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Posts from the ‘Paris Sounds’ Category


Square du Temple and its Sounds

THE ENGLISH WORD ‘square’ has been adopted by the French to describe a particular type of open space.

A Parisian ‘square’ is typically a small urban green space not large enough to be called a parc (the grassy variety) or a bois (the wooded variety) and not sufficiently formal in its plantings to be called a jardin.

There are a large number of squares dotted throughout the twenty arrondissements of Paris each of which offers the opportunity to escape, if only momentarily, from the urban environment and to partake of air and light. Sadly though, few Parisian squares are completely free from the noise pollution create by endless traffic.


Opened in 1857, the Square du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement is one of the squares created by Jean-Charles Alphand, directeur de la voie publique et des promenades de la Ville de Paris, during Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris in the late nineteenth-century.


The Square occupies part of the the site of a medieval fortress built by the Knights Templar in 1290. Covering some 130 hectares, the fortress or, l’enclos du Temple, featured a number of buildings important to the running of the Knights Templar Order including a church, a massive turreted keep known as the Grosse Tour (great tower), and a smaller tower called Tour de César (Caesar’s Tower).

Parts of the fortress were used as a prison during the French revolution. Louis XVI was a prisoner here from 13th August 1792 to 21st January 1793, before being taken to the guillotine and Marie Antoinette was here from 13th August 1792 to 1st August 1793 before being taken to the Conciergerie, from where she too went to the guillotine.

After the revolution, l’enclos du Temple become a place of pilgrimage for royalists so, in 1808, Napoleon I ordered its demolition. The final remnants were demolished around 1860 under Napoleon III.


Sounds in the Square du Temple:


Today, at the eastern end of the Square du Temple, also standing on part of the former l’enclos du Temple, is the majestic Marie du III Arrondissement, the local town hall.


While at the north-eastern end is the Carreau du Temple, originally a covered market built in 1863 but now a multipurpose space with a 250-seat auditorium along with sports and cultural facilities, including a recording studio.


I visited this typical Parisian square on a sunny, mid-October afternoon and, along with the lawns, the pond with its artificial waterfall tricking over rocks imported from the forest of Fontainebleau and the chestnut, Turkish hazel and Japanese Sophora trees, I found the sounds of children dominating the soundscape.

These sounds seemed especially poignant when I came upon this:


It’s a monument, inaugurated on 26th October 2007, carrying the names and ages of ‘87 tout-petits n’ont pas eu le temps de frequenter une ecole’: 87 Jewish toddlers aged from 2 months to 6 years living in the 3rd arrondissement who were deported from Paris between 1942 and 1944 and subsequently exterminated at Auschwitz.

Ne les oublions jamais.

Le square du Temple. Paris (IIIème arr.), vers 1900.

Paris (IIIrd arrondissement). The Square du Temple around 1900. Auteur © Léon et Lévy / Roger-Viollet

Image courtesy of Paris en Images


Marché des Enfants-Rouges

AT THE BEGINNING of the sixteenth-century, Paris might not yet have been a great or particularly beautiful city – but it was big! With the decline of feudalism, population growth mushroomed, migration to cities increased and by the middle of the century, Paris, with its population of some 350,000 souls, had become the largest city in Europe.

There were many casualties as a result of the growth and urbanisation of the population. Competing demands for resources usually meant that those with the lowest social status came off worst and children, particularly infants, being dependent rather than productive members of society, often came off worst of all.

Infanticide was not uncommon and those who escaped that fate were often abandoned or deliberately maimed and sold as beggars. By the middle of the century the situation had become so bad that the Parlement de Paris decreed an obligation seigneuriale, meaning that nobles had to take the responsibility for the foundlings left in their domains – a decree often ignored.

There were some attempts to alleviate the plight of abandoned children. In 1523, the Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris, began taking in foundlings and sick children although few, if any, survived to adulthood.

In 1536, Marguerite de Valois, sister of François 1st, then King of France, founded a hospital and orphanage or, an orphan asylum as it was known, in rue du Grand Chantier, now part of rue des Archives in the Marais district, to take abandoned children from the Hôtel Dieu.

Originally known as les Enfants de Dieu, the children, dressed in clothes made from red cloth as a symbol of Christian charity, quickly became know as les Enfants Rouges – the Red Children.

Marguerite de Valois’ hospice des Enfants-Rouges survived until 1772 when it was merged with the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés, a foundling hospital created in 1638 by Vincent de Paul and, from 1670, an institution attached to the Hôpital général de Paris under the direction of the Parlement de Paris.


Although the hospice des Enfants-Rouges no longer exists, its name still echoes close by.

By the beginning of the seventeenth-century, the population around the hospice des Enfants-Rouges in the Marais was growing and so the King, Louis XIII, decided that a market was required to satisfy the growing demand for provisions.

In 1615, land was bought and work began. Perceval Noblet, master carpenter to the King, was commissioned to build the Petit Marché du Marais comprising a wooden hall resting on 16 pillars of oak, with stables, a manure pit and a well.

The market thrived and was subsequently expanded becoming the Marché du Marais du Temple.

When the hospice des Enfants-Rouges merged with the hôpital des Enfants Trouvés in 1772, the orphanage in rue du Grand Chantier was closed but its memory lived on and the local residents decided that the Marché du Marais du Temple should be renamed, Marché des Enfants-Rouge.


And action by local residents was not confined to the 1770s.

In 1912, the market was bought by the City of Paris and, although being listed as an historical monument in 1982, local residents were called to action in the 1990s to prevent it being turned into a car park! Reason prevailed though and following a six-year closure the market was reopened in November 2000.


Although not the biggest and perhaps not the best market in Paris, the Marché des Enfants-Rouges does have the distinction of being the oldest market in the city.

While selling fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, organic food, bread and flowers, its popularity today rests less on its fresh food stalls than with its reputation as a dining destination.


Sounds in the Marché des Enfants-Rouges:


The range of food on offer is enormous, from the bistro, L’Estaminet des Enfants Rouges, with its oysterman outside shucking bivalves, to a variety of stalls offering Moroccan, Italian, Lebanese, Japanese, and Organic dishes to take away or eat at the communal tables ‘sur place’.


The Marché des Enfants-Rouges is a huge attraction in the hip Haut Marais area of Paris. But when I go there I always stop to look at the painting on the wall of the little orphan in the red dress and I’m always reminded that she would have found such abundance unimaginable.

Marché des Enfants-Rouges, rue de Bretagne, Paris (IIIème arr.), 1898. Photographie de Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Image courtesy of Paris en Images:

Marché des Enfants-Rouges, rue de Bretagne, Paris (IIIrd arrondissement), 1898. Photograph by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet. Auteur

© Eugène Atget / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet


King Henry IV and the Square du Vert Galant

ALTHOUGH HE SURVIVED several assassination attempts, King Henry IV of France, the first French monarch from the House of Bourbon, finally succumbed to the knife-wielding catholic zealot, François Ravaillac, in the Rue de la Ferronnerie in Paris in May 1610.

Henry ruled France from 1589 until his assassination and although not universally popular in the early years of his reign his reputation soared after his death.


Henry IV of France: Henri Goltzius, graveur : Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, RESERVE FOL-QB-201 (16)

Henry did not succeed to the French monarchy unopposed. Although baptised a catholic, he was raised a protestant. Upon the death of his brother-in-law and distant cousin Henry III of France in 1589, Henry became monarch and to begin with kept the Protestant faith. This set him against the Catholic League, a collection of powerful catholic aristocrats aided by Pope Clement VIII and Philip II of Spain, who denied that Henry could wear France’s crown as a protestant. It would take a nine-year siege of Paris and his conversion to catholicism for Henry to secure his crown from the influence of the Catholic League and Spanish interference.

Despite having come close to assassination in 1572 during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, a wave of catholic mob violence and targeted assassinations against the protestant Huguenots, Henry displayed an unusual religious tolerance for the time. In 1598, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, confirming Roman Catholicism as the state religion but granting religious freedom to protestants. The Edict of Nantes effectively ended the French ‘Wars of Religion’, which had lasted for thirty-five years and cost some three million lives.

Having established his monarchy Henry had secured relative peace at home but he also set out to secure peace abroad. Although his reign saw a continuation of the rivalry between France, the Habsburg rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire for the mastery of Western Europe, something that would not be resolved until after the Thirty Years War following his death, Henry set about successfully resolving more immediate disputes with Spain, Italy and the Ottoman Empire.

His vision also extended beyond France; he financed several expeditions to North America, which saw France lay claim to Canada.

While Henry’s reign was characterised by his forthright manner, physical courage and military successes: he once asserted that he ruled ‘on a le bras armé et le cul sur la selle’, with ‘weapon in hand and arse in the saddle’, he was also a pragmatic politician.

Working with his long-time faithful and trusted lieutenant, the nobleman, soldier and statesman, Maximilien de Béthune, Duc de Sully, Henry set about creating prosperity at home. He built a strong centralised administrative system, regularised state finances and encouraged education; he promoted agriculture, public works, the construction of highways and the first French canal and started some important industries including the Gobelins Manufactory, later to become tapestry makers to the court of the French monarchs.

Henry restored Paris to a great city and some examples of this can still be seen today.

He built the Place Royale, now the Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris and, for a time, the French nobility’s favourite place of residence. Along the Right Bank of the Seine he added the 400 metre long Grande Galerie to the Louvre Palace inviting hundreds of artists and craftsmen to live and work on the building’s lower floors.

In 1607, Henry inaugurated the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge across the river Seine and to mark the occasion a statue of him was erected on the bridge ‘on a le bras armé et le cul sur la selle’ in 1614.


Unfortunately, Henry was unseated from his saddle during the French Revolution when his statue was destroyed. The statue we see today is a replica erected in 1818.

Henry IV was undoubtedly a man of vision and courage and he became, perhaps more posthumously than at the time, a popular monarch often known by the epithet, ‘le bon roi Henry’ or ‘Good King Henry’.

But he also gained an epithet that reflected another side of ‘le bon roi Henry’ and at the Pont Neuf there is a reminder of this.


Jutting out into la Seine from the span of the Pont Neuf is a promontory that forms the western tip of the Île de la Cité. This promontory was created in 1607 by joining two existing small islets, the Île aux Juifs and the Île du Passeur. It was on the Ile aux Juifs that Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar and his lieutenant Geoffroy de Charnay, were burned at the stake on the orders of King Philip the Fair in March 1314.

In 1884, this promontory was bought by the City of Paris, landscaped into a public garden and named the Square du Vert Galant, a rather sardonic reference to the other side of ‘le bon roi Henry’.


Sounds in the Square du Vert Galant:


Not only was Henry regal in public, it seems he was also regal in the boudoir – he was a serial philanderer. He became notorious for his sexual exploits, taking on many lovers and earning the epithet “Le Vert Galant”.

Le Vert Galant doesn’t translate literally into English but, in this context, one can approximate ‘vert’ to ‘racy’ or ‘risqué’ and ‘galant’ to ‘a man who loves to seduce women’. Anyway, you get the idea!


The women in Henry’s life played a significant role in the politics of his reign.

He married his first wife, Marguerite de Valois, in 1572. They were repeatedly unfaithful to each other and their childless marriage collapsed leading first to their estrangement and then to an annulment in 1599.

Despite fathering several children with a variety of mistresses Henry was in need of a legitimate heir. In 1600, at the age of forty-six, he married his second wife, Marie de’ Medici, who bore him six children, including the future Louis XIII. Henry was unfaithful to her as well and insisted that she raise his illegitimate children along with her own.

Henry’s womanising became legendary; he always kept mistresses, often several at a time, as well as engaging in random sexual encounters. Even so, he tended to elevate one mistress above the others and shower her with money, honours, and promises. His two most famous mistresses were Gabrielle d’Estrées, who died in 1599, and her successor, Henriette d’Entragues, who involved herself in plots against the crown. Henry promised marriage to each of them, exposing himself to a series of political problems.


After decades of religious war, Henry brought peace and relative prosperity to France and his reign had a lasting impact for generations. He was one of the first monarchs to elevate national unity above religion in terms of importance for a ruler.

A cult surrounding the personality of Henry emerged during the Bourbon Restoration, the period following the fall of Napoleon in 1814 until the July Revolution of 1830. Although his statue on the Pont Neuf was torn down during the French Revolution, it is significant that it was the first to be rebuilt afterwards.


The Square du Vert Galant and the statue of Henry IV sitting proudly atop the Pont Neuf close by represent two very different sides of Henry IV.

Sitting under the weeping willow trees on the western tip of the Square du Vert Galant listening to and recording the sounds around me, I was reminded of the final paragraph of Desmond Seward’s book, ‘The First Bourbon: Henry IV of France and Navarre’:

… He was a great and charming man, and what is remarkable about his legend, what makes it so different from that of any other hero king, is that it preserves the memory of his failings as well as of his virtues. It is the most human of all royal legends.



Journée sans Voitures 2016

FOR A FEW HOURS in March 2015 Paris became the most polluted city in the world. Excessive vehicle emissions combined with sunshine, a drop in temperature and an absence of wind to disperse the pollutants caused a stagnant cover of warm air to settle over Paris resulting in a toxic haze that enveloped the city.

In response, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, instigated the first Journée sans Voitures, a car-free day. On 27th September 2015, about a third of the city was designated a traffic-free zone save for taxis, buses and emergency vehicles.


The first Journée sans Voitures was a success. Airparif, an air quality monitoring network in the Île-de-France, reported that nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by up to 40% in some parts of Paris and Bruitparif, a noise monitoring network, reported that sound levels fell by half in the city centre.

Yesterday, the Journée sans Voitures was repeated, this time covering a wider area with some 400 miles of the city’s streets being designated a traffic-free zone.


As a professional listener to Paris and an archivist of the city’s soundscapes, the prospect of listening to and recording the city’s sounds without the constant wave of traffic was too good to pass up.

Last year I captured the sounds of the Journée sans Voitures from Place Colette close to the Comédie-Française, the Palais-Royal and le Conseil d’État.

This year I decided to go to three places where I’ve recorded many times before, each of which takes on a completely different hue without a blanket of traffic noise.

My first stop was the Jardin des Tuileries.


For years I’ve been trying to record the sound of the wildlife around the Grand Bassin in the Jardin des Tuileries without traffic noise in the background. On Sunday I had my chance.

Journée sans Voitures – Jardin des Tuileries – Grand Bassin:


My second port of call was a garden whose sounds I have never managed to record successfully because of the overpowering sounds of the surrounding traffic.

The Jardin de la Nouvelle France is a small, English style garden situated at the junction of the Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt and the Cours la Reine in the 8th arrondissement.

The garden is named after Nouvelle France, a North American French colony and one-time vice-royalty of the Kingdom of France. With Québec as its capital, the colony existed from 1534 to 1763.

The garden winds down to below street level and at the bottom is a small waterfall and a pond. Without the traffic above, the sound of the waterfall takes centre stage.


Journée sans Voitures – Jardin de la Nouvelle France:


From the Jardin de la Nouvelle France it was just a short walk to my final destination, the Champs Elysées which, aside from the upmarket emporia lining both sides is, on a normal day, little more than an eight lane racetrack with mind-bending noise pollution to match.

On Sunday there was no traffic, the Champs Elysées was reserved for pedestrians and cyclists and a much calmer sound tapestry prevailed.


Journée sans Voitures – Champs Elysées:


Not only has the Mayor of Paris championed the city’s annual Journée sans Voitures, she has also backed a regular Paris Respire (Paris Breathes) day on the first Sunday of the month, with traffic cleared from the Champs Elysées and a number of surrounding streets.

And today it has been announced that le Conseil de Paris has approved the Mayor’s proposal to permanently close a 3.3 km stretch of la voie Georges-Pompidou on the Right Bank of la Seine to traffic and make it accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists.

Anne Hidalgo has called it a “décision historique, la fin d’une autoroute urbaine à Paris et la reconquête de la Seine.

The proposal is not universally popular. The Left and the Ecologists on the City Council support the scheme but the Right are opposed to it.

Some argue that the Journée sans Voitures, Paris Respire, removing traffic from part of the banks of the Seine and other schemes to reduce airborne pollution are political stunts and have little tangible effect. I disagree.

Airborne pollution, whether from vehicle emissions or from noise, is a plague that affects us all. Paris may be taking small steps to alleviate the problem but in my view they are steps in the right direction.




The Sound Collector

The Sound Collector by Roger McGough:

A stranger called this morning

Dressed all in black and grey

Put every sound into a bag

And carried them away

The whistling of the kettle

The turning of the lock

The purring of the kitten

The ticking of the clock

The popping of the toaster

The crunching of the flakes

When you spread the marmalade

The scraping noise it makes

The hissing of the frying pan

The ticking of the grill

The bubbling of the bathtub

As it starts to fill

The drumming of the raindrops

On the windowpane

When you do the washing-up

The gurgle of the drain

The crying of the baby

The squeaking of the chair

The swishing of the curtain

The creaking of the stair

A stranger called this morning

He didn’t leave his name

Left us only silence

Life will never be the same

From All the Best – The Selected Poems of Roger McGough.



Exploring Soundscapes and Much More

FOR THE LAST eight years I’ve been recording and archiving the contemporary soundscapes of Paris. Searching for and capturing the sounds of this city is a fascinating occupation; it has taught me how to listen attentively to the city, it has taken me to places I would never otherwise have visited and it has introduced me to some fascinating people I would have never otherwise have met.

But it’s done more than that. Aware that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, I am always thinking about the social, cultural and historical context of the sounds I find and that has taught me how to explore and appreciate the rich history, complexity and diversity that is Paris.

For example, on Saturday I was exploring the sounds at La Plaine de Saint-Denis on the northern outskirts of the city. Although Saint-Denis and neighbouring Aubervilliers are two of the poorest communes around Paris, La Plaine Saint-Denis has become a vast media city, home to TV giants like Euro Media, Endemol and the Parc E.M.G.P with it’s 12 television studios where some of France’s most popular TV programmes are made.

But had I not been exploring the soundscape around les plateaux de télévision I would never have discovered this:


This is a former station of the Chemin de Fer de la Plaine de Saint-Denis et d’Aubervilliers, part of a 15 km industrial railway network comprising 13 tracks of 200 to 250 meters each, opened by the Riffaud-Civet Company in 1884. The first wagons on this railway were pulled by horses.

And had I not been exploring the soundscape around La Plaine de Saint-Denis I would never have discovered this alien looking building:


This I discovered is the recently opened Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord, a research institute specialising in cultural industries, health and society, globalisation and contemporary cities.

I’ve made a note to seek permission to explore the sounds in the undergrowth at the base of this architectural spaceship.

Having made this foray to La Plaine de Saint-Denis in the far north of Paris, I decided to board Métro Line 12 and travel the 40-minute journey to Issy les Moulineaux on the southern outskirts of the city. There was continuity to my thinking because Issy les Moulineaux boasts more plateaux de télévision; it is home to the TV channels, Eurosport, the Canal + Group and France 24.


Like La Plaine de Saint-Denis, Issy les Moulineaux is a place I have visited before but never really explored.

On Saturday, the first thing I encountered was a statue of General (posthumously Maréchal) Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, or simply le maréchal Leclerc or just Leclerc as he’s best known. Leclerc and his 2nd Armoured Division liberated Paris in August 1944 and it was to Leclerc that the last commander of Nazi occupied Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered on 25th August.

Although Leclerc’s bust was the first thing I encountered when I arrived in Issy les Moulineaux, I would have missed it completely had I not been on my way to record the sounds of the fountain behind the Hôtel de Ville.


After a day’s walking, a bumpy 40-minute Métro ride across Paris (all of which I recorded for my Paris Soundscapes Archive) and several hours of concentrated listening I decided it was time for a visit to a café, the Comptoir d’Issy, for a coffee and well-earned rest.

But even there I couldn’t resist working. I just had to record the sounds in the Comptoir d’Issy to add to my already enormous collection of Parisian café sounds.

But while I was doing that I spied something that caught my imagination.

Sounds in the Comptoir d’Issy:


I know very little about clocks but my first impression was that this one on the wall of the Comptoir d’Issy looked rather like a station clock. Fortunately, there was a clue – the name Paul Garnier on the clock face.

I was anxious to know more so I consulted the lady who lives in my iPhone and in un clin d’œil she revealed that Jean-Paul Garnier, known as Paul Garnier (1801-1869), was a Horloger et Mecanicien a Paris, a Parisian watch and clock maker who, amongst many other things, provided all railway stations in France with station clocks!

Paul Garnier was a member of the French Society of Civil Engineers and also a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. He was honoured for his work on electromagnetic telegraph clocks and, in 1861, he was chosen by the French government to make proposals for the development of the watch industry. He donated his entire collection of watches and clocks to the Musée du Louvre where he has a room named after him. He died in 1869 and is buried in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.


Jean-Paul Garnier

The purpose of my expedition on Saturday was to explore the soundscapes in parts of Paris that I’ve visited but haven’t really explored before. I spent many hours listening and much less time recording. As I get older, I listen more and record less.

But exploring these unfamiliar soundscapes also inspired me to explore my surroundings and helped me to not only put the sounds into context but also to discover new things – things that I would probably never have discovered had it not been for the sounds that surround them.



Getting Things In Perspective

THE TEMPLE DE LA SIBYLLE may not be the highest point in Paris but it does sit atop a man-made cliff fifty metres above an artificial lake in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.


Inspired by the Temple of Vesta near Rome, the Temple de la Sibylle is the central feature of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a park opened in 1867 for the recreation and pleasure of the rapidly growing population of the then new 19th and 20th arrondissements of Paris, which had been annexed to the city in 1860.


Situated close to the former Gibet de Montfaucon, the gallows and gibbet of the Kings of France where, up until 1760, the bodies of executed criminals were left hanging as a warning to the public, the site on which the Parc des Buttes Chaumont now stands became, after the 1789 Revolution, a refuse dump and then a place for cutting up horse carcasses and a depository for sewage.

Fascinating as this is, I will leave a more detailed exploration of the park with its former gypsum and limestone quarries, its temple, its lawns, its lake and its grotto for another time. In this post I want to explore something different.


For several years I’ve been visiting the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, partly because it’s a nice place but more importantly because it’s a place that has become a focus for a particularly challenging aspect of my work.

I record urban soundscapes, particularly the soundscapes of Paris, and I’ve learned a lot about how to record urban soundscapes by studying the philosophy, images and techniques of great photographers.

The best photographers seem to be able to condense wisdom into succinct sentences:

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

– Ansel Adams

“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”

– Robert Frank

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

– Robert Capa

Although the context of these quotations is of course photography they apply equally to sound recording and particularly to the recording of urban soundscapes.

Robert Capa’s dictum, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’, is especially relevant to my work. Key to recording urban soundscapes is to become part of the soundscape without changing the soundscape, in other words to get close to the sounds without changing the overall soundscape. Over the years, and after much trial and error, I’ve developed techniques for doing this.

But there remains a challenge in my urban soundscape recording work that is not covered by Robert Capa’s dictum, in fact it’s the antithesis of it, and it’s a challenge that I’ve been trying to address in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.


This is the view over the 19th arrondissement from the Temple de la Sibylle on top of the cliff in the park. The lake is 50 metres below the Temple and the tower blocks in the distance are 1.5 km away.

Although my photograph is unlikely to win any prizes it does I hope reflect the prospect from the Temple de la Sibylle along the Avenue de Laumière to the tower blocks at La Villette. The picture has a sense of perspective with the lake and its surrounding path in the foreground, the road crossing from left to right and the start of the Avenue de Laumière in the centre, the tower blocks in the distance and the hill beyond in the far distance.

My challenge is: how to capture the soundscape associated with an image that took 1/250th of a second to make, which stretches from 50 metres below me to over 1.5 km ahead of me. In other words: how to capture in sound the elusive concept of perspective.

With today’s sophisticated technology it’s possible to manipulate sounds in post-production to create almost any effect you want. But despite all the gadgetry, perspective remains perhaps the only thing that cannot be created in post-production; it has to be captured on location in real time.

If you listen to wildlife recordings you will often hear wonderful examples of perspective captured in sound but capturing perspective in a busy urban environment is an enormous challenge.


Getting Things in Perspective:

This recording is a 20-minute sonic exposure of the scene looking out over the 19th arrondissement recorded from the edge of the cliff directly in front of the Temple de la Sibylle. Whereas Robert Capa’s dictum would require me to be close to the sounds, here I am doing the opposite – attempting to capture a sense of perspective by recording from a distance.

I chose to make this recording in the middle of a weekday afternoon – exactly the wrong time one might argue to achieve a ‘perfect’ recording. It would surely have been better to record at six o’clock in the morning as the area was waking up or at eleven o’clock at night as it was going to sleep. Well, apart from the fact that the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is closed at those times, it depends upon what one means by a ‘perfect’ recording.

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”, Ansel Adams tells us and, in the context of my work in Paris, ‘perfect’ recordings are a fuzzy concept. The Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be, so I try to make good recordings of course, but I’m much more interested in capturing reality than perfection.


Robert Frank suggests that, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks” – good advice that translates well to the world of sound recording. I usually describe myself as a ‘professional listener’ rather than a sound recordist. Time spent listening before pressing the ‘Record’ button is always time well spent.

While hearing is instinctive, listening is an art that has to be learned and while my recording from the Temple de la Sibylle may seem to be dominated by the ribbon of traffic passing across the centre of the scene, attentive listening will reveal much more.

People it seems are wedded to their motorcars so, like in most cities, traffic overwhelms most of the streets of this city. The Mayor of Paris is trying to alleviate this to some extent but I fear she is facing an uphill struggle. In the meantime, the sound of traffic will continue to dominate the Parisian soundscape and subjugate pedestrians to unacceptable levels of noise and noxious pollution. As I said earlier, the Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be!

But underneath the ribbon of traffic other sounds are fighting to be heard.

The sound of ducks in the lake below me can be heard throughout the piece, as can a distant church clock sounding three o’clock and an even more distant church bell chiming.

A testosterone fuelled young man makes an appearance to my right shouting to his friend on the far side of the park, there are the obligatory sirens, this time from the red ambulances of the sapeurs-pompiers de Paris, and in the far distance the very faint sound of a car alarm.

But perhaps the most surprising thing in the piece is one of the shortest and quietest sounds. It occurs twelve minutes into the piece and it’s the sound of an angler sitting on the bank of the lake fifty metres below me reeling in a fish. The sound only lasts for six seconds (it must have been a very small fish) so don’t blink or you’ll miss it.


This recording is one of many I’ve made from the hills in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont over the years attempting to capture the perspective looking out over the 19th arrondissement.

All the recordings are different but so far none of them have quite managed to capture the idyllic perspective I have in my imagination. Chasing that ideal continues to be a challenge – but that’s why it’s so endlessly fascinating.

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

– Elliott Erwitt

Listening Note:

Judging an appropriate level to listen to sounds can be a tricky business. As a guide, the traffic at the head of the Avenue de Laumière was approximately 500 metres from my recording position so the level that you listen to these sounds at should reflect that. Less is more!



Place des Fêtes and its Sounds

ORIGINALLY A FOCUS for celebrations in Belleville before that commune was consumed into the City of Paris in 1863, today’s Place des Fêtes in the 19th arrondissement stands in the midst of the experiment that was 1970s urbanism.


Surrounded by 1970s tower blocks, the Place des Fêtes is a large pedestrianised space, 200 metres long and 150 meters wide, occupied for three mornings a week by a popular outdoor market. At its centre is an obelisk created by the Hungarian artist, Zoltán Zsakó.


The obelisk stands on a granite base and is made mostly from translucent glass with bass reliefs surrounding the graffiti encrusted lower portion.


Although I have no idea what the artistic intent behind the obelisk is, it does have a practical purpose. It covers the emergency exit from the underground car park beneath the Place des Fêtes.


Another artistic feature of the Place des Fêtes is la fontaine-labyrinthe, the fountain-maze, created by another Hungarian artist, Marta Pan.


La fontaine-labyrinthe is one of the fountains to emerge from the 1978 competition to create seven contemporary fountains in different squares in Paris. Another winner of that competition was La Fontaine Stravinsky in the centre of the city featured in this blog one year ago.


Sounds in Place des Fêtes:


The sounds I recorded in the Place des Fêtes on a hot August afternoon included the sounds of energetic youths skateboarding and young children enjoying the final days of summer before returning to school on 1st September.

Relief from the 1970s concrete jungle can be found on the western edge of the Place des Fêtes in the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, a garden designed by the ingénieur des ponts et chausséesJean-Charles Alphand, who worked for Baron Haussmann and his renovation of Paris in the late 19th century.


The garden was opened in 1863 and redeveloped, along with the rest of the Place des Fêtes, in the 1970s.

Today, the garden honours the memory of Monseigneur Fernand Maillet (1896 – 1963), a parish priest born close by who, in 1924, took over the direction of the renowned boy’s choir, la manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de bois. In 1963 he founded la Fédération internationale des Pueri Cantores, an international association bringing together twenty-seven national choral associations on five continents.

It seems entirely appropriate that the centrepiece of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, the kiosque à Musique, or bandstand, reflects the musical association with Monseigneur Maillet.


At the eastern end of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet is a reminder of the garden in Alphand’s time, a nineteenth-century Wallace fountain.


This is not the classic large model fountain resting on an octagonal pedestal on which four caryatids are affixed with their backs turned and their arms supporting a pointed dome decorated by dolphins. This is the small model version, a simple pushbutton fountain that one can find in squares and public gardens across Paris and on a hot, late August day it was a fountain much in demand.



A New Parisian Bus And New Sounds

MY SOUND PRACTICE here in Paris is centred around recording the contemporary sound tapestry of the city – the sounds Parisians hear as they go about their daily lives but seldom stop to listen to.

I’m particularly interested in how the Parisian sound tapestry changes over time and, over the years, I’ve recorded Parisian sounds that no longer exist, sounds that are on the verge of extinction as well as some completely new sounds that have appeared across the city.

Developments in public transport are a prime source for capturing the changing urban soundscape. While the French economy may be lacklustre at the moment France continues to invest heavily in public transport and this investment not only changes the visual landscape, it also changes the sound landscape.

In Paris over recent years we’ve seen old rolling stock retired and new trains introduced on the Paris Métro system, new stations have opened as part of the programme to extend the Métro network into the suburbs and we’ve seen a significant expansion of the tramway network around the periphery of the city and out into the suburbs.

The considerable investment being poured into public transport is designed to improve and extend the transportation system not only for the convenience and comfort of existing passengers but also to make the system more attractive for new passengers. It is hoped that the continuing improvements to the public transport system will encourage more car users to convert to public transport and thus reduce the vehicular emissions that often smother the city.

Although the investment in the Métro and tram network is to be welcomed, 1.1 billion people still use Parisian buses each year and the 4,500 buses in circulation are a worrying source of polluting emissions.


A diesel engine Parisian bus

Have a listen to this sound:

It’s the sound of a diesel engine Paris bus waiting at traffic lights. It’s an iconic Parisian sound, but it’s a sound that is now on the verge of extinction.


Image via RATP

Bus 2025 is the plan by RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), the state-owned authority responsible for most of the public transport in Paris and the surrounding Île-de-France region, to eliminate diesel engine buses completely and roll out a new fleet of electric and biogas buses in Paris and the Ile-de-France region, thus meeting the target set out in the Île-de-France urban transport plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption per passenger/km by 20% by 2025.

RATP are not only investing in new electric and biogas buses (80% electric and 20% biogas by 2025) but also in new infrastructure at the bus depots to handle the new technology.

The change from diesel to the new electric and biogas buses cannot be made overnight so there is a transitional phase, which has already begun with the purchase and deployment of some hybrid buses. This will allow RATP to test the new technology in operating conditions and to plan the infrastructure changes required.


A new Iveco Hybrid bus

Since April this year, a fleet of hybrid Urbanway Citybuses purchased from Iveco, one of several suppliers selected by RATP for the transitional phase, have been plying the 82 bus route that passes by the end of my little street so I’ve had the opportunity to experience what these buses are like.


At first glance the hybrid buses look little different from the former diesel engine buses, save for the white bulge protruding from the top of the bus and the new upholstery in the interior.


But ‘under the hood’ the difference is dramatic.

The traction drive on the hybrid bus uses a downsized fuel-effective Euro VI engine with Hi-eSCR exhaust gas after-treatment technology, coupled with an electric-generator engine.

When the bus is decelerating and reaches a speed of 20 km/h, the bus engine cuts out, the batteries take over and the electric-generator kicks in.

The energy accumulated during deceleration is recovered and stored in new generation lithium-ion batteries; this energy is then restored during acceleration. When the bus accelerates and reaches a speed of 20 km/h, the engine takes over.

The elimination of a gearbox results in a smoother drive and jolt-free acceleration.

The Urbanway Citybus has an ‘Arrive & Go’ function, which ensures 100% electric silent arrivals and departures at bus stops, with no pollution or vibrations thus benefiting passengers, the driver and those outside the bus.

Iveco claim that this hybrid technology decreases CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by between 25 and 35%. Using 30% less fuel is equivalent to a reduction of over 25 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle per year, which represents more than twice the weight of the vehicle.


Iveco’s claim of reduced CO2 emissions and fuel consumption for the hybrid bus is impressive but as a professional listener to Paris I was even more impressed with the dramatic reduction in noise pollution. The reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption is something we can read about but the reduction in the noise emissions is something we can experience at first hand simply by standing beside or by boarding one of these buses.

I hope RATP will carry out some objective measurements of the reduction in the noise level and then broadcast the results alongside the reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption – it’s something worth making a lot of noise about!

Returning from a recording assignment the other day, I recorded a 40-minute journey on the hybrid bus along the 82 bus route from the Jardin du Luxembourg to the bus stop at the end of my little street; a journey from the heart of the Latin Quarter to the west of Paris taking in the Hôtel des Invalides, the École Militaire, the Champs de Mars, the Tour Eiffel and the Palais des Congrès.


Departure from the Jardin du Luxembourg

Sounds of the new hybrid 82 bus:

Sitting on the bus listening to the engine was impressive since the engine is quieter than the usual diesel engine on a Parisian bus. But listening to the complete absence of engine noise when the bus stopped at a junction, or at traffic lights, or at a bus stop was a strange experience. From time to time I found fellow passengers looking quizzically as though the bus had perhaps broken down.

As a passenger, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the sound of the downsized engine and the electric-generator so I can’t say for certain, but my impression was that the engine on this bus was used for perhaps less than half the journey. I can though say for certain that for most of the journey the sounds of the traffic outside the bus were louder than the sounds on the inside.

An interesting additional sound added to this bus comes from a loudspeaker inside the bus positioned over the front door. On Paris buses passengers enter by the door at the front and leave by the doors in the centre, so when the front door on this bus opens, a voice announces the direction in which the bus is travelling – in this case, “Neuilly – Hôpital American”, that being the last stop on the route. It’s a small, but useful addition since it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve got on an unfamiliar bus and set off in the wrong direction!

Given the importance that RATP attach to the sound architecture of the public transport system, it goes without saying that all the announcements on this bus are made by a real human voice rather than a computerised voice.

Even if you don’t managed to navigate the whole of this recording, I’m sure you will still get a sense of quiet where quiet is not usually found. And it’s certainly worth comparing the sounds of this journey with the sounds of the full-blown diesel engine bus waiting at the traffic lights earlier in this post.


Arrival at home

As a professional listener to Paris and an archivist of the city’s contemporary soundscape I found the sounds of the Iveco hybrid bus plying the 82 bus route not only interesting but also valuable. The sounds are a vision of the future but they are also transitory sounds – they weren’t here yesterday and they won’t be here tomorrow. They represent a specific moment in the history of the city. Once the diesel engine buses are eliminated and the all-electric and biogas buses become common currency, the hybrid buses and their sounds will disappear from the Parisian soundscape forever – but they will live on in my Paris Soundscapes Archive.

Although the hybrid buses represent a transitional phase, an all-electric bus route has already begun operating in Paris. The 341 bus route from Place Charles-de-Gaulle to Porte de Clignancourt saw the first all-electric bus begin operating in May this year. In all, 20 all-electric buses will operate this route. The buses have a range of 180 km and the batteries are recharged at night to avoid overloading the electrical supply system.

And finally, in case you think the significant reduction, and sometimes the absence, of noise in an all-electric or a hybrid bus makes for a soulless journey, be reassured. Riding over the intermittent stretches of Parisian pavé remains the same bone-shattering experience that it’s always been!


The sharp-eyed reader will notice that I left the Jardin du Luxembourg on an 82 bus numbered ‘6005’ but the picture of my arrival at home shows an 82 bus numbered ‘6002’. Well spotted! The explanation is that I did complete the journey on ‘6005’ but it moved off before I could take a picture of it after I alighted. So to capture the shot I waited for the next bus to come along, which was ‘6002’.


The 82 Bus Route


In Search of ‘Quiet’ Paris

Today is August 15th, Assumption Day, a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics in France and a public holiday. It’s a day when most businesses and shops are closed and coming as it does in the midst of the holiday season it’s a day when it seems as though Paris is shut!


There are only two days of the year when my normally bustling little street is deserted, Christmas Day and August 15th, so at lunchtime today I went out to experience the atmosphere.

The street had a surreal feel to it. In this usually busy street the shops were shut and there were almost no people.


The Monoprix, the bane of my life, was shuttered:


The cheese shop was closed:


And so was the butchers.

Save for the Monoprix, most of the shops in my street are not closed just for today; most of them are closed for the month of August! It has always puzzled me how shopkeepers can afford to do that.


While I’m perfectly happy to go without chocolate from Jeff de Bruges for a month, I find it much harder to forgive my local hostelry for shutting up shop throughout August.


So what does my little street sound like in August when it’s empty?

During this year’s holiday season, when sensible Parisians abandon the heat and excessive humidity of the city for more agreeable climes, I’ve been taking advantage of their absence to try to search out ‘quiet’ sounds of Paris. It’s a Sisyphean task, ‘quiet’ is a rare commodity in the Parisian soundscape.


August sounds in my street:


Today, my little street was remarkably quiet although ‘quiet’ is a relative term. The incessant sound of the traffic from the eight-lane Avenue Charles de Gaulle in the distance still drifted in on the wind but the usual sounds of people going about their daily lives were absent. Without the sounds of the people my street seemed to take on a melancholy air.

During this holiday season I’ve been thinking about ‘quiet’ and what quiet actually means in the context of the urban soundscape. I’ve concluded that ‘quiet’ isn’t necessarily the absence of noise, but rather it’s a state where individual sounds, which are always there but usually shrouded in a cloak of more aggressive often unwelcome sounds, are allowed for once to speak and tell their own story.

For example, I’ve walked along this street for over seventeen years and never before heard the rustle of the leaves on the trees or the sound of birdsong. I heard both today. The rustle of the leaves and the birdsong have always been there but they’ve always been shrouded in a cloak of dominant man-made sounds – people and endless traffic. Today, a passing car was an event worth listening to rather than a perpetual nuisance.

At the end of August, Parisians will return from their vacances and we will enter that bizarre period known as la rentrée, the fifth season of the French year nestling between summer and autumn. But, despite that, I shall continue my search for ‘quiet’ Paris – something almost as elusive as a pink unicorn!