SOME NINETEENTH CENTURY OBSERVERS of Paris were quite forthright in their impressions of the sonic tapestry of the city.
For example, the American writer John Sanderson arrived in Paris for the first time in July 1835 and he wasn’t over impressed with what he found …
“All things of this earth seek, at one time or another, repose – all but the noise of Paris. The waves of the sea are sometimes still, but the chaos of these streets is perpetual from generation to generation; it is the noise that never dies.”
John Sanderson, Sketches of Paris: In Familiar Letters to His Friends (1838)
And in 1837, the journalist and flâneuse Delphine de Girandin wrote …
“In Paris today, the day is a perpetual concert, a series of uninterrupted serenades; Parisien ears have not one instant of rest.”
Delphine de Girandin: Lettres parisiennes du Vicomte de Launay: August 25, 1837
For John Sanderson the ‘noise that never dies’ included the sound of the notorious cries de Paris, the often piercing cries of the street traders hawking their wares, as well as the sound of traffic:
“… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
Delphine de Girandin’s ‘perpetual concert’ was aimed at the itinerant street musicians:
“Starting in the morning, the organs of Barbary divide up the neighbourhoods of the city; an implacable harmony spreads over the city. [ … ] Finally, in the evening, great serenades! Violins, galoubets, flutes, guitars, and Italian singers! It’s a concert to die for, and there is no refuge; all this takes place under your window, it’s a residential concert that you cannot possibly avoid.”
And so to Paris in the twenty-first century; has anything changed?
The kind of sounds that John Sanderson and Delphine de Girandin encountered still exist in modern day Paris although the emphasis has changed.
The cries de Paris are now largely confined to the traders in the street markets although one can still come across men (it’s almost always men) calling out ‘Le Monde’ as they meander from café to café selling the afternoon edition of the daily newspaper. The street musicians still ply their trade although not quite so prolifically as in the nineteenth century. And then there’s the traffic! The sound of traffic pervades almost every nook and cranny of the city today and it can be overpowering and it’s perpetual; it really is the noise that never dies.
I spend a lot of time listening to Paris, so the notion of the city as a perpetual concert chimes with me. For me, it’s not just the street music that forms the concert, but rather all the sounds of the city. I see each individual sound, musical or not, as a dot on a score which, when added together, form a complete sonic composition. Or, to use a different metaphor, one might consider individual sounds as the warp and the weft, which, when woven together, form a sonic tapestry depicting the city.
Perhaps I can illustrate the notion of the city as a perpetual concert by recounting my perambulation around a part of Paris last Saturday afternoon.
I began at the Jardin du Luxembourg where I came upon this gentleman playing one of Delphine de Girandin’s organs of Barbary.
Street organ at the Jardin du Luxembourg:
Outside the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg this little street organ sounds quite charming but, in different circumstances, I take Delphine de Girandin’s point: “ … there is no refuge; all this takes place under your window, it’s a residential concert that you cannot possibly avoid.”
Listening to this street organ, it’s impossible not to notice the pervading background sound of the passing traffic.
So let’s consider the sound of traffic, or as John Sanderson put it: “… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
From the Jardin du Luxembourg, I walked the short distance to the Église Saint-Sulpice and then to the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
The Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is home to the church of the former Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, founded in the 6th century, and the famous café Les Deux Magots, once the rendezvous of the literary and intellectual élite of the city.
But for our purposes, the important thing about the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is that it is paved with John Sanderson’s rough stones.
When people ask me what my favourite sound of Paris is I usually decline to answer. But if asked what sound most typifies Paris then my answer is unequivocal: “… this rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of omnibuses.”
Traffic over the pavé in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
The Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés revealed the sounds of passing cycles, cars, the occasional two-wheeler, a luggage trolley and, with a nod to John Sanderson, at least three omnibuses.
And these sounds deserve to be listened to attentively because, thanks to the pavé, the pervasive, noise polluting, cacophonous traffic noise that blights this city seems to have been transformed into a soporific, almost musical composition.
My guess is that most of the people in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Saturday afternoon were probably unaware of these sounds other than providing them with a faint sonic background to their dash from the church to the café. Yet for someone wired up like me, these sounds not only form part of the perpetual concert but they also screech, Paris!
Having listened so far to modern day examples of Delphine de Girandin’s organs of Barbary and John Sanderson’s rattling of cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, it’s possible to take the notion of the city as a perpetual concert a stage further.
A few steps away from the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the Rue de l’Abbaye, a street named after the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It’s a narrow street running some 170 metres from Rue Guillaume Apollinaire to Rue de l’Echaudé and, although Paris is a bustling, sound rich city, Rue de l’Abbaye is one of the few streets shrouded in relative quiet.
So can a quiet street like Rue de l’Abbaye contribute to our perpetual concert? To find out, I perched myself on the steps of N° 3 Rue de l’Abbaye, the Institut Catholique de Paris, known in English as the Catholic University of Paris, and began to record.
Sounds in rue de l’Abbaye:
In Rue de l’Abbaye we find the human and avian species intertwined; the footsteps, the voices and the rustle of clothing as people pass by interlaced with the gentle cooing of the pigeons enjoying a late lunch and the flapping of their wings as they flutter to and fro in search of a tastier morsel. The occasional traffic sounds are in proportion to the surrounding ambient sounds rather than dominating them.
It takes concentrated listening to get the most out of these sounds but the effort is worth it because what is revealed is yet another strand to the city as a perpetual concert.
To complete my afternoon’s listening I returned to the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés and one of Delphine de Girandin’s great serenades! Not the violins, galoubets, flutes, guitars, and Italian singers she referred to but instead, the Dixieland jazz style of the early twentieth century.
Jazz in Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés:
This group of jazz musicians can be found most Saturdays at the southwest corner of Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés entertaining an enthusiastic audience comprising mostly tourists.
In conclusion, I look upon Paris as a city of perpetual concert in which all the sounds the city has to offer, ranging from the loud, brash and often unwelcome to the subtle and understated, are performers of equal value. John Sanderson refers to the noise that never dies and Delphine de Girandin to Parisien ears have not one instant of rest, both of which are true: the city is never without sound so the concert is perpetual. It’s just a question of learning to appreciate it.
Important Listening Note:
It’s a quirk of our times that when we listen to recorded sound we tend to crank up the volume too much. In order for you to appreciate the sounds featured in this post I have set the levels so that the sounds correctly relate to each other. In other words, the sounds will replay at the same level relative to each other as I heard them when they were recorded.
To get the best effect, set the level of your listening device to the sounds of the street organ remembering that less is always more! Then keep your listening device set to the same level for all the other sounds.
NAMED AFTER THE FRENCH comedian, humorist and member of the French Resistance, rue Pierre Dac is just 23 metres long making it one of the shortest streets in Paris. Originally forming the upper part of rue de la Fontaine-du-But linking rue Lamarck and rue Caulaincourt in the 18th arrondissement, the street’s name was changed in 1995 in honour of Pierre Dac.
The distinctive red sign in rue Pierre Dac points us towards the Métro station Lamarck-Caulaincourt and tells us that this station once formed part of the three Paris Métro lines owned by the Nord-Sud Company, or to give it its proper name, la Société du chemin de fer électrique souterrain Nord-Sud de Paris. In 1931, the Nord-Sud Company was taken over by its competitor, la Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris, which in turn was nationalised in 1948.
The Métro station Lamarck-Caulaincourt is perhaps best known for its distinctive entrance nestling between the two staircases that form most of rue Pierre Dac.
Lamarck-Caulaincourt station was opened on 31st October 1912 and today it forms part of the Paris Métro Line 12 linking the stations Front Populaire in the north to Issy-les-Moulineaux in the south. The station platforms were renovated in 2000 – 2001 and further work was carried out in 2006.
Lamarck-Caulaincourt platform before renovation
Lamarck-Caulaincourt platform today
Since Lamarck-Caulaincourt station was constructed under the butte Montmartre, the large hill that forms the village of Montmartre, it’s not surprising that the station platforms are some 25 metres below the station entrance. For those who arrive at the station by train and find the 25-metre climb out of the station a challenge, RATP have thoughtfully provided a lift to make life easier.
Sounds around Lamarck-Caulaincourt station platforms and an exit by lift:
I recorded the sounds inside the station to add to my extensive archive of sounds of the Paris Métro network but I also recorded sounds from the staircases in rue Pierre Dac outside the station, which I found to be equally fascinating.
I sat on one of the staircases and simply observed life passing by just as the photographer did in the 1925 photograph below.
L’entrée de la station de métro Lamarck-Caulaincourt entre les escaliers de la rue de la Fontaine-du-But, vers 1925. Photo collection Jean-Pierre Rigouard.
Sounds from the staircase in rue Pierre Dac:
Entrance to the Métro station Lamarck-Caulaincourt between the staircases in rue Pierre Dac (formerly la rue de la Fontaine-du-But), August 2017
Sitting on a staircase in the street observing the world passing by might not be everyone’s idea of a good day out, but at least I wasn’t the only one!
Observing through active listening is what I do and whether it’s the sounds of a Métro station platform or the sounds of a staircase in the street I’m always captivated by the stories sounds have to tell to the attentive listener.
Although we can see from the photograph what this place looked like in 1925, I can’t help wondering what it sounded like then and what stories those sounds would have told us.
IT IS ESTIMATED THAT between 30,000 and 50,000 people visit the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris every day. It’s not surprising then that the queue waiting to get into the cathedral is often longer than the cathedral itself.
The queue stretches across the Parvis Notre-Dame, the square in front of the cathedral, which was renamed Parvis Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul II in 2006 in honour of Pope Jean-Paul II who died the previous year.
The square is a magnet for tourists who, as well as visiting the cathedral, often queue up to have their photograph taken at a small octagonal bronze plaque surrounded by a circular stone embedded into the ground bearing the legend, ‘Point zéro des routes de France’.
As the legend suggests, this is point zero, the point from which all distances from Paris to the rest of France are measured.
Visitors to this spot might not know though that this was once the site of the infamous l’Echelle de Justice, the pillory before which the condemned, with bare head and feet and with a rope around their neck and a placard on their chest and back describing their crime, were require to kneel, publicly acknowledge their crime and seek absolution. It was here in March 1314 for example, that Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Templars, heard the Pope’s decree condemning him to be burned alive!
Tourists weary of standing in line to visit the cathedral or jostling to take a look at point zero often gravitate towards the side of the parvis closest to la Seine to feed, or to be swamped by, huge flocks of pigeons.
Tourists and Pigeons:
Unlike the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, or point zero, or even the fabulous Crypte Archeologique du Parvis Notre-Dame, which lies underneath the parvis, these sounds of tourists and pigeons may not feature in the tourist guide books, but for me at least they are some of the quintessential summer sounds of Paris.
THE PLACE DU CAIRE is a triangular Parisian square at the northern end of the 2nd arrondissement. Flanked by rue d’Aboukir and rue du Caire, place du Caire lies in the heart of an area of Paris known as a multicultural textile and garment manufacturing district and more recently, home to many Internet start-up companies.
Along with the Passage du Caire, one of the oldest Parisian passages couverts, the place du Caire dates from 1798. Both the Passage du Caire and place du Caire take their name from the Egyptian capital, Cairo, a place much in vogue at the time as Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798 – 1801) was unfolding. As well as the military objectives of defending French trade interests and weakening Britain’s access to India, Napoleon also took a group of scientists with him to establish scientific enterprise in the region. The scientists began to describe and illustrate the country’s natural resources and cultural heritage, from the geology, flora and fauna to the various ancient structures. This gave rise to a fascination with all things Egyptian, a fascination that manifested itself on the streets of Paris.
The oriental influence was reflected in some of the street names, rue du Caire, rue d’Aboukir and rue du Nil for example, but also in architecture. One example of this is the neo-Egyptian building in place du Caire.
It was built in 1799 and the large heads ornamenting the façade represent the goddess Hathor, who personified the principles of joy, feminine love, and motherhood. Above Hathor is an Egyptian inspired decorative frieze and vaguely Moorish arched trefoil windows.
Maison de style néo-égyptien sur la place du Caire- Photo d’Eugène Atget, 1903
While the place du Caire unashamedly boasts its Egyptian influence there is another chapter in this Parisian square’s history that is less obvious.
In medieval Paris a large portion of the population relied on begging for survival. Since begging was a competitive business, those with the most severe handicaps could expect more alms. It was therefore quite common for beggars to fake unsightly infirmities, injuries or dieseases. Once their day’s work was done, the beggars would return to their slums where miraculously the blind could see again and the crippled walk. This phenomenon gave the generic name to these areas where so many ‘miracles’ occurred every day: the cour des miracles, the courtyard of miracles.
The cour des miracles as imagined by Gustave Doré in an illustration to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Referring to the cour des miracles in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pierre Gringoire, the struggling playwright and philosopher says, “Miracles, upon my soul! Here the blind see, and the lame run.”
The cour des miracles were the haunts of thieves, beggars, prostitutes, pimps and other marginalised people. In Paris there were a dozen of them, the most famous of which was in the Sentier district between place du Caire and rue Réaumur. This is the cour des miracles Victor Hugo was referring to.
Hugo’s cour des miracles consisted of three interconnected courtyards, the main one being the loop formed by the rue de Damiette and rue des Forges. It was accessed by the present day rue du Nil, or by an alley, now disappeared, at 100 rue Réaumur.
N°100 rue Réaumur – once an entrance to the cour des miracles du Sentier,
Work to clean up the cour des miracles began in 1667 when Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, holder of the new office of Lieutenant General of Police, was charged with curbing the growth of crime but it wasn’t until 1750, when some of the slums were demolished and more respectable trades like blacksmiths and fishmongers moved in that improvement began. The last vestiges of the old cour des miracles were eliminated with the Haussmannisation of the area in the 19th century.
Listening to and recording the sounds of Paris is my way of exploring the city. The sounds invariably arouse my curiosity about the social and cultural history of the places in which they occur. It was listening to the sounds in the place du Caire for example that led me to discover the Egyptian connection and the history of the cour des miracles.
But as well as opening a window on the social and cultural historical connections, for me at least the sounds of a place have an absolute value in their own right. Listened to attentively, sounds can paint a picture of and tell a story about a place.
So what does the place du Caire sound like?
Today, the place du Caire still has its share of mendicants but no more than many other areas of the city. On a normal working day it’s a hustling, bustling, multi-cultural part of the city with people going about their every day business.
Sounds in the place du Caire on a normal working day:
So, is this what the place du Caire sounds like?
Well, yes it is – at least some of the time. But there are times when it sounds completely different, when the sounds have a different story to tell.
More sounds in the place du Caire:
I recorded these sounds last Monday, a public holiday in France, when all the boutiques and the passage du Caire were closed. In this different atmosphere all the sounds usually subsumed by the more aggressive sounds of a normal working day are now free to take centre stage.
The piece begins with the sound of a man with an artificial leg walking by; not a refugee from the former cour des miracles but a middle-aged man out for a stroll with his wife. A mendicant wearing sandals approaches me but then thinks better of it. The normally drowned out sounds of pigeons cooing can clearly be heard. The sound of passing two-wheelers fuelled by testosterone is inevitable. The most characteristic sounds are those very familiar to Parisian apartment dwellers like me – the sounds of an apartment gardien on one side and a gardienne on the other bringing out the refuse bins and lining them up on the trottoir ready for collection later in the day. There is even the sound of a lady, under the gaze of Olivier Brice’s ‘L’Homme au Bras Leve’, walking her cat on a leash.
For those just passing through the place du Caire, the sounds to be found there on a normal working day will perhaps be the most familiar. But I hope I have shown that these sounds don’t represent everything the place du Caire has to say.
IN 2014, I MARKED International Women’s Day on this blog with a visit to the Marie Curie Museum in the 5th arrondissement to see an exhibition in the museum garden of photographic portraits celebrating the careers of prominent women, past and present, who worked or who are currently working in the fields of science and medicine. You can see my report on the exhibition here.
To mark International Women’s Day in 2015 I recorded a women’s march in Paris, the Marche Mondiale des Femmes, which you can see here.
For some reason that escapes me, I didn’t mark International Women’s Day last year so I thought I ought to make up for that lapse by coming up with something for this year.
International Women’s Day 2017 was yesterday, 8th March, and I spent the afternoon in the 1st arrondissement here in Paris. It’s a neighbourhood I pass through frequently but, although it’s one of the most exclusive and opulent parts of the city, it’s by no means my favourite part. I’m rather like the man in Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ – I don’t care much ‘for high-tone places’.
Still, the 1st arrondissement did set me thinking about International Women’s day.
The Ritz Hotel, Place Vendôme, 1st Arrondissement, Paris
Apart from the Musée du Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries, the 1st arrondissement is perhaps best known for the Place Vendôme. With it’s Ritz Hotel, it’s elegant Hôtels particuliers and establishments like Boucheron, Chaumet, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier, some of the world’s finest jewellery houses, the Place Vendôme attracts a regular clientele of European royals, Middle Eastern sheikhs and billionaires from all over the world. Undoubtedly, it’s one of Nina Simone’s ‘high-tone’ places.
A few steps away from the Place Vendôme though is another street, much less elegant and opulent but a street I know well: Rue Danielle Casanova.
Originally known as rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, the street dates back to the early seventeenth century when it was then part of the rue des Petits-Champs. It acquired the name Danielle Casanova in December 1944.
The street is named in honour of Danielle Casanova, a militant communist, a tireless activist, a member of the French resistance and a remarkable woman.
Danielle trained as a dentist in Paris and in 1928 joined the Communist Youth movement eventually becoming a member of its Central Committee. In 1936, she became the first president of L’Union des jeunes filles de France (UJFF).
The UJFF was founded partly as a response to the resentment of young communist militants who had little responsibility within the then young French Communist Movement, and partly as a way for the French Communist Party (PCF) to recruit young female members.
Danielle and the other founders of the organisation wanted to focus on issues related to all areas of gender equality: work (referring in particular to the difficulties encountered by Marie Curie in her career), education and leisure. They emphasised the double discrimination of women from the working class due to both gender and social background. The UJFF supported the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, participating in demonstrations of support and welcoming refugee children from Spain.
After the fall of France in 1940, the French Communist Party and its related organisations were banned and Danielle went into hiding. Working underground, she helped set up women’s committees in the Paris region, she wrote for the underground press, especially Pensée Libre (“Free Thought”) and she founded la Voix des Femmes (“Women’s Voice”). She also helped organise resistance against the occupying forces,
French Police arrested Danielle on 15 February 1942 and she was transported to Auschwitz where she worked in the camp infirmary as a dentist. While in Auschwitz, she continued campaigning and organising clandestine publications and events. She died of typhus on 9th May 1943.
Danielle Casanova was a heroine of the women’s movement and the French Resistance and she has lent her name to streets, schools, and colleges throughout France.
Rue Danielle Casanova:
And I might have left my contribution to International Women’s Day there had I not called into the Café Bourbon in rue Danielle Casanova.
After living in Paris for the past eighteen years I know the 1st arrondissement reasonably well, although I don’t claim to know every nook and cranny. So while sitting in the café with time on my hands, I launched Google Maps to see if there were any streets I had yet to explore … and what I found was astonishing.
The 1st arrondissement is the least populated of the city’s twenty arrondissements and one of the smallest by area and yet I discovered that it contains 182 streets.
Paris streets are mostly named after people, professions, places or events so, since it was International Women’s Day, I decided to count up how many of those streets were named after women.
Out of the 182 streets in the 1st arrondissement, just SEVEN are named after women:
Place Colette: Named after Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, (1873–1954) a French novelist nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
Place Marguerite-de-Navarre: (1492-1549), sister of King François Ist
Rue Sainte-Anne: Anne of Austria (1601–1666), queen consort of France and Navarre, regent for her son, Louis XIV of France, and a Spanish and Portuguese Infanta by birth.
Rue Thérèse: Marie-Thérèse (1638-1683), wife of Louis XIV
Passage de la Reine-de-Hongrie: Named after a merchant from the neighbouring Les Halles, Julie Bécheur, who lived in the late eighteenth century. She was said to resemble the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, queen of Hungary (and of Bohemia).
Avenue Victoria: Named after the British Queen Victoria who paid a visit to the nearby Hôtel de Ville in 1855.
And of course:
Rue Danielle Casanova:
Two more streets are named after exclusively female professions:
Rue des Lavandières-Sainte-Opportune: – the washerwomen
Rue de la Lingerie: – the seamstresses
In fact, to be precise, there are only six-and-a-half streets named after women in the 1st arrondissement rather than seven. The Rue Danielle Casanova is bisected by the boundary of the 1st and 2nd arrondissements so half the street is in the 1st and, as can be seen by the sign below, the other half is in the 2nd.
It seems that, despite having a female Mayor, the Paris City authorities still have more work to do on the gender equality of Parisian street names.
ALTHOUGH PERHAPS NOT quite yet an obsession, searching for quiet in the busy, traffic strewn city of Paris has become a major preoccupation for me, even though it is a Sisyphean task since quiet is a rare commodity in the Parisian soundscape.
Just to be clear, for me quiet isn’t necessarily the absence of noise, but rather a state where individual sounds, which are always there but usually shrouded in a cloak of more aggressive, often unwelcome sounds, are allowed to speak and tell their own story.
Aggressive and unwelcome sounds can be found in abundance at any of the major road intersections in Paris, intersections like Place de la Bastille for example, which straddles the 4th, 11th and 12th arrondissements. Seven roads converge here, each spewing a toxic ribbon of traffic around the 1830 July Column.
One might be forgiven for thinking that amidst the cacophonous noise pollution around Place de la Bastille quiet might be elusive, but it can be found if one searches diligently.
One of the streets leading from Place de la Bastille is Rue de la Roquette, a seventeenth century street once home to the French poet Paul Verlaine, the dramatist Michel-Jean Sedaine, the historian Jules Michelet and, for a time in the 1980s, the celebrity chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay. At N°2 Rue de la Roquette is a seventeenth century archway leading into the Passage du Cheval Blanc.
Once home to timber warehouses supplying the cabinetmakers and furniture manufacturers close by, today the Passage du Cheval Blanc comprises a labyrinth of individual passageways and courtyards housing small businesses from the Maison Lucien Gau, specialising in the creation, conservation and restoration of lighting and bronze art objects, to architects’ offices and design studios as well as the studios of the radio station Oui FM.
Maison Lucien Gau
Walking from Place de la Bastille through the seventeenth century archway into the Passage du Cheval Blanc the atmosphere changes: the cacophony of Place de la Bastille gradually fades giving way to the indigenous sounds of the passage itself and a calming quietness.
Sounds inside the Passage du Cheval Blanc:
A distinguishing feature of the Passage du Cheval Blanc is that each of the interior passageways is named after a month of the year from January to June.
April – It’s not actually a passageway but a staircase
The sound piece above is my soundwalk from January to June and back to January again.
I have long held the view that constant, aggressive and unwelcome sounds are just as polluting and damaging to our health as the other sources that pollute our atmosphere with a plethora of toxic emissions. Walking through the Passage du Cheval Blanc, I couldn’t help thinking about how the mainly young, creative people who work here must profit from the absence of aggressive, unwelcome sounds.
TRAWLING THROUGH MY Twitter feed the other day I came upon this photograph by Eugène Atget made in 1898 entitled ‘La Place Saint-Médard’.
La Place Saint-Médard by Eugène Atget 1898
The original photograph is an 18.1 x 21.9 cm albumen print created from a finely divided silver and gold image dispersed in a matrix of egg white. Albumen prints were the most common photographic printing process from 1855 until around the turn of the nineteenth century.
This Atget image chimes with me because I know this area of Paris particularly well, but when I saw the photograph I was struck by two things: First, the title, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’, and second, what did this place sound like in 1898?
The title of the photograph, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ is curious because that name does not exist in this spot today and, so far as I know, it never has. I can quite see why Eugène Atget might have thought that the space he photographed bore that name: It is at the foot of rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris dating back to Roman times and it is adjacent to the Eglise Saint-Médard whose origins date back to the 7th century. The space that Atget photographed does have the attributes of a typical Parisian ‘Place’ but as far as I can establish it is, and in Atget’s time was, part of rue Mouffetard.
Eugène Atget’s ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ on December 24th 2016
So what did Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ sound like in 1898?
Thanks to his large-format wooden bellows camera, rapid rectilinear lens and glass plates we know what Atget saw as he stood in this place but we have no record of what he actually heard.
And that’s not surprising because for most of our history we have used artefacts, architecture, pictures and words to create a vision of our past. It’s only in the last few seconds on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sound, which means that almost all our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded.
We could create a late nineteenth century soundscape of this place from our imagination of course and we might not be too wide of the mark, but we cannot create the actual sounds in that place on that day.
I admire enormously Eugène Atget’s painstaking documentation of a nineteenth-century Paris undergoing great change and I consider it a great privilege to follow in his footsteps documenting contemporary Paris in sound.
Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ – Recorded on December 24th 2016:
A Christmas Eve queue for the boulangerie close to Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’
WHEN AN URBAN LANDSCAPE changes it seems everyone has an opinion about it but when the accompanying soundscape changes very few seem to notice.
In a city like Paris where the soundscape is dominated by a blanket of noise pollution caused by incessant traffic one might assume that a change to the landscape, unless it involves a major re-routing of traffic, is unlikely to make much difference to the soundscape. But to the attentive listener there are examples where a change to the soundscape can change the character of a place just as much as a change to its landscape.
A development in rue Dénoyez in the east of Paris is one such example.
Once a very run down part of the commune of Belleville in the east of Paris, Rue Dénoyez was revived in the second half of the twentieth century with the arrival of artists who saw the decaying walls and empty shop fronts as a huge canvas upon which to display their talents turning the street into a constantly changing plein-air art gallery.
The commune of Belleville is particularly sound rich and so I go there frequently to capture different aspects of the multi-cultural soundscape and each time I go I call into rue Dénoyez to watch and listen to the artists at work.
When I went there two years ago, in November 2014, I discovered that under the banner ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – ‘Save rue Dénoyez’, a petition had been drawn up to challenge a plan by the local authority to demolish part of rue Dénoyez and replace the artists’ workshops and galleries with subsidised housing and a community centre.
The development proposal called 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.
Despite the petition opposing the development receiving 10,000 signatures in six months, the work was slated to begin in the summer of 2015.
Rue Dénoyez – November 2014
The petition was organised from here in part of the street scheduled for demolition and redevelopment
Any project mired in French bureaucracy is likely to remain there for a very long time, but when I called into rue Dénoyez in July this year I found that, although the work hadn’t yet begun, the artists’ studios and galleries were empty and shuttered and the emergence of ominous looking green barriers seemed a portent of imminent construction, or more appropriately, destruction.
Rue Dénoyez – July 2016
Fast forward to November this year, last week in fact: now the wrecking ball has done its work and the artists’ studios and galleries have disappeared to be replaced by a slash in the landscape.
Rue Dénoyez – November 2016
Knowing rue Dénoyez as well as I do, I must admit that seeing this new landscape for the first time came as a shock – more of a shock than I’d expected actually – and it took a while for me to absorb the dramatic change of scene.
Of course, this slash in the landscape is only temporary – the gap will be filled by the new housing project, but for me as an archivist of the contemporary soundscapes of Paris the transience of this gap is important because not only does it change the soundscape of the street but it also gives us a hint of what the future soundscape of rue Dénoyez may be.
I decided to capture the soundscape of rue Dénoyez complete with its new, temporary, gap.
Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:
I began my soundwalk at the south-east end of rue Dénoyez, the opposite end from the demolition site. The sounds of dry autumn leaves scudding along the road, a young man firing up his motorcycle, footsteps passing, doors opening and closing, children making for the local piscine and neighbours gossiping filled the air in this part of the street much as they had before.
But as I approached the north-western end of the street and the slash in the landscape (8’ 51” into my soundwalk), the soundscape in rue Dénoyez changed noticeably from what it had been two years ago. Instead of the sound of artists at work shaking their aerosol cans filled with paint and spectators watching and commentating with their cameras clicking, now there was now an eerie quiet broken only by the distant sound of a crow and the rather melancholy sound of a dilapidated washing machine being hauled over the pavé.
To compare the sounds of rue Dénoyez as it was before the demolition with what it is now, listen the last four minutes or so of my recent soundwalk recorded at the demolition site and then listen to the sounds recorded in the same place in 2014:
Sounds in rue Dénoyez 2014:
And the change to the landscape is not yet finished. The building below, until recently a bistro, on the corner of rue Dénoyez and Rue de Belleville is to be redeveloped into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre thus changing both the landscape and the soundscape even further.
I began by saying that when an urban landscape changes it seems everyone has an opinion about it but when the accompanying soundscape changes very few seem to notice, and this is certainly true of the development in rue Dénoyez. The demolition work in the street is impossible to miss and no doubt everyone has an opinion about it but the change to the accompanying soundscape is subtle and requires both attentive listening and a knowledge of the street as it once was to recognise that there has been a change.
My sonic exploration of places in Paris usually consists of hunting out two types of sounds: the ‘characteristic’ sounds, the everyday sounds that exist in a place but are not necessarily unique to it, and then the ‘unique’ sounds, the sounds that actually define or help to define a place.
In its prime, rue Dénoyez had its ‘characteristic’ everyday sounds but more importantly it had ‘unique’ sounds – the sounds of artists at work shaking their aerosol cans filled with paint, which occasionally exploded, and the sounds of spectators watching, commentating and clicking their cameras. These were the sounds that defined the street.
Once the housing development is completed perhaps the everyday sounds of the street will not change all that much – dry autumn leaves will still scud along the road, footsteps will still pass, doors will still open and close, children will still make for the local piscine and neighbours will still gossip in the street, but what about the ‘unique’ sounds, the sounds that once defined this street?
The local authority say they will leave some space for plein-air art in the street but with the artists’ studios and galleries now demolished it seems the artistic soul of the street together with its once unique soundscape have been lost.
But at least I have the sounds of rue Dénoyez in its heyday safely in my archive – although now in the ‘Vanishing Sounds’ section.
ORIGINALLY A FOCUS for celebrations in Belleville before that commune was consumed into the City of Paris in 1863, today’s Place des Fêtes in the 19th arrondissement stands in the midst of the experiment that was 1970s urbanism.
Surrounded by 1970s tower blocks, the Place des Fêtes is a large pedestrianised space, 200 metres long and 150 meters wide, occupied for three mornings a week by a popular outdoor market. At its centre is an obelisk created by the Hungarian artist, Zoltán Zsakó.
The obelisk stands on a granite base and is made mostly from translucent glass with bass reliefs surrounding the graffiti encrusted lower portion.
Although I have no idea what the artistic intent behind the obelisk is, it does have a practical purpose. It covers the emergency exit from the underground car park beneath the Place des Fêtes.
Another artistic feature of the Place des Fêtes is la fontaine-labyrinthe, the fountain-maze, created by another Hungarian artist, Marta Pan.
La fontaine-labyrinthe is one of the fountains to emerge from the 1978 competition to create seven contemporary fountains in different squares in Paris. Another winner of that competition was La Fontaine Stravinsky in the centre of the city featured in this blog one year ago.
Sounds in Place des Fêtes:
The sounds I recorded in the Place des Fêtes on a hot August afternoon included the sounds of energetic youths skateboarding and young children enjoying the final days of summer before returning to school on 1st September.
Relief from the 1970s concrete jungle can be found on the western edge of the Place des Fêtes in the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, a garden designed by the ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, Jean-Charles Alphand, who worked for Baron Haussmann and his renovation of Paris in the late 19th century.
The garden was opened in 1863 and redeveloped, along with the rest of the Place des Fêtes, in the 1970s.
Today, the garden honours the memory of Monseigneur Fernand Maillet (1896 – 1963), a parish priest born close by who, in 1924, took over the direction of the renowned boy’s choir, la manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de bois. In 1963 he founded la Fédération internationale des Pueri Cantores, an international association bringing together twenty-seven national choral associations on five continents.
It seems entirely appropriate that the centrepiece of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, the kiosque à Musique, or bandstand, reflects the musical association with Monseigneur Maillet.
At the eastern end of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet is a reminder of the garden in Alphand’s time, a nineteenth-century Wallace fountain.
This is not the classic large model fountain resting on an octagonal pedestal on which four caryatids are affixed with their backs turned and their arms supporting a pointed dome decorated by dolphins. This is the small model version, a simple pushbutton fountain that one can find in squares and public gardens across Paris and on a hot, late August day it was a fountain much in demand.
THE SQUARE DANIELLE MITTERAND, formerly the Jardin de la rue de Bièvre, is a small green space at N° 20 rue de Bièvre in the 5th arrondissement.
The Jardin de la rue de la Bièvre was created in 1978 but on 8th March 2013, International Women’s Day, it was renamed Square Danielle Mitterand.
Danielle Émilienne Isabelle Gouze was born in October 1924 at Verdun in the Meuse department in Lorraine in north-eastern France. During the Second World War she was a liaison officer in the French Resistance where she met François Mitterrand. They were married three months after the Liberation, on 28th October 1944. François Mitterand went on to become President of France from 1981 to 1995.
The Square was named after Danielle Mitterand in recognition of her work in the Resistance movement and her subsequent work for human rights.
In 1986 she founded the Fondation Danielle Mitterand – Frances Libertés, an organisation dedicated to building a fairer and more socially-responsible world by defending human rights and protecting shared assets, specifically by promoting the right to water access for all and ensuring that people’s right to utilise their resources is recognised and respected.
The foundation’s work has three component parts: support for projects run by communities at grassroots level, citizen, civil society and political decision-maker awareness raising work, and finally advocacy work with the public authorities and in the United Nations. The Foundation has consultative status on the UN Economic and Social Council.
Over the years, the Foundation has participated in many issues including the right to free potable water for all, the fight against racism, support for the Tibetan people and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It has also worked for the reconstruction of the educational and social system in Cambodia and on issues surrounding health security in Africa.
The location of the Square Danielle Mitterand is appropriate since it’s just two doors away from N° 22 rue de Bièvre, the private residence of François and Danielle Mitterand from 1972 to 1995.
Although Danielle lived at N° 22 during that time, François commuted between there and rue Jacob in nearby Saint-Germain and the home he shared with his long-time mistress, Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine.
The Mitterand ménage was undoubtedly complicated but nevertheless seemed to work remarkably well. In 1958 Danielle acquired a long-term lover of her own, a gym teacher who sometimes fetched the morning croissants and then sat down to a friendly breakfast with François.
All this was widely known in Parisian society but a compliant and complacent French press kept it under wraps until the end of Mitterrand’s presidency in 1995.
Both Danielle Mitterand and Anne Pingeot attended Françcois Mitterand’s funeral in 1996.
Danielle Mitterand died in Paris on 22nd November 2011, aged 87.
Sounds in the Square Danielle Mitterand:
The Square Danielle Mitterand is not the most elegant square in Paris but I like it. Sitting at the back of the Square on an August afternoon I was content simply to listen to life passing by in the Square and in rue de Bièvre.
Rue de Bièvre