THE TEMPLE DE LA SIBYLLE may not be the highest point in Paris but it does sit atop a man-made cliff fifty metres above an artificial lake in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Inspired by the Temple of Vesta near Rome, the Temple de la Sibylle is the central feature of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a park opened in 1867 for the recreation and pleasure of the rapidly growing population of the then new 19th and 20th arrondissements of Paris, which had been annexed to the city in 1860.
Situated close to the former Gibet de Montfaucon, the gallows and gibbet of the Kings of France where, up until 1760, the bodies of executed criminals were left hanging as a warning to the public, the site on which the Parc des Buttes Chaumont now stands became, after the 1789 Revolution, a refuse dump and then a place for cutting up horse carcasses and a depository for sewage.
Fascinating as this is, I will leave a more detailed exploration of the park with its former gypsum and limestone quarries, its temple, its lawns, its lake and its grotto for another time. In this post I want to explore something different.
For several years I’ve been visiting the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, partly because it’s a nice place but more importantly because it’s a place that has become a focus for a particularly challenging aspect of my work.
I record urban soundscapes, particularly the soundscapes of Paris, and I’ve learned a lot about how to record urban soundscapes by studying the philosophy, images and techniques of great photographers.
The best photographers seem to be able to condense wisdom into succinct sentences:
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
– Ansel Adams
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
– Robert Frank
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
– Robert Capa
Although the context of these quotations is of course photography they apply equally to sound recording and particularly to the recording of urban soundscapes.
Robert Capa’s dictum, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’, is especially relevant to my work. Key to recording urban soundscapes is to become part of the soundscape without changing the soundscape, in other words to get close to the sounds without changing the overall soundscape. Over the years, and after much trial and error, I’ve developed techniques for doing this.
But there remains a challenge in my urban soundscape recording work that is not covered by Robert Capa’s dictum, in fact it’s the antithesis of it, and it’s a challenge that I’ve been trying to address in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
This is the view over the 19th arrondissement from the Temple de la Sibylle on top of the cliff in the park. The lake is 50 metres below the Temple and the tower blocks in the distance are 1.5 km away.
Although my photograph is unlikely to win any prizes it does I hope reflect the prospect from the Temple de la Sibylle along the Avenue de Laumière to the tower blocks at La Villette. The picture has a sense of perspective with the lake and its surrounding path in the foreground, the road crossing from left to right and the start of the Avenue de Laumière in the centre, the tower blocks in the distance and the hill beyond in the far distance.
My challenge is: how to capture the soundscape associated with an image that took 1/250th of a second to make, which stretches from 50 metres below me to over 1.5 km ahead of me. In other words: how to capture in sound the elusive concept of perspective.
With today’s sophisticated technology it’s possible to manipulate sounds in post-production to create almost any effect you want. But despite all the gadgetry, perspective remains perhaps the only thing that cannot be created in post-production; it has to be captured on location in real time.
If you listen to wildlife recordings you will often hear wonderful examples of perspective captured in sound but capturing perspective in a busy urban environment is an enormous challenge.
Getting Things in Perspective:
This recording is a 20-minute sonic exposure of the scene looking out over the 19th arrondissement recorded from the edge of the cliff directly in front of the Temple de la Sibylle. Whereas Robert Capa’s dictum would require me to be close to the sounds, here I am doing the opposite – attempting to capture a sense of perspective by recording from a distance.
I chose to make this recording in the middle of a weekday afternoon – exactly the wrong time one might argue to achieve a ‘perfect’ recording. It would surely have been better to record at six o’clock in the morning as the area was waking up or at eleven o’clock at night as it was going to sleep. Well, apart from the fact that the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is closed at those times, it depends upon what one means by a ‘perfect’ recording.
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”, Ansel Adams tells us and, in the context of my work in Paris, ‘perfect’ recordings are a fuzzy concept. The Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be, so I try to make good recordings of course, but I’m much more interested in capturing reality than perfection.
Robert Frank suggests that, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks” – good advice that translates well to the world of sound recording. I usually describe myself as a ‘professional listener’ rather than a sound recordist. Time spent listening before pressing the ‘Record’ button is always time well spent.
While hearing is instinctive, listening is an art that has to be learned and while my recording from the Temple de la Sibylle may seem to be dominated by the ribbon of traffic passing across the centre of the scene, attentive listening will reveal much more.
People it seems are wedded to their motorcars so, like in most cities, traffic overwhelms most of the streets of this city. The Mayor of Paris is trying to alleviate this to some extent but I fear she is facing an uphill struggle. In the meantime, the sound of traffic will continue to dominate the Parisian soundscape and subjugate pedestrians to unacceptable levels of noise and noxious pollution. As I said earlier, the Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be!
But underneath the ribbon of traffic other sounds are fighting to be heard.
The sound of ducks in the lake below me can be heard throughout the piece, as can a distant church clock sounding three o’clock and an even more distant church bell chiming.
A testosterone fuelled young man makes an appearance to my right shouting to his friend on the far side of the park, there are the obligatory sirens, this time from the red ambulances of the sapeurs-pompiers de Paris, and in the far distance the very faint sound of a car alarm.
But perhaps the most surprising thing in the piece is one of the shortest and quietest sounds. It occurs twelve minutes into the piece and it’s the sound of an angler sitting on the bank of the lake fifty metres below me reeling in a fish. The sound only lasts for six seconds (it must have been a very small fish) so don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
This recording is one of many I’ve made from the hills in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont over the years attempting to capture the perspective looking out over the 19th arrondissement.
All the recordings are different but so far none of them have quite managed to capture the idyllic perspective I have in my imagination. Chasing that ideal continues to be a challenge – but that’s why it’s so endlessly fascinating.
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
– Elliott Erwitt
Judging an appropriate level to listen to sounds can be a tricky business. As a guide, the traffic at the head of the Avenue de Laumière was approximately 500 metres from my recording position so the level that you listen to these sounds at should reflect that. Less is more!