CHARLES FRANÇOIS BOSSU (1813 – 1879) was a French photographer who photographed architecture, landscapes and the urban environment. He is much better known though as Charles Marville, the pseudonym he adopted around 1832.
Charles Marville, photographic self-portrait, c. 1861
Marville worked as an illustrator of books such as Histoire Pittoresque de l’Angleterre and La Seine et ses Bords (the Seine and its Banks) before taking up photography around 1850.
In 1858 he received his first commission from the Paris authorities, to photograph the renovated Bois de Boulogne − the first of Baron Haussmann’s modernising projects for Emperor Napoleon III.
By the early 1860s, Haussmann’s urban development scheme to transform Paris was gathering pace. Although Haussmann was keen to eradicate parts of old Paris, he wanted to preserve their memory: ‘The City of Paris must disregard nothing, forget nothing, neglect nothing of its past.’
In 1862, Marville became the official photographer of Paris and he was commissioned to photograph the pre-modern city before its demolition. He made 425 photographs of the narrow streets and crumbling buildings, which collectively became known as the ‘Album du Vieux Paris.’ The complete series of photographs are held by the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris.
One of Charles Marville’s photographs that fascinates me is one he made of Place Saint-André des Arts in the 6th arrondissement.
Place Saint-André des Arts: Charles Marville
The remarkable thing is that, despite the destruction and reconstruction that occurred in the surrounding area in the 1860s, this little corner of Paris, which takes its name from the ancient church of Saint-André-des-Arts which was demolished during the French Revolution, remained completely untouched by Haussmann’s wrecking ball.
Place Saint-André des Arts: August 2015
Like Charles Marville and his successor, Eugène Atget, I too document the city of Paris, but in my case in sound rather than in pictures. Whenever I come across a photograph of a part of Vieux Paris that has survived almost untouched I can’t resist recording the contemporary soundscape around it.
Place Saint-André des Arts in Sound; August 2015:
Charles Marville died in Paris in 1879. His ‘Album du Vieux Paris’ allows us to see Paris as he saw it before its late nineteenth century transformation and we can compare what he saw with what we can see today.
But when it comes to the sounds of Charles Marville’s Paris we lack a reference point. There are no recordings of the urban soundscape of the time and descriptions of the sounds of Paris in literature during Haussmann’s transformation of the city are few and far between.
So, while we can capture and archive the contemporary sounds of Paris we can, alas, only imagine the sounds that Charles Marville would have heard while he photographed Place Saint-André des Arts.
SET IN A SHALLOW basin in Place Stravinsky in the shadow of the Centre Pompidou, sixteen works of sculpture move and spray water into the air.
La Fontaine Stravinsky was part of a larger sculptural programme, launched by the City of Paris in 1978, to build seven contemporary fountains with sculptures in different squares in the city. As well as la Fontaine Stravinsky, the project included new fountains at the Hotel de Ville and within the gardens of the Palais Royal. These were the first public fountains to be built in Paris since the fountains of the Palais de Chaillot were constructed for the Paris Exposition of 1937.
The basin containing the sixteen sculptures sits above the offices of IRCAM, the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique, an organisation devoted to promoting modern music and musicology. The founder of the IRCAM, the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, suggested the works of the composer Igor Stravinsky as a theme for the fountain.
The sixteen sculptures therefore represent:
L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird)
La Clef de Sol (the Musical Key of G)
La Spirale (The Spiral)
L’Elephant (The Elephant)
Le Renard (The Fox)
Le Serpent (The Serpent)
La Grenouille (The Frog)
La Diagonale (The Diagonal)
La Mort (Death)
La Sirène (The Mermaid)
Le Rossignol (The Nightingale)
La Vie (Life)
Le Cœur (The Heart)
Le Chapeau de Clown (The Clown’s Hat)
Because of the IRCAM rooms below, the Fontaine Stravinsky was designed to be as light as possible with the basin being very shallow and made from stainless steel and the sculptures made of plastic and other lightweight materials.
Funding for the Fontaine Stravinsky was provided by the City of Paris who paid two million French francs for the project, which was matched by a further two million French francs from the French Ministry of Culture.
Originally, the commission for the fountain was given to Jean Tinguely, best known for his kinetic art, or sculptural machines. It was envisaged that the fountain would have been entirely composed of his black-painted mechanical sculptures but, in May 1982, Tinguely asked that brightly coloured works by his second wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, also be included. This proposal was resisted at first because it was thought that the brightly coloured works would visually overwhelm the dark works of Tinguely but, after much descussion, it was agreed that it would be a joint project by Tinguely and Saint Phalle.
I went to the Fontaine Stravinsky the other day to try to capture the different sound textures from each of the sixteen sculptures but when I arrived I found that the basin had been drained and routine maintenance work was going on. Far from being disappointing, it gave me a chance to see the inner workings of the kinetic art.
All sixteen statues move and spray water and the cables and hoses that feed them are laid along the bottom of the basin.
There are a host of cafés and restaurants in the thirteenth century rue Brisemiche running alongside Place Stravinsky so I decided to head off for something to eat while the maintenance work was being carried out.
When I returned the basin was being refilled and the sculptures were bursting into life.
Sounds of la Fontaine Stravinsky:
I walked around the perimeter of the fountain pausing to explore the sonic texture of each of the sixteen statues. Some of the textures are quite distinctive but others, the more delicate ones, tend to be overshadowed by their more raucous neighbours – but they are there if you listen very carefully.
I recorded in the evening so I was not surprised to capture the sounds of the gentlemen from the Mairie de Paris arriving in their smart, green, electric truck to replace the large translucent rubbish bags beside the fountain. I was though surprised to capture the sound of the water to the fountain being turned off for the night from a stopcock behind the neighbouring Eglise Saint-Merri. The sudden absence of running water seemed to leave a curious sonic vacuum in the air.
THE WORLD LISTENING PROJECT is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.
In July each year the World Listening Project promotes World Listening Day celebrating the listening practices of the world and the ecology of its acoustic environments.
The theme for World Listening Day this year was “H2O”, reflecting on water, metaphorically in how we listen, or through creative events inspired by water and sound across the globe. The 2015 theme resonates at a time where we need to shift our collective thinking and actions towards water globally.
Since the theme of World Listening Day this year was water, I decided to explore the sounds of la Seine, the river that arcs its way through the centre of Paris, for my contribution.
Rather than seeking out the typical sounds of the river, waves lapping or boats creaking for example, I decided to set up my microphones at a very popular Parisian beauty spot to see what sounds I might capture.
The place I chose, the western tip of the Île Saint-Louis, is in fact in the centre of the river with river traffic passing on both sides.
The Île Saint-Louis, named after King Louis IX, whose piety and generosity led him to be canonised in 1297, is one of two natural islands in la Seine, the other being the Île de la Cité. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, King Louis XIII, along with the queen mother Marie de Médicis, decided to implement an urban plan first devised by Louis’ father, King Henri IV, which transformed the Île Saint-Louis from little more than a cow pasture to a much sought after conclave of elegant residences where wealthy businessmen and politicians came to live away from the noise of the inner city. Today, the Ile Saint-Louis is one of the most authentic seventeenth century neighbourhoods in Paris.
The western tip of the Île Saint-Louis is much frequented by tourists and locals alike.
Pêcheurs à la ligne à la pointe ouest de l’île Saint-Louis. 1935. © Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet : Image courtesy of Paris en Images
I set up my microphones on the tip of the Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis pointing downstream towards the Île de la Cité and the Hôtel de Ville and began to record.
I didn’t move the microphones to follow any particular sound but rather just left them in one place to capture the ambient sound just as one would do with a long exposure photograph.
Sounds from the Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis:
I was immediately reminded that while the banks of la Seine might be romantic for some, la Seine is and always has been a working river. The industrial barges passing by remind us that this part of the river was once the commercial heart of the city.
The Port Saint-Landry was the first port to serve Paris but it was soon surpassed in importance by the Port de la Grève, which was situated alongside the wall on the right in the picture above. The port was controlled by the Prévôt des Marchands and it was the entry point for a wide variety of merchandise including wine – mainly Burgundy and Champagne, wheat, hay, fish, wood, charcoal and soil.
Les bateaux sur le port de grève. Plan de Gomboust, 1652
All the goods shipped in by river were unloaded on a grève, a kind of beach made of sand and gravel which gave its name to both the port and to the Place de Grève, the open space in front of the Hôtel de Ville, depicted so graphically by the poet, novelist and dramatist, Victor Hugo, in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Anyone living in France today will be all too familiar with the expression faire grève, which means to go on strike. Originally though it had quite the opposite meaning. It referred to the unemployed men who would stand around the port actively seeking casual work.
The sounds I recorded from the Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis may perhaps not be the most elegant sounds I’ve recorded along the banks of la Seine but I think they are nevertheless important.
Both locals and tourists, young and old, come to the Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis in great numbers to relax, to meet friends, to picnic, or just to admire the view. With other things on their mind it’s easy to imagine that they are perhaps scarcely aware of the busy, work-a-day sounds around them.
But the sounds are there and if we care to listen to them carefully we can hear the engines of commerce plying la Seine as they have for centuries and much else too.
These sounds are really what World Listening Day is about – understanding the world through the practice of listening.
Quai de l’Île Saint-Louis: Image via Wikipedia
And while on the World Listening Day theme of water, la Seine is not a place you would want to plunge into for a quick dip. But Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, has pledged to have us bathing in the river after the 2024 Olympic Games she hopes will be held in the city. We shall see!
STEPPING OUT OF the Métro station La Chapelle in the 18th arrondissement it’s easy to forget that you’re in Paris.
Historically a working class area with a predominantly immigrant population, the Quartier de la Chapelle is lively and extremely cosmopolitan. A large Sri Lankan community together with smaller Turkish, Pakistani and Chinese communities as well as an influx over the last ten years or so of ‘bobos’ (a term coined by the American journalist David Brooks to describe a group of “highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success”) make La Chapelle a diverse and fascinating neighbourhood.
The Quartier de la Chapelle straddles the array of railway tracks entering both the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est and it is in rue Pajol, a street alongside the railway approaching the Gare de l’Est, that an impressive urban renewal project has been undertaken.
Originally known as rue de la Gare du chemin de fer de Strasbourg, the name rue Pajol was adopted in 1865 in honour of Général d’Empire Pierre Claude Pajol, a distinguished cavalry officer in Napoléon’s Grande Armée.
An interesting fact about rue Pajol is that in 1870, Joseph Meister and Marie-Angélique Sonnefraud married and settled at N° 22. In 1885, their nine-year old son, also Joseph Meister, was bitten by a rabid dog. He became the first person to be inoculated against rabies by Louis Pasteur and the first person to be successfully treated for the infection.
Today, the Hindu Temple de Ganesh de Paris Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam dedicated to Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, stands at the southern end of rue Pajol while at the northern end, adjacent to the railway tracks of the Gare de l’Est, is the impressive Halle Pajol, which opened early in 2014 after three years of construction work.
The Halle Pajol
Funded by the City of Paris and designed by JAP (Jourda Architectes Paris) led by Françoise-Hélène Jourda, the new Halle Pajol emerged from an old SNCF warehouse built in the 1920s but long since abandoned. The City of Paris bought the site in 2004 and earmarked it for redevelopment. The idea was to enhance the district by providing increased public amenities and improving the urban landscape through the creation of green spaces while preserving the architectural heritage of the original building.
What had become an unsightly piece of industrial archaeology has now been transformed into a centre for the community comprising the largest youth hostel in the capital, a library – the Vaclav Havel Library (named after the former President of the Czech Republic), offices, an auditorium, shops, a bakery and cafés.
The Halle Pajol
The Halle Pajol has been designed with sustainability in mind. Along with its elegant wooden frontage it produces its own electricity from 3,500 M2 of photovoltaic panels in the roof.
As well as the Halle Pajol itself, this urban development also includes some 9,000 M2 of green space. Named after the philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, the Rosa Luxemburg Gardens comprise covered and uncovered gardens stretching alongside the railroad tracks blending in with the surrounding landscape.
As with the Halle Pajol, ecology rhymes with economy. Almost all materials used in the gardens, the crushed tiles, the pavers and the rails, all come from the original building.
Under the Halle Pajol, a 2,500 M² covered garden provides a quiet space; a place to stroll and discover a variety of plant species including birch, cedar, wild flowers and aquatic plants. The garden is irrigated by rainwater collected on the roof.
The covered garden extends outside and includes play areas for children. Outside, the garden is covered with decontaminated soil to a depth of one metre and is planted with local species including pine, ash, mountain ash and flowering cherry.
Alongside the rail tracks, two plots of 100 M2 kitchen gardens have been established and made available to neighbourhood associations. Local residents can go there and grow flowers or vegetables.
In addition, small plots are available for children to create their own gardens.
The sounds outside and inside the Jardin Rosa Luxemburg:
In the north, the garden follows the topography leading pedestrians by successive slopes out onto rue Pajol and rue Riquet.
In the last few weeks a 1,010 M² extension to the Jardin Rosa Luxemburg has been opened with two lawns and a wooden playground suitable for children from 3 to 8 years, which includes a giant wooden elephant, giraffe and crocodile.
Sadly, the award-winning architect and driving force behind the Halle Pajol and the Jardin Rosa Luxembourg, Françoise-Hélène Jourda, passed away on 31st May 2015.
This post is dedicated to her memory.
HAVING BEEN IN hospital recently for surgery to replace my portable life support system with a newer model I thought I would take this opportunity to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Soundlandscapes’ Blog by posting something close to my imperfect heart.
For the last seven years or so I’ve been recording and archiving the sounds of Paris, the agglomeration of individual sounds which, when woven together, form the sound tapestry that surrounds our everyday lives in this city. When people ask me what I do I usually say that I’m a professional listener, or that I’m a flâneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris observing through active listening.
My sound work in Paris is influenced to a large degree by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century street photographers including, but not confined to, the work of Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Brassaï. Eugène Atget for example created a tremendous photographic record of the look and feel of nineteenth-century Paris just as it was being dramatically transformed by modernisation while the others featured the human condition in public places. I’ve learned a lot about recording the sound tapestry of Paris from studying the work and techniques of these photographers.
While these great photographers certainly influence my work the inspiration to begin my detailed exploration and documentation of the contemporary sound tapestry of Paris came from a different source, the French novelist, essayist, and filmmaker, Georges Perec.
Georges Perec 1936 – 1982
Georges Perec was born on 7th March 1936 in Belleville in the east of Paris, the only son of Polish Jewish parents who had emigrated to France in the 1920s. Both his parents died during WWII, his father from untreated wounds whilst serving in the French army and his mother in Auschwitz.
Adopted by his parental aunt and uncle in 1945, Georges went on to study history and sociology at the Sorbonne, he spent a year in the army as a parachutist, got married and then took up a job as an archivist in the research library at the Neurophysiological Research Laboratory at the Hôpital Saint-Antoine, a job he retained until four years before his untimely death at the age of 45.
Georges Perec’s talents ranged from writing fiction to compiling crossword puzzles for Le Point to creating the longest palindrome ever written to working in radio and making films. In 1965 his first novel Les Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties) won the prix Renaudot and in 1978 his most acclaimed novel, La Vie mode d’emploi (Life a User’s Manual) won the prix Médicis and finally brought him financial and critical success.
Perec was a member of Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians devoted to the discovery and use of constraints to encourage literary inspiration. One of their most famous products was Perec’s own novel, La disparition (A Void), written entirely without the letter “e.”
Journaux Place St Sulpice : [photographie] / [Atget]
Just over eight years ago I emerged from a Parisian hospital after an uncomfortably close brush with death. Having been given a second chance in life’s lottery I was in need of a new challenge … but what?
The answer came unexpectedly. Browsing around a musty second-hand bookshop one day I came upon a small French book, just sixty pages or so, written by Georges Perec, someone I’d never heard of. Scanning through it my first impression was that it was a journal of some sort, lists of what seemed like random observations. I was curious so I bought it for next to nothing. As I left the bookshop I could never have imagined what an impression this little book would have on me and how it would fundamentally shape my work in Paris.
The book is called, Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien, published in English as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, and it’s a collection of observations that Georges Perec wrote down as he sat in Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The point of these observations was to record “ce qui se passe quand il ne rien se passe”, what is happening when nothing is happening.
For three consecutive days in October 1974, Georges Perec flitted from one café to another in Place Saint-Sulpice recording everything that passed through his field of vision. Rather than describing impressive or notable things such as the architecture, he describes all the things that usually pass unnoticed.
In Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien Perec begins by setting the scene:
Il y a beaucoup de choses place Saint-Sulpice, par exemple : une mairie, un hôtel des finances, un commissariat de police, trois cafés dont un fait tabac, un cinéma, une église à laquelle ont travaillé Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni et Chalgrin et qui est dédiée à un aumônier de Clotaire II qui fut évêque de Bourges de 624 à 644 et que l’on fête le 17 janvier, un éditeur, une entreprise de pompes funèbres, une agence de voyages, un arrêt d’autobus, un tailleur, un hôtel, une fontaine que décorent les statues des quatre grands orateurs chrétiens (Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier et Massillon), un kiosque à journaux, un marchand d’objets de piété, un parking, un institut de beauté, et bien d’autres choses encore.
But it’s the last paragraph that outlines his intention:
Un grand nombre, sinon la plupart, de ces choses ont été décrites, inventoriées, photographiées, racontées ou recensées. Mon propos dans les pages qui suivent a plutôt été de décrire le reste : ce que l’on ne note généralement pas, ce qui ne se remarque pas, ce qui n’a pas d’importance : ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien, sinon du temps, des gens, des voitures et des nuages.
My rough translation :
Many, if not most, of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, recounted or recorded. My purpose in these pages was instead to describe the rest: what one generally does not notice, that which does not matter: what happens when nothing passes but time, people, cars and clouds.
Georges Perec made his observations while sitting in three cafés facing the Place Saint-Sulpice, the Tabac Saint-Sulpice, the Café Fontaine Saint-Sulpice and the Café de la Mairie. When he got tired of one he would move to another. Today, only the Café de la Mairie remains.
Café de la Mairie, 8, Place Saint-Sulpice
The other day I went to the Café de la Mairie with my second-hand copy of Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien. I took a seat outside by the door and turned to one of Georges Perec’s entries for 18th October 1974:
La date : 18 octobre 1974
L’heure 12 h. 40
Le lieu Café de la Mairie
Plusieurs dizaines, plusieurs centaines d’actions simultanées, de micro-événements dont chacun implique des postures , des actes moteurs , des dépenses d’énergie spécifiques : discussions à deux , discussions à trois, discussions à plusieurs : le mouvement des lèvres, les gestes , les mimiques expressives
modes de locomotion : marche, véhicule à deux roues (sans moteur, à moteur), automobiles (voitures privées, voitures de firmes, voitures de louage, auto-école), véhicules utilitaires, services publics, transports en communs , cars de touristes
modes de portage (à.la main, sous le bras , sur le dos)
modes de traction (cabas à roulettes)
degrés de détermination ou de motivation attendre , flâner , traîner , errer , aller, courir vers, se précipiter (vers un taxi libre, par exemple), chercher , musarder, hésiter, marcher d’un pas décidé
positions du corps : être assis (dans les autobus , dans les voitures , dans les cafés, sur les bancs)
être debout (près des arrêts d’ autobus , devant une vitrine (Laffont, pompes funèbres), à côté d’un taxi (le payant)
Trois personnes attendent près de l’arrêt des taxis. Il y a deux taxis, leurs chauffeurs sont absents (taxis capuchonnés)
Tous les pigeons se sont réfugiés sur la gouttière de la mairie.
Un 96 passe. Un 87 passe. Un 86 passe. Un 70 passe. Un camion « Grenelle Interlinge » passe.
Accalmie. Il n’y a personne à l’arrêt des autobus .
Un 63 passe. Un 96 passe
Une jeune femme est assise sur un banc, en face de la galerie de tapisseries « La demeure » elle fume une cigarette.
Il y a trois vélomoteurs garés sur le trottoir devant le café.
Un 86 passe. Un 70 passe.
Des voitures s’engouffrent dans le parking
Un 63 passe. Un 87 passe.
Il est une heure cinq. Une femme traverse en courant le parvis de l’église .
Un livreur en blouse blanche sort de sa camionnette garée devant le café des glaces (alimentaires) qu’il va livrer rue des Canettes.
Une femme tient une baguette à la main
Un 70 passe (c’est seulement par hasard, de la place que j’occupe, que je peux voir passer, à l’autre bout, des 84)
Les automobiles suivent des axes de circulation évidemment privilégiés (sens unique , pour moi, de gauche à droite) ; c’est beaucoup moins sensible pour les piétons : il semblerait que la plupart vont rue des Canettes ou en viennent.
Un 96 passe.
Un 86 passe. Un 87 passe. Un 63 passe
Des gens trébuchent. Micro-accidents.
Un 96 passe. Un 70 passe.
Il est une heure vingt.
Retour (aléatoire) d’individus déjà vus : un jeune garçon en caban bleu marine tenant à la main une pochette plastique repasse devant le café
Un 86 passe. Un 86 passe. Un 63 passe.
Le café est plein
Sur le terre-plein un enfant fait courir son chien (genre Milou)
Juste en bordure du café, au pied de la vitrine et en trois emplacements différents, un homme, plutôt jeune, dessine à la craie sur le trottoir une sorte de « V » à l’intérieur duquel s’ébauche une manière de point d’interrogation (land-art ?)
Un 63 passe
6 égouttiers (casques et cuissardes) prennent la rue des Canettes .
Deux taxis libres à l’arrêt des taxis, un 87 passe
Un aveugle venant de la rue des Canettes passe devant le café ; c’est un homme jeune, à la démarche assez assurée.
Un 86 passe
Deux hommes à pipes et sacoches noires
Un homme à sacoche noire sans pipe
Une femme en veste de laine, hilare
Un autre 96
(talons hauts : chevilles tordues)
Une deux-chevaux vertpomme.
I haven’t included the full entry for this particular observation session but you can see from this extract, whether you understand French or not, that Georges Perec is what one might call a contra-flâneur; he sits still and observes as the world moves by. Incidentally, the numbers that he lists are the numbers of the buses that pass and, as I could see for myself the other day, buses with the same numbers still pass.
From the time I first discovered it, Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien made a huge impression on me. I could immediately see how Georges Perec’s detailed observations of everyday life, his quest for the infraordinary: the humdrum, the non-event, the everyday “what happens when nothing happens” could be replicated equally compellingly in sound. That revelation inspired me to begin my own observations of Paris, detailed observations of the city through its intricate and multi-textured sound tapestry.
Because Georges Perec inspired me to undertake my exploration of Paris in sound I couldn’t possibly have left the Café de la Mairie without making my own infraordinary observations of the Place Saint-Sulpice.
‘Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien’ in sound:
From my contra-flâneur’s seat outside the Café de la Mairie, probably a seat once occupied by Perec himself, I recorded my own Tentative d’ épuisement d’un lieu parisien, ‘what is happening when nothing is happening’, which is both my homage to Georges Perec and my ‘Thank You’ to all the loyal visitors to Soundlandscapes’ Blog who have supported me over the last five years and who inspire me to continue with this work.
THE AREA TO THE EAST of Bastille, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was traditionally a working class neighbourhood with a focus on craft industries. Its proximity to the Seine with its plentiful supply of wood saw the area develop into an important centre for the furniture industry, which it still is today.
Many of the skilled craftsmen didn’t work in the main streets preferring instead to set up their workshops in the plethora of small, cobblestone, passageways leading off the main thoroughfares. Many of these passageways survive today and some still accommodate skilled craftsmen.
A set of double doors at N°26 rue de Charonne lead into one of these surviving passageways, the Passage l’Homme.
Stretching for 122 metres the Passage l’Homme is lined with ateliers on the ground floor with apartments above. In prime position close to the entrance is an amazing toyshop.
Further along the passage is the atelier of Alain Hollard whose family firm was established here over a hundred years ago. He specialises in a traditional craft long associated with this part of Paris, Vernissage au Tampon, known in English as French polishing.
For me, the most striking thing about the Passage l’Homme is not the sights, delightful though they are, but the sounds.
Sounds in the Passage l’Homme:
Sandwiched between rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, rue de Charonne and l’avenue Ledru-Rollin the Passage l’Homme is surrounded on all sides by busy streets awash with heavy traffic and yet deep inside the passage a curious calm prevails. Such sounds as there are represent life being lived in the street uncluttered for the most part by noise pollution and so each sound seems to take on an extra significance.
Just as Eugène Atget would have set up his large-format wooden bellows camera to photograph this place a hundred years ago, I set up my microphones half way along the passage and with a much longer exposure time than Atget would have used I pressed ‘record’ and walked away leaving the microphones to capture the scene.
Occasional birdsong, the clatter of lunchtime crockery, anonymous footsteps and distant conversation paint the canvas upon which the more prominent sounds can shine. A young lady collects a large sheet of artwork from the graphic designer’s office and rolls it up as she leaves, doors open and close, two French middle-aged men busily clicking their cameras walk by, the apartment gardien emerges and sits on a step taking a phone call, someone whistles, a young child in a buggy passes by proclaiming something obviously very important to the world and Monsieur Hollard returns from his lunch, unlocks the door to his atelier and goes inside to continue with his vernis au tampon.
In the bustling streets of Paris noise pollution is a constant companion and quiet places are hard to find. That’s why I find it so refreshing to visit the Passage l’Homme. For sure, it’s an interesting place to see but it’s so much more interesting to listen to. In this verdant corner of the city the noise pollution subsides and the ordinary sounds of everyday life take centre-stage. Like a fine wine these sounds deserve to be savoured and enjoyed.
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 FOYATIER IS not only one of the most visited streets in Paris it’s also one of the most unusual. It was opened in 1867 and named after the sculptor Denis Foyatier (1793–1863).
Rue Foyatier is one of the most visited streets in the city because it’s one of the main thoroughfares leading up la butte Montmartre, the large hill in the 18th arrondissement that gives its name to the surrounding district. It’s unusual because it’s not a conventional street; it is in fact an escalier, a giant staircase.
Images of rue Foyatier, and other staircases leading up la butte Montmartre, have become iconic images of Paris thanks to the work of Brassaï and other great photographers.
Brassaï: Escalier de la butte Montmartre, Paris 18e, c. 1937-1938
At 100 metres long and 12 metres wide, rue Foyatier begins at the foot of the butte Montmartre at rue André Barsacq and ends at the top of the hill at rue Saint-Éluthère in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
Viewed from the bottom of the street the climb up rue Foyatier looks daunting. Those brave enough to tackle it will negotiate 222 stone steps and climb 36 metres in order to reach the top. From my own experience I can attest that the climb is in fact as daunting as it looks!
But for those who can’t face the climb on foot there is an alternative, a funicular railway.
The funicular was opened on 13th July 1900 and was entirely rebuilt in 1935 and again in 1991. Some two million people a year use the funicular to ascend the butte Montmartre. The journey takes a little under two minutes and it costs the price of a Métro ticket.
Much of the sound work I do in Paris is influenced to a large extent by the work of the great nineteenth and early twentieth century Parisian street photographers and so, with Brassaï’s iconic photograph in mind, I set off to capture the sound tapestry of the Escalier de la butte Montmartre.
Rue Foyatier in Sound:
I recorded these sounds from more or less the same position that Brassaï took his picture. In fact, I was positioned to the right of the first lamppost with my microphones close to and facing across the steps towards the funicular and the 2.5 hectare terraced public garden that lies beyond.
Brassaï would have captured his image in a fraction of second but, stretching to a little over twenty-minutes, my exposure time was much longer.
My sound image includes breathless people struggling up the steps and people walking down seemingly much more relaxed, the sounds of the funicular cars being raised and lowered by their taught metal cables and the sounds of the crowds drifting across from the terraced garden at the foot of Sacré-Cœur.
If you listen carefully you will also hear snatches of individual stories unfolding, like the lady who stops to announce that her sock had fallen down, the testosterone-fuelled young man telling his friend that he wants to race up the steps and the breathless young American lady asking her friends if they are, “suckin’ wind yet?”
I have deliberately not included any images of what I could see from my recording position because to do so would miss the point. Just as Brassaï lets his picture capture the atmosphere and tell the story of this place, my recording is intended to do the same by simply letting the sounds speak for themselves and leaving you to create your own images from your imagination.
For those who do negotiate rue Foyatier, either on foot or on the funicular, the reward at the top is certainly worthwhile – a magnificent view of the Parisian skyline.
SUZANNE CURCHOD (1737 – 1794) was a French-Swiss woman of letters and hostess of one of the most celebrated salons of the Ancien Régime. She was also the wife of Jacques Necker, Controller-General of Finances under Louis XVI.
After her husband’s fall from power in 1790, the Neckers left Paris and returned to Switzerland. Suzanne died in 1794 but not before she had founded a hospital in Paris that still bears her name, the Hôpital Necker.
Suzanne Curchod – Madame Necker
The Hôpital des Enfants Malades (hospital for sick children) was created by the Conseil général des Hospices in January 1801 on the site of a former hospice for abandoned children, the Maison Royale de l’Enfant Jesus. The newly formed hospital, believed to be the oldest children’s hospital in the world, opened in June 1802 catering for 149 boys and 92 girls aged from 2 to 14 years old housed in separate wings, each containing 30 to 40 beds.
On 1st January 1927 the Necker hospital for adults and the Hôpital des Enfants Malades were merged to become the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades, the name by which its still known today.
Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malade in Rue de Sèvres in 2015
Hôpital Necker in Rue de Sèvres in 1900 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Today, the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades is a university teaching hospital affiliated to the prestigious Université Paris Descartes and it’s part of the public hospital system, the Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris.
The Carré Necker
The hospital has 400 beds for children and 200 beds for adults. It is one of the world’s leading institutions for paediatric medicine and surgery and it’s a referral centre for some rare diseases and particularly complex conditions.
The Carré Necker
Over the years, many eminent physicians and surgeons have worked at the hospital but perhaps none more eminent than the French physician, René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec (1781 – 1826). In 1816, while working at the hospital, Laennec invented the stethoscope and pioneered its use in diagnosing various chest conditions.
As well as having a plaque to mark his invention, Laennec has more recently been distinguished by having the new Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec named after him. This 54,000 M2 facility was opened on 10th July 2013 by François Hollande, Président de la République.
Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec
At a total cost of 215.4 million Euros, the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec caters for paediatric surgery, infant resuscitation, accident and emergency, paediatric imaging, cardiology, nephrology, gastroenterology, maternity and neonatology. It has been designed to centralise these paediatric specialities so as increase the efficiency of clinical care and to reduce the time required to get that care to patients. Special emphasis has also been put on the comfort of the patients and the parents with individual rooms designed on a parent-child-carer model.
On my visit to the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades I went into the reception area of the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec to record some of the atmosphere.
Inside the Pôle Mère-Enfant Laennec:
The reception area is spacious and well-lit with a cafeteria and bookstall, a gift shop, a reading room full of children’s books, a large children’s play area and a quiet room for mothers and children. Entry into the unit is via huge automatic glass doors that open and close with a gentle swish as people pass through. You can hear these swishing sounds in my recording. These sounds must surely be one of the defining sounds of this place although I suspect that those who come here with much more pressing things on their mind will scarcely be aware of them.
A clown entertaining children in the Hôpital Necker – Enfants Malades in 1945
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
I SPEND A LARGE part of my time recording and archiving the sounds of Paris. I’m particularly interested in the relationship between sound and place and the extent to which sounds can define, or at least help to define, a place.
It seems to me that as our city soundscapes become increasingly amorphous and homogenous the distinctive sounds that help to define a place have become less obvious, which I suppose poses the question: do the constituent parts that make up a city sound the same, similar or different – does the centre of the city really sound that much different to its periphery for example, or indeed, does Paris really sound that much different to London, New York or Tokyo?
Of course, I’m not the first to ponder questions like this. Some time ago, Ian Rawes, founder and curator of the acclaimed London Sound Survey, embarked upon a fascinating study based on the question, “What does London really sound like?” In his introduction to the study Ian says:
“One of the goals of the London Sound Survey is to treat sound as a means to an end, that of knowing more about the past and present nature of the city and what it’s like to live here. London is now more ethnically varied than at any time in its history with high population churn and rates of income inequality not seen since the early 20th century.
So, despite the homogenising effects of modernity on how public spaces sound, more insights should arise from examining likely patterns of difference around the city than seeking commonalities.”
Although not yet completed, it will be interesting to see what Ian’s study reveals and to see if his findings might provide some empirically based answer.
In the introduction to his study Ian also quotes the pioneering field recordist Ludwig Koch who said, ‘There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris’. Even though this may be a little fanciful, it’s a quotation I use at every opportunity because I understand what Koch meant by it.
The quotation comes from the introduction to a short programme Ludwig Koch made for the BBC in 1952 featuring some of the sounds of Paris that he had recorded. In 2012, I was invited by Cheryl Tipp, curator of natural sounds at the British Library Sound Archive and custodian of the Ludwig Koch archive at the British Library, to follow in the footsteps of Ludwig Koch and record the contemporary sounds of Paris from the same places that he had recorded from sixty years before. It was a fascinating experience. It revealed that over the last sixty years some sounds have disappeared altogether and new sounds have emerged, some sounds have changed and others have stayed remarkably the same.
Although I’ve amassed a huge collection of the sounds of the city, my head tells me that I haven’t yet been able to define precisely what Paris really sounds like in the way that Ian hopes to do for London, but my heart agrees with Ludwig Koch, I am sure that there is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris.
This was brought home to me the other day when I found myself walking along a street in the east of Paris in the rain.
What does Paris really sound like?
For me, the sound of traffic rolling over rain-soaked pavé is a quintessentially Parisian sound that not only defines this part of this particular street but also goes some way towards defining the city itself.
These sounds seem to have a timeless quality to them and for me at least they provide an elegant continuity with Parisian sounds that would have been familiar to Ludwig Koch.
But are these sounds part of Ludwig Koch’s atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris?
Well for me they are even though I don’t have any empirical evidence to substantiate it. What I know for sure is that I find these sounds enormously powerful and evocative and always inextricably linked to Paris.