THE PLACE DE LA BASTILLE is one of the most traffic-infested and noisiest parts of Paris.
The constant cacophony of traffic circulating the Colonne de Juillet, beating over the pavé, pollutes the air not only with carbon emissions but also with unwelcome sound.
Burning rubber in the Place de la Bastille:
But, thank goodness, all is not lost … a few steps away, through the archway of N°12, Place de la Bastille, lies a haven of relative peace.
La Cour Damoye, the entrance to which lies discreetly hidden between two cafés, rests for the most part unobserved by the tourists who pass by.
By day it is a discreet pedestrian thoroughfare but, once the gates are locked in the evening, it reverts to the exclusive use of the residents and the tranquil charm and intimate scale of turn-of-the-century Paris.
La Cour Damoye dates from the end of the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century it became home to scrap and rag merchants.
In 1914, the Paris photographer Eugène Atget photographed La Cour Damoye. By this time it had become the place where cart wheels were repaired. The skilled eye of the photographer captured this working atmosphere—the street lamps, the stored cart wheels on the paving stones, the ladders, and some workshops on the ground floor.
This was a small village where people used to live in harmony in a village-like atmosphere – and today they still do.
La Cour Damoye was renovated in the late 1990’s by the architect Didier Drummond but it still retains its turn-of-the-century character. Now, it is home to four upper stories of residential space, as well as artists, architects, and galleries in the ground-floor ateliers.
The sounds of today’s Cour Damoye:
The sounds of la Cour Damoye are very different today from the sounds to be found there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but, even so, today’s sounds are a great relief from the cacophony that is the rest of the twenty-first century Place de la Bastille.
For what seems like weeks now I have had to suffer endless noise pollution in my quartier of Paris.
Every morning, workmen have arrived in white vans to begin their duties. And every morning my heart has sunk at the prospect of the day ahead.
Their task has been to repair the roof of the apartment building next to my building. First came the men to erect the scaffolding – the échafaudage as they say in French.
I recorded the sound of the scaffolding going up together with the sound of the water sprinkler directly below my balcony trying to revive life into the late autumnal grass.
This was a long and weary process as day after day the work and the endless noise continued.
Eventually they got the scaffolding erected …
… and then great joy as one whole day of inactivity occured.
But it was not to last. The work on the roof began … and the noise was relentless, day after day after day.
I placed a microphone out on my balcony one morning and recorded some of the sound to be heard …
The good news now is that now, in early December, the work on the roof is finished, the scaffolding is down and the noise pollution has abated.
I’ve just finished reading an excellent book – The Soundscape – Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schafer.
The Soundscape – a term coined by the author – is our sonic environment, the ever-present array of noises with which we all live. Beginning with the primordial sounds of nature, we have experienced an ever-increasing complexity of our sonic surroundings. As civilisaton develops, new noises rise up around us: from the creaking wheel, the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer, and the distant chugging of steam trains to the “sound imperialism” of airports, city streets and factories. The author contends that we now suffer from an over-abundance of acoustic information and a proportionate diminishing of our ability to hear the nuances and subtleties of sound. Our task, he maintains, is to listen, analyse, and make distinctions.
As a society we have become aware of the toxic wastes that can enter our bodies through the air we breath and the water we drink. In fact, the pollution of our sonic environment is no less real. Schafer emphasises the importance of discerning the sounds that enrich and feed us and using them to create healthier environments. To this end, he explains how to classify sounds, appreciating their beauty or ugliness, and provides exercises and “soundwalks” to help us become more discriminating and sensitive to the sounds around us.
The book is challenging but to anyone interested in our sonic environment it is well worth a read.
Having reached a certain age, I now reluctantly admit to being a fully paid-up member of that not so exclusive club of “Grumpy Old Men”. To qualify for membership it is necessary to be irritated by almost anything and everything however irrational that irritation might be. People who walk up escalators irritate me. Hotel receptionists who answer the telephone while checking me in irritate me. People who send those wretched newsletters instead of Christmas cards irritate me. People who break off a conversation with me to answer their mobile phone irritate me. TV advertisements irritate me. CNN irritates me. Noise irritates me.
Noise, according to my dictionary, is “a sound of any kind, especially when loud, confused, indistinct or disagreeable”.
The same dictionary refers to noise pollution as, “environmental noise of sufficient loudness to be annoying, distracting or physically harmful”.
I think most people would agree that noise pollution is on the increase and, although it’s sometimes difficult to define precisely what constitutes noise pollution, people generally recognise it when they hear it and conclude that it is a bad thing. Defining what constitutes “noise” on the other hand can be more problematic.
I live in Paris, one of the most visited cities in the world. Tourists come here to sample all the delights that this wonderful city has to offer. They do not come here to listen to the traffic noise which is constant and almost impossible to escape from. I live close to the Bois de Boulogne a former Royal hunting ground and now a vast area of trees, lakes and greenery. One might think it possible to gain some respite from the sound of the internal combustion engine here but no, it is not possible. I know that because I’ve done experiments to prove it. I have taken my sound recorder into the depths of the Bois de Boulogne during both the day and the night and all the recordings I have made contain some traffic noise.
So, traffic noise is a bad thing. Or is it? I once saw a person knocked down by a car, a Toyota Prius. This car is a hybrid and was running on the battery at the time and consequently was completely silent. Thankfully, apart from the odd bruise, the person was not hurt but their first words upon recovering their composure were, “I just didn’t hear it coming”. Maybe some degree of traffic noise is necessary if only for the safety of pedestrians.
Being unable to escape the sound of traffic noise I have decided to capitalise on it. Being a street sound recordist I have recorded traffic noise on the basis that it forms part of the tapestry of life here in Paris. I have been surprised by the variation of sounds the traffic makes and by the transformation of traffic “noise” into traffic “sounds”. What one hears as simply a constant background noisy irritation can, upon careful listening, turn into something quite interesting – a melange of lorries, buses, vans, cars, motorcycles and screaming motor-scooters each with their own distinctive sound. I often think that it would be inetresting to stand by a busy street and record the sound of the traffic and then compare that to a recording made in the same place ten years ago and then every ten years before that since 1900. To my knowledge, that particular experiment has never been done but one can’t help thinking how interesting the result would be.
Having said all that, I do subscribe to the view that traffic “noise” is a significant contributor to the sound pollution that we all have to endure today. However, think of steam trains, also major polluters in every sense in their day. Today, recordings of steam trains are much sought after and are listened to with great nostaligia even by those of us who qualify to be “Grumpy Old Men”. Will today’s motor car become tomorrow’s steam train?
Maybe “noise” is just “sound” in the wrong place and in the wrong quantity. What one person hears as noise just might be an interesting or even beautiful sound to others.