FOR A CITY DWELLER like me who is fascinated by sound and particularly fascinated by urban soundscapes, Christmas Day can be an absolute feast.
On Christmas Day this year I went out for an afternoon stroll and discovered that Paris was not only awash with tourists but it was also bathed in that wonderful golden light that often appears at this time of the year.
The Hôtel de Ville
I had in mind to record the ice skaters at the patinoire outside the Hôtel de Ville but so big were the crowds that it was a hopeless task. I walked across to the Île de la Cité where I discovered a sea of people outside the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, many of whom were posing for photographs in front of the huge Christmas tree in front of the cathedral. Although recording the sounds of crowds (and I’ve recorded many of them) – the chatter, the footsteps and the constant shuffling, can be fascinating, I was hoping to search out some different, more unusual sounds on this Christmas Day.
And that search led me to the Pont Saint-Louis.
It was here, on this bridge, that I found something completely unexpected – a Christmas feast.
A young man, Louis Artson, was sitting at a piano in the centre of the Pont Saint-Louis. He can often be found wheeling his piano around Paris and stopping to entertain the crowds.
Earlier this year, I had the enormous privilege of being invited to record a professional concert pianist in Paris playing her magnificent Steinway grand piano. Those recording sessions were of course set piece events allowing adequate time to set up very expensive microphones and adjust their placement to ensure the best effect. Those recording sessions also allowed for re-takes if either I, or the pianist, felt that something wasn’t quite right.
Not so with Louis Artson though. Here I was on Christmas Day standing in a chattering crowd on the Pont Saint-Louis with traffic passing from time to time attempting to record this wonderful musician ‘on the hoof’ so to speak.
If recording a professional concert pianist playing a Steinway grand piano was a challenge, then so was this – but a very enjoyable one!
Louis Artson playing piano al fresco:
As you can hear, Louis Artson can turn his hand to classical music, jazz or improvisation in the blink of an eye. In this extract from the sounds I recorded listen out especially for the third piece, his improvisation on Chopin’s Piano Sonata N°2, often referred to as the Funeral March. I think it’s just brilliant!
Regular readers will know that I’ve recorded many street musicians in Paris some of whom have featured on this blog. By and large, the standard of Parisian street music is very high but seldom higher than that played by Louis Artson.
You can connect with Louis Artson via:
IT’S THAT TIME OF year again and Paris is awash with its annual Christmas markets. This year, I’ve only explored two of these markets, the enormous one at La Défense and the one on my own doorstep, which is small, intimate and always a delight.
My local Christmas market comprises thirty wooden châlets set out on Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and stretching down to the nearby church. These châlets host some exhibitors who come every year but also some new ones from different regions.
As well as the châlets with their gourmet foods and a variety of craft goods, there are the entertainers; a professional storyteller, a make-up artist, a balloon sculptor, magicians, clowns, jugglers and, of course, the street musicians.
This year we’ve been entertained once again by Alexandre l’Agodas: The pedlar of dreams and his barrel organ.
Alexandre l’Agodas: Le colporteur de rêves et son orgue de barbarie
And, as well as Russian Cossacks with traditional Russian music, we’ve had a Dixieland jazz quartet and a very impressive jazz duo.
But my favourites this year were the jazz quartet, Swing Manouche.
As their name suggests, Swing Manouche play in the gypsy swing, or gypsy jazz, style associated with Django Reinhardt in the 1930’s. Because this style largely originated in France it’s often called by the French name, ‘Jazz Manouche’.
And since I think that Django Reinhardt was a genius I was delighted to be able to record ‘Swing Manouche’ playing in my neck of the woods.
Jazz Manouche at my Christmas Market:
The three pieces I recorded of ‘Swing Manouche’ playing ends with a French Christmas favourite, Le Petit Papa Noël, which leads me neatly into wishing all of you who follow this blog regularly, as well as those who drop by as they’re passing, a very Happy Christmas and all you wish for yourselves in 2015.
WE’VE HAD SOME beautiful sunshine in Paris over the last week or so – and when the sun shines people head to the parks.
Returning from a recording assignment the other day, I walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg to catch my bus home. The sun was shining and this most popular of Parisian parks was simply awash with people – perhaps more people I think than I’ve seen there before.
All these people were doing what people do in parks – walking, jogging, reading, having picnics, meeting friends or simply sitting and doing nothing in particular.
Since I had time on my hands I decided to stop and record some of the sounds in the park, something I’ve done many times before, but this time I wanted to capture the very particular sounds that I always associate with Parisian parks, the sounds of footsteps over the gravel paths.
I’ve recorded the sounds of footsteps in Parisian parks before but this time I wanted to do it slightly differently, to capture these distinctive sounds from a different perspective. I placed two small microphones (like the ones TV newsreaders wear) about six inches above the ground in the middle of a path and waited for people to walk or run past them.
The Sounds of Spring in the Jardin du Luxembourg:
People usually associate the arrival of Spring with the natural world bursting into life, the leaves on the tress, flowers coming into bloom and the sound of birdsong. But, as a city dweller and someone who is passionately interested in our sonic environment, it is these natural sounds of the human species that signal to me that the Parisian Spring has arrived.
The sounds of pétanque being played and the occasional birdsong in the background add a sense of ‘place’ and perspective but these sounds are secondary to the sounds of the footsteps over the gravel, which for me at any rate are the dominating sounds of Parisian parks in the springtime.
Of course, footsteps are not the only sounds to be heard in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Other sounds often become the centre of attention …
Music in the Jardin du Luxembourg:
WHATEVER THE TIME of year, street musicians can be found all over Paris plying their trade and bringing sunshine to the passers by.
Last Saturday afternoon I came across this gentleman occupying his usual pitch at the corner of the Quai de l’Archevêché and the Pont Saint-Louis. He is a big man who makes a big sound from a very small piano.
A Small Piano – A Big Sound:
WHEN I PUBLISHED my previous blog piece I thought that I’d said everything I needed to say about my local Christmas market – but it turns out there is a post-script.
When I went to get bread from my local boulangerie last Saturday afternoon I discovered a different Jazz band playing in the Christmas market, the Gibsy Quartet. They were very good and so I decided to record them for my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
The Gibsy Quartet
Over the years I’ve learned many lessons about how to record the sounds of urban life around me and one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is never to turn my sound recorder off as soon as I think I have a recording in the bag. Urban sounds can often be quite unpredictable and fascinating sounds can sometimes turn up when you least expect them. Another lesson is that what you might think are fairly ordinary sounds can suddenly become quite extraordinary.
One could argue that recording a jazz band playing in a Parisian street is nothing out of the ordinary, once you’ve heard one you’ve heard them all some might say. But when events have a twist in the tail then the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
I recorded the Gibsy Quartet on Saturday afternoon. They were going to be at the Christmas market for much longer than I was so I recorded them playing two pieces and then I was about to head off for home. As is my practice, after they finished their second piece I left my sound recorder running and then, as I turned to walk away, this astonishing man appeared.
From his lofty perch he began singing and playing his concertina and I, the jazz band and several other people began to gather round him.
He spied the band beneath him and without hesitation he began to sing the Neapolitan song, O Sole Mio, an open invitation to the jazz musicians so used to improvising.
And improvise they did turning the ordinary into something quite extraordinary.
The Gibsy Quartet … and friend:
I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for recording the soundscapes of Paris, but if I ever do I shall listen to this recording and remind myself of why I do it. Capturing unexpected and unrepeatable sounds like this always gives me a buzz and listening to these sounds will always remind me of my local Christmas market, the infectious enthusiasm of musicians and the delicious smell of freshly baked bread in my local boulangerie.
AT THIS TIME OF THE YEAR the Marchés de Noël, or Christmas markets, spring up all over Paris and I have three of them within easy reach of me. To the west is the very large one at La Défense with its 350 châlets standing in the shadow of la Grande Arche, to the east is the most visited Christmas market in Paris stretching along the Champs Elysées and then, at the bottom of my little street, is the one closest to home.
The Christmas markets at La Défense and along the Champs Elysées are very big, mostly swamped with visitors and quite impersonal whereas my local Christmas market is tiny in comparison but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in congeniality.
My local Christmas market is now open for business so I’ve been to have a look, to savour the atmosphere and to capture the sights and sounds.
Contrary to what you might think, the sounds in the big Christmas markets can often be quite bland but in my local Christmas market I enjoyed a sonic treat – two different bands, a street organ and singer, electronic music accompanying butterfly elves on stilts, a balloon sculptress with enormous boots and, of course, the sounds of lots of excited small children.
My local Christmas market in sound:
Alexandre l’Agodas: Le colporteur de rêves et son orgue de barbarie
(The pedlar of dreams and his barrel organ)
Les Elfes-papillons des pôles
(Butterfly elves on stilts)
Sculpture sur ballons avec Bibindum
Swing Connection – New Orleans Jazz
STANDING ON THE SITE of the former convent Sainte Catherine du Val des Ecoliers, the Place du Marché Sainte Catherine is a short walk from its more elegant and illustrious neighbour the Place des Vosges in the Marais district of Paris.
The convent Sainte Catherine du Val des Ecoliers was founded in 1228 and stood on this site until it was demolished in 1767. Some ten years later a market, the Marché Sainte Catherine, replaced the convent.
The market has now also disappeared and today, surrounded by 18th century buildings, the Place du Marché Sainte Catherine is a small traffic-free square lined with trees and surrounded on three sides by restaurants. It’s one of those perfect Parisian squares where both locals and tourists gather to while away a lazy summer afternoon.
I went to the Place du Marché Saint Catherine the other day and found two young musicians adding their own special atmosphere to this delightful place.
Place du Marché Saint Catherine:
Sometimes, these hidden corners of Paris can be just perfect!
LAST SATURDAY I headed off for the rue des Martyrs in the 9th arrondissement to record a soundwalk to add to my archive of Paris Soundscapes. As is often the case, things didn’t turn out quite as I’d planned.
The rue des Martyrs stretches for a little under 1km from rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette to rue Lamartine in Montmartre. The street has had several names during its lifetime beginning with rue des Porcherons, then rue des Martyrs followed by rue du Champ de Repos and then finally, from 1868, once again rue des Martyrs.
I decided to make life easier by beginning my soundwalk at the Montmartre end, which is the street’s highest point and so everything would be downhill from there. When I reached the top of the street I realised that the Place des Abbesses was just round the corner so, before embarking on my task for the day and since I hadn’t been to the Place des Abbesses for a while, I thought I’d go and take a look. It proved to be a most fortuitous diversion.
I discovered a Bretagne weekend in full flow the centrepiece of which was la Fête de la coquille Saint-Jacques, sponsored by le département des Côtes-d’Armor. A dozen or so stalls were selling all things Bretagne from crêpes and craquants au beurre salé to regional wines and wonderful coquille Saint-Jacques, freshly brought from port d’Erquy.
I couldn’t resist stopping to savour the atmosphere and taste a selection of the fare on offer. And then I came upon a complete surprise, something to make a sound hunter’s day complete.
A group of singers were assembled and as I came upon them they began to sing a French song I particularly like, Le Gamin de Paris.
Le Gamin de Paris:
Adrien Marès composed the music for Le Gamin de Paris and Mick Micheyl who, contrary to what you might think, is in fact Paulette Michey, a very popular French singer who later in life became a respected sculptor, wrote the words.
Le Gamin de Paris draws a fascinating picture of a typical 1950’s Parisian ‘kid’ -
“Il est tout l’esprit, l’esprit de Paris qui musarde,
Pantalon trop long pour lui
Toujours les mains dans les poches
On le voit qui déguerpit
Aussitôt qu’il voit un képi”
Roughly translated as:
‘… the spirit of Paris that dawdles, with pants that are too long for him, hands always in his pockets, who takes off at the first sight of a kepi’ (a French policeman).
Whenever I hear this song I am instantly transported to the black & white world of Robert Doisneau and the other great French street photographers who captured so brilliantly the atmosphere upon which this song is based. This particular rendition was unexpectedly, but not unpleasantly, accompanied by the bells of the Église Saint Jean-de-Montmartre which made a dramatic intervention but which I think added a delicious extra atmosphere.
And so, awash with the spirit of Bretagne and the black and white world of 1950’s Paris, it was back to the present day, the rue des Martyrs and a soundwalk along the full length of the street capturing the everyday mélange of sounds that I always find so fascinating.
Rue des Martyrs – A Soundwalk:
Some sights of the rue des Martyrs:
THE MUSÉE DES ARTS FORAINS is a fairground museum housed in the former wine warehouses at Cour Saint-Émilion in the 12th arrondissement.
It’s a private museum created by Jean Paul Favand and it contains a fascinating collection of carousels and funfair stalls, all restored and in working order, as well as costumes and historic works from 1850 onwards.
This is a private collection and so it’s usually only possible to visit the museum by appointment only. They cater mainly for group visits and corporate functions but occasionally the museum opens its doors to the general public. One such occasion has been over this Christmas and New Year period so I took advantage of it and paid a visit.
Having paid my €12 entry fee, I was transported into the world of the funfair, a world full of colour, spectacle and entertainment.
I was captivated by this old cycle carousel and even more captivated by the sounds as the ride got underway and the cycles and their riders trundled round and round. It’s fascinating to think that these are the same sounds that anyone visiting this carousel would have heard over a hundred years ago.
Sounds of the cycle carousel:
The museum comprises themed rooms each with its own take of the world of the funfair. “Les Salons Vénitiens” offers an Italian opera show performed by automatons as well as a gondola carousel. “Le Théâtre du merveilleux” offers a glimpse of the turn of the century world fairs including a superb sound and light show. “Le musée des Arts Forains” is a tribute to the 19th century funfair and the Théâtre de Verdure exhibits splendid gardens.
The museum has many historical funfair games that have entertained generations of adults and children alike. My favourite was the Parisian Waiter Race in which each waiter is moved by rolling balls into holes, complete with running commentary.
The Parisian Waiter Race:
There are outside exhibits too and, this being an open-house day, it wouldn’t be complete without food …
… and, of course, street music.
The Street Musicians:
And I couldn’t end without mentioning the fabulous costumes on display, some of which were once to be seen in that other Parisian palace of fun, the Folies-Bergère.
I wish everyone a Happy New Year and, if you’re in Paris, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Musée des Arts Forains which you can find at:
53 Avenue des Terroirs de France, 75012 Paris
Phone for réservations: 01 43 40 16 22
Métro: Cour Saint-Émilion – Line 14
WHEN THINKING ABOUT which sounds of Paris I might publish here on this Christmas Eve it became obvious that I needed to look no further than the bottom of my little street and what is still my favourite Christmas market in Paris. I went to it this afternoon.
Paris is full of fabulously rich sounds but sometimes the most intimate sounds are to be found closest to home, like the sound of this man singing on the parvis of my local Hôtel de Ville.
Singer at my local Christmas market:
This man on his unicycle provided an interesting diversion.
And then I found this man playing a most extraordinary accordion.