HOME FOR SOME, a workplace for others and a thoroughfare for all, the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot in the 11th arrondissement is a narrow street linking the relatively quiet Rue Amelot and the very busy Boulevard Voltaire.
Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot from Rue Amelot
At 275 metres long and 3.5 metres wide the street hosts a large Renault garage, offices for the telecommunications company, Orange, student accommodation and apartment buildings. There are no cafés, restaurants or shops. Cars may pass along the street but a speed limit of 15 km/h is in force.
Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot from Boulevard Voltaire
The Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot has been on my soundwalk ‘to do’ list for some time simply because it’s an ordinary Parisian street, and listening to and capturing the sound tapestry of ordinary Parisian streets, known and used by locals and largely ignored by tourists, appeals to me.
Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot – the offices of ‘Orange’ on the right
Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot – A Soundwalk:
At first hearing you might think these sounds are the ordinary, everyday sounds of an ordinary Parisian street and in one sense they are. But sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, either in reality or metaphorically, all sounds have a context and when you know the context ordinary sounds can sometimes become quite extraordinary.
When you hear the toothless man saying ‘Bon Courage’ and know that he is directing it at a police officer armed with a high-powered rifle, and when you hear the sounds of a police radio you might begin to suspect that all is not what it seems in the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot.
When you know that the wall on the left in the picture above belongs to the Bataclan café and concert venue where 89 people were shot dead on the night of 13th November and when you know that the large door along the wall is where many young people, some injured and others about to die, spilled out onto the street trying to escape, then these ordinary sounds become quite extraordinary.
The Bataclan emergency exit through which some people escaped and where some died
I recorded these sounds ten days on from the attack on the Bataclan. The police presence, although still there, is diminished and the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot is regaining its composure even though stark reminders of the tragic events are still to be seen.
For over a week after the attack, the Bataclan was completely cordoned off and it’s only in the last few days that the cordon has been partially removed. Now, leaving the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot and crossing over the Boulevard Voltaire, it’s possible to get a perspective on the scene.
The Bataclan with the entrance to Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot on the left
I began my work capturing and archiving the sounds of Paris several years ago and at that time I resolved to capture the city’s complex sound tapestry as comprehensively as I could. My aim was to capture sounds from all parts of the city and the surrounding suburbs, to capture sounds ranging from the spectacular to the ordinary and to be part of the soundscape without changing it.
Occasionally, I’ve become part of the media circus jostling with TV and radio crews to get prime position to capture major events but most of my work is carried out as an aural flâneur, working alone, simply observing through active listening. And working alone gives me the advantage of being able to choose where I record and what sounds I record.
Twice this year Paris has been attacked and twice I’ve had to choose what sounds to record to reflect these events.
Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January I published sounds on this blog from the national day of mourning and sounds from the huge wave of public sympathy that followed. I also recorded sounds that I chose not to publish.
Last week, I published sounds on this blog in the aftermath of the latest attacks but I’ve also recorded sounds that I’ve chosen not to publish.
During the last week I’ve visited all the attack sites again and I was surprised to find that I was affected by the experience more than I expected. At each site, although the media circus has long gone, the tributes are still there but the candle flames are dimmed, the flowers are wilting and the written tributes are fading. The pictures of some of the victims though stand out starkly and, looking at the pictures, it’s impossible not to make a personal connection with these victims.
The sounds I recorded in the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot beside the Bataclan may be ordinary, everyday sounds to some but they are extraordinary and very personal sounds to me.
For me, these sounds will always reflect not only a moment in time and a sense of place, a place recovering its composure, but also echoes of the tragedy that took place here and across the city and the emotion that I felt as the events unfolded and in the aftermath.
IMAGINE THE SCENE: It’s 22nd October 1895 and the Granville to Paris express, operated by the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest, is approaching Paris. Steam locomotive No. 721, hauling three baggage vans, a post van and six passenger carriages with 131 people on board, left Granville on time at 8:45 am but it is now several minutes late for its 15:55 scheduled arrival at the Paris Montparnasse terminus.
Trying to make up lost time the driver, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, a 19-year veteran of the company, makes the decision to approach Montparnasse station at cruising speed – some 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph).
Realising that the train is entering the station too fast, Pellerin applies the locomotive’s Westinghouse air brake – but it fails to operate. One of the guards, Albert Mariette, is preoccupied with filling out paperwork as they enter the station and fails to notice in time that train is going faster than it should be. Just as he applies the emergency hand brake the train smashes through the buffer stop.
Amid the deafening noise and with steam belching from the engine and sparks flying, people scatter as the engine clatters across almost 30 metres of the station concourse, crashes through a 60-centimetre thick wall, shoots across a terrace and smashes out of the station, plummeting onto the Place de Rennes 10 metres below where it ends up on its nose.
Photograph by Studio Lévy and Sons
Remarkably, there is only one fatality. Marie-Augustine Aguilard, has been standing in for her husband, a newspaper vendor, while he goes to collect the evening papers. She is hit and killed by falling masonry.
Two passengers, the fireman, two guards and a passerby in the street sustain injuries.
Photograph by Henri Roger-Viollet
In the aftermath, the passenger carriages are undamaged and removed easily and within forty-eight hours work has begun to remove the locomotive and the tender. An attempt is made to move the locomotive with fourteen horses but this fails so a 250 tonne winch is brought to the scene and with 10 men hauling the winch the locomotive is lowered to the ground and the tender lifted the back in to the station.
Gare Montparnasse, 1871 – Photograph by Charles Marville
The station the Granville to Paris express slammed through was built by architect Victor Lenoir and the engineer Eugène Flachat in 1852, replacing the original 1840 Gare de l’Ouest station, which was unable to cope with the mid 19th century growth in traffic.
In 1909 the state bought the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest including the Gare Montparnasse, which it used for new lines to Tours, Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle.
In the 1930s a separate extension was added to the station, the Gare du Maine, designed by the French architect and designer Henri Pacon in Art Deco style. Eventually, this extension became the terminus for the main lines and the old station was reserved for commuter traffic.
Site of the original Gare du Maine extension which was demolished in the 1960s.
Both the 1852 Gare Montparnasse and the Place de Rennes into which the express nose-dived are no more.
In 1951, Place de Rennes was renamed Place du 18 juin 1940 in commemoration of the radio broadcast Charles de Gaulle made from London on 18th June 1940 (L’Appel du 18 juin), in which he urged the French people to resist the Nazi occupiers (who had invaded the previous month), thereby launching the French Resistance Movement.
Place du 18 juin 1940 today – Formerly Place de Rennes and site of the original Gare Montparnasse
During the 1960s, a new Gare Montparnasse, integrated into a complex of office buildings, was built and in 1969, the old station was torn down and the Tour Montparnasse was built in its place.
The Gare Montparnasse today
Over 50 million passengers a year pass through today’s Gare Montparnasse, one of the six mainline railway stations in Paris. They use intercity TGV trains to the west and south-west of France including Tours, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rennes and Nantes, and suburban and regional services on the Transilien Paris – Montparnasse routes. They also use the busy Métro station, an intersection for Métro lines 4, 6, 12 and 13.
I went to the Gare Montparnasse the other day to capture the sounds inside the station. My soundwalk took me from the main entrance, up an escalator to Hall 1 and then to the intercity platforms in time to capture the sounds of the 15:28 departure to Bordeaux and Toulouse.
I was surprised to find that amid the hustle and bustle of the main concourse and the platforms there were places that were relatively calm and quiet. Closer to the platforms of course it was the trains that made their voices heard.
Sounds stimulate the imagination so, if like me, you have a fascination for sound and a sense of history, you might be forgiven for imagining that the sound of the gasps of compressed air escaping from the parked trains are not too far removed from the sound of steam escaping from the Granville to Paris express hurtling towards its resting place in the Place de Rennes.
The Gare Montparnasse in sound:
The fate of the Granville to Paris express was well documented in pictures. As well as the iconic photographs by Studio Lévey and Sons and Henri Roger-Viollet (above), a third equally well-known photograph of the scene by L. Mercier is displayed in the Musée d’Orsay.
But nowhere was the event or its aftermath captured in sound – a good example of just how recent our ability to capture topical sounds is and a perfect example of how much of our sonic history has passed by completely unrecorded.
I’m pleased to say that while I was in the Gare Montparnasse all the trains stayed very firmly on their tracks with none of them attempting to cross the concourse and venture outside!
Gare Montparnasse Platform 9: The 15:28 departure for Bordeaux and Toulouse
“BUILD HERE – BUILD HIGH”, commanded the archangel Michael to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, in the year 708. “If you build it … they will come”. The bishop resisted, that is until the archangel poked a hole in the bishop’s skull to emphasise the point. It was built … and they did come.
Perched on a rocky islet surrounded by treacherous sandbanks exposed to powerful tides stands the Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St Michael together with the village that grew within its protective walls.
For centuries le Mont Saint-Michel has been a place of pilgrimage but it wasn’t the search for salvation that brought me to this rocky islet. Instead, it was a chance remark made in November last year by my Minnesotan friend, Heather. That remark led me, Heather and her husband Steve, to decamp from Paris in mid-September this year to spend a couple of days exploring this remarkable place.
A little history …
Le Mont Saint-Michel stands about one kilometre off the coast of northwest France between Brittany and Normandy at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches.
In prehistoric times, the bay in which it now stands was part of the landmass but millions of years of rising sea levels and erosion reshaped the coastline. The granite rock we now know as le Mont Saint-Michel survived the ocean’s wear and tear leaving it standing in an otherwise flat and ever-changing landscape. The first occupants of the rock, then known as Monte Tombe, were Amorican Gauls who used it as a stronghold of Breton culture and power.
Thanks to the intervention of the archangel Michael (or so legend has it) a church was built on the top of the rock in 708. The Benedictines moved in some two hundred and fifty years later creating the abbey that still stands today.
The mount’s rivalry with neighbouring Normandy came to a head in 933 when William “Long Sword” annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the weakened Dukes of Brittany thus making the mount Norman, and Norman ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
During the Middle Ages a village grew up around the abbey, mostly on the eastern side of the island. During the Hundred Years War between France and England the abbey and the village were surrounded by a fortified wall, which successfully fended off repeated attacks by the English.
There were many ups and downs for the abbey and by the time of the French Revolution there were few monks in residence. Post-Revolution the abbey was converted into a prison holding religious and political prisoners.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that a religious presence returned. Today, the abbey is maintained by monks and nuns from the Fraternity of Jerusalem.
The connection between le Mont Saint-Michel and the mainland has changed over the centuries. Once connected by a tidal causeway uncovered only at low tide, this was converted into a raised, permanently dry causeway in 1879, preventing the tide from scouring the silt around the mount.
The coastal flats were polderised to create pastureland, decreasing the distance between the shore and the island, and the Couesnon River was canalised, reducing the dispersion of the flow of water. Together, these developments encouraged the silting-up of the bay.
In 2006, the French Government stepped in with a €164 million project to build a hydraulic dam using the waters of the river Couesnon and the tides to help remove the accumulated silt and to make Mont Saint-Michel an island again. In July 2014 a new bridge, designed by architect Dietmar Feichtinger, was opened linking the island to the mainland. The bridge allows the waters to flow freely around the island and improves the efficiency of the dam.
Approaching le Mont Saint-Michel from the new bridge and then passing through the medieval gate and crossing the drawbridge into the citadel, we discovered the narrow main street, lined with cafés, restaurants and shops selling trinkets, awash with tourists. Of course, a moment’s thought told me that this was nothing new; this same street has been awash with tourists for centuries.
While a good many of today’s visitors may be ticking off yet another item from their bucket-list of ‘things to do before you die’, in the past many of them would have been pilgrims risking their lives crossing the treacherous sandbanks to get here. Then, just like now, this medieval street would have been lined with eating places and traders catering for the needs of the visitors.
Apart from enjoying the company of my friends, my objective during my visit to le Mont Saint-Michel was to capture the atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage Site in sound.
Staying on the island overnight revealed that le Mont Saint-Michel has two quite distinct soundscapes: the soundscape during the day when all the tourists are there and the soundscape overnight when they are not. I set out to discover both.
The soundscape on le Mont Saint-Michel at dawn:
Listening tip: To get the best effect you should listen to these sounds at the same level that I heard them at the time of recording so it’s best not to crank up the volume too much – less is more!
This soundscape reflects le Mont Saint-Michel coming to life at dawn, the golden hour before the tourist invasion begins.
The first part of the soundscape was recorded from over halfway up the mount next to the cemetery just below the entrance to the abbey. The birds are singing from the rooftops and if you listen very carefully you will hear the distant baa of a sheep and the purr of a motor vehicle being carried on the wind from the mainland beyond.
Le Mont Saint-Michel is still medieval in that there are no motor vehicles so the only access is on foot. Consequently, you can hear the sound of two men manhandling boxes of early morning supplies up the steps to a small hotel close to where I was standing and to another small hotel further up the hill. A bell from the cemetery’s clock tower chimes the quarter-hour interrupting their efforts. The brief sounds of footsteps over gravel are from a nun who has come down from the abbey to pick wild flowers from the cemetery.
From the foot of le Mont Saint-Michel we hear the sounds of waves lapping as the tide comes in and the mount is set to become surrounded by water. The abbey bells give a full-throated peel before fading away to the distant sound of a single bell.
The dawn soundscape passes and as the new day’s visitors arrive the soundscape on le Mont Saint-Michel changes dramatically. The sound of a sea of people fills the air.
I wanted to capture the sounds of this sea of people but not simply the sounds of the endless stream of passing tour groups making their way up the Grand Degré, the narrow, steep, main street. Instead, I wanted to capture sounds that inextricably linked these people to le Mont Saint-Michel – sounds that described the location and told a story.
One place on le Mont Saint-Michel with an easily recognisable ambience of course is the abbey and since visiting the abbey is the main reason most people come to the island it seemed to me to be the most appropriate place from which to record the daytime soundscape.
Perched on top of the rock, eighty metres above sea level, on a platform eighty metres long, the abbey church was built in the early eleventh century. The church with its wood-panelled barrel vault roof is mainly Romanesque in style although after the collapse of the Romanesque chancel in 1421 the chancel was rebuilt after the Hundred Years War in flamboyant Gothic style.
The abbey is a complex structure. With the church perched on top of the rock many underground crypts, chapels and gigantic stone pillars had to be built to support its weight.
The soundscape inside the abbey of le Mont Saint-Michel:
Unlike the dawn soundscape, this soundscape was recorded as a long-form soundwalk. I believe that sounds need the space and the time to breathe, to express themselves and to tell their own story. It takes these sounds thirty-six minutes to tell their story. Apart from topping and tailing, this soundscape has not been edited so what you hear is exactly what happened as it happened. To edit the sounds would be to edit the story and by editing the story the integrity of the soundscape as it was in this place at that time on that day would I think be diminished.
To set the scene …
Heather, Steve and I resolved to visit the abbey. We climbed what seemed like an endless number of steps to get to the abbey entrance but once there we heaved a sigh of relief thinking that we’d finally arrived and the hard work was behind us. Imagine our joy then when, having bought our tickets, we discovered that we had another ninety steps still to climb!
But the extra climb was worth the effort.
The soundwalk begins in the abbey church and then follows a prescribed tourist route spiralling down through the abbey around the tip of the rock. As well as the abbey church, the route includes passing through the cloisters, the refectory, the guest’s hall, the great pillared crypt, Saint Martin’s crypt, the monk’s ossuary, the Saint Etienne chapel, the Knight’s hall and the almonry.
We arrived at the abbey quite late in the afternoon, a little before the ticket office closed. As we moved from the abbey church into the cloisters a rather jovial official appeared and gently ushered us on. As we passed through each door on the tourist route this official followed us and closed and locked each door behind us. It was rather like, ‘last one out turn off the lights!’
In fact, this was a blessing. It meant that we had time to see all there was to see without getting snarled up in the crowd. It also helped me to capture a more modulated soundscape than perhaps I would have done at the height of the day.
As you listen to the soundscape you will hear the ambience change as we move from room to room and as the tide of people ebbs and flows. There are rare periods of near silence as I fell back to let the crowd move ahead and there are times when the tour guides have to tell their flocks to ‘Shush’ because they’re making too much noise.
For me, listening attentively to the sounds around me is my way of observing the world. In my all too brief stay on le Mont Saint-Michel I tried to capture the feel of this remarkable place in sound. Capturing the sounds at dawn without tourists and then in the abbey with the tourists in full cry may not reflect all of the intricately woven sound tapestry of the island but it does perhaps reflect a significant part of it.
Had I been there longer I would no doubt have captured many more sounds but economy of opportunity concentrates the mind.
With my thanks to Heather, our brilliant Chef d’Équipe, without whose energy, enthusiasm and meticulous planning this trip would not have happened. And, of course, to Steve whose company it’s impossible not to enjoy.
IT WAS ORIGINALLY a very ordinary square in Montmartre, a rural village dotted with vineyards and windmills but today, Place du Tertre is one of the most visited squares in Paris. Standing in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur the square is filled with cafés, tourists, artists, street performers and buskers.
Place du Tertre dates back to 1635 when it occupied land owned by the Abbaye de Montmartre, a Benedictine abbey founded in the 12th century. It stands on top of a hill, the Butte Montmartre, and it is from its location that the square derives its name; tertre is the French word for hillock.
As its population increased, Montmartre became an independent commune in 1790 and then in 1860, along with a clutch of other surrounding communes, it was absorbed into the City of Paris.
Although Montmartre is a popular tourist magnet today, it wasn’t always so.
The commune was partially destroyed at the end of March, 1814 in the Battle of Paris when the French surrendered to the coalition forces of Russia, Austria and Prussia forcing the Emperor Napoleon to abdicate and to go into exile. During this time Russian Cossack soldiers set up camp on the hill and, so the story goes, it was at N°6 Place du Tertre, in the café La Mère Catherine, that the Cossacks first introduced the term bistro (Russian for ‘quickly’) into the French lexicon.
Montmartre suffered again during the Revolution of 1848 when the insurgents hid in the underground galleries of the gypsum mines and in the Paris Commune of 1870-71 when it became the cradle of the insurrection. During the Paris Commune, the Communards seized all the canons used for the defence of Paris and gathered them on Place du Tertre.
By the end of the 19th century the character of Montmartre was changing. The extraction of gypsum in the many quarries came to an end, new buildings slowly replaced the vineyards and orchards and some of the windmills were transformed into cabarets.
Place du Tertre, around 1900 : Image courtesy of Paris en Images
“In this bizarre land swarmed a host of colourful artists, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, a few with their own places but most in furnished lodgings, surrounded by the workers of Montmartre, the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolles, sprouting up all over the place, like weeds. Montmartre was home to every kind of artist.”
A thriving bohemian culture driven by its critique of decadent society attracted artists, intellectuals and writers to Montmartre where they frequented its vibrant halls of entertainment and celebrated them in their paintings, literature, and poems. Vincent van Gough, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were just some of the artists who took up residence in the district.
Montmartre reached its artistic zenith around the time of the Exposition Universelle of 1900 by which time it boasted over forty venues comprising cabarets, café-concerts, dance halls, music halls, theatres, and circuses. But it wasn’t to last. The area’s underground bohemian culture had become a part of mainstream bourgeois entertainment and artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and his avant-garde contemporaries lost interest in Montmartre’s nightlife and sought their modern subjects elsewhere.
Artists though are still to be found in Place du Tertre, some with regular pitches in the square and others, more itinerant, walking around capturing the willing, and sometimes the unsuspecting tourists.
Over the years many artists have migrated to Montmartre but one of the few famous ones to have been born there was Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). Utrillo specialised in painting cityscapes and it was with him in mind that I recorded my soundwalk; my sonic equivalent of an Utrillo cityscape.
Place du Tertre – A Soundwalk:
My soundwalk around Place du Tertre captures some of its contemporary atmosphere but, alas, it doesn’t capture the moment on Christmas Eve 1898, when Louis Renault’s first car was driven up the Butte Montmartre to the Place du Tertre, marking the advent of the French automobile industry.
The plaque to mark the arrival of Louis Renault’s first motorcar in Place du Tertre.
Whilst its artists and entertainers might not be quite as illustrious as in the past, Place du Tertre continues to be at the heart of the vibrant community that is Montmartre.
RUE CHARLEMAGNE IS a street in the Marais quarter of the 4th arrondissement of Paris. It stretches for 236 metres from rue Saint-Paul to the junction of rue de Fourcy and rue des Nonnains-d’Hyères.
The green arrow shows my soundwalk along rue Charlemagne
Rue Charlemagne – A Soundwalk:
There’s been a street of some sort hereabouts since the middle of the 14th Century and during its lifetime it has had a variety of names. Originally known as rue de Jouy, the street became rue de l’Abbé-de-Jouy, rue de la Fausse-Poterne, rue de la Fausse-Poterne-Saint-Paul, rue de l’Archet-Saint-Paul and rue des Prêtres-Saint-Paul.
The name, rue Charlemagne, dates from 1844 and it comes from the name of the school in the street, the Lycée Charlemagne, which in turn is named after Charlemagne, or Charles I, King of the Franks, who united most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages and laid the foundations for modern France and Germany.
Rue Charlemagne looking from East to West
The Lycée Charlemagne is a significant feature of the street. It was founded by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1804 although it occupies buildings that are very much older and were once home to the Order of Jesuits.
Main entrance to the Lycée Charlemagne
Today, the Lycée offers two-year courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering science preparing students for entry to the Grandes écoles.
Another significant feature of rue Charlemagne are the longest surviving remains of the Philippe Auguste Wall.
Remains of the Philippe Auguste wall
Before leaving for the Third Crusade, Philip II of France (Philippe Auguste) ordered a stone wall to be built to protect Paris in his absence. The wall was built between 1190 and 1215 and it was 5,100 metres long, between six and eight metres high and enclosed an area of 253 hectares.
These remains of the Philippe Auguste wall stretch from rue Charlemagne along the Jardins Saint-Paul but on the corner with rue Charlemagne are the remains of the Tour Montgomery named after Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, a French nobleman and a captain in King Henry II’s Scots Guards.
Remains of le Tour Montgomery
Montgomery is remembered for mortally wounding King Henry in a jousting accident. For a short time after the accident, Montgomery was imprisoned in what became the Tour Montgomery. From his deathbed Henry absolved Montgomery of any blame, but, finding himself disgraced, Montgomery retreated to his estates in Normandy. There he studied theology and converted to Protestantism, making him an enemy of the state.
Next to the Lycée Charlemagne is the Fontaine Charlemagne, a decorative fountain built against the presbytery wall of the church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis. On the pediment above the fountain are the Coat of Arms of the City of Paris and the Roman numerals indicating the year 1840, the year the fountain was created.
The fountain itself comprises a niche decorated with aquatic plants and animals and a cast iron basin supported by dolphins with a statue of a child holding a seashell over his head.
At the eastern end of rue Charlemagne is a courtyard with a cluster of art and antique shops.
As I walked along rue Charlemagne recording the sounds around me, I came upon some children playing football in the Jardins Saint-Paul in the shadow of the Philippe-Auguste wall.
As I approached, some of these children spilled over into rue Charlemagne itself just below the Tour Montgomery and from there they seemed to form an unexpected centrepiece to my soundwalk.
Rue Charlemagne looking from East to West
AFTER COMPLETING A RECORDING assignment in the 7th arrondissement I found myself in rue du Bac heading for the Métro and home.
Stretching for some 1150 metres from the junction of the Quai Voltaire and the Quai Anatole-France alongside the Seine, rue du Bac crosses the busy boulevard Saint-Germain and ends at rue de Sèvres.
I was at the rue de Sèvres end of the street and so I set off to walk to the Métro station Rue du Bac at the junction of the rue du Bac and the boulevard Raspail, a little over half way along the street, recording the sounds around me as I went.
The green arrow shows my soundwalk and the red arrow shows the continuation of rue du Bac to la Seine
Rue du Bac looking north-east towards la Seine
Rue du Bac takes its name from a ferry (a bac in French) established around 1550 on what is now the quai Voltaire to transport stone blocks for the construction of the Palais des Tuileries. The ferry crossed the Seine at the site of today’s Pont Royal, a bridge constructed under the reign of Louis XIV to replace the Pont Rouge built in 1632.
The street was created between 1600 and 1610 and originally named grand chemin du Bac, then ruelle du Bac, grande rue du Bac and finally simply, rue du Bac.
I began my walk along rue du Bac at one of Paris’ largest department stores, Le Bon Marché.
Le Bon Marché department store
Now owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, Le Bon Marché was founded in 1838 by the entrepreneur, Aristide Boucicault. By 1869, it had developed into one of the first department stores in the world heralding a retail revolution that lives with us to the present day.
Rue du Bac – A Soundwalk:
A little further on from Le Bon Marché I came upon the Chapel of the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, a Roman Catholic missionary organisation. It is not a religious institute, but an organisation of secular priests and lay people dedicated to missionary work overseas.
Chapel of the Société des Missions Étrangers
And then, across the street, the Square des Missions Étrangers.
Rue du Bac is in a rather chic part of Paris and that is reflected in the boutiques lining this part of the street.
This shop, Pierre Farman at N°122 for example, sells vintage aircraft parts – heaven for an aircraft enthusiast like me!
Founded in 1903 by the Austrian confectioner Antoine Rumpelmayer and named after his stepdaughter, Angelina’s has a world-wide reputation for its elegant Salons de Thé and its classiques de la pâtisserie française including its signature Le Mont Blanc comprising meringue, Chantilly légère and vermicelles de crème de marrons.
This pâtisserie in rue du Bac is one of several Angelina’s in Paris and around the world.
A little further on is the Sotheby’s estate agency. I always think that estate agents who display elegant pictures of properties for sale but no prices are best avoided!
And then I came upon …
And finally …
The Métro Station Rue du Bac.
In the earlier part of the day I’d been concentrating on my sound recording assignment so I hadn’t set out to record a soundwalk in this part of rue du Bac but, as it turned out, I’m rather pleased I did. And I think the sounds of a dog barking, a boutique security guard chasing a shoplifter and a church clock striking the hour, all of which I came upon completely by chance, added to the local colour.
TWICE IN THE LAST few weeks I’ve found myself in rue Dénoyez, the fascinating plein air art gallery in the 20th arrondissement where the walls are covered with a kaleidoscope of constantly changing street art.
On the first of my two recent visits to this street I was being interviewed for a prospective radio piece and on the second, I was recording a conversation with my good friend, Heather Munro, who was taking a short break from the dramatic sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota, USA.
On both occasions I was asked about the banner that has appeared across rue Dénoyez, ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – Save rue Dénoyez – and I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea why it was there.
But I can now put that right!
Rue Dénoyez is in Belleville in the east of Paris and before 1860 Belleville was a very lively place. Then, it was outside le mur des Fermiers généraux, the tax wall that surrounded Paris, which meant that alcohol was tax-free and therefore much cheaper than within the then Paris City limits. Consequently people from Paris would come to the cafés, bars and cabarets in Belleville in great numbers to drink and dance and have a good time.
After 1860, all that changed. Belleville was absorbed into the City of Paris and with the advantage of tax-free alcohol now gone Belleville began a long and steady decline. And rue Dénoyez suffered from that decline.
In the 20th century immigrants began to arrive in Belleville with Jews fleeing from Germany coming in the early 1930s and Spaniards in 1939. Many Algerians and Tunisian Jews arrived in the early 1960s and then came an influx from the Maghreb. In the 1980s it was the Chinese and more recently, sub-Saharan Africans. All this has contrived to make Belleville the colourful melting pot of different nationalities that it is today.
Revival for rue Dénoyez began with the arrival of the artists who saw the decaying walls and empty shop fronts as a huge canvas upon which to display their talents.
Today, rue Dénoyez is home to several art galleries like Frichez-Nous la Paix at N° 22 bis and La Maison de la Plage at N°18 bis for example, which provide a space for artists to work and exhibit their work. And the work of these artists also spills over to the walls and surrounding buildings along the street.
So what’s the story behind the banner across the street, ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’?
The banner was erected in early October in response to a proposal to build two subsidised housing projects in the street that could see the end of rue Dénoyez as a plein air street art gallery.
The proposal calls for the buildings between N°18 bis and N° 22 bis to be demolished and replaced with 18 subsidised housing units and a crèche as well as the redevelopment of N° 24 and N° 26 rue Dénoyez and N°10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre.
N° 10 rue de Belleville, Au Vieux Saumer, at the corner of rue Dénoyez
In a city as unaffordable as Paris it’s hard to argue against more subsidised housing but one might ask, as the residents of rue Dénoyez are, why choose this particular street? The local council claim that there is no alternative, this is the only space available they say. Paradoxically, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has expressed her determination to further develop urban art in the city.
Outside the Atelier Hors-Champ I spoke to a man who was about to sign the petition that has been set up. He told me that he thought the development was bound to go ahead and probably the best they could hope for was to delay it. The work is due to start in July 2015.
On the first of my recent visits to rue Dénoyez I recorded a soundwalk along the street, although I didn’t realise at the time that this, along with my other recordings of this street, will become historically significant if and when the development of the street begins and its character inevitably changes. Fairly soon these recordings could become more sounds to add to my list of the ‘vanishing sounds’ of Paris.
Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:
These sounds though are interesting for another reason, a rather amusing and slightly bizarre reason.
Walking along the street I recorded the sounds around me including the sound of the artists shaking their aerosol cans of paint as they went about their work. These sounds were to take a bizarre twist as I came towards the end of my walk.
A middle-aged man, obviously in the midst of a mid-life crisis, had been watching an artist at work. When the artist finished and moved off, the man picked up a discarded paint can and for some inexplicable reason decided to bang it against the wall. You can listen to what happened next 6 minutes into my recording.
A little girl was watching the man attentively. She called out to her friend, “Attends! Regarde!”, whereupon the aerosol can exploded showering the man in a haze of white paint. The giggles of the little girl and her friend I thought spoke volumes. As my friend Heather said when I told her this story, “Voilà la justice!”
If the proposed development does go ahead the character of rue Dénoyez will undoubtedly change, but my abiding memory of the street will always be the sound of that exploding aerosol can. Somehow, it seems to portend the arrival of the wrecking ball.
So, as my tribute to rue Dénoyez and its artists it seemed fitting to use the sounds of the exploding can and turn them into my own small piece of street art – my contribution to the legacy of this colourful street.
Rue Dénoyez – The exploding can: (Best listened to with headphones)
AS PART OF MY RESEARCH for an audio project I’m working on about the Paris Commune of 1871, I found myself in the 13th arrondissement in the Butte-aux-Cailles area of Paris. My intention was to visit the office and bookshop of Les Amis de la Commune de Paris (1871) in rue des Cinq-Diamants to browse the literature they have about the Paris Commune and see what might help with my research. I should have known though that it would be folly to turn up without checking first to make sure that the office was open and, of course, it was not!
Office and bookshop of Les Amis de la Commune de Paris (1871)
Still, thanks to the tail end of our Indian summer, the weather was delightful and so I decided to stay and spend the rest of the afternoon exploring this part of Paris including doing a soundwalk along the main street, rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles.
Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles – A Soundwalk:
I began my soundwalk at the little square at the western end of the rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, Place de la Commune de Paris 1871, one of twenty-three squares and streets in Paris named after the Paris Commune or the people associated with it. There’s another example at the eastern end of the rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles where another square, Place Paul Verlaine, is named after the French poet and member of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune, and yet another at the foot of the Butte-aux-Cailles, Boulevard Auguste Blanqui, named after the French socialist and revolutionary who was one of the group that briefly seized the reins of power on 31 October 1870 for which he was condemned to death in absentia on 9 March 1871.
Place de la Commune de Paris 1871
As I walked along the street listening to the everyday sounds around me, I couldn’t help reflecting upon the Paris Commune of 1871 since that’s what had brought me here on this sunny October afternoon.
Place de la Commune de Paris 1871
In 1870, thanks to his increasing unpopularity at home and France’s waning power abroad, Napoleon III decided to embark upon an ill-fated war against a coalition of German states led by Prussia. On 1st September 1870, France was defeated at the Battle of Sedan, Napoleon III was deposed and the Second Empire collapsed.
After the debacle of Sedan, Prussian forces advanced on Paris and the city was besieged for four months until it was finally captured in January 1871 bringing the war to an end.
A new French government of National Defence was quickly established and an armistice, ratified on 1 March 1871, included a provision for the election of a French National Assembly, which would have the authority to conclude a peace with Germany.
However, provincial royalists dominated this new French national government and when the government moved from Paris out to Versailles republican Parisians feared a return to a monarchy.
Adolphe Thiers, executive head of the provisional national government, disarmed the National Guard, a citizens’ militia organised to assist in the defence of Paris during the siege and made up primarily of ordinary working people – and another French revolution was born.
The revolutionaries dominated municipal elections in March 1871 and organized a communal government, the Commune de Paris. Commune members included Jacobins who followed Revolutionary traditions of 1793, Proudhonists who supported a nation-wide federation of communal governments, and Blanquistes who demanded violent action to bring about change.
Following the quick suppression of several communes across France, the Versailles government attacked the revolutionaries, the Fédérés as they became known, completely crushing them. In what can only be described as a spectacular act of state terrorism, some 20,000 Communards, as well as those suspected of being Communards, were massacred during a single week known as La Semaine Sanglante, Bloody Week. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the national government continued to take harsh repressive measures following their victory, imprisoning and exiling many of the remaining Communards.
In the short time it existed as a communal government, the Paris Commune implemented the separation of the church from the state, the introduction of free and obligatory primary education, the remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which payment had been suspended), the abolition of night work in the hundreds of Paris bakeries, the granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed on active service, the free return by the city pawnshops of all workmen’s tools and household items valued up to 20 francs pledged during the siege, the postponement of commercial debt obligations and the abolition of interest on the debts, the right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner (the Commune, nonetheless, recognized the previous owner’s right to compensation) and the prohibition of fines imposed by employers on their workmen.
What else the Paris Commune might have achieved had it not been so brutally repressed we can only guess.
Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles
Of course, what I’ve set out above is only a thumbnail sketch of the events leading up to the Paris Commune and the life – and death – of the Commune itself. But it was this sketch that I had in my mind as I walked along rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles. And I also had in mind that, in the fight to suppress the Paris Commune, the Bataille de la Butte-aux-Cailles took place hereabouts. The Polish politician and Communard General, Walery Antoni Wróblewski, successfully defended the advance of Thiers’ forces, the Versaillais, here for some time until he was eventually pushed back which enabled the Versaillais to capture the entire Left Bank of the Seine and enter the eastern suburbs of Paris where the dénouement was finally played out.
And as I was thinking of all these things, I looked across the street and saw this restaurant, Le Temps des Cerises.
Le Temps des Cerises – The Time of the Cherries
This seemed to be entirely appropriate because Le Temps des Cerises is, in the spirit of the Paris Commune, a Société Coopérative Ouvrière de Production, a workers cooperative. But the name, Le Temps des Cerises, also has another significance.
In 1866, a French socialist, journalist and songwriter, Jean-Baptiste Clément, wrote a song called Le Temps des Cerises which was to become inextricably linked with the Paris Commune. Clément was very active within the Paris Commune and was present at the barricades during La Semaine Sanglante. But, facing the risk of arrest or worse, he managed to flee Paris, went to Belgium and then to London and was then condemned to death in absentia. Parisians had sung Le Temps des Cerises during both the Prussian and Versailles sieges but now Clément dedicated it to:
“Valiant Citizen Louise, the volunteer doctor’s assistant of rue Fontaine-au-Roi, Sunday, 28 May, 1871”
Standing in rue de la Butte-aux-Cailes looking at this restaurant and reflecting on the Paris Commune and particularly on La Semaine Sanglante, the words of Le Temps des Cerises, a sentimental love song that became the anthem of the struggle, and defeat, of the Communards, came back to me …
I will always love the time of the cherries.
I will keep this time in my heart,
An open wound.
Le Temps des Cerises:
Le Temps des Cerises:
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Et gai rossignol et merle moqueur
Seront tous en fête
Les belles auront la folie en tête
Et les amoureux du soleil au cœur
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Sifflera bien mieux le merle moqueur
Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreille…
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang…
Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Pendants de corail qu’on cueille en rêvant !
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Si vous avez peur des chagrins d’amour
Évitez les belles!
Moi qui ne crains pas les peines cruelles
Je ne vivrai pas sans souffrir un jour…
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Vous aurez aussi des peines d’amour !
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
C’est de ce temps-là que je garde au cœur
Une plaie ouverte!
Et Dame Fortune, en m’étant offerte
Ne pourra jamais fermer ma douleur…
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
Et le souvenir que je garde au cœur !
Maximilien Luce – A Street in Paris in May 1871 – Google Art Project
LAST MONTH I HAD the privilege of spending a delightful afternoon in Paris with the Italian architect and researcher in urban design, Dr Antonella Radicchi.
Antonella studied at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (USA) and at the Faculty of Architecture in Florence. She has taught and lectured both in Italy and abroad and since 2011 she has collaborated on research projects with Tempo Reale, the Florence based Centre for Music Research and Education. She has eight years teaching experience at university level and a distinctive record of publications in the field of soundscape studies and urban design.
Her primary research interests centre upon the interaction between people and the environments they inhabit focusing on the involvement of the population into the planning process of urban soundscapes through the development of open source platforms and open data sets.
Antonella is also the editor of the firenzesoundmap, an interactive, open source tool, which has become a collective sound map of the city of Florence through the involvement and the participation of the Florentine population, city users and tourists.
Antonella has kindly agreed to share her reflections about our meeting and also to share the Parisian sounds she recorded.
Soundwalking in Paris by Antonella Radicchi
I have been following the work on Parisian soundscapes by Des Coulam for quite a while and when I was about to leave for Paris in the middle of August I thought I’d drop him a line to ask whether he would be up for soundwalking in Paris. To my great delight, he replied offering to meet up the following Friday. We were to meet in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg at 2pm.
I couldn’t wait!
Since 2007, Des – who describes himself as “a flaneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris, observing through active listening” and, […], capturing “that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed.” – has been recording and archiving the “contemporary sound tapestry” of Paris so carefully and comprehensively that the British Library has been acquiring Parisian field recordings from his archive. Yet, his interest in recording sounds dates back to Christmas Day 1958 when he woke up to find that Father Christmas had brought him a tape recorder!
His idea of a “contemporary sound tapestry” is extremely fascinating: he prefers “sound tapestry” to “soundscape”, which is the widely accepted term, since it always reminds him that our lives are immersed in a complex system of interwoven sounds. Des is used to exploring and binaurally recording the Parisian soundscape through “active” soundwalking, which is quite different from the traditional method – usually practiced along a predetermined path at slow pace with the main purpose of listening to the environment. Whilst Des soundwalks along a predetermined path, which constitutes kind of a reference, he records sounds as if painting a picture: if he hears something special, he immediately goes off the route looking for that, “giving the sounds time to breath and to speak as they all have a story to tell” – as he insightfully commented while we were soundwalking.
So, on August, 15th at 2pm we met in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg and I was immediately surprised by this generous man who offered to let me conduct the soundwalk taking advantage of his binaural recording equipment, which I was very excited to experiment with as I have never used this method before.
Des’ binaural recording equipment – Marantz PMD 661 Mk11 sound recorder and Soundman OKM II Classic in-ear microphones
He also gave me lots of inspiring suggestions about how to soundwalk and about binaural recording techniques.
Me wearing Des’ binaural microphones and listening to Des’ suggestions about how conduct the soundwalk
Then, he was patient enough to answer to all the questions I asked him about soundscape studies, field recording and audio archiving techniques and we ended up debating and formulating hypotheses on the difference between listening to soundscapes in real time and listening to the recorded versions – which so far has remained an open ended question I am still thinking about!
Me and Des chatting about soundscape studies, field recording, and audio archiving techniques.
Finally, it was time to do some soundwalking and recording. We started with a first soundwalk at the Jardin du Luxembourg, which you can listen to here.
Antonella in the Jardin du Luxembourg:
My soundwalk route around the Jardin du Luxembourg
Then we moved to the Latin Quarter, close by the Pantheon and we did two more soundwalks, one along rue Descartes and one along rue Mouffetard, which you can listen to here.
Antonella in rue Descartes:
My soundwalk route along rue Descartes and Place Contrascarpe. Note the domed Panthéon on the left and the oval-shaped Roman Arènes de Lutèce on the right
Antonella in rue Mouffetard:
My soundwalk route along the rue Mouffetard from Place Contrascarpe to the Eglise Saint-Médard. Rue Mouffetard was originally a Roman road running from Roman Lutèce (now Paris) to Italy
I am very grateful to Des for the time he dedicated to me and for having so generously shared his passion and knowledge of field recording the Parisian “sound tapestry”. I came back to Italy full of energy and enthusiasm from the afternoon we spent together and I am still benefiting from that.
I hope I will have the chance to meet Des again to do more soundwalking together before too long.
And please, if you stop over in Paris, do not miss the chance to meet him. It will be a deeply rewarding experience!
IN THE MIDDLE OF a sunny August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm forced me to take shelter in a café close the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. It was a small, rather sparse place but comfortable enough to take refuge in while waiting for the rain to pass.
Parisian summer showers rarely last for long and so when the rain stopped I left the café and began walking. I hadn’t gone far when I came upon an ancient Parisian street, rue des Ursins, where the Port Saint-Landry, Paris’s first port, stood until the twelfth century.
Rue des Ursins looking from West to East
At the end of the fourteenth century, the City of Paris built an hôtel in this street called “des Ursins” in honour of a famous Italian family, the Orsini.
In 1400, the property was given to the French lawyer and politician, John Jouvenal, who from then on styled himself as Jean Jouvenal des Ursins, although he had no kinship ties to the Italian family. Jean Jouvenal des Ursins had been appointed as prévôt des marchands de Paris in 1388 and for a time he was also the King’s advocate in Parliament. The hôtel, which was partly rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, was demolished in 1637.
Rue des Ursins in 1900 – Eugène Atget
The rue des Ursins was for a long time divided into the rue Haute des Ursins, rue de Milieu des Ursins and rue Basse des Ursins, but in 1881 the street was consolidated into its current name, rue des Ursins.
Rue des Ursins today approximately from where Atget took his picture
I know the rue des Ursins very well so I might have walked past it without giving it a second thought but on this particular day I didn’t. As I approached the western end of the street I was captivated by the sounds I could hear so I went to investigate and to listen.
Rue des Ursins – A Soundwalk:
Although the rain had stopped, its echoes dominated the soundscape. Rainwater gently dripping off the roofs of the buildings either side of the street together with water trickling into the drains seemed like a long sonic reflection of the storm that had now passed. Save for the shimmering sounds of the traffic passing along the adjacent rain soaked Quai aux Fleurs, the sounds in the rue des Ursins may have been sounds familiar to Eugène Atget or even to Jean Juvenal des Ursins.