AFTER A VISIT TO PARIS in the early 1950s to record everyday sounds of the city, the pioneering sound recordist Ludwig Koch said, “There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris”. For the last ten years or so I’ve been working to record and archive the Parisian atmosphere in sound that Ludwig Koch found so entrancing.
The Parisian urban soundscape is a complex mixture of intricately woven sounds ranging from the spectacular, to the ordinary, everyday sounds around us – the sounds we all hear but seldom stop to listen to, and although I find the Parisian soundscape endlessly fascinating there are two aspects of it that particularly interest me. The first is how the soundscape changes as one moves from the centre of the city to the periphery and the second is how the soundscape changes over time.
Walking from the city centre to the periphery while listening attentively to the surrounding soundscape one can trace not only the city’s physical history but also its social, cultural and political history. For example, the sounds one hears in the centre of the city, in the Champs Elysées, Place Vêndome or Avenue Montaigne lets say, are very different to those one will hear in the rue de Belleville in the east of the city. The sounds of conspicuous consumption emanating from high-end luxury goods emporia and exclusive haute-couture fashion houses in the former stand in stark contrast to a sub-Saharan street market, a Moroccan café or a Chinese supermarket in the latter.
Observing how the city’s soundscape changes over time is important because it gives an insight into the contemporary changes in the social, cultural and political landscape. For example, over the last ten years I’ve recorded many Parisian street demonstrations covering a wide range of issues representing a range of social concerns and political sentiments. Those concerns and sentiments often change over time so by listening to the recordings it’s possible to follow changes in the contemporary social, cultural and political history of the city.
There are many examples of how changing sounds reflect a changing social, cultural and political landscape so I will use one current example to illustrate the point. This I think is a really good example because it’s a hot topic in Paris at the moment.
The story begins 1966 with the then French President, Georges Pompidou.
Georges Pompidou was the French Prime Minister from 1962 to 1968 and then President of France from 1969 until his death in 1974. He was a lover of the automobile and he argued that a freeway should replace the grass-covered banks of the Seine by saying: “les Français aiment leurs bagnoles” (the French love their motors).
On March 27, 1966, the decision was made that the existing roadways along the Seine should be connected to create a continuous expressway along the banks of the river through the centre of Paris. The Voie Georges Pompidou (George Pompidou Expressway) was completed in 1967, and runs along the right bank of the Seine for 13 kilometres from the Porte du Point-du-Jour in the south-west to the Porte de Bercy in the south-east.
Fortunately, there was only room on the riverbank for a two-lane expressway; Pompidou actually wanted to cover the Seine with concrete to create room for an even wider expressway but the environmental movement and others managed to put a brake on that and any further freeway expansion in Paris.
In 2014, as part of my Paris Bridges Project, I went to the Pont Marie, one of the thirty-seven bridges crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits, to record the sounds on, under and around the bridge for my Paris Soundscapes Archive. I discovered that Georges Pompidou’s Expressway ran underneath the arch of the Pont Marie on the right bank of la Seine.
One didn’t have to be an expert in urban soundscapes to realise that the incessant stream of traffic passing under the bridge would impact the soundscape both under and around the bridge.
The Georges Pompidou Expressway from on top of the Pont Marie on the right bank of la Seine in 2014
Let’s scroll forward now to September 2016 when the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, signed a decree on behalf of the Paris City Council banning motor vehicles from a 3.3 km section of the berges de la rive droite, the right bank of the Seine, stretching from the tunnel at the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre to the Henri IV tunnel near the Bastille, transforming it into a park for pedestrians and cyclists. The Paris City Council debate on the matter was quite contentious but Anne Hidalgo won the day declaring the “end of the urban motorway in Paris and the reconquest of the Seine”.
In 2002, Paris began closing a section of the right bank of the Seine to create a temporary summer beach complete with real sand and sun loungers and in 2013, Anne Hidalgo pedestrianised a 2.5 km section of the left bank.
By comparing the soundscape around the Pont Marie both before and after the 2016 decree we can assess the impact that politics has had on this part of the Parisian environment.
This was the scene from under the right bank arch of the bridge in 2014:
And this was the scene from the same place earlier this week:
And now let’s listen to the sounds of the Pont Marie from the berges de la rive droite in 2014.
Pont Marie from the right bank in 2014:
And from the same place in March 2018.
Pont Marie from the right bank in 2018:
I think the sounds from 2014 speak for themselves: incessant passing traffic creating excessive noise pollution quite possibly having a debilitating effect on our hearing as well as our mental and physical health – not to mention the noxious emissions to the atmosphere.
A political decision in 2016 though has created a completely different sonic environment. Now, the sound of traffic can still be heard from the Quai de la Hôtel de Ville above and behind the right bank, from the roadway on the Pont Marie and from the quai on the left bank opposite, but now the sound of the traffic has become part of the sonic environment rather than dominating it. The sounds that feature now are sounds that could not be heard from the same place in 2014: children’s voices, footsteps, the swish of passing bicycles, the sonic footprint of a passing Batobus, not to mention two Gendarmes on horseback. This part of the right bank has become a completely different sonic experience.
So, was the decision led by the Mayor of Paris to pedestrianise this part of the right bank a good thing?
Anne Hidalgo sees it as part of a comprehensive policy to reduce the number of cars in Paris, one spin-off of which should be a reduction in the amount of noxious emissions added to an already over polluted Parisian atmosphere. The use of diesel engines is already restricted in central Paris and a low-emission zone bans trucks on weekdays.
Although not an expert in atmospheric pollution, I do know something about noise pollution, which is broadly described as unwanted sound that either interferes with normal activities such as sleep or conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life. Excessive traffic and construction work are the major contributors to noise pollution in central Paris, although the construction work is often at least temporary.
It can be argued of course that noise is subjective and we are conditioned by our culture as to how much noise we consider acceptable. If you want to explore more about this I recommend R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World.
For some reason, noise pollution seems to get less attention than atmospheric pollution even though we know it affects our psychological and physiological health and our behaviour.
I hope my examples show that, what ever else it’s done, the pedestrianisation of this part of the right bank has much reduced the noise pollution and generally enhanced the sonic environment.
So, the decision to pedestrianise this part of the right bank is a good thing then?
Well, not everyone agrees. Motorist groups vehemently opposed both left and right bank road closures, accusing the city’s socialist administration of a vendetta against drivers.
Pont Marie from the right bank of the Seine
In February this year, the tribunal administratif de Paris annulled the Paris City Council’s September 2016 decree saying that the decree had been adopted “after a public inquiry drawn up on the basis of an impact study” that “contained inaccuracies, omissions and deficiencies as to the effects of the project on automobile traffic, atmospheric pollutant emissions and noise pollution, which is key data for evaluating the general interest of the project”. The Mayor of Paris immediately launched an appeal and shortly after, signed another decree re-designating this stretch of the right bank a car-free zone.
This debate is much wider than it seems. It’s really a debate that, as France 24 put it, “pits pedestrians against motorists, urbanites against suburbanites, and left-wingers against conservatives, all battling under a hail of studies advancing curiously contradictory traffic, noise and pollution data at the service of competing agendas.”
So much for politics!
I would like to leave you with one other sound from the right bank of the Pont Marie, a sound that simply could not be heard before the 2016 decree.
The second arch of the bridge on the right bank includes a pedestrian walkway and walking through this archway now it’s actually possible to hear the sounds of the river, sounds that were completely subsumed by traffic noise in 2014.
Pont Marie under the pedestrian arch:
Whatever the fate of the berges de la rive droite turns out to be, I hope I’ve shown that a changing soundscape can provide a commentary on the social, cultural and political events of the day.
IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN, the Christmas market season, and yesterday, on a very chilly Saturday, the Christmas market at the bottom of my little street opened for business.
Twenty-eight wooden chalets bedecked with local and regional artisanal products stretch from the parvis of the Hôtel de Ville to the local church. Small it may be but it’s an intimate and friendly local Christmas market.
Amidst its wooden chalets, and the ever-present Père Noël, the market also boasts a variety of street entertainers, always a great attraction to both children and adults alike.
Yesterday, the street entertainment included a swing jazz band, Le Quartet Swing Connection, along with Lombardi, a concertina-playing clown on stilts.
I went along to the market yesterday to look at the stalls but also to record the street entertainers to add to my collection of Parisian Christmas Market sounds. As well as capturing the sounds of the jazz quartet I was also lucky enough to capture Lombardi the clown singing to the children.
Swing jazz and a fluttering bird:
Lombardi’s song was À la volette, a traditional French children’s song that first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century.
The song is about a little bird that takes flight and flutters its way to an orange tree (referring to a bird, À la volette means to flutter, or to flap). The bird lands on a branch in the orange tree, which breaks and the bird falls to the ground breaking its wing and injuring its foot. When asked if he can look after himself the bird says that he just wants to heal himself and flutter back to the orange tree and get married.
There are various versions of the song and yesterday Lombardi gave a slightly truncated version although the story is quite clear.
After the song, Lombardi teases out from the children the name of the instrument he’s playing: a con – cer – ti – na!
And, of course, let’s not forget Le Swing Connection and their afternoon playing swing jazz.
ONE OF THE STRANDS in my Paris Soundscapes Archive focuses on the bridges of Paris and their sounds. There are thirty-seven bridges crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits and I’m recording the sounds on, under and around each of these bridges for my archive. From time to time I share the sounds and some of the history of the bridges I’ve explored on this blog.
Taking advantage of the beautiful Indian summer that Paris has enjoyed recently, I’ve been to explore another Parisian bridge, the Pont de Sully.
The Pont de Sully links the 4th arrondissement on the Right Bank of the Seine with the 5th arrondissement of the Left Bank along the line of the Boulevard Henry IV.
Although regarded as one bridge today, the Pont de Sully originally comprised two quite separate bridges, with each meeting on the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis.
Pont de Sully: Linking the Right and Left Banks by crossing the Île Saint-Louis
A royal decree in March 1836 authorised the building of the two original bridges: the Passerelle Damiette linking the Quai des Célestins on the Right Bank to the Quai d’Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis and the Passerelle de Constantine linking the quai de Bethune on the Île Saint-Louis to the quai Saint-Bernard on the Left Bank. Both bridges were suspension bridges built at a cost of 380,000 Francs. This cost was to be recouped by charging tolls. A twenty-year concession to operate both bridges was awarded to a Monsieur de Beaumont.
The Passerelle de Constantine
Neither bridge was to survive for very long.
The Passerelle Damiette was severely damaged in February 1848 during the revolution that resulted in the abdication of Louis-Philippe and the proclamation of the Second Republic and the Passerelle de Constantine collapsed in 1872 after its suspension wires were eaten away by corrosion.
The collapse of the Passerelle de Constantine
Work began on the current Pont de Sully in 1874 as part of the Haussmannian renovation of Paris. Named after the minister to Henry IV, Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully (1560-1641), the Pont de Sully was designed by the engineers Paul Vaudrey and Gustave Brosselin. The bridge was opened in March 1876.
Although it only has one name, today’s cast iron and stone Pont de Sully is in fact two bridges and, like their predecessors, each one rests on the eastern end of the Île Saint-Louis.
Pont de Sully from the Right Bank towards the Île Saint-Louis
The northern, Right Bank section of the bridge comprises a 42 metre cast iron central arch supported by two 15 metre semi-circular masonry arches.
Pont de Sully from the the Île Saint-Louis towards the Left Bank
The southern, Left bank section comprises three cast iron arches of 46 metres, 49metres and 46 metres.
Both the Right and Left Bank sections of the bridge rest on masonry foundations and abutments and the piles rest on concrete poured into bottomless caissons down through the sand and silt to the solid limestone below.
I began my sonic exploration of the Pont de Sully in a rather precarious position under the Right Bank section of the bridge.
Building a sonic portrait of a bridge takes time and usually involves several visits. Just as photographers wait for the light, so it is when hunting for sounds; one is always waiting for just the right atmosphere to capture the moment. On previous visits I had captured the sounds of boats passing under the bridge but always one at a time with long gaps in between and with a gusting wind deflecting the sounds.
On my final visit though the Gods were with me. I took up my position, the conditions were ideal and for the next twenty minutes a flotilla of boats passed me in pretty close formation. It is most unusual for this many boats to pass along la Seine more or less together but it was a case of just being in the right place at the right time I guess.
Pont de Sully – Sounds under the bridge:
Towards the end of the twenty minutes though I was treated to a cops and robbers drama with a police car with its siren wailing passing along the Quai Henry IV above and behind me and a police dinghy speeding under the bridge ahead of me, both heading in the same direction and both obviously intent on spoiling someone’s day!
Separating the two arms of the 256 metre long and 20 metre wide Pont de Sully at the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis is the Square Barye, a 2,975 m2 espaces verts écologiques, originally opened in 1938. It’s ecological credentials date from 2007. The square is named after the French painter and sculptor, Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875).
The Square Barye
It was from this square that I was able to descend a stone staircase and then, after pausing to admire the Autumn leaves, walk to the south-eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis, mid-way between the two sections of the bridge and as close to the water as it’s possible to get without getting one’s feet wet. It was from here that I was anxious to collect some more sounds.
While the sounds of passing boats are interesting, what I find even more interesting is the sonic footprint they leave behind. From the very tip of the Île Saint-Louis I was in a perfect place to capture that footprint.
From my vantage point I looked out over la Seine towards the Pont de Bercy and behind it, the low-slung French Finance Ministry building. It is here, between the Pont de Sully and the Pont de Bercy, that the tourist boats end their upstream voyage along the Seine. They approach through the southerly part of the Pont de Sully, turn round in mid-stream and then return through the northerly section of the bridge.
I set up my microphones on the tip of the Île Saint-Louis and began recording.
Sounds of the sonic footprints:
For the first half of this recording you can hear the boats passing upstream on my right and the sound of the gentle waves from their wake arriving at my microphones. The boats then turn ahead of me and begin to travel downstream on my left.
At 6’ 20” into the recording I began to hear a curious repetitive sound, rather like the sound of a steam engine. This was a sound I’d never heard before. I’m very used to recording the sound of the large Bateaux Mouches as they pass but this time, as the boat turned, for a brief moment it headed straight towards me and as it did so it generated this curious sound. The sound disappeared as the boat realigned and aimed for the northern arch of the Pont de Sully, but there was much more to come from the Bateaux Mouches. 8’ 00” into the recording its unmistakeable, dominating sonic footprint began to arrive at my feet and it continued to do so long after the Bateaux Mouches had passed under the bridge.
On my several visits to the Pont de Sully I recorded many more sounds on, under and around the bridge, but the sounds I’ve featured here, the sounds of a flotilla of boats passing under the northern arch and the sounds of the sonic footprints at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis, seem to me to be the best sounds to describe this Parisian bridge.
I SPEND QUITE A LOT of time in churches, especially Parisian churches.
I am interested in church architecture, I’m fascinated by the history of individual churches and I enjoy exploring the sounds of churches. One strand of my Paris Soundscapes Archive is dedicated to the sounds of Parisian churches. I have a particular interest in the work of the master organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and the organs he built for Parisian churches and while I’ve made many recordings of these Cavaillé-Coll organs I also record the ambient sounds in churches, especially when they’re empty. In my experience, there are no silent churches in Paris: even without services taking place, without the organ playing and with no people, there are still sounds. It’s as though the very fabric of each church speaks to the attentive listener.
Apart from weddings and funerals (more of the latter than the former these days unfortunately) I seldom go to churches other than to explore their architecture, history and sounds. Imagine my surprise then when, thanks to a confluence of interests, I found myself, despite not being of the Roman Catholic persuasion, attending a Roman Catholic mass yesterday morning.
The twin-spired Église Saint Jean-Baptiste de Belleville has been on my Parisian church exploration ‘to-do’ list for some time. It was built between 1854 and 1859 in the neogothic style by the architect Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus, an expert in the restoration and recreation of medieval architecture, and it replaces a chapel built in 1543 and the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste church dating from 1635.
Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville was one of the first churches in Paris to be built in the neogothic style, which in itself was a good enough reason to visit it, but the fact that it also has a two-keyboard Cavaillé-Coll organ dating from 1863 was an added attraction.
One of the things I knew about the church was that Edith Piaf, the French cabaret singer, songwriter and actress, was baptised here on the 15th December 1917.
It was this confluence of interests: the neogothic l’église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville, a Cavaillé-Coll organ, my enthusiasm for Edith Piaf, in my view one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, together with the sound-rich environment of Belleville that brought me to this place yesterday morning where, to commemorate the 54th anniversary of her death, a Messe à la memoire d’Edith Piaf took place in the church supported by Les Amis d’Edith Piaf.
During the Mass the organ played and, of course, I had to record it for my archive. From my recording I’ve produced the following sound piece of some of the music played, which illustrates some of the voices and textures of the Cavaillé-Coll organ and gives a flavour of the Mass itself.
The Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville:
The piece opens with the full-throated Entrée. The tone changes for the next piece, the music for the Offertoire. Then comes the music for the Communion, an improvisation on “Non, je ne regrette rien”, a French song originally composed by Charles Dumont, with lyrics by Michel Vaucaire, always associated with Edith Piaf’s 1959 recording of it. The Sortie comprises a short organ piece followed by the lady herself singing “Hymne à l’amour” for which she wrote the words and Marguerite Monnot the music.
The organ was played by Laurent Jochum, organiste titulaire des grandes orgues Cavaillé-Coll de l’église Saint-Jean Baptiste de Belleville et de l’orgue de la Chapelle du collège et lycée Saint-Louis de Gonzague à Paris.
I am old enough to remember listening to Edith Piaf on the radio and I can remember her funeral bringing Paris to a standstill being headline news. For some of her short life she lived just round the corner from where I live now.
Sitting in the church yesterday morning next to the font where she was baptised and with her voice echoing around the church, it seemed ironic that, because of her lifestyle, the Catholic Church denied her a funeral mass when she died – they branded her ‘a categorical sinner’. Instead, her coffin was carried through the streets of Paris to be buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery with only a token blessing.
It was only on 10th October 2013, fifty years after her death, that the Roman Catholic Church gave her a memorial Mass in l’église Saint Jean-Baptiste in the parish in which she was born.
I don’t propose to document the life of Edith Piaf here; a quick search of Edith Piaf on Google will tell you much of what you need to know about her.
What I can say is that it is said she was born on the steps of N° 72 rue de Belleville on 19th December 1915. Her birth was registered at the Hôpital Tenon, next to what is now Place Edith Piaf in the 20th arrondissement, under the name Edith Giovanna Gassion.
In 2013, a statue of Edith Piaf, known as l’Hommage à Piaf, created by the French sculptor, Lisbeth Delisle, was inaugurated in the Place Edith Piaf.
Following yesterday’s Mass in Belleville I went to Place Edith Piaf to take in the atmosphere. I found a street market in full swing with some sounds that Edith herself might have been familiar with.
Sounds in Place Edith Piaf:
I couldn’t possibly end my own hommage to Edith Piaf yesterday without visiting her grave in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise.
She died on 10th October 1963 at the age of 47. Denied a funeral mass by the Catholic Church, some 10,000 people came to the cemetery to witness the interment of La Môme Piaf (‘The Little Sparrow’).
Edith Piaf was interred in the same grave as her father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion, and Theophanis Lamboukas, (Théo Sarapo), whom she married in 1962. She is buried next to her daughter, Marcelle, who died of meningitis at the age of two.
Of the 70,000 graves in the Cimetière Père Lachaise, Edith Piaf’s remains one of the most visited.
From the sounds of the Cavaillé-Coll organ in l’église Saint Jean-Baptiste and the bustling sounds of the street market in Place Edith Piaf, I couldn’t leave the cemetery without recording the sounds of the relative stillness surrounding Edith Piaf’s grave.
Like the fabric of an empty church, cemeteries speak to the attentive listener.
The sounds around Edith Piaf’s grave:
“Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.”
“Je ne me repends pas de m’être livrée à l’amour.”
(“I do not repent having given myself up to love.”)
Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux
THE ‘END OF THE LINE’ STRAND in my Paris Soundscapes Archive is dedicated to the sounds I capture in and around each terminus station on the Paris Métro system. From time to time I will share the atmosphere of some of these terminus stations and their surroundings on this blog.
In my last ‘End of the Line’ post I explored in and around the Métro station Les Courtilles, the branch of Paris Métro Line 13 terminating in the northwest of Paris. Today, I will share with you my exploration in and around Métro station Château de Vincennes, the easterly terminus of Paris Métro Line 1.
Opened in 1900, Métro Line 1 was the first Paris Métro line to be opened although it was shorter then than it is now. Today, it runs for 16.5 km from La Défense in the west of the city to Château de Vincennes in the east and well over half a million people use it each day making it the busiest line on the Paris Métro system.
In 2007, work began to convert the line from being manually driven to becoming a fully automatic, driverless, operation. The work was completed in 2011 and involved the introduction of new MP 05 rolling stock and the erection of platform edge doors in all stations.
I recorded my arrival at Château de Vincennes station, a ride up a creaky escalator, a walk across the station concourse, up another escalator and out into the street above.
Arrival at Château de Vincennes:
Both the name of the station and a display in the station concourse give us a clue to at least one thing we might find outside.
Vincennes is a commune in the Val-de-Marne department in the eastern suburbs of Paris. As well as its famous castle, the Château de Vincennes, once home to French Kings, Vincennes is also known for the adjacent 995 hectare (2,459 acres) Bois de Vincennes, the largest public park in Paris, a zoo, the Paris Zoological Park, a botanical garden, the Parc Floral de Paris, and a large military fort once used as a proving ground for French armaments. Vincennes is also home to the Service Historique de la Défense, which holds the archival records of the French Armed Forces.
A short walk from the Métro station I discovered the Cours Marigny, a promenade between the Château de Vincennes and the Hôtel de Ville undergoing a makeover due to be completed in the Spring of 2018.
In the town square I found a display of old photographs showing Vincennes as it once was.
But in Vincennes, town and crown sit cheek by jowl so the château is never far away.
The Château de Vincennes is a massive former French royal fortress, which originated as a hunting lodge constructed for Louis VII around 1150 in the forest of Vincennes. In the 13th century, Philip Augustus and Louis IX, King of France from 1226 until his death during the eighth crusade in 1270, erected a more substantial manor.
King Louis IX – Saint Louis, outside the Château de Vincennes
By the 14th century, the Château de Vincennes had expanded and outgrown its original site. With the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, it became as much a fortress as a family home. Philip VI added a donjon, or fortified keep, which at 52 meters high was the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe at the time. The grand rectangular circuit of walls was completed in about 1410.
The donjon served as a residence for the royal family and its buildings are known to have once held the library and personal study of Charles V. In 1422, seven years after his victory at Agincourt, Henry V of England died in the donjon from dysentery, which he had contracted during the siege of Meaux.
By the 18th century, the Château de Vincennes had ceased to become a practical fortress. Instead it became home to the Vincennes porcelain manufactory, precursor to the Sèvres porcelain factory, and the keep became a prison housing such distinguished guests as the Marquis de Sade, Diderot, and the French revolutionary, the Comte de Mirabeau,
Sounds around the Métro station Château de Vincennes :
To capture the ‘End of the Line’ atmosphere around the Métro station Château de Vincennes I recorded while sitting on a green bench alongside the wall and the moat on the western side of the château, close to one of the Métro entrances and even closer to the donjon and its bell tower. The sounds are the everyday sounds of this leafy part of Vincennes, including the chiming of the donjon bell.
In his book, Nairn’s Paris, a unique guide to Paris published in 1968, the British architectural critic, Ian Nairn, has a particular view about the Château de Vincennes:
“The château must be one of the most bad-tempered collections of buildings in the world, full of the prose of containment without any of the poetry of castellation. The vast medieval curtain-wall is opened out at the south end, towards the Bois, with grumpy classical buildings by Le Vau: on the north side there is the entrance tower, and brooding over the whole cross-grained mixture is the fourteenth-century donjon, which they say is the tallest in Europe; five huge storeys, surrounded by its own curtain-wall. Inside, the tall rooms, each heavily vaulted from a single pillar, give away nothing more than the facts of incarceration, if anything reinforced by the Gothic ribs and corbels that are familiar from less gloomy places. It is no illusion: Vincennes has a grim record and the tiny ill-light cells are still there to prove it.
One final view, the only soft thing at Vincennes: the eastern side of the moat, choked with big trees, Nature at last getting its own back on man. But the town that has grown up opposite this wicked uncle is as different as could be – a kind of French Aldershot. Vincennes has many barracks, some of them still inside the walls, and France has compulsory military service. Across the road from the château is a bus terminus, the end of a Métro, a line-up of cheerful cafés, and a considerable variety of, cheerful, cheap, not very good meals.”
Nairn’s Paris by Ian Nairn – Penguin Books (1968)
Just for clarification: For those not familiar with it, Aldershot, to which Ian Nairn refers, is a garrison town in the south of England, and France no longer has compulsory military service. The bus terminus, the end of the Métro and the line-up of cheerful cafés are still there and, although not as cheap as they were, some of the meals at least have improved!
IF YOU’VE READ Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables you will have read Hugo’s fictional account of the June Rebellion or the Paris Uprising of 1832, the last outbreak of violence linked with the July Revolution of 1830.
Général Jean Maximilien Lamarque had been a French commander during the Napoleonic Wars and had served with distinction in many of Napoleon’s campaigns. But following the July Revolution of 1830 he had become a leading critic of the new constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo views Lamarque as the government’s champion of the poor. He says that Lamarque was “loved by the people because he accepted the chances the future offered, loved by the mob because he served the emperor well”. Hugo portrays Lamarque as an emblem of French pride and honour.
In 1832, a cholera epidemic spread across France and Lamarque fell victim to it. He died on 1st June. Because of his status as a Republican and Napoleonic war hero, his death provided the spark that led the revolutionaries to take to their barricades.
On the 5th and 6th June 1832, Paris saw two bloody days of rioting with the Société des amis du peuple, la Société des droits de l’homme, students, craftsmen and labourers playing a principal part. But as early as the evening of 5th the Army and the National Guard had begun to suppress the uprising. By the following day fierce fighting centered on the last remaining pocket of resistance in the Rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri beside the Église Saint-Merri, but this too was finally suppressed.
Over the two days of the uprising some 800 people were killed or wounded.
Rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri
The rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri dates from the 12th century. It was originally called Rue de la Porte Saint-Merri, because it was next to l’Arche Saint-Merri, a 10th century gate through the second wall to encircle Paris.
By the 14th century, the street had become one of many streets in Paris noted for its prostitutes; at least it was until the parish priests of Saint-Merri demanded, not altogether successfully, that they be expelled.
Today, rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri runs for 132 metres from rue du Renard to rue Saint-Martin. For much of its length it runs alongside the northern side of the Église Saint-Merri.
At its junction with rue Saint-Martin, the rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri ends with a small square noted for its ever-changing street art.
It was around this small square that some of the bloodiest fighting of the Paris uprising took place, and it was here that I chose to sit on a bench partly to reflect on the events of 1832 and partly to absorb the elaborate 16th century gothic architecture of the Église Saint-Merri standing next to me.
For someone wired up like me it’s impossible not to contemplate history without conjuring up images of the sounds associated with that history. What would this place have sounded like I wondered in June 1832, or when the Église Saint-Merri was in its Middle-Ages pomp, or even when rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri was a 14th century rue aux ribaudes?
Unfortunately, from my Parisian green bench my imagined historical sounds were overwhelmed by the contemporary sounds around me – 16th century stonemasons replaced by 21st century Chinese building contractors.
Sounds around l’ Église Saint-Merri:
If you make it to the end of this sound piece you will discover that at least a flicker of the Parisian revolutionary spirit still survives: a lone voice of protest is heard as the whining of the weapon of mass construction reappears.
Although the Église Saint-Merri we see today dates from the mid-16th century, its roots go much further back.
Tradition has it that Medericus, abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Martin d’Autun, came to live as a hermit in a hut near the Saint-Pierre-des-Bois oratory which stood on the site of the present church. He is said to have died in August 700 and was buried there. He was later canonised and renamed Saint-Médéric.
In 884, Goslin, the bishop of Paris, had Médéric’s remains exhumed and laid to rest in the Saint-Pierre-des-Bois oratory, which now became the Saint-Médéric chapel. It was at this time that Saint-Médéric became the patron saint of the Right Bank.
Over time, the name Médéric was contracted to Merri, which is why the Église Saint-Merri and the rue du Cloitre-Saint-Merri are so named.
Today, the remains of Saint-Médéric still rest in the crypt of the church.
In the early 10th century, a new church, Saint-Pierre-Saint-Merri, was built at the instigation of Eudes Le Fauconnier. Styled as a ‘Royal Officer’, it is possible that this was the same Eudes Le Fauconnier who took part in the defence Paris during the Viking siege in 885-86.
During the rebuilding of the church in the sixteenth century, the skeleton of a warrior was discovered together with boots of gilded leather and the inscription:
“Hic jacet vir bonæ memoriæ Odo Falconarius fundator hujus ecclesiæ”.
Which, based upon my schoolboy Latin, means something like:
“Here lies Eudes Le Fauconnier, of fond memory, founder of this church”.
The present day Église Saint-Merri was built between 1515 and 1612. The crypt, the nave and the aisles date from 1515-1520, the transept crossing from 1526-1530 and the choir and the apse were completed in 1552.
Some restoration work was carried out in the 18th century; some of the broken arches were repaired, the floor was covered with marble and the stained-glass windows were partly replaced by white glass.
During the French Revolution the church was closed for worship and was used to make saltpetre, one of the constituents of gunpowder. From 1797 to 1801, Theophilanthropists made it a “Temple of Commerce”. Theophilanthropists were a deistic society established in Paris during the period of the Directory aiming to institute in place of Christianity, which had been officially abolished, a new religion affirming belief in the existence of God, in the immortality of the soul, and in virtue.
The church was returned to the Catholic worship in 1803.
Sounds inside the Église Saint-Merri:
The northern aspect of the Église Saint-Merri and the bell tower
Image par Mbzt — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13660170
The bell-tower was built with three floors in 1612 but, following a fire in 1871, it was reduced to two floors. This bell tower houses the oldest bell in Paris dating from 1331.
The Choir Organ
The Église Saint-Merri has two organs, a choir organ and a grand orgue de tribune.
The grand orgue de tribune
François de Heman built the tribune organ with its five turrets between 1647 and 1650 and the master carpenter Germain Pilon crafted the turret buffet in 1647.
The instrument was enlarged by François-Henri Clicquot in 1779, and then rebuilt from 1855 to 1857 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Further work was carried out in 1947 by Victor Gonzalez.
Camille Saint-Saëns was the organist at the Église Saint-Merri from 1853 to1857.
My exploration of the sounds in and around the Église Saint-Merri took me from Medericus, a hermit living in a hut and subsequently canonised, to Eudes Le Fauconnier and the 9th century Viking siege of Paris, to the craftsmen of the 16th and 17th century, to the oldest bell in Paris, to a church used for making gunpowder and the bloody events of the Paris Uprising of 1832. And let’s not forget the medieval Parisian street with its ‘ladies of the night’ and the modern day Chinese builders.
Which goes to show that following contemporary sounds can lead in many different directions.
BECAUSE IT’S NEVER HAD a roof, the Passage Molière doesn’t qualify as one of the surviving Parisian passages couverts, the covered passageways built mainly in the first half of the nineteenth century. What the Passage Molière can claim though is that it predates all the one hundred and fifty original passages couverts.
Passage Molière from rue Quincampoix
The oldest Parisian passage couvert, the Passage des Panoramas, opened in 1799 whereas the Passage Molière dates back to 1791.
The Passage des Panoramas and the Passage Molière do have something in common though: both house a theatre. The Passage des Panoramas is one of the twenty surviving passages couverts and it is still home to the Théâtre des Variétés, while the Passage Molière is home to the Théâtre Molière from which the passage takes its name.
The Théâtre Molière was founded by the French actor, playwright, theatre director, businessman and revolutionary, Jean François Boursault-Malherbe. It opened on 18th June 1791 with a performance of Molière’s The Misanthrope, a satire about the hypocrisies of French aristocratic society and the flaws that all humans possess.
Unfortunately, the theatre was not a resounding success. It closed in August 1792 and then underwent several changes of management and several changes of name, although Boursault retained the ownership. The theatre became variously known as the Théâtre des Sans-culottes, Théâtre de la rue Saint-Martin, Théâtre des Artistes en société, Théâtre des Amis des arts et de l’Opéra-Comique and Théâtre des Variétés nationales et étrangères.
The theatre’s fortunes recovered a little at the turn of the century thanks to several notable actors being persuaded to perform there including Thomas Sheridan, but in 1807 it was closed again and became a hall for concerts, banquets and balls.
The theatre opened yet again in 1831 but in the revolutionary climate of 1848 it was occupied by the Club patriotique du 7e arrondissement for political meetings and thereafter was abandoned and fell into oblivion for more than a century.
Eventually, the City of Paris authorities stepped in and restored the theatre back to its original eighteenth century architecture. Today, the theatre forms part of the Maison de la Poésie – Scène littéraire in the Passage Molière.
Founded in 1983, La Maison de la Poésie was created for the creation and dissemination of, and events about, contemporary poetry.
Sounds in the Passage Molière:
Maison de la Poésie – Scène litteraire
The Passage Molière runs in an east – west direction from 157 rue Saint-Martin to 82 rue Quincampoix. At fifty metres long it cuts through blocks of buildings with each end covered where it passes under the buildings.
Like the Théâtre Molière, the passage has had several names. During the French Revolution it became the Passage des Sans-Culottes and then the Passage des Nourrices before reverting back to Passage Molière.
I recorded the sounds in the Passage Molière from outside the Maison de la Poésie and the restored Théâtre Molière with rue Saint-Martin to my left and rue Quincampoix to my right. The passage is a relatively quiet oasis amidst the more strident sounds of the surrounding neighbourhood so all I had to do was to give the sounds time to speak and tell their own story.
Walking through the Passage Molière, the attentive observer may notice that the building numbers do not follow the Parisian street numbering convention of even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other with the lower numbers progressing to the higher numbers in the same direction.
In the Passage Molière, the numbers progress in an anti-clockwise direction. Starting on the right side of the passage at its eastern end, the numbers increase sequentially heading west and then from the western end, the numbers continue sequentially heading east.
Passage Molière from rue Saint-Martin
AS PART OF THE Greater Paris Project, the plan to create a sustainable and creative metropolis by absorbing the suburbs and redeveloping the city centre, RATP, the Paris mass transit authority, is gradually extending the Métro lines further out into the Parisian suburbs.
This development has prompted me to create a new strand in my Paris Soundscapes Archive, which I’ve called the ‘End of the Line’. The idea is that I will visit the end of each Métro line and collect sounds not only from within the last station on each line but also from the surrounding area outside each station.
Since most Paris Métro lines begin and end at the periphery of the city this will not only be a fascinating way to discover new places but also new sounds. In my experience, the sounds at the periphery of the city often differ markedly from those at the centre so my ‘End of the Line’ strand seems a good way to explore more of these peripheral sounds.
From time to time I will share some of these ‘End of the Line’ explorations on this blog beginning with: ‘End of the Line – Les Courtilles’
The Métro station Les Courtilles, or to give it it’s proper name, Asnières – Gennevilliers – Les Courtilles, is the terminus of the north-western branch of Métro Line 13, the longest line on the Paris Métro network. Situated under the Avenue de la Redoute on the border of the communes of Asnières-sur-Seine and Gennevilliers, the station was opened in 2008 upon completion of the extension of Line 13 from the previous terminus, Gabriel Péri.
In November 2012, Tramway T1 was extended to terminate at Les Courtilles. Between the Métro station and the Tramway, an impromptu African market appears each day together with its characteristic sounds.
As I said, the Métro station Les Courtilles is on the border of the communes of Asnières-sur-Seine and Gennevilliers, with Gennevilliers being to the north-east of the station. Looking out over Gennevilliers from the Métro station, the view is dominated by the tourist-free zone, Le Luth, a huge social housing complex.
Shortly after I arrived at Les Courtilles so did the rain so, although Le Luth is well within walking distance from the station, I took the tram and travelled one stop to the heart of the complex.
Designed by the architects Auzolle and Zavaroni and completed in 1978, Le Luth is typical of many major residential projects built between the 1950s and the 1970s.
An aerial view of Le Luth via Wikipedia
Le Luth was built both to replace existing sub-standard housing and to provide accommodation for an expanding population and when it was completed it was considered a success.
But with the deindustrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s, companies in the area like Chausson, Carbone Lorraine and General Motors began to shed workers and the area began to decline.
“General Motors France se prépare à supprimer 280 postes de travail d’ici à juillet en raison de l’arrêt de la fabrication d’un système de freinage dans son unité de Gennevilliers.
GM France emploie environ 2.000 personnes à Gennevilliers (sur 5.200 en France) réparties dans trois unités spécialisées dans les freins, les systèmes électriques et les pots catalytiques.
LES ECHOS | LE 05/03/1993
Since 2006, Gennevilliers and Le Luth have been undergoing redevelopment. Efforts have been made to attract new economic activity and public spaces are being re-imagined. Roads have been cut through the undulating housing blocks, old buildings are being renovated or in some cases replaced with smaller housing units, and the extensions to Métro Line 13 and Tram Line T1 are part of this process.
Sounds of Métro station Les Courtilles, the tramway and Le Luth:
The ‘End of the Line’ strand in my Paris Soundscapes Archive is designed to capture the atmosphere in and around the terminus stations on the Paris Métro.
I collected over three hours of sound in and around Les Courtilles Métro station and Le Luth housing complex all of which has been consigned to my archive. For this post though I have distilled those sounds down to a fifteen-minute sonic snapshot, which I hope you find still gives a sense of the atmosphere of these places on a wet Tuesday afternoon.
This sound piece begins with my arrival at Les Courtilles Métro station and the ride up the escalator out onto the street. Then come the African voices in the market outside the station and on the tram ride to Le Luth and finally some sounds I discovered around L’espace Aimé Césaire, the cultural and social centre at the heart of Le Luth.
And what about the name ‘Le Luth’, where does that come from?
One explanation might be that the name derives from the Celtic root, luto- or luteuo-, which means ‘marsh’ or ‘swamp’. After all, Julius Caesar named the predecessor of present-day Paris ‘Lutetia’.
A more simple explanation though might be that, when viewed from the air, the housing complex has a shape similar to the musical instrument, the lute: ‘Luth’ is the French word for ‘lute’.
For me, the most interesting thing about listening to and studying urban soundscapes is not simply listening to the sounds themselves, fascinating as they often are, but rather it is going to new places to find new sounds and then discovering and understanding the historical, social, cultural and political context that surrounds the sounds.
Exploring the ‘End of the Line’ at Asnières – Gennevilliers – Les Courtilles has taken me to a place that I would probably never have visited had I not been hunting for new sounds for my archive. And although I haven’t written about it in great depth here, I am richer for having explored the context in which those sounds occur.
IT WAS IN APRIL 2011 when I last visited the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in the Bois de Vincennes at Nogent-sur-Marne on the eastern edge of Paris. Then, I went there several times to record sounds for the 2011 Paris Obscura Day event organised by Adam, curator of Invisible Paris.
Recently, I decided it was time to return to Nogent-sur-Marne and explore a little more.
Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale
I am fascinated by industrial archaeology and particularly by the mid-nineteenth century iron and glass structures to be found in Paris – structures like la Grande Halle de la Villette or Henri Labrouste’s sumptuous reading room at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.
Sadly, I was never able to see the eight Victor Baltard iron and glass pavilions at Les Halles, the traditional central market in Paris founded in 1183.
Les Halles, the former central market in Paris. Photograph: Sophie Boegly/Musée d’Orsay
Unable to compete in the new market economy and in need of massive repairs, the central market was relocated to Rungis, south of Paris, in 1971 and all but two of Baltard’s iron and glass pavilions were destroyed. The two that survived were dismantled and then re-erected, one in Yokohama, Japan and the other in Nogent-sur-Marne.
When I went back to Nogent-sur-Marne recently I sought out this surviving Baltard pavilion.
The Pavillon Baltard, Nogent-sur-Marne
This pavilion was used originally for selling eggs and poultry at the Les Halles market. Today it’s surround by iron gates – the original gates from Les Halles – and it’s used for a variety of events including concerts, exhibitions and corporate functions.
Unfortunately, I was not able to gain entry to the pavilion, which was a shame because as well seeing the pavilion itself I particularly wanted to see something housed inside.
As well as acquiring the Baltard pavilion, Nogent-sur-Marne also managed to acquire the four manual, sixteen rank, Christie cinema organ once housed in the massive 5,500 seat Gaumont Palace cinema in Paris. Built in 1931 by the English organ builders, Hill Norman and Beard, the organ now resides in the Baltard pavilion.
The art-deco Gaumont Palace cinema in Paris
This famous theatre organ will always be linked with the organist, Tommy Desserre, who played the instrument until the Gaumont Palace closed in 1972.
The Christie organ console in the Pavilion Baltard
Although I wasn’t able to go in and see the organ, I have found this 1988 recording of John Mann playing an Hommage to Edith Piaf on the organ in the Baltard pavilion so you can hear what it sounds like.
Having seen the Baltard pavilion, if only from the outside, I took myself off to a nearby bistro for lunch where I found this lady posing for me.
After lunch I decided to make a return visit to the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale at the eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes. The last time I was here I spent four days recording sounds for Adam’s Paris Obscura Day event so I was anxious to see what sounds I might capture on this summer’s day.
I settled myself down beside the Indochinese temple and began to record the wildlife, the rustle of the bamboo trees and the ever-present man-made sounds around me.
Summer sounds in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale:
The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was created in 1899 as a ‘jardin d’essai colonial’, a research garden, with the aim of coordinating agricultural experiments that would lead to the introduction or reintroduction of exotic plants like coffee, bananas, rubber trees, cocoa and vanilla across the French colonies.
During the summer of 1907 the garden became the site of a Colonial exhibition organised by the French Colonisation Society.
The exhibition was designed not only to show off exotic plants, animals, and other products of the French empire but also to show off people from the colonies who lived in five different villages on the site recreating their ‘typical’ environments. There were villages for people representing the Congo, Indochina, Madagascar, Sudan, and New Caledonia as well as a camp for the Tuaregs from the Sahara.
This ‘human zoo’ proved to be very popular attracting around one and a half million visitors.
The Tuareg camp at the 1907 exhibition
At the end of the summer of 1907 the exhibition closed, the residents returned home and the exhibition site was left abandoned. During World War II, the site was used as a hospital for colonial troops and in the post-war years part of it housed the École d’agronomie tropicale and the Centre technique forestier tropical. The remnants of the Colonial villages though were left to decay.
In 2003, the city of Paris acquired the site and began a development programme and the garden was opened to the public in 2006.
Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale – The Colonial Bridge
Even though I didn’t get to see the Christie cinema organ, I enjoyed my day in Nogent-sur-Marne. Seeing the Pavillon Baltard has been on my ‘to do’ list for a long time and sitting in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale listening to its sounds was a delightful way to spend a summer afternoon.
Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale – The Indochina War Memorial