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Posts tagged ‘ambient sound recording’


A Celebration in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

I AM PASSIONATE ABOUT recording and archiving the everyday sounds around me.  I record anything and everything. But even I have a couple of self-imposed rules I try to adhere to – I never record people’s private conversations and I never record people at worship.  To record private conversations is simply wrong and, it seems to me, the act of worship is a personal and private thing and to record it would be an unforgivable intrusion.  Yet, last Saturday, I broke the second rule and recorded an act of worship!

My excuse for doing so was that this was a very public act of worship broadcast live both on television and on radio. It took place in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and, according to the order of service, it was a Messe d’action de grâce pour la beatification de Jean-Paul II – a mass to celebrate the beatification of Pope John-Paul II.

The Cathedral was full to the rafters so, by the time I got there, it was standing room only. The mass was presided over by no less than the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois. He was appointed Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2007.

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois at work:

Regular readers of this blog will know of my love of the wonderful creations of the master organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

The organ of Notre Dame de Paris that we see and hear today is a Cavaillé-Coll creation built around the François-Henri Clicquot 18th century organ.  Over time the organ has been restored, modified and upgraded and today it even makes use of state-of-the-art computer technology.  With five keyboards and close to eight thousand pipes it is the largest organ in France.

Louis Vierne, Léonce de Saint-Martin and Pierre Cochereau have played this organ – immortal names in the world of Cathedral organists.  Imagine then the thrill of listening last Saturday to Jean-Pierre Leguay, Organist Titulaire de Notre-Dame, playing this ‘King of Instruments’ as the ecclesiastical procession left the cathedral with Cardinal André Vingt-Trois bringing up the rear.  Around a thousand people, me included, followed the procession bathing in the majestic sounds of the Grand-Orgue de Notre-Dame.

For everyone else this was a celebration of the beatification of Pope Jean-Paul II – but for me it was a celebration of the genius of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

The Grand-Orgue de Notre Dame:


Going Up – Going Down

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but as I get older, the prospect of climbing hills becomes much less attractive. There aren’t that many hills in Paris but, if you want to visit Montmartre, then you have no option but to negotiate a hill.

Walking up the hill is one option but there is an alternative  – the funicular railway. The original funicular was built in 1900 and was water powered. In 1935 it was converted to electricity.  The funicular we see today was modernised in 1991.

Climbing 36 metres in a little over a minute, the funicular carries over two million passengers a year.

Going up:

It’s easier to walk down hills than to walk up them so it’s not surprising that more people use the funicular to go up than to go down. Occasionally, I do take the down trip.

Going Down:

The Montmartre funicular has become part of the Paris Metro system so a simple Metro ticket will avoid the need for the alternative – a 220-step climb. I recommend the funicular!


A Tale of Two Weddings

A WEDDING TOOK PLACE in London last Friday.  In Westminster Abbey, nineteen hundred invited guests and an estimated television audience of two billion watched as the bride entered the Abbey as a commoner and left as a Princess.

A wedding took place in Paris last Saturday.  In the Eglise Saint-Sulpice around one hundred invited guests and no television audience watched as the bride entered the Church as a commoner and left feeling like a Princess.

In Westminster Abbey, the bride entered to a fanfare sounded by the trumpeters of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. In the Eglise Saint-Sulpice, the bride entered to the majestic sound of the original, completely un-restored, Cavaille-Col organ.

Last Friday, Westminster Abbey was in total lock-down. No one except the invited guests was allowed in and every move inside the Abbey was scripted in advance.

Last Saturday, the Eglise Saint-Sulpice was hosting a wedding but it was still a working church, anyone and everyone was allowed in… and in they came – tourists and locals all stumbled upon this wedding.

In Westminster Abbey the bride and groom left to the sound of the London Chamber Orchestra and William Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’.

In the Eglise Saint-Sulpice the bride and groom left to another majestic sound from the wonderful Cavaille-Col organ together with unscripted and completely spontaneous applause from the uninvited guests.

These two newly married couples face very different futures. I wish them both well and much happiness in their new lives together.


Selling a Vision

EASTER SET ME THINKING about who invented the Easter egg. Whoever it was, their idea was a shrewd marketing ploy which has proved to be a resounding success.

Novel ways of marketing chocolate are not new of course.

Sulpice Debauve was doing it at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. A former pharmacist to Louis XVI, Debauve opened the first chocolate shop in Paris in the Faubourg Saint-Germain-des-Près. He combined his talents as a pharmacist and chocolate maker with a flair for marketing what he called “healthy” chocolate.

He marketed his chocolate, laced with exotic and novel ingredients, as being efficacious for people with weak constitutions, nervous stomachs and chronic ailments amongst other things. It was the start of a huge success.

By 1818, Debauve had moved to 30 Rue-des-Saints-Pères. His shop, designed by Percier & Fontaine, architects to Napoleon I, still stands and is now an official historic monument. Today, the chocolates of Debauve & Gallais are sold around the world.

Someone else who knew a thing or two about marketing was Aristide Boucicaut, a former pedlar and founder of what was probably the world’s first department store – Au Bon Marché.

Boucicaut’s idea was revolutionary. Under the Ancien Régime the typical retail outlet was the boutique specialising in one variety of product with no fixed pricing – bargaining was the rule. Boucicaut changed all that.

The change that he brought to retailing included everything we take for granted today. He was the first to “pile it high and sell it cheap”, he introduced the selling of more than one variety of product under the same roof, fixed pricing, the price ticketing of individual items, free entry encouraging customers to browse at will, the clearance sale, and for his employees – commission on sales and participation in profits.

The sound inside Au Bon Marché:

I think we can safely say that Boucicaut’s idea caught on – and now it seems everybody is doing it.

The chocolaterie Debauve & Gallais still sells “healthy” chocolate and it has retained its distinctive boutique look. Au Bon Marché is still a department store and it has retained its Boileau architecture on the outside although little of it remains on the inside. Both are distinctive parts of the Parisian landscape.

And … I still don’t know who invented the Easter egg – but I do know that it had to be someone with the determination to sell a vision – someone like Sulpice Debauve or Aristide Boucicaut.


Place des Abbesses

I ARRIVED AT THE METRO station Abbesses by travelling the short, one stop from the neighbouring station, Pigalle, on Line 12.

The Metro from Pigalle to Abbesses:

Thirty-six metres below ground, buried in the former Plaster-of-Paris mines of Montmartre, Abbesses is one of the deepest stations on the Paris Metro network – so deep that a lift is provided to carry passengers to the surface.

For the more adventurous, it’s possible to do it the hard way by climbing the long, winding, seemingly never-ending, staircase. The effort does have its rewards, like the original tiles lining the walls of the stairwell.

Whether ascending by the lift or the stairs, the rewards waiting upon reaching the surface are certainly worth it.

This has to be the most photographed Metro entrance in the world. It’s one of Hector Guimard’s originals and one of only three that are left – the others being at Porte Dauphine and Place Sainte-Opportune. The Abbesses entrance was originally the entrance to the Hôtel de Ville station but it was moved to the Place des Abbesses in 1970.

The Place des Abbesses takes its name from the former Abbey of the Dames des Abbesses founded as far back as 1133 by Adelaide of Savoy, the wife of Louis VI.  The reputation of the abbey – and of the Abbesses for that matter – waxed and waned over the years but it managed to survive in one form or another until the French Revolution when it was finally suppressed.  Madame de Montmorency-Laval was the last abbess and she came to a sticky end – she was sent to the guillotine in 1794!

If Madame de Montmorency-Laval were with us today, what would she find on the site of her former home?

She would find that there are still ecclesiastical references. The Crypt of the Martyrium, which she would have known well, is the chapel built on the site where, allegedly, Denis, Bishop of Lutetia, (later Saint Denis) was decapitated in 250AD. She would be pleased to know that the chapel is still alive – but only open to the public on Friday afternoons. She would find the Eglise-Saint Jean-de-Montmartre, a more recent ecclesiastical structure, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist in 1904.

She would be very familiar with the cobblestones in the Place des Abbesses and I like to think that she would approve of the rather delicate sound of traffic slowly rumbling over the pavé which has a curiously romantic feel to it.

She would no doubt find the sound of today’s street musicians in the Place des Abbesses curious but, since music was an integral part of abbey life, maybe she would not entirely disapprove.

I like to think she would also approve of the contemporary creation – the “I Love You” wall – a wall of deep blue glazed tiles with dashes of pink inscribed with the words “I Love You” in over three hundred languages.

All in all, I think Madame de Montmorency-Laval, like the flocks of tourists who visit each year, would be well pleased with today’s Place des Abbesses.


Through an Open Window

THE MOULIN ROUGE in Pigalle is a magnet for tourists. At almost any time of the day or night you will find people standing in front of it queuing to buy tickets or waiting to get in to see the scantily clad dancers perform. Across the street, people with cameras in hand flirt with the traffic trying to capture images of this Paris icon.

Of all the tourists who flock to this place I suspect very few venture a few steps to the left of the Moulin Rouge and explore its next-door neighbour, the Cité Véron.

Named after a local resident and Mayor of Montmartre from 1830 – 1841, this charming cul-de-sac sits cheek by jowl with its more well-known and lively neighbour in quiet contentment. On a beautiful spring day I went to explore the Cité Véron.

This cobblestone alley has an intimate feel. It’s eighty metres long and just three metres wide and in the springtime the lush vegetation leans over to occupy what little space there is for pedestrians.

The sound of the traffic from the busy Boulevard de Clichy close by seems to almost disappear the further along this alley you go. But on the day I went, the sound of the traffic was replaced by a completely different sound.

Not surprisingly on a beautiful spring day, birdsong was in the air but there was something else too … the sound of a piano. The Cité Véron is lined with high walls causing the sound to reverberate so it was difficult to tell exactly where the sound was coming from. I could tell though that it was not coming from an extra loud CD player, this was the real thing – somewhere, someone was playing a piano.

Further investigation eventually led me up some stone steps to an open window and a wonderful surprise. Through the window came the sounds as a répétiteur played the piano accompanying a full-blown ballet class.

This was no children’s Saturday afternoon dance class – this was the real thing. Beautiful, supple young women gracefully pushing their bodies further than bodies should be pushed – all under the command of an authoritative, elderly gentleman issuing his orders in time to the music.

Beautiful young women, arabesques, pliés and the sound of a piano through an open window is not quite what I expected when I arrived in the Cité Véron. But, it seems that this place does, after all, have something in common with its more raucous next-door neighbour.

This post is dedicated to a friend of mine, a former ballet dancer. I’m sure these sounds will bring back mixed feelings for her – the pain of the tortuous practising rewarded only by the joy of performing.


The Sounds of Paris Obscura Day

HAVING HAD A TOUR of the blogging world earlier today, I see that much has been written about the success of the Paris Obscura Day which took place last Saturday and I expect that much more will be written in the days to come.  I would like to add my contribution.

Thanks and congratulations to Adam, Invisible Paris, not only for conceiving the idea but also for masterminding the organisation and making the day such a success. The idea to use the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale as the theme for the day was inspired.

My contribution to the day was to record the sounds of the garden and then to reproduce them at the evening event in Dorothy’s Gallery.

Sounds Inside the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale:

To record the sounds I made four trips to the garden, which is in a remote corner of the Bois de Vincennes, so I got to know it rather well. It’s far enough away from Paris city centre to have a countryside feel to it but not far enough away to escape the noise pollution we would all like to escape from.

The natural sounds of the garden – the birds, the occasional barking dog, the wind brushing the trees and the water sit cheek by jowl with the man-made sounds – traffic, aircraft passing overhead, workmen, bicycle riders and joggers. Like it or not, the sounds of the garden are what they are and what they have always been– a mélange of natural and man-made sounds.

The natural and man-made sounds of the garden:

This place may be decaying but sonically it’s far from dead.

And another place that is far from dead is Dorothy’s Gallery where the guests gathered on Saturday evening. This too provided a unique sonic tapestry.

A church bell recorded from Dorothy’s Gallery:

A surprising sound to be found in a gallery perhaps but there it was, unheard by the guests, but captured nevertheless.

And something else captured during the evening was this message from the caterers, Emperor Norton of Paris, whose quirky food take on the evening was a delight.

As far as I know, only one book has been written about the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale but there are lots of photographs providing an historical record of the place. To my knowledge, there is no record of the historical sounds of the garden. I have at least been able to capture its early twenty-first century soundscape which, alongside the photographs taken by Shane Lynam, may be of value to future historians. Let’s hope so.


Musée Carnavalet – and Extraordinary Sounds

SOME TIME AGO I was commissioned by a broadcasting organisation to record some very specific street sounds of Paris. They sent me a recording brief and when I read it I discovered that amongst the many other sounds they wanted, I was being asked to make a recording inside the Musée Carnavalet in the rue de Sévigné.

I had mixed feelings about this. The Musée Carnavalet is a museum I know well and visit often … but what on earth is there to record in a museum that could possibly be of interest to an international broadcasting company – and to me for that matter?

The Musée Carnavalet is an absolute gem. It is a museum dedicated to the city of Paris and entry is free. It occupies both the former Hôtel Carnavalet and the former Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau. The notorious socialite, Madame de Sévigné lived there from 1677 until her death in 1696 and so it was in her shadow that I entered the museum to embark upon my task.

This proved to be an interesting experience. On my previous visits to this museum I had been engrossed with the exhibits, looking at them and reading the texts associated with them, trying to understand them and putting them into context. The history of the Paris fascinates me and so my visits have always been enjoyable and I have come away feeling that I know much more about this wonderful city.

But this visit was different. I was working, hunting for sounds – the sounds that characterise this museum, the sounds that distinguish this museum from any other museum.

Sounds Inside the Musée Carnavalet:

Seek and ye shall find! In my experience, the distinguishing sounds are always there – it’s just a matter of perseverance, the thrill of the chase and finding the quarry.

And here it was – a creaky wooden floor.

This floor was laid by craftsmen who would have ensured that it was inch perfect and totally silent. Madame de Sévigné would have tiptoed across this floor oblivious to the fact that that it was even there. But today, it lives and breathes. Age has taken its toll, the cracks have appeared and we are left with a wonderful sound legacy.

For me, this wooden floor and its sound is just as much a part of the history of Paris as the exhibits that surround it in the Musée Carnavalet.


Parc Montsouris

THE PARC MONTSOURIS, in the 14th arrondissement, was born in the minds of Napoleon III and his préfet, Baron Haussmann. Paris already had three large parks, the Buttes-Chaumont in the north, the Bois de Boulogne in the west and the Bois de Vincennes in the east.  Given Haussmann’s love of symmetry, a park in the south of Paris was also needed. The quarry land around the former hamlet of Montsouris was the chosen site.

A decree for the creation of the park was issued in 1865 and it was to Jean-Charles-Adolphe-Alphand, Inspecteur Général des Ponts et Chaussées, (he was also responsible for the city’s parks) that the task of planning the new park fell. The plans were drawn up, the landscaping completed and the park was opened in1878.

The sounds of the Parc Montsouris today:

Today, the Parc Montsouris covers sixteen hectares (forty acres) and rises to some twenty metres (just over sixty-five feet) at its highest point. On the eastern side there is an artificial lake and a restaurant, the Pavillon Montsouris, which is somewhat of an institution with prices to match.

The park is traversed by two railway lines.

The RER commuter line B crosses the park and the sounds of this can be clearly heard as one explores the southern side. There are also the remains of the railway line of the old Chemin de Fer de Petite Ceinture, the Little Belt, railway line that was the first public urban transportation service in Paris, and was the forerunner of today’s Paris Métro.

The park boasts many statues one of which is the Mire du Sud. This pinpoints the old Paris meridian, calculated in 1667 and subsequently replaced by the Greenwich meridian in 1911.

The Parc Montsouris is everything that a Parisian park should be. It is well designed, it has rich and lush vegetation with a huge variety of trees, plants and flowers, it has a wide variety of birdlife and, at weekends especially, it is full of people relaxing and enjoying the surroundings.

It is well worth a visit.


Obscura Day … and Night!

SATURDAY, APRIL 9th, is Obscura Day worldwide, and in Paris Adam, who writes the excellent Invisible Paris blog, is organising two very special events for the day. Both are connected with the curious but fascinating Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale tucked away in a remote corner of the Bois de Vincennes.

The events include a visit to the Jardin in the morning followed by an evening at Dorothy’s Gallery near Bastille where the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale will be brought to life in photo and in sound.

Adam invited me to record the sounds of the Jardin in order to add an extra dimension to the evening event. I have been delighted to do so not least because it has allowed me to become familiar with this intriguing and hitherto invisible part of Paris. Here is a taster …

Sounds of the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale:

Saturday April 9th promises to be an interesting and intriguing day. You can get all the details here.