THE YEAR WAS 1889 and Belle Époque Paris was in the midst of a golden age. Relative peace, economic prosperity, technological and scientific innovation and a flourishing of the arts had superseded the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the bloody events of the Paris Commune. A spirit of optimism prevailed across the city.
In Pigalle, Mistinguett, (Jeanne-Marie Bourgeois), later to become the highest paid female entertainer in the world, was performing at the café-concert, le Trianon in Boulevard de Rochechouart, Aristide Bruant, dressed in his trademark red shirt, black velvet jacket, high boots, and long red scarf, was poking fun at the upper-crust guests who were out ‘slumming’ in this lower-crust territory and a new mecca of pleasure and entertainment, the now world-famous, Moulin Rouge, had just opened its doors for the first time.
Across town, the Champ de Mars, the Trocadéro, and the quai d’Orsay were hosting the gigantic Exposition Universelle, the latest of four World Fairs to be held in the city. The newly constructed and then still controversial Tour Eiffel stood at one end of the Champs de Mars at the entrance to the Exposition and at the other end, opposite the École Militaire, stood the Galerie des Machines, a vaulted building spanning the largest interior space in the world at the time.
While the American sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, was performing to packed audiences in Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” at the Exposition, another American, the inventor and businessman, Thomas Edison, was the centre of attention in the Galerie des Machines.
The Edison exhibition occupied two pavilions, one dedicated to electric light and the other to the phonograph. Edison’s phonograph was not the only sound-reproduction device presented at the Exposition but it was the only one to hit the headlines.
No praise seemed too warm for Edison, the man who had ‘tamed the lightning with his incandescent lightening system’ and ‘organised the echoes with his phonograph’.
Thomas Edison, “The Types of Edison Phonographs,” The Paris Universal Exhibition Album (1889), CXLI
While both the Galerie des Machines and the risqué performances of Mistinguett have long since disappeared, Thomas Edison’s legacy lives on just across the street from the Moulin Rouge and le Trianon in Pigalle.
Opened in September 2014, the Phono Museum is one of the newest museums in Paris and the only museum in the city dedicated to the history of recorded sound.
Jalal Aro, Founder of the Phono Museum
The founder of the Phono Museum, Jalal Aro, is passionate about ‘talking machines’, mechanical sound-reproduction devices from an age when ‘music was magic’*. Although he is an enthusiastic collector and restorer of phonographs and gramophones he doesn’t see them simply as interesting objects, he believes they only have real meaning when they come to life and actually speak. Consequently, as well as his enormous collection of phonographs and gramophones he also has an even bigger collection of wax cylinders, records, posters and other memorabilia which occupies every nook and cranny of his Phono Galerie next door to the Phono Museum.
Founding the Phono Museum was Jalal’s way of sharing his passion for the history of recorded sound with a wider audience.
Jalal has a very democratic approach to sound. He believes these precious objects should be accessible to all and that becomes obvious when you enter the museum. For an admission fee of just €10, you can stay for as long as you like, explore the exhibits on your own or, if you prefer, Jalal, Charlotte, or one of the other staff will give you a personal guided tour of exhibits ranging from Thomas Edison’s 1878 tin-foil machine, to Emile Berliner’s 1897 flat-disc machine, magnificent two-horn, two-reproducer, dance hall machines, gramophones cleverly disguised as elegant furniture, talking dolls and lots more. All the exhibits in the museum work so the sound of music fills the air.
Last Sunday morning, before the museum opened, I went along to talk to Jalal about the museum and, very excitingly for me, to record some of the sounds of his ‘talking machines’.
Jalal Aro talks to me about the Phono Museum:
The museum is a non-profit organisation and, with no financial support so far from the City of Paris, it relies solely on ticket sales and voluntary donations to cover its costs.
As Jalal says in the interview, anyone making a donation becomes a valuable stakeholder in the museum. Click on this link to learn more: https://www.ulule.com/phonomuseum/
In 1889, Thomas Edison’s phonograph captured the public imagination at the Exposition Universelle with a dream: ‘that of preserving humanly generated sound for – as the hyperbole went – eternity’**.
Visit the Phono Museum in Pigalle and you can share that dream.
With my thanks to Jalal Aro for giving up his Sunday morning to talk to me and for his permission to share sounds from the Phono Museum on this blog.
The Phono Museum is at:
53, boulevard de Rochechouart, 75009 Paris
* When Music was Magic: history, phonographs and gramophones from 1879 to 1939 / / by John Paul Kurdyla.
** Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair By Annegret Fauser
I am always experimenting with sound. The sounds that appear on this blog are relatively short and that seems to work … up to a point. Sometimes though, I feel that these “sound bites” don’t do justice to the sounds that I’ve recorded. In a world dominated by the 24 hour news cycle, the 20 second sound bite seems to be all important. And I seem to have fallen into the same trap, crediting my audience with a minimum attention span. For this post, I have decided to take a different tack.
Some time ago, I made a post about the creaking wooden floor in the Musée Carnavalet. After listening to those sounds again today, I realised that all the sounds I recorded in the Musée had much more to say than just the creaking wooden floor. So I have decided to present my ‘soundwalk’ through the Musée Carnavalet as it happened. I have taken the three pieces I recorded in there and added them together. It adds up to a sound piece that is a little over ten minutes long. I think it gives a much better impression of the Musée than just the wooden floor. What do you think?
I have added some pictures to give you a visual feel of the place but it is the sounds that tell the story.
A soundwalk in the Musée Carnavalet:
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.