they are, but the sounds.
Sounds in the Passage l’Homme:
Sandwiched between rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, rue de Charonne and l’avenue Ledru-Rollin the Passage l’Homme is surrounded on all sides by busy streets awash with heavy traffic and yet deep inside the passage a curious calm prevails. Such sounds as there are represent life being lived in the street uncluttered for the most part by noise pollution and so each sound seems to take on an extra significance.
Just as Eugène Atget would have set up his large-format wooden bellows camera to photograph this place a hundred years ago, I set up my microphones half way along the passage and with a much longer exposure time than Atget would have used I pressed ‘record’ and walked away leaving the microphones to capture the scene.
Occasional birdsong, the clatter of lunchtime crockery, anonymous footsteps and distant conversation paint the canvas upon which the more prominent sounds can shine. A young lady collects a large sheet of artwork from the graphic designer’s office and rolls it up as she leaves, doors open and close, two French middle-aged men busily clicking their cameras walk by, the apartment gardien emerges and sits on a step taking a phone call, someone whistles, a young child in a buggy passes by proclaiming something obviously very important to the world and Monsieur Hollard returns from his lunch, unlocks the door to his atelier and goes inside to continue with his vernis au tampon.
In the bustling streets of Paris noise pollution is a constant companion and quiet places are hard to find. That’s why I find it so refreshing to visit the Passage l’Homme. For sure, it’s an interesting place to see but it’s so much more interesting to listen to. In this verdant corner of the city the noise pollution subsides and the ordinary sounds of everyday life take centre-stage. Like a fine wine these sounds deserve to be savoured and enjoyed.
NOW A CULTURAL CENTRE hosting trade fairs, exhibitions, music festivals and open-air cinema screenings, La Grande Halle de la Villette at the southern end of the Parc de la Villette once hosted events of a very different kind.
The French architects Jules de Mérindol and Louis-Adolphe Janvier designed this enormous cast iron and glass structure covering an area of 20,000 square metres. Construction work began in 1865 and the building was opened in 1867. When it opened it was known as the Grande Halle aux Bœufs (the Great Hall of Cattle), which gives the clue as to its original use.
Far from being the cultural centre it is today, the Grande Halle aux Bœufs was a huge abattoir despatching some 4,500 cattle per day to feed the population of Paris.
La Grande Halle aux Bœufs: Photograph by Charles Marville (1816 -1878). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. Image courtesy of Paris en Images
La Villette, in the northeast of the city, was the place Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann chose to relocate the abattoirs and meat markets forced out of the centre of the city as he embarked upon the major redevelopment of Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Quite soon La Villette became known as la Cité du Sang (the City of Blood) but it also became as much part of the ‘Belly of Paris’ as the wholesale fresh food market in Les Halles characterised so well by Émile Zola in his novel Le Ventre de Paris.
The Grande Halle aux Bœufs survived as a working abattoir until 1974 when it was closed and its activities moved to Rungis, a commune in the southern suburbs of Paris in the département of Val-de-Marne. The wholesale fresh food market at Les Halles had moved to Rungis some three years earlier. The Marché d’Intérêt National de Rungis is the large wholesale food market serving the Paris metropolitan area and beyond and it is said to be the largest food market in the world.
The City of Paris ceded the land at La Villette and its management to the French government and in 1979 l’Etablissement Public du Parc de la Villette was created to restore and manage the 55-hectare site. The Grande Halle aux Bœufs became a monument historique.
In 1982 the Parc de la Villette was included in François Mitterrand’s Grand Projets and Bernard Reichen and Philippe Robert (Reichen et Robert & Associes) were selected to restore the Grande Halle aux Bœufs. The work was completed in January 1985 and the Grande Halle aux Bœufs was renamed La Grande Halle de la Villette. Another renovation was carried out in 2005 – 2007.
Walking under the main canopy at the front of la Grande Halle is like walking back in time. By the mid-nineteenth century the Renaissance tradition of architecture had lost its appeal and Parisians needed something to symbolise a new era. Two new opposing technologies, delicate glass and sturdy iron, used in combination provided a breathtaking solution. Glass and iron symbolised the new era of modernity and progress and these materials began to be used extensively in new structures across the city.
Nothing symbolised the age of modernity more than the coming of the railways and in 1859, Jacques Ignace Hittorff constructed an innovative railway station, the Gare du Nord, using glass and iron as the main materials. In the 1860s, department stores such as the La Belle Jardinière and Le Bon Marché began to use glass and metal in the construction of their exteriors. Victor Baltard’s glass and iron pavilions at the wholesale food market at les Halles and Henri Labrouste’s sumptuous reading room at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève are other fine examples of the use of glass and iron in large scale building projects.
Underneath the canopy of la Grande Halle de la Villette is a specially constructed dance floor often used by students from the neighbouring Conservatoire de Paris, a prestigious college of music and dance founded in 1795. In the roof above are other regular visitors who help to shape the sound tapestry of this building.
Sounds under the canopy of la Grande Halle de la Villette:
Outside La Grande Halle is a fountain, La fontaine aux lions de Nubie.
Designed by the French mathematician and engineer, Pierre-Simon Girard, the man responsible for the planning and construction of the Canal de l’Ourcq, this fountain was originally located in the centre of Paris in Place du Château d’Eau, now Place de la République. When the Grande Halle aux Bœufs was opened in 1867 the statue was moved here and served as a water trough for the cattle before they met their fate.
In its heyday la Grande Halle aux Bœufs stood at the centre of the Marché aux Bestiaux de la Villette, the enclave of abattoirs and meat markets that helped to feed Paris. It was built using the new technology of glass and iron in combination, a concept that some at the time would have no doubt have found controversial.
Today, this glass and iron structure has survived to stand within a stone’s throw of another new and very controversial building, the long-delayed and over-budget Philharmonie de Paris, the city’s new, state-of-the-art, concert hall.
The Philharmonie de Paris
Considered by some to be an architectural jewel and by others a rusty spaceship crash-landed on the edge of the city, the Philharmonie de Paris stands cheek by jowl with la Grande Halle de la Villette, each in their time symbols of modernity and progress.
IT HAS BECOME a tradition that on the first day of May each year sweet scented sprays of Lily of the Valley (Muguet in French) are sold on the streets across France as a symbol of springtime and good luck.
Amidst the sprays of Lily of the Valley on sale everywhere in Paris yesterday another tradition was playing out.
La Fête du Travail was the name given to several festivals that originated from the eighteenth century onwards to celebrate the achievements of workers. In France, la Fête du Travail merged with International Workers’ Day, a day originally established in the late nineteenth century as an annual day of protest to demand the eight-hour working day. Today, La Fête du Travail and International Workers Day are celebrated on May 1st and the day is a national public holiday.
In Paris it has become traditional for people representing the two extremes of the political spectrum to use the May 1st public holiday to take to the streets to make their voices heard.
On the morning of May 1st, the Front National representing the political far right hold their annual défilé from the Palais Royal to Place de l’Opéra pausing in Place des Pyramides to pay homage at the foot of Emmanuel Frémiet’s gilded statue of Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orléans and heroine to the far right. In the afternoon an assorted collection of organisations representing the far left gather in Place de la République and march along the Boulevard Voltaire to Place de la Nation.
For the past three years I’ve recorded the Front National event on May 1st rather than the event at République because, given the rise of Marine le Pen as Président of the Front National and the party’s increasing popularity with the French electorate, it seemed to me that this was likely to be the more newsworthy event.
This year though I decided it was time to redress the balance and forsake the Front National in favour of the far left manifestation on the other side of the city.
The manifestation beginning in Place de la République was jointly organised by the French Trades Unions, CGT (Confédération générale du travail), FSU (Fédération syndicale unitaire), Solidaires (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques) and l’Unsa (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes).
From the plethora of literature handed out along the route I was able to deduce that there were two main themes to the manifestation:
First, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on January 11th this year, democracy, peace and freedom of thought and expression are common goods that must be defended against all forms of totalitarianism, hate speeches, stigma and attempts to divide.
And second, against a background of austerity measures and reforms reducing workers’ rights and social protection in many European countries, these policies must be reversed and investment made in quality jobs and growth.
Sounds of le défilé de la Fête du Travail :
After many years of recording sounds in Paris I like to think that I’ve developed a journalist’s nose for a good story, or at the very least for being in the right place at the right time. But this year I’m afraid I got it wrong, the little spray of Lily of the Valley in my pocket failed to bring me good luck.
While standing in the rain for three hours recording this manifestation passing me in Boulevard Voltaire I was completely unaware that the news story of the day had already taken place elsewhere, at the Front National défilé at Place de l’Opéra!
During Marine le Pen’s speech there earlier in the day three bare-breasted women appeared on the balcony of a nearby hotel. The women from the Femen activist group unfurled banners linking the Front National’s logo with the Nazi party and had “Heil Le Pen” and “Stop Fascism” written across their chests. For five minutes, they drowned out Le Pen’s speech using a bullhorn.
I was particularly disappointed when I discovered what had happened, not because I have any affection for Marine le Pen and the Front National or that I’d missed seeing the topless women, in fact I’d seen them before when I was recording the International Women’s Day march in Paris a few weeks ago. No, my disappointment came from the realisation that I’d completely missed capturing an historic sound event that would have been a priceless addition to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
I am reminded of the great American poet, Maya Angelou, who in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I’m afraid that the sounds of the disruption at yesterday’s Front National rally are and are destined to remain my untold story.
I CAN STILL REMEMBER it very clearly. It was June 2nd, 1953, Coronation day. That day’s newspaper headlines told us that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had conquered Everest and in London, Queen Elizabeth II was to be crowned amid great pomp and ceremony.
As a small boy, Mount Everest and indeed London, despite being only 150 miles from where I lived, seemed to me to be so far away that I found it difficult to imagine either. I can though remember thinking that the conquest of Everest seemed to be much more exciting than a coronation.
As part of the celebrations to mark the Queen’s coronation we had a street party with lots of flags and bunting and, despite Britain still being in the grip of post-war rationing, there was more food on the tables spread along the centre of the street than I’d ever seen.
Also as part of the celebrations a travelling fair came to town and during the afternoon of Coronation day I was taken to it. The fair was set up in a field and right in the centre of the field was something the like of which I’d never seen before – a fairground carousel, or as we called them in those days, a merry-go-round. The brightly painted wooden horses suspended from twisted gold-painted poles bobbed up and down as they went round and round and gales of laughter from excited children and music from a mechanical organ in the centre of the carousel filled the air. The sights and sounds of this incredible spectacle thrilled me and I can remember asking myself, ‘Why can’t every day be Coronation day?’
Over the sixty or so years since that day I’ve learned much more about Hillary and Tenzing’s ascent of Everest and I’ve learned more about the Queen’s coronation but I’ve never lost my sense of childish wonder at that magical carousel. Perhaps because of that sense of wonder no other carousel has had quite the same impact on me as the one I saw on Coronation day.
Living in Paris though means that I’m not short of carousels to see.
The first carrousels (carrousel is French for carousel) appeared in France in the second half of the nineteenth century and soon became highly popular with Parisians. Today, the modern carrousels look very similar to the original ones.
In Paris there are carrousels in the collection at the Musée des Arts Forains at Cour Saint-Émilion in the 12th arrondissement as well as others scattered across the city. Perhaps the most visited of these, not least because of its location, is the Carrousel de la Tour Eiffel.
Sounds of the Carrousel de la Tour Eiffel:
Whilst small children may look at carrousels with a sense of wonder, for their owners carrousels are a business.
The original Carrousel de la Tour Eiffel was set up by Roger Alliot in 1986 directly across the street from the Tour Eiffel, the city’s most visited attraction. After occupying this lucrative location for twenty years, Monsieur Alliot received an eviction notice from the Paris city authorities claiming that the carrousel was there illegally and they had a court judgement to back their claim. Much wrangling ensued and the carrousel stayed until the cranes eventually arrived to demolish it piece by piece.
Shortly after Monsieur Alliot’s eviction another carrousel appeared to take its place. Behind this was the celebrated showman Marcel Campion. He, with the assistance of the engineer Pascal Pouzet, modified an existing carrousel and installed what is hailed as the first ‘green’ carrousel in Paris consuming it is claimed up to twelve times less energy than a conventional carrousel.
Although this carrousel still uses traditional power this is supplemented by the use of solar panels, photo-sensors and pedal power. The horses and some of the other vehicles on the carrousel are equipped with pedals that turn a wheel, which in turn generates energy. For those who do not ride the carousel, there are several positions with recumbent bikes off to the side that to help generate the power.
This carrousel comes at a price of course. It is reported to have cost some €700,000 to build and install, considerably more than a conventional carrousel. It’s likely to take some time to recoup this investment especially without increasing ticket prices relative to other Parisian carrousels, although the prestigious location at the foot of the Tour Eiffel helps.
Unlike Monsieur Alliot’s carrousel, it seems that this carrousel is deemed to be legal. The owners were granted a ten-year concession in return for a fee payable to the Paris city authorities of 20% of turnover, some 12% higher than previously. With an estimated revenue of more than €1 million per year that seems like a nice little earner for the city.
Sitting by the Carrousel de la Tour Eiffel and recording its sounds on a beautiful spring day in 2015, I couldn’t help being transported back to Coronation day in 1953. Back then ‘renewable energy’, the ‘Tour Eiffel’ or the machinations of Parisian city politics would have been as completely beyond my understanding as Mount Everest or even London.
But sharing the delight of small children seeing a carrousel for the first time was a powerful reminder of my memories of the same experience although, unlike me back in 1953, they were also able to savour the majesty of the Tour Eiffel.