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
OF ALL THE PARISIAN passages couverts that sprang up mainly in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Galerie Vivienne was perhaps the most fashionable.
The passages couverts, or covered passages, were an early form of shopping arcade concentrated either in the fashionable area around the Palais Royal, the Boulevard des Italiens and the Boulevard Montmartre, or around the less fashionable rue Saint-Denis.
Of the one hundred and fifty original passages couverts, only twenty now remain and I’ve been to all of them to record and archive their contemporary soundscapes for my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
The Galerie Vivienne was built in 1823 by the Président de la chamber des Notaires, maître Marchoux. Marchoux lived at N°6 rue Vivienne and he built the Galerie Vivienne around his house and three adjoining properties he acquired, including the former stables of the duc d’Orléans, and a terraced house and garden overlooking the rue des Petits-Champs.
The French architect, and winner of the prix de Rome in 1778, François-Jean Delannoy was commissioned to design and build the passage. His design successfully turned an irregular ‘L’ shaped, slightly inclined passage into a remarkably attractive shopping arcade while integrating the existing buildings.
Galerie Vivienne in the 1820s
The Galerie Vivienne was opened for business in 1826. It boasted seventy boutiques including a tailor, a boot-maker, a wine merchant, a restaurant, a haberdashery, a confectioner, an engravings dealer, a hosier and a glassblower. The gallery also hosted the Cosorama, where one could view scenes of distant lands and exotic subjects through optical devices that magnified the pictures and the Unanorama, where you could observe the stars.
The Empire style decoration inside the galerie combines arches, pilasters and cornices. The high glass ceilings are embellished with friezes representing the symbols of success (crowns of laurels, sheaves of corn and palms), of wealth (horns of plenty) and commerce (the caduceus of Mercury).
The Italian mosaic artist, Giandomenico Facchina, created the mosaic floor.
Sounds inside the Galerie Vivienne:
These are the contemporary sounds inside the Galerie Vivienne, recorded a few days ago. But we do have a record of the impression the nineteenth century sounds of the galerie made on one person: the composer, Hector Berlioz.
In 1830, a few days after the July Revolution, Berlioz went out into the streets of Paris and was mixed up with a crowd filling the Galerie Vivienne and the neighbouring Galerie Colbert. He writes in his Memoirs:
“It must be imagined that the gallery which terminated at the Rue Vivienne was full, that the one into the Rue Neuve des Petits-Champs was full, that the middle rotunda was full, that these four or five thousand voices were piled up in a sound-room closed to the right and left (…) at the top by stained-glass windows, at the bottom by resounding slabs (…), and one may imagine the effect of this fiery refrain (…) I fell to the ground, and our little company, terrified at the explosion, was struck with absolute silence, like the birds after a thunderclap.”
With the coming of the retail revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, the new department stores springing up across the city signaled the demise of all of the Parisian passage couverts.
When Hermance Marchoux, daughter of maître Marchoux, died in 1870 the Galerie Vivienne was bequeathed to the Institut de France, but by 1897 the gallery was deserted and in 1903 it faced the prospect of demolition.
It did manage to survive though although it wasn’t until the 1970s and the revival of interest in the architectural heritage of the passages couverts, that it gradually returned to life.
Kenzo held a fashion show in the galerie in 1970 and then, a little later, more fashion shops began to appear. It was the arrival of Jean-Paul Gaultier in 1986, which established the Galerie Vivienne once again as a place of Parisian high fashion. The lustre of the Galerie Vivienne had returned.
Two of the boutiques in today’s Galerie Vivienne have a long pedigree.
The wine merchant, arguably one of the best in Paris, Lucien Legrand Filles & Fils is one of the longest established boutiques in the galerie, still occupying its original position.
The oldest surviving boutique can be found at N° 45 Galerie Vivienne: the Librairie Jousseaume. Established in 1826, some say this is the oldest surviving bookshop in Paris.
The bookshop was bought in 1900 by M. Petit-Siroux who then bought the boutique opposite, at N° 46.
Located between the Palais Royal, the Paris Bourse and the Grands Boulevards, the Galerie Vivienne lies at the heart of fashionable Paris. Despite coming close to destruction at the turn of the nineteenth century, the galerie now boasts prestigious labels and quality artisans that link both past and present. The sumptuous architecture, delicate mosaics and grand statues have been wonderfully preserved, and the shops and restaurants are seriously chic and expensive!
PARIS TRAMWAYS DATE BACK to the mid-nineteenth century with the first city tram route opening in 1855. At its peak in the 1920s, the tramway network incorporated some 122 lines and upwards of 1,000 km of track. By the 1930s though, the internal combustion engine reigned supreme and the number of motor cars and motor buses on the roads signalled the end of the tramways. The last of the tram lines in Paris, Porte de Saint-Cloud to Porte de Vincennes, closed in 1937, and the last line in the entire Paris agglomeration, running between Le Raincy and Montfermeil, ended service in 1938.
Carte postale ancienne éditée par Cormault, N°136 Paris
Paris and the surrounding region had to wait for almost sixty years before a new tramway network began to appear with a new generation of trams. First came Line T1, opened in 1992 followed by Line T2 in 1997, Lines T3 and T4 in 2006, Lines T5 and T7 in 2013 and Lines T6 and T8 in 2014. Some of these lines have already been extended and further extensions are planned. And two further new lines are planned: Line T9 is scheduled to open in 2020 and Line T10 in 2021.
Of the nine tramways currently operating in the Île-de-France region (Line T3a and T3b count as two separate lines) most operate within the suburbs around Paris, with only two lines, T3a and T3b, running entirely within the city limits, although line T2 does so for part of its route.
One of the suburban tramways is Line T8, the latest tramway to be opened, and I went to take a ride on it.
Image courtesy of RATP
After a trial running of four weeks without passengers, Line T8 opened in December 2014. The tramway runs 8·5 km north from Saint-Denis – Porte de Paris to Delaunay-Belleville, where it splits into two branches, terminating at Villetaneuse-Université and Epinay-Orgemont. There are a total of 17 stops and, in another example of RATP’s joined-up thinking, interchange is provided with metro Line 13, tram line T1 and RER Line C.
I caught a tram at Saint-Denis and travelled to Epinay-Orgemont in Epinay-sur-Seine.
The journey took 22 minutes and included 13 stops, the other 4 stops being on the branch line to Villetaneuse.
Villetaneuse is planned to be a future station on the new Tangental North line, a €1.5 billion suburban tram-train line that will interchange with existing SNCF Transilien trains, trams, metro, and Réseau Express Régional (RER) lines A, B, C, D and E. This line is scheduled for completion in 2023.
Epinay-sur-Seine is no stranger to trams. The tramway Enghien (Cygne d’Enghien) – Trinité (Église de la Trinité à Paris) was opened by the Compagnie des Tramways électriques du Nord-Parisiens on 26th September 1900. The line survived until March 1935 when it was replaced by a bus route.
Le Tramway Enghien-Trinité sur la route nationale à Épinay, avant 1912
I didn’t have to wait long for a tram for my return journey from Epinay to Saint-Denis. The trams run every six minutes, although along the stretch from the Delaunay-Belleville stop, where the two branch lines meet, to Saint-Denis they run every three minutes.
Tram Line 8 – Epinay-Orgemont to Saint-Denis – Porte de Paris:
Tram Line 8 operates with a fleet of 20 low-floor Alstom Citadis trams assembled at Alstom’s La Rochelle factory. Each tram is 32 metres long and 2.4 metres wide, made up of five sections with capacity for 200 passengers. The trams include air-conditioning, CCTV, a passenger counting system and audiovisual passenger information. Some 55,000 passengers use Tram Line 8 every day, which amounts to 16 million passengers per year.
Constructing Tram Line 8 was a formidable task. The project, implemented by GCF, Generale Costruzioni Ferroviarie, in a consortium set-up with Esaf and Laforet, had to contend with a route running through a densely populated residential area characterised by a high volume of traffic. During construction, efforts were made to reduce pollution involving dust, gas and noise, as well as achieving maximum vibration reduction. Steps were also taken in advance over the entire length of the line to ensure the physical protection of trees by masking them to safeguard against the possible effects of shock caused by mechanical equipment.
Today, the tramway network around Paris amounts to some 105km of track with more still to come. The tramway network may be far short of its peak in the 1920s but riding today’s trams is a convenient and comfortable way to travel and I thoroughly recommend it.
Tram Line 8 Terminus at Saint-Denis – Porte de Paris
SOME NINETEENTH CENTURY OBSERVERS of Paris were quite forthright in their impressions of the sonic tapestry of the city.
For example, the American writer John Sanderson arrived in Paris for the first time in July 1835 and he wasn’t over impressed with what he found …
“All things of this earth seek, at one time or another, repose – all but the noise of Paris. The waves of the sea are sometimes still, but the chaos of these streets is perpetual from generation to generation; it is the noise that never dies.”
John Sanderson, Sketches of Paris: In Familiar Letters to His Friends (1838)
And in 1837, the journalist and flâneuse Delphine de Girandin wrote …
“In Paris today, the day is a perpetual concert, a series of uninterrupted serenades; Parisien ears have not one instant of rest.”
Delphine de Girandin: Lettres parisiennes du Vicomte de Launay: August 25, 1837
For John Sanderson the ‘noise that never dies’ included the sound of the notorious cries de Paris, the often piercing cries of the street traders hawking their wares, as well as the sound of traffic:
“… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
Delphine de Girandin’s ‘perpetual concert’ was aimed at the itinerant street musicians:
“Starting in the morning, the organs of Barbary divide up the neighbourhoods of the city; an implacable harmony spreads over the city. [ … ] Finally, in the evening, great serenades! Violins, galoubets, flutes, guitars, and Italian singers! It’s a concert to die for, and there is no refuge; all this takes place under your window, it’s a residential concert that you cannot possibly avoid.”
And so to Paris in the twenty-first century; has anything changed?
The kind of sounds that John Sanderson and Delphine de Girandin encountered still exist in modern day Paris although the emphasis has changed.
The cries de Paris are now largely confined to the traders in the street markets although one can still come across men (it’s almost always men) calling out ‘Le Monde’ as they meander from café to café selling the afternoon edition of the daily newspaper. The street musicians still ply their trade although not quite so prolifically as in the nineteenth century. And then there’s the traffic! The sound of traffic pervades almost every nook and cranny of the city today and it can be overpowering and it’s perpetual; it really is the noise that never dies.
I spend a lot of time listening to Paris, so the notion of the city as a perpetual concert chimes with me. For me, it’s not just the street music that forms the concert, but rather all the sounds of the city. I see each individual sound, musical or not, as a dot on a score which, when added together, form a complete sonic composition. Or, to use a different metaphor, one might consider individual sounds as the warp and the weft, which, when woven together, form a sonic tapestry depicting the city.
Perhaps I can illustrate the notion of the city as a perpetual concert by recounting my perambulation around a part of Paris last Saturday afternoon.
I began at the Jardin du Luxembourg where I came upon this gentleman playing one of Delphine de Girandin’s organs of Barbary.
Street organ at the Jardin du Luxembourg:
Outside the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg this little street organ sounds quite charming but, in different circumstances, I take Delphine de Girandin’s point: “ … there is no refuge; all this takes place under your window, it’s a residential concert that you cannot possibly avoid.”
Listening to this street organ, it’s impossible not to notice the pervading background sound of the passing traffic.
So let’s consider the sound of traffic, or as John Sanderson put it: “… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
From the Jardin du Luxembourg, I walked the short distance to the Église Saint-Sulpice and then to the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
The Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is home to the church of the former Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, founded in the 6th century, and the famous café Les Deux Magots, once the rendezvous of the literary and intellectual élite of the city.
But for our purposes, the important thing about the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is that it is paved with John Sanderson’s rough stones.
When people ask me what my favourite sound of Paris is I usually decline to answer. But if asked what sound most typifies Paris then my answer is unequivocal: “… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
Traffic over the pavé in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
The Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés revealed the sounds of passing cycles, cars, the occasional two-wheeler, a luggage trolley and, with a nod to John Sanderson, at least three omnibuses.
And these sounds deserve to be listened to attentively because, thanks to the pavé, the pervasive, noise polluting, cacophonous traffic noise that blights this city seems to have been transformed into a soporific, almost musical composition.
My guess is that most of the people in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Saturday afternoon were probably unaware of these sounds other than providing them with a faint sonic background to their dash from the church to the café. Yet for someone wired up like me, these sounds not only form part of the perpetual concert but they also screech, Paris!
Having listened so far to modern day examples of Delphine de Girandin’s organs of Barbary and John Sanderson’s rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, it’s possible to take the notion of the city as a perpetual concert a stage further.
A few steps away from the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the Rue de l’Abbaye, a street named after the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It’s a narrow street running some 170 metres from Rue Guillaume Apollinaire to Rue de l’Echaudé and, although Paris is a bustling, sound rich city, Rue de l’Abbaye is one of the few streets shrouded in relative quiet.
So can a quiet street like Rue de l’Abbaye contribute to our perpetual concert? To find out, I perched myself on the steps of N° 3 Rue de l’Abbaye, the Institut Catholique de Paris, known in English as the Catholic University of Paris, and began to record.
Sounds in rue de l’Abbaye:
In Rue de l’Abbaye we find the human and avian species intertwined; the footsteps, the voices and the rustle of clothing as people pass by interlaced with the gentle cooing of the pigeons enjoying a late lunch and the flapping of their wings as they flutter to and fro in search of a tastier morsel. The occasional traffic sounds are in proportion to the surrounding ambient sounds rather than dominating them.
It takes concentrated listening to get the most out of these sounds but the effort is worth it because what is revealed is yet another strand to the city as a perpetual concert.
To complete my afternoon’s listening I returned to the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés and one of Delphine de Girandin’s great serenades! Not the violins, galoubets, flutes, guitars, and Italian singers she referred to but instead, the Dixieland jazz style of the early twentieth century.
Jazz in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
This group of jazz musicians can be found most Saturdays at the southwest corner of Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés entertaining an enthusiastic audience comprising mostly tourists.
In conclusion, I look upon Paris as a city of perpetual concert in which all the sounds the city has to offer, ranging from the loud, brash and often unwelcome to the subtle and understated, are performers of equal value. John Sanderson refers to the noise that never dies and Delphine de Girandin to Parisien ears have not one instant of rest, both of which are true: the city is never without sound so the concert is perpetual. It’s just a question of learning to appreciate it.
Important Listening Note:
It’s a quirk of our times that when we listen to recorded sound we tend to crank up the volume too much. In order for you to appreciate the sounds featured in this post I have set the levels so that the sounds correctly relate to each other. In other words, the sounds will replay at the same level relative to each other as I heard them when they were recorded.
To get the best effect, set the level of your listening device to the sounds of the street organ remembering that less is always more! Then keep your listening device set to the same level for all the other sounds.
SOME TIME AGO I reported that the Gare du Nord, one of the six main line railway stations in Paris and the busiest railway station in Europe, is undergoing a transformation. But it’s not only the Gare du Nord that is being transformed. On the left bank of the Seine, in the southeastern part of the city, another Parisian main line station is having a major facelift.
Since 2012, work has been underway at Gare de Paris Austerlitz, usually called Gare d’Austerlitz, to construct four new platforms, refurbish the existing tracks and rebuild the station interior. The renovation work will be completed by 2020 thus doubling the capacity of the station to accommodate some of the current TGV Sud-Est and TGV Atlantique services which will be transferred from Gare de Lyon and Gare Montparnasse, both of which are at maximum capacity.
The redevelopment of Gare d’Austerlitz is not confined to the station itself. It will also include developing some 100,000 M² of land between the station and the neighbouring Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière to include housing, offices, public facilities and businesses.
Built in 1840 to serve first the Paris-Corbeil then the Paris-Orleans line, the station, known originally as Gare d’Orléans, underwent its first makeover between 1862 and 1867 to a design by the French by architect Pierre-Louis Renaud, much of which is what we see today.
The name, Gare d’Austerlitz was adopted to commemorate Napoléon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805.
Métro Line 5 arrived at Gare d’Austerlitz in 1906, the station survived the great flood of 1910 and in 1926 it became the first Parisian railway station to stop handling steam trains when electrification arrived.
Although the smallest of the Parisian main line stations, until the late 1980s Gare d’Austerlitz was one of the busiest with services not only to Orléans but also to Bordeaux and Toulouse. However, with the introduction of the TGV Atlantique using Gare Montparnasse, Gare d’Austerlitz lost most of its long-distance southwestern services and the station became a shadow of its former self. About 30 million passengers a year currently use Gare d’Austerlitz, about half as many as use Gare Montparnasse and a third as many as use the Gare du Nord.
The 21st century makeover of Gare d’Austerlitz will see the station upgraded to handle TGV trains, some of its former southwestern services restored and its capacity doubled.
Capturing the sounds of Paris is what I do and capturing changing soundscapes of the city has a special fascination for me. Any renovation of public spaces not only changes the visual aspect of the place but also its soundscape and so I am anxious to follow how the soundscape of the Gare d’Austerlitz will change as the current development unfolds.
This is what the station sounds like today:
Gare d’Austerlitz and its sounds:
It will be interesting to compare these sounds with sounds recorded from the same place in 2020 when the work is completed.
Of course, we don’t have to wait until 2020 to find a changing soundscape around Gare d’Austerlitz. We only have to go up from the main station platforms to the Métro station Gare d’Austerlitz to discover how soundscapes change over time.
These are sounds I recorded on the Métro station platform in 2011 when the old, bone shaking, MF67 trains were running.
Métro Line 5 – Gare d’Austerlitz in 2011
And these are sounds I recorded this year from exactly the same place. The difference is that the old rolling stock has been replaced with the newer, more energy efficient, smoother running, much more comfortable, air-conditioned, MF01 trains.
Métro Line 5 – Gare d’Austerlitz in 2017
The old MF67 trains no longer ply Line 5 of the Paris Métro and their iconic sounds have gone forever. I believe that the everyday sounds that surround us are as much a part of our heritage as the magnificent buildings that grace this city and, although change is inevitable and often for the better, the sounds we lose in the process deserve to be preserved.
Just as the sounds on Métro Line 5 have changed so will the sounds in and around Gare d’Austerlitz as its renovation unfolds. And I will be there to capture the changing soundscape for posterity.