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.
LOCATED IN THE Marais district of Paris, the Hôtel Salé in rue de Thorigny is a tourist hot spot.
It was built between 1656 and 1659 for Pierre Aubert de Fontenay, a tax farmer who amassed a fortune collecting the gabelle, a hugely unpopular salt tax. Aubert used his wealth not only to buy land in the Marais upon which to build his hôtel particulier but also to purchase the office of Secretary to the King thus ensuring his entry to the nobility.
Aubert’s contemporaries referred to his mansion in derisory fashion as the Hôtel Salé – in French, salé means salty or salted.
After Aubert’s death, the mansion changed hands several times either by sale or inheritance. In 1671, the Embassy of the Republic of Venice moved in and then François de Neufville, duc de Villeroi. The property was expropriated by the State during the French Revolution. In 1815 it became a school, in which Balzac studied, before housing the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1829 and then the municipal École des Métiers d’Art.
It was acquired by the City of Paris in 1964 and granted historical monument status in 1968.
Today, the Hôtel Salé houses the Musée Picasso, an art gallery dedicated to the work of the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso.
Rear view of l’Hôtel Salé – Image via Wikipedia
When Aubert de Fontenay built his mansion he included a garden and a planted terrace at the rear. Today, most of that garden is enclosed within the iron railings bordering the Musée Picasso but a small part of it, in medieval times an orchard of fruit trees, vegetables and aromatic plants, is now a public park, the Jardin de l’Hôtel Salé-Léonor-Fini.
The name of the park not only reflects Aubert’s hôtel particulier and the Musée Picasso but also the work of another modern artist, Leonor Fini (1907 – 1996), the Argentinean surrealist painter, designer, illustrator, and author, known for her depictions of powerful women.
Sounds in the Jardin de l’Hôtel Salé-Léonor-Fini:
Not minded to join the seemingly endless queue coiling round the courtyard of the Hôtel Salé, I was quite content to spend my crisp, bright early November afternoon sitting in the Jardin de l’Hôtel Salé-Léonor-Fini looking at the colours and listening to the sounds of a Parisian Autumn.
DESPITE ITS REPUTATION for being stuck in the past, the face of Paris is changing.
A recognition that Paris needs to modernise to become more competitive in the twenty-first century, together with the Greater Paris Project, the plan to create a sustainable and creative metropolis by absorbing the suburbs and redeveloping the city centre, and the city’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games have become a catalyst for change.
A huge amount of money is being invested in public transport with the extension of the tramway network, the extension and upgrading of the Métro system and the introduction of electric and biogas buses.
Both the Ministry of Defence and the Palais de Justice are moving from the city centre into state-of-the-art new buildings on the outskirts of the capital to help stimulate the local economies, the Herzog & de Meuron designed skyscraper, the Tour Triangle, a 180 metre (590 ft) tall glass pyramid in the southwest of the city, has been given the green light and even the ghastly Tour Montparnasse is due for a makeover.
Although Paris is not yet a permanent building site, the pace of change is accelerating as seen by the recent announcement of a €600 million transformation of the busiest railway station in Europe, the Gare du Nord.
The Gare du Nord is one of six main line railway stations in Paris and with some 2,100 trains carrying 700,000 passengers per day, the station is not only the busiest in Europe, it’s the third busiest in the world.
Despite being rather scruffy and certainly in need of a revamp, the current Gare du Nord is special for me not because of the number of passengers who pass through it but because it is the only Parisian railway station with a distinctive soundscape. It is a perfect example of a place being defined by its sounds.
I went to the Gare du Nord the other day to capture more sounds for my archive before the station’s transformation changes the soundscape completely.
Inside the Gare du Nord; October 2016:
The transformation of the Gare du Nord will take place in two phases: the first has already begun and is due to be completed in 2019 and the second is scheduled from 2019 to 2023 – just in time for the 2024 Olympic Games – should the Paris bid be successful!
The Gare du Nord currently links Paris to London, Brussels, Amsterdam, the northern suburbs and Charles de Gaulle airport as well providing RER and Métro lines that cross the city.
The plans, designed by the architects Wilmotte & Associés, call for a new arrivals terminal exiting in Rue de Dunkerque, the current main entrance where passengers enter and leave the station, a new departures terminal entered from Rue de Maubeuge, where the taxi rank currently is, a Pôle échange Francilien for trains to the suburbs, a Pôle échange National for main line SNCF trains and a new €80 million Eurostar Terminal for which work is already underway.
A 160 metre-long, 60-metre wide walkway above the tracks will lead passengers to their platforms and the whole area around the station will be pedestrianised.
These images from Willmotte & Associés show us what we can expect:
As the visual landscape of the city changes so does its sound landscape and as an archivist of the contemporary Parisian soundscape I am striving to record and archive these changes.
Of course, it doesn’t only require an architectural transformation to change the soundscape of the Gare du Nord. Over the last seventeen years, I’ve witnessed the sounds of breathless passengers carrying suitcases give way to the rumble of wheeled luggage bags and where once the sounds of the trains were complimented only by the train announcements, today it is the repetitive security announcements that dominate – an example of sounds not only reflecting a change of lifestyle but also a change to the very fabric of our society.
Will I mourn the loss of the current distinctive soundscape of the Gare du Nord? Yes, of course, but I also look forward to the new, more passenger friendly terminus even with what I suspect will be its less distinctive soundscape.
I will record the sounds of the Gare du Nord both during and after its transformation content in the knowledge that the distinctive sounds of the station that so many of us knew before the work began will be preserved in my archive for future generations to explore, to study and to enjoy.
The Gare du Nord today – but not for much longer!
THE ENGLISH WORD ‘square’ has been adopted by the French to describe a particular type of open space.
A Parisian ‘square’ is typically a small urban green space not large enough to be called a parc (the grassy variety) or a bois (the wooded variety) and not sufficiently formal in its plantings to be called a jardin.
There are a large number of squares dotted throughout the twenty arrondissements of Paris each of which offers the opportunity to escape, if only momentarily, from the urban environment and to partake of air and light. Sadly though, few Parisian squares are completely free from the noise pollution create by endless traffic.
Opened in 1857, the Square du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement is one of the squares created by Jean-Charles Alphand, directeur de la voie publique et des promenades de la Ville de Paris, during Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris in the late nineteenth-century.
The Square occupies part of the the site of a medieval fortress built by the Knights Templar in 1290. Covering some 130 hectares, the fortress or, l’enclos du Temple, featured a number of buildings important to the running of the Knights Templar Order including a church, a massive turreted keep known as the Grosse Tour (great tower), and a smaller tower called Tour de César (Caesar’s Tower).
Parts of the fortress were used as a prison during the French revolution. Louis XVI was a prisoner here from 13th August 1792 to 21st January 1793, before being taken to the guillotine and Marie Antoinette was here from 13th August 1792 to 1st August 1793 before being taken to the Conciergerie, from where she too went to the guillotine.
After the revolution, l’enclos du Temple become a place of pilgrimage for royalists so, in 1808, Napoleon I ordered its demolition. The final remnants were demolished around 1860 under Napoleon III.
Sounds in the Square du Temple:
Today, at the eastern end of the Square du Temple, also standing on part of the former l’enclos du Temple, is the majestic Marie du III Arrondissement, the local town hall.
While at the north-eastern end is the Carreau du Temple, originally a covered market built in 1863 but now a multipurpose space with a 250-seat auditorium along with sports and cultural facilities, including a recording studio.
I visited this typical Parisian square on a sunny, mid-October afternoon and, along with the lawns, the pond with its artificial waterfall tricking over rocks imported from the forest of Fontainebleau and the chestnut, Turkish hazel and Japanese Sophora trees, I found the sounds of children dominating the soundscape.
These sounds seemed especially poignant when I came upon this:
It’s a monument, inaugurated on 26th October 2007, carrying the names and ages of ‘87 tout-petits n’ont pas eu le temps de frequenter une ecole’: 87 Jewish toddlers aged from 2 months to 6 years living in the 3rd arrondissement who were deported from Paris between 1942 and 1944 and subsequently exterminated at Auschwitz.
Ne les oublions jamais.
Paris (IIIrd arrondissement). The Square du Temple around 1900. Auteur © Léon et Lévy / Roger-Viollet
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
AT THE BEGINNING of the sixteenth-century, Paris might not yet have been a great or particularly beautiful city – but it was big! With the decline of feudalism, population growth mushroomed, migration to cities increased and by the middle of the century, Paris, with its population of some 350,000 souls, had become the largest city in Europe.
There were many casualties as a result of the growth and urbanisation of the population. Competing demands for resources usually meant that those with the lowest social status came off worst and children, particularly infants, being dependent rather than productive members of society, often came off worst of all.
Infanticide was not uncommon and those who escaped that fate were often abandoned or deliberately maimed and sold as beggars. By the middle of the century the situation had become so bad that the Parlement de Paris decreed an obligation seigneuriale, meaning that nobles had to take the responsibility for the foundlings left in their domains – a decree often ignored.
There were some attempts to alleviate the plight of abandoned children. In 1523, the Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris, began taking in foundlings and sick children although few, if any, survived to adulthood.
In 1536, Marguerite de Valois, sister of François 1st, then King of France, founded a hospital and orphanage or, an orphan asylum as it was known, in rue du Grand Chantier, now part of rue des Archives in the Marais district, to take abandoned children from the Hôtel Dieu.
Originally known as les Enfants de Dieu, the children, dressed in clothes made from red cloth as a symbol of Christian charity, quickly became know as les Enfants Rouges – the Red Children.
Marguerite de Valois’ hospice des Enfants-Rouges survived until 1772 when it was merged with the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés, a foundling hospital created in 1638 by Vincent de Paul and, from 1670, an institution attached to the Hôpital général de Paris under the direction of the Parlement de Paris.
Although the hospice des Enfants-Rouges no longer exists, its name still echoes close by.
By the beginning of the seventeenth-century, the population around the hospice des Enfants-Rouges in the Marais was growing and so the King, Louis XIII, decided that a market was required to satisfy the growing demand for provisions.
In 1615, land was bought and work began. Perceval Noblet, master carpenter to the King, was commissioned to build the Petit Marché du Marais comprising a wooden hall resting on 16 pillars of oak, with stables, a manure pit and a well.
The market thrived and was subsequently expanded becoming the Marché du Marais du Temple.
When the hospice des Enfants-Rouges merged with the hôpital des Enfants Trouvés in 1772, the orphanage in rue du Grand Chantier was closed but its memory lived on and the local residents decided that the Marché du Marais du Temple should be renamed, Marché des Enfants-Rouge.
And action by local residents was not confined to the 1770s.
In 1912, the market was bought by the City of Paris and, although being listed as an historical monument in 1982, local residents were called to action in the 1990s to prevent it being turned into a car park! Reason prevailed though and following a six-year closure the market was reopened in November 2000.
Although not the biggest and perhaps not the best market in Paris, the Marché des Enfants-Rouges does have the distinction of being the oldest market in the city.
While selling fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, organic food, bread and flowers, its popularity today rests less on its fresh food stalls than with its reputation as a dining destination.
Sounds in the Marché des Enfants-Rouges:
The range of food on offer is enormous, from the bistro, L’Estaminet des Enfants Rouges, with its oysterman outside shucking bivalves, to a variety of stalls offering Moroccan, Italian, Lebanese, Japanese, and Organic dishes to take away or eat at the communal tables ‘sur place’.
The Marché des Enfants-Rouges is a huge attraction in the hip Haut Marais area of Paris. But when I go there I always stop to look at the painting on the wall of the little orphan in the red dress and I’m always reminded that she would have found such abundance unimaginable.
Image courtesy of Paris en Images:
Marché des Enfants-Rouges, rue de Bretagne, Paris (IIIrd arrondissement), 1898. Photograph by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet. Auteur
© Eugène Atget / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet
ALTHOUGH HE SURVIVED several assassination attempts, King Henry IV of France, the first French monarch from the House of Bourbon, finally succumbed to the knife-wielding catholic zealot, François Ravaillac, in the Rue de la Ferronnerie in Paris in May 1610.
Henry ruled France from 1589 until his assassination and although not universally popular in the early years of his reign his reputation soared after his death.
Henry IV of France: Henri Goltzius, graveur : Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, RESERVE FOL-QB-201 (16)
Henry did not succeed to the French monarchy unopposed. Although baptised a catholic, he was raised a protestant. Upon the death of his brother-in-law and distant cousin Henry III of France in 1589, Henry became monarch and to begin with kept the Protestant faith. This set him against the Catholic League, a collection of powerful catholic aristocrats aided by Pope Clement VIII and Philip II of Spain, who denied that Henry could wear France’s crown as a protestant. It would take a nine-year siege of Paris and his conversion to catholicism for Henry to secure his crown from the influence of the Catholic League and Spanish interference.
Despite having come close to assassination in 1572 during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, a wave of catholic mob violence and targeted assassinations against the protestant Huguenots, Henry displayed an unusual religious tolerance for the time. In 1598, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, confirming Roman Catholicism as the state religion but granting religious freedom to protestants. The Edict of Nantes effectively ended the French ‘Wars of Religion’, which had lasted for thirty-five years and cost some three million lives.
Having established his monarchy Henry had secured relative peace at home but he also set out to secure peace abroad. Although his reign saw a continuation of the rivalry between France, the Habsburg rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire for the mastery of Western Europe, something that would not be resolved until after the Thirty Years War following his death, Henry set about successfully resolving more immediate disputes with Spain, Italy and the Ottoman Empire.
His vision also extended beyond France; he financed several expeditions to North America, which saw France lay claim to Canada.
While Henry’s reign was characterised by his forthright manner, physical courage and military successes: he once asserted that he ruled ‘on a le bras armé et le cul sur la selle’, with ‘weapon in hand and arse in the saddle’, he was also a pragmatic politician.
Working with his long-time faithful and trusted lieutenant, the nobleman, soldier and statesman, Maximilien de Béthune, Duc de Sully, Henry set about creating prosperity at home. He built a strong centralised administrative system, regularised state finances and encouraged education; he promoted agriculture, public works, the construction of highways and the first French canal and started some important industries including the Gobelins Manufactory, later to become tapestry makers to the court of the French monarchs.
Henry restored Paris to a great city and some examples of this can still be seen today.
He built the Place Royale, now the Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris and, for a time, the French nobility’s favourite place of residence. Along the Right Bank of the Seine he added the 400 metre long Grande Galerie to the Louvre Palace inviting hundreds of artists and craftsmen to live and work on the building’s lower floors.
In 1607, Henry inaugurated the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge across the river Seine and to mark the occasion a statue of him was erected on the bridge ‘on a le bras armé et le cul sur la selle’ in 1614.
Unfortunately, Henry was unseated from his saddle during the French Revolution when his statue was destroyed. The statue we see today is a replica erected in 1818.
Henry IV was undoubtedly a man of vision and courage and he became, perhaps more posthumously than at the time, a popular monarch often known by the epithet, ‘le bon roi Henry’ or ‘Good King Henry’.
But he also gained an epithet that reflected another side of ‘le bon roi Henry’ and at the Pont Neuf there is a reminder of this.
Jutting out into la Seine from the span of the Pont Neuf is a promontory that forms the western tip of the Île de la Cité. This promontory was created in 1607 by joining two existing small islets, the Île aux Juifs and the Île du Passeur. It was on the Ile aux Juifs that Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar and his lieutenant Geoffroy de Charnay, were burned at the stake on the orders of King Philip the Fair in March 1314.
In 1884, this promontory was bought by the City of Paris, landscaped into a public garden and named the Square du Vert Galant, a rather sardonic reference to the other side of ‘le bon roi Henry’.
Sounds in the Square du Vert Galant:
Not only was Henry regal in public, it seems he was also regal in the boudoir – he was a serial philanderer. He became notorious for his sexual exploits, taking on many lovers and earning the epithet “Le Vert Galant”.
Le Vert Galant doesn’t translate literally into English but, in this context, one can approximate ‘vert’ to ‘racy’ or ‘risqué’ and ‘galant’ to ‘a man who loves to seduce women’. Anyway, you get the idea!
The women in Henry’s life played a significant role in the politics of his reign.
He married his first wife, Marguerite de Valois, in 1572. They were repeatedly unfaithful to each other and their childless marriage collapsed leading first to their estrangement and then to an annulment in 1599.
Despite fathering several children with a variety of mistresses Henry was in need of a legitimate heir. In 1600, at the age of forty-six, he married his second wife, Marie de’ Medici, who bore him six children, including the future Louis XIII. Henry was unfaithful to her as well and insisted that she raise his illegitimate children along with her own.
Henry’s womanising became legendary; he always kept mistresses, often several at a time, as well as engaging in random sexual encounters. Even so, he tended to elevate one mistress above the others and shower her with money, honours, and promises. His two most famous mistresses were Gabrielle d’Estrées, who died in 1599, and her successor, Henriette d’Entragues, who involved herself in plots against the crown. Henry promised marriage to each of them, exposing himself to a series of political problems.
After decades of religious war, Henry brought peace and relative prosperity to France and his reign had a lasting impact for generations. He was one of the first monarchs to elevate national unity above religion in terms of importance for a ruler.
A cult surrounding the personality of Henry emerged during the Bourbon Restoration, the period following the fall of Napoleon in 1814 until the July Revolution of 1830. Although his statue on the Pont Neuf was torn down during the French Revolution, it is significant that it was the first to be rebuilt afterwards.
The Square du Vert Galant and the statue of Henry IV sitting proudly atop the Pont Neuf close by represent two very different sides of Henry IV.
Sitting under the weeping willow trees on the western tip of the Square du Vert Galant listening to and recording the sounds around me, I was reminded of the final paragraph of Desmond Seward’s book, ‘The First Bourbon: Henry IV of France and Navarre’:
… He was a great and charming man, and what is remarkable about his legend, what makes it so different from that of any other hero king, is that it preserves the memory of his failings as well as of his virtues. It is the most human of all royal legends.
FOR A FEW HOURS in March 2015 Paris became the most polluted city in the world. Excessive vehicle emissions combined with sunshine, a drop in temperature and an absence of wind to disperse the pollutants caused a stagnant cover of warm air to settle over Paris resulting in a toxic haze that enveloped the city.
In response, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, instigated the first Journée sans Voitures, a car-free day. On 27th September 2015, about a third of the city was designated a traffic-free zone save for taxis, buses and emergency vehicles.
The first Journée sans Voitures was a success. Airparif, an air quality monitoring network in the Île-de-France, reported that nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by up to 40% in some parts of Paris and Bruitparif, a noise monitoring network, reported that sound levels fell by half in the city centre.
Yesterday, the Journée sans Voitures was repeated, this time covering a wider area with some 400 miles of the city’s streets being designated a traffic-free zone.
As a professional listener to Paris and an archivist of the city’s soundscapes, the prospect of listening to and recording the city’s sounds without the constant wave of traffic was too good to pass up.
Last year I captured the sounds of the Journée sans Voitures from Place Colette close to the Comédie-Française, the Palais-Royal and le Conseil d’État.
This year I decided to go to three places where I’ve recorded many times before, each of which takes on a completely different hue without a blanket of traffic noise.
My first stop was the Jardin des Tuileries.
For years I’ve been trying to record the sound of the wildlife around the Grand Bassin in the Jardin des Tuileries without traffic noise in the background. On Sunday I had my chance.
Journée sans Voitures – Jardin des Tuileries – Grand Bassin:
My second port of call was a garden whose sounds I have never managed to record successfully because of the overpowering sounds of the surrounding traffic.
The Jardin de la Nouvelle France is a small, English style garden situated at the junction of the Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt and the Cours la Reine in the 8th arrondissement.
The garden is named after Nouvelle France, a North American French colony and one-time vice-royalty of the Kingdom of France. With Québec as its capital, the colony existed from 1534 to 1763.
The garden winds down to below street level and at the bottom is a small waterfall and a pond. Without the traffic above, the sound of the waterfall takes centre stage.
Journée sans Voitures – Jardin de la Nouvelle France:
From the Jardin de la Nouvelle France it was just a short walk to my final destination, the Champs Elysées which, aside from the upmarket emporia lining both sides is, on a normal day, little more than an eight lane racetrack with mind-bending noise pollution to match.
On Sunday there was no traffic, the Champs Elysées was reserved for pedestrians and cyclists and a much calmer sound tapestry prevailed.
Journée sans Voitures – Champs Elysées:
Not only has the Mayor of Paris championed the city’s annual Journée sans Voitures, she has also backed a regular Paris Respire (Paris Breathes) day on the first Sunday of the month, with traffic cleared from the Champs Elysées and a number of surrounding streets.
And today it has been announced that le Conseil de Paris has approved the Mayor’s proposal to permanently close a 3.3 km stretch of la voie Georges-Pompidou on the Right Bank of la Seine to traffic and make it accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists.
Anne Hidalgo has called it a “décision historique, la fin d’une autoroute urbaine à Paris et la reconquête de la Seine.”
The proposal is not universally popular. The Left and the Ecologists on the City Council support the scheme but the Right are opposed to it.
Some argue that the Journée sans Voitures, Paris Respire, removing traffic from part of the banks of the Seine and other schemes to reduce airborne pollution are political stunts and have little tangible effect. I disagree.
Airborne pollution, whether from vehicle emissions or from noise, is a plague that affects us all. Paris may be taking small steps to alleviate the problem but in my view they are steps in the right direction.
The Sound Collector by Roger McGough:
A stranger called this morning
Dressed all in black and grey
Put every sound into a bag
And carried them away
The whistling of the kettle
The turning of the lock
The purring of the kitten
The ticking of the clock
The popping of the toaster
The crunching of the flakes
When you spread the marmalade
The scraping noise it makes
The hissing of the frying pan
The ticking of the grill
The bubbling of the bathtub
As it starts to fill
The drumming of the raindrops
On the windowpane
When you do the washing-up
The gurgle of the drain
The crying of the baby
The squeaking of the chair
The swishing of the curtain
The creaking of the stair
A stranger called this morning
He didn’t leave his name
Left us only silence
Life will never be the same
From All the Best – The Selected Poems of Roger McGough.
FOR THE LAST eight years I’ve been recording and archiving the contemporary soundscapes of Paris. Searching for and capturing the sounds of this city is a fascinating occupation; it has taught me how to listen attentively to the city, it has taken me to places I would never otherwise have visited and it has introduced me to some fascinating people I would have never otherwise have met.
But it’s done more than that. Aware that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, I am always thinking about the social, cultural and historical context of the sounds I find and that has taught me how to explore and appreciate the rich history, complexity and diversity that is Paris.
For example, on Saturday I was exploring the sounds at La Plaine de Saint-Denis on the northern outskirts of the city. Although Saint-Denis and neighbouring Aubervilliers are two of the poorest communes around Paris, La Plaine Saint-Denis has become a vast media city, home to TV giants like Euro Media, Endemol and the Parc E.M.G.P with it’s 12 television studios where some of France’s most popular TV programmes are made.
But had I not been exploring the soundscape around les plateaux de télévision I would never have discovered this:
This is a former station of the Chemin de Fer de la Plaine de Saint-Denis et d’Aubervilliers, part of a 15 km industrial railway network comprising 13 tracks of 200 to 250 meters each, opened by the Riffaud-Civet Company in 1884. The first wagons on this railway were pulled by horses.
And had I not been exploring the soundscape around La Plaine de Saint-Denis I would never have discovered this alien looking building:
This I discovered is the recently opened Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord, a research institute specialising in cultural industries, health and society, globalisation and contemporary cities.
I’ve made a note to seek permission to explore the sounds in the undergrowth at the base of this architectural spaceship.
Having made this foray to La Plaine de Saint-Denis in the far north of Paris, I decided to board Métro Line 12 and travel the 40-minute journey to Issy les Moulineaux on the southern outskirts of the city. There was continuity to my thinking because Issy les Moulineaux boasts more plateaux de télévision; it is home to the TV channels, Eurosport, the Canal + Group and France 24.
Like La Plaine de Saint-Denis, Issy les Moulineaux is a place I have visited before but never really explored.
On Saturday, the first thing I encountered was a statue of General (posthumously Maréchal) Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, or simply le maréchal Leclerc or just Leclerc as he’s best known. Leclerc and his 2nd Armoured Division liberated Paris in August 1944 and it was to Leclerc that the last commander of Nazi occupied Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered on 25th August.
Although Leclerc’s bust was the first thing I encountered when I arrived in Issy les Moulineaux, I would have missed it completely had I not been on my way to record the sounds of the fountain behind the Hôtel de Ville.
After a day’s walking, a bumpy 40-minute Métro ride across Paris (all of which I recorded for my Paris Soundscapes Archive) and several hours of concentrated listening I decided it was time for a visit to a café, the Comptoir d’Issy, for a coffee and well-earned rest.
But even there I couldn’t resist working. I just had to record the sounds in the Comptoir d’Issy to add to my already enormous collection of Parisian café sounds.
But while I was doing that I spied something that caught my imagination.
Sounds in the Comptoir d’Issy:
I know very little about clocks but my first impression was that this one on the wall of the Comptoir d’Issy looked rather like a station clock. Fortunately, there was a clue – the name Paul Garnier on the clock face.
I was anxious to know more so I consulted the lady who lives in my iPhone and in un clin d’œil she revealed that Jean-Paul Garnier, known as Paul Garnier (1801-1869), was a Horloger et Mecanicien a Paris, a Parisian watch and clock maker who, amongst many other things, provided all railway stations in France with station clocks!
Paul Garnier was a member of the French Society of Civil Engineers and also a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. He was honoured for his work on electromagnetic telegraph clocks and, in 1861, he was chosen by the French government to make proposals for the development of the watch industry. He donated his entire collection of watches and clocks to the Musée du Louvre where he has a room named after him. He died in 1869 and is buried in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.
The purpose of my expedition on Saturday was to explore the soundscapes in parts of Paris that I’ve visited but haven’t really explored before. I spent many hours listening and much less time recording. As I get older, I listen more and record less.
But exploring these unfamiliar soundscapes also inspired me to explore my surroundings and helped me to not only put the sounds into context but also to discover new things – things that I would probably never have discovered had it not been for the sounds that surround them.
THE TEMPLE DE LA SIBYLLE may not be the highest point in Paris but it does sit atop a man-made cliff fifty metres above an artificial lake in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Inspired by the Temple of Vesta near Rome, the Temple de la Sibylle is the central feature of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a park opened in 1867 for the recreation and pleasure of the rapidly growing population of the then new 19th and 20th arrondissements of Paris, which had been annexed to the city in 1860.
Situated close to the former Gibet de Montfaucon, the gallows and gibbet of the Kings of France where, up until 1760, the bodies of executed criminals were left hanging as a warning to the public, the site on which the Parc des Buttes Chaumont now stands became, after the 1789 Revolution, a refuse dump and then a place for cutting up horse carcasses and a depository for sewage.
Fascinating as this is, I will leave a more detailed exploration of the park with its former gypsum and limestone quarries, its temple, its lawns, its lake and its grotto for another time. In this post I want to explore something different.
For several years I’ve been visiting the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, partly because it’s a nice place but more importantly because it’s a place that has become a focus for a particularly challenging aspect of my work.
I record urban soundscapes, particularly the soundscapes of Paris, and I’ve learned a lot about how to record urban soundscapes by studying the philosophy, images and techniques of great photographers.
The best photographers seem to be able to condense wisdom into succinct sentences:
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
– Ansel Adams
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
– Robert Frank
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
– Robert Capa
Although the context of these quotations is of course photography they apply equally to sound recording and particularly to the recording of urban soundscapes.
Robert Capa’s dictum, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’, is especially relevant to my work. Key to recording urban soundscapes is to become part of the soundscape without changing the soundscape, in other words to get close to the sounds without changing the overall soundscape. Over the years, and after much trial and error, I’ve developed techniques for doing this.
But there remains a challenge in my urban soundscape recording work that is not covered by Robert Capa’s dictum, in fact it’s the antithesis of it, and it’s a challenge that I’ve been trying to address in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
This is the view over the 19th arrondissement from the Temple de la Sibylle on top of the cliff in the park. The lake is 50 metres below the Temple and the tower blocks in the distance are 1.5 km away.
Although my photograph is unlikely to win any prizes it does I hope reflect the prospect from the Temple de la Sibylle along the Avenue de Laumière to the tower blocks at La Villette. The picture has a sense of perspective with the lake and its surrounding path in the foreground, the road crossing from left to right and the start of the Avenue de Laumière in the centre, the tower blocks in the distance and the hill beyond in the far distance.
My challenge is: how to capture the soundscape associated with an image that took 1/250th of a second to make, which stretches from 50 metres below me to over 1.5 km ahead of me. In other words: how to capture in sound the elusive concept of perspective.
With today’s sophisticated technology it’s possible to manipulate sounds in post-production to create almost any effect you want. But despite all the gadgetry, perspective remains perhaps the only thing that cannot be created in post-production; it has to be captured on location in real time.
If you listen to wildlife recordings you will often hear wonderful examples of perspective captured in sound but capturing perspective in a busy urban environment is an enormous challenge.
Getting Things in Perspective:
This recording is a 20-minute sonic exposure of the scene looking out over the 19th arrondissement recorded from the edge of the cliff directly in front of the Temple de la Sibylle. Whereas Robert Capa’s dictum would require me to be close to the sounds, here I am doing the opposite – attempting to capture a sense of perspective by recording from a distance.
I chose to make this recording in the middle of a weekday afternoon – exactly the wrong time one might argue to achieve a ‘perfect’ recording. It would surely have been better to record at six o’clock in the morning as the area was waking up or at eleven o’clock at night as it was going to sleep. Well, apart from the fact that the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is closed at those times, it depends upon what one means by a ‘perfect’ recording.
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”, Ansel Adams tells us and, in the context of my work in Paris, ‘perfect’ recordings are a fuzzy concept. The Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be, so I try to make good recordings of course, but I’m much more interested in capturing reality than perfection.
Robert Frank suggests that, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks” – good advice that translates well to the world of sound recording. I usually describe myself as a ‘professional listener’ rather than a sound recordist. Time spent listening before pressing the ‘Record’ button is always time well spent.
While hearing is instinctive, listening is an art that has to be learned and while my recording from the Temple de la Sibylle may seem to be dominated by the ribbon of traffic passing across the centre of the scene, attentive listening will reveal much more.
People it seems are wedded to their motorcars so, like in most cities, traffic overwhelms most of the streets of this city. The Mayor of Paris is trying to alleviate this to some extent but I fear she is facing an uphill struggle. In the meantime, the sound of traffic will continue to dominate the Parisian soundscape and subjugate pedestrians to unacceptable levels of noise and noxious pollution. As I said earlier, the Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be!
But underneath the ribbon of traffic other sounds are fighting to be heard.
The sound of ducks in the lake below me can be heard throughout the piece, as can a distant church clock sounding three o’clock and an even more distant church bell chiming.
A testosterone fuelled young man makes an appearance to my right shouting to his friend on the far side of the park, there are the obligatory sirens, this time from the red ambulances of the sapeurs-pompiers de Paris, and in the far distance the very faint sound of a car alarm.
But perhaps the most surprising thing in the piece is one of the shortest and quietest sounds. It occurs twelve minutes into the piece and it’s the sound of an angler sitting on the bank of the lake fifty metres below me reeling in a fish. The sound only lasts for six seconds (it must have been a very small fish) so don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
This recording is one of many I’ve made from the hills in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont over the years attempting to capture the perspective looking out over the 19th arrondissement.
All the recordings are different but so far none of them have quite managed to capture the idyllic perspective I have in my imagination. Chasing that ideal continues to be a challenge – but that’s why it’s so endlessly fascinating.
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
– Elliott Erwitt
Judging an appropriate level to listen to sounds can be a tricky business. As a guide, the traffic at the head of the Avenue de Laumière was approximately 500 metres from my recording position so the level that you listen to these sounds at should reflect that. Less is more!