CAN YOU IMAGINE a city without traffic? Well, in Paris last Sunday we had a glimpse of what such a city might look and sound like.
In August 2014, an organisation called Paris sans Voitures, a citizen collective made up of scientists and high-profile individuals, residents of all ages, professionals, activists and dreamers, put forward a proposal to the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to reclaim Paris and liberate the streets. Their vision was for a car-free day; a day when private vehicles would be banned in Paris and public transport would be free.
Anne Hidalgo was impressed but the Paris police were more difficult to convince. Nevertheless, a decision was reached on 5th March this year that for one day Paris would experience ‘une journée sans voiture’ – a car free day.
The Mayor was not able to persuade the police that the car free zone should extend across the entire city so an accommodation was reached.
Click to enlarge
On Sunday 27th September, between 1100 and 1800, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th arrondissements – the heart of the city – were car free zones. Several areas away from the centre, including part of the quai on the Left Bank, most of the Champs-Élysées, the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes and the tourist area of Montmartre were also to be car free.
There were exceptions – buses, taxis and emergency vehicles were allowed.
I spend a large part of my life recording the street sounds of Paris and the sound of traffic is my constant companion so this ‘Journée Sans Voitures’ was an opportunity for me to capture an unusual sound tapestry of the city, one without the weft of constant traffic.
L’Avenue de l’Opéra on Sunday afternoon
On Sunday afternoon I walked along the Avenue de l’Opéra from Place de l’Opéra to Place Colette and, apart from occasional buses and taxis, the restriction on other motor vehicles seemed for the most part to be effective.
I thought it would be particularly interesting to contrast the sounds in Place Colette on this unique day to those found in the same place on a normal working day.
Place Colette on a normal working day
Sounds in Place Colette on a normal working day:
On a normal working day Place Colette is a space shared between Parisians going about their daily business and tourists passing through. The sounds of passing traffic pervade the air all the time.
Place Colette: Journée sans Voitures
Sounds in Place Colette – ‘Journée Sans Voitures’:
On Sunday in Place Colette there were Parisians and tourists but the sound tapestry was very different. The absence of traffic highlighted sounds that are always there but seldom heard, the rustle of the leaves in the trees for example. The sounds of the people reclaiming the city took centre stage.
When you listen to these sounds, remember that they were recorded in exactly the same place as the working day sounds above.
One might conclude that the Journée sans Voitures was either an experiment worth trying or simply a wheeze by the city authorities to provide a late summer’s fun day out. But it’s worth remembering that for a few hours in March this year Paris gained the unwelcome accolade of being the most polluted city in the world.
Excessive vehicle emissions were at the root of the problem. These 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. A toxic haze enveloped the city obscuring some of its most well known landmarks. Schools were instructed to keep children in classrooms and limit sports activities and health warnings were issued to the elderly to avoid even moderate exercise.
Paris usually enjoys relatively clean air for a city its size so the bad press stung the city authorities.
Is it too fanciful to suggest that the Journée sans Voitures might be a signpost to the future – cities without noxious vehicle emissions, cleaner air and a much less polluted sonic environment?
CHARLES FRANÇOIS BOSSU (1813 – 1879) was a French photographer who photographed architecture, landscapes and the urban environment. He is much better known though as Charles Marville, the pseudonym he adopted around 1832.
Charles Marville, photographic self-portrait, c. 1861
Marville worked as an illustrator of books such as Histoire Pittoresque de l’Angleterre and La Seine et ses Bords (the Seine and its Banks) before taking up photography around 1850.
In 1858 he received his first commission from the Paris authorities, to photograph the renovated Bois de Boulogne − the first of Baron Haussmann’s modernising projects for Emperor Napoleon III.
By the early 1860s, Haussmann’s urban development scheme to transform Paris was gathering pace. Although Haussmann was keen to eradicate parts of old Paris, he wanted to preserve their memory: ‘The City of Paris must disregard nothing, forget nothing, neglect nothing of its past.’
In 1862, Marville became the official photographer of Paris and he was commissioned to photograph the pre-modern city before its demolition. He made 425 photographs of the narrow streets and crumbling buildings, which collectively became known as the ‘Album du Vieux Paris.’ The complete series of photographs are held by the Musée Carnavalet and the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris.
One of Charles Marville’s photographs that fascinates me is one he made of Place Saint-André des Arts in the 6th arrondissement.
Place Saint-André des Arts: Charles Marville
The remarkable thing is that, despite the destruction and reconstruction that occurred in the surrounding area in the 1860s, this little corner of Paris, which takes its name from the ancient church of Saint-André-des-Arts which was demolished during the French Revolution, remained completely untouched by Haussmann’s wrecking ball.
Place Saint-André des Arts: August 2015
Like Charles Marville and his successor, Eugène Atget, I too document the city of Paris, but in my case in sound rather than in pictures. Whenever I come across a photograph of a part of Vieux Paris that has survived almost untouched I can’t resist recording the contemporary soundscape around it.
Place Saint-André des Arts in Sound; August 2015:
Charles Marville died in Paris in 1879. His ‘Album du Vieux Paris’ allows us to see Paris as he saw it before its late nineteenth century transformation and we can compare what he saw with what we can see today.
But when it comes to the sounds of Charles Marville’s Paris we lack a reference point. There are no recordings of the urban soundscape of the time and descriptions of the sounds of Paris in literature during Haussmann’s transformation of the city are few and far between.
So, while we can capture and archive the contemporary sounds of Paris we can, alas, only imagine the sounds that Charles Marville would have heard while he photographed Place Saint-André des Arts.
LA FÊTE DE GANESH, along with the celebrations for the Chinese New Year and the Carnaval Tropical, bring an annual wave of colour and spectacle to the streets of Paris highlighting the city’s cultural diversity.
Indian communities across the world celebrate la Fête de Ganesh at this time of the year and yesterday I went to join the celebrations in Paris.
The Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol
Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, has a temple dedicated to him in Paris, the Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol in the 18th arrondissement. It was from here that a colourful procession set off yesterday on its tour of the surrounding area.
Strands of jasmine were on sale everywhere
To experience la Fête de Ganesh is to experience a multi-sensory feast with the colourful costumes and the equally colourful sounds overlayed with wonderfully exotic smells.
Unfortunately, I can’t recreate the exotic smells for you to enjoy but I can share with you this year’s Fête de Ganesh in sounds and pictures and let them tell their own story.
La Fête de Ganesh 2014 in sound:
The Deity Ganesha has been represented with the head of an elephant since the early stages of his appearance in Indian art
This is the pile of coconuts that you can hear being smashed in my recording
Lunch after the parade … if you can find a seat! Then the clean up begins …
I AM A CITY DWELLER and so the sound of traffic is my constant companion. In a busy city like Paris there is no escape from it. Day and night the cacophony of traffic pervades the air enveloping one in a cloak of constant noise pollution.
The Mairie de Paris has produced a fascinating map of road traffic noise in the city and I’ve reproduced a page of it below.
If you want to explore the on-line version you can do so by clicking here where you can see the road traffic noise levels in each arrondissement measured in dB(A), an expression of the relative loudness of sounds in air as perceived by the human ear.
Academic studies have also been carried out to try to quantify the amount of traffic noise and it’s effect on our lives. I came across a study recently published in the International Journal of Health Geographics entitled ‘Transportation noise and annoyance related to road traffic in the French RECORD study’ which is worth a read.
Extract from: ‘Transportation noise and annoyance related to road traffic in the French RECORD study’: International Journal of Health Geographics
Although both the sound map of the traffic noise in Paris and the study from the International Journal of Health Geographics are interesting and certainly help to quantify the problem I’m not going to dwell on them here. Instead, I want to focus on traffic noise from my perspective as a sound recordist specialising in recording urban soundscapes and particularly the urban soundscape of Paris.
The conventional wisdom is that traffic noise is the enemy of the field recordist and I can attest to that. I’ve lost count of the number of recordings I’ve made that have been blighted by traffic noise. Unlike my wildlife sound recording friends who will often get up at an unearthly hour and travel for miles to find remote places free from the sound of traffic to hunt their quarry I don’t have that possibility. The sounds I hunt for are much closer to home, in the heart of the city and in the case of Paris, a city that is constantly awash with traffic.
Over the years I’ve wrestled with the problem of recording the Parisian soundscape while, if not eliminating, then minimising the effect of unwanted traffic noise but there has always been a problem in the back of my mind. Traffic noise IS part of the Parisian soundscape and while it might not always be an attractive part, it is an integral part of the warp and weft of the city’s sound tapestry.
So I’ve decided to stand this problem on its head and rather than seeking to eliminate or minimise traffic noise I’ve decided to feature it – but this of course requires a change in the way we think about traffic noise.
For me, noise is sound in the wrong place and usually in the wrong quantity. But what if we think not of traffic noise but of traffic sounds. What if we think less about traffic as noise pollution and more in terms of traffic as a sound tapestry in its own right. True, it won’t eliminate traffic as a major source of noise pollution blighting our environment but it might help us to come to terms with it a little better and it might even help us to find something engaging rather than something completely hostile. It might even become, if not a friend, then perhaps less of an enemy.
For the last few months I’ve been recording the sounds rather than the noise of traffic. I’ve been to the traffic hotspots in Paris such as the Champs Elysées, rue de Rivoli, Place de Clichy, Place de la Bastille, Place de la Chapelle as well as to other places less congested. I eschewed the Périphérique, the wall of traffic that surrounds Paris, on the basis that I wanted to record traffic that was actually moving which the traffic there seldom seems to do.
I don’t have a car and so I don’t contribute to the noise pollution caused by traffic – although I do use public transport extensively so maybe I do to some extent – but nevertheless, I tried to listen to the sounds of the traffic dispassionately, as a sound recordist recording yet another urban soundscape.
Parisian Traffic – A Study in Sound:
In this sound piece I’ve stitched together some of the traffic sounds that I’ve recorded. The piece begins with the cacophony of traffic, the dominating, harsh, discordant mixture of sounds that we think of as traffic noise. As the piece develops the sounds of the traffic become less harsh and more distinctive as individual vehicles emerge from the crowd and reclaim their identity. The sounds cease to shout at us and begin to speak in a clearer voice. Finally, pedestrians reclaim the streets although not entirely devoid of traffic but at least sharing them more equitably.
As someone who is passionate about sound I abhor the increasing noise pollution that blights our lives as much as anyone. Traffic noise makes up a large part of that noise pollution and it’s not going to disappear any time soon. At best it can be a nuisance and at worst it can be unbearable.
As a sound recordist capturing the Parisian soundscape I loathe the city’s incessant traffic noise but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least try to tease out some of its few redeeming features and embrace its more captivating sounds.
I SPEND A LOT of my time walking the streets of Paris listening to and recording the everyday sounds around me, the sound tapestry of the city.
Recording urban soundscapes is not as easy as you might think. In our modern digital world where we’ve come to expect affordable technology to turn us all into instant experts, one might be forgiven for thinking that recording urban soundscapes is simply a matter of pointing and shooting and hoping for the best – but it doesn’t quite work like that. Capturing the most expressive and lasting images of the sounds around us requires a heady cocktail of active listening, enthusiasm, hard work, endless patience, attention to detail and an ear for a captivating subject, not to mention copious amounts of shoe leather.
Captivating sounds seldom appear to order, they are often elusive and need to be hunted out and to hunt them one needs time, often lots of time. Few things are more frustrating than spending an entire day pounding the streets searching for that special sound only to come home empty-handed. But on a good day, it only takes one chance moment to come home with an absolute gem.
The great 20th century Parisian street photographer, Robert Doisneau, summed up this element of chance by saying, “Chance … You have to pay for it and you have to pay for it with your life, you pay for it with time – not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”
And sometimes the spending of time can bring a huge reward.
Les Halles – the former ‘belly of Paris’
Recently, I was wandering around Les Halles, once the huge covered food market known as the ‘Belly of Paris’, and a part of Paris now undergoing much needed renovation. I’ve recorded there many times but this time captivating sounds seemed particularly elusive. I’d been there for most of the afternoon spending time but recording nothing and I was on the point of giving up and going home when the element of chance that Robert Doisneau spoke about intervened.
In the distance I could hear the sound of bells, the bells of the Église Saint Eustache, the gothic masterpiece in which the young Louis XIV received communion, the church chosen by Mozart for his mother’s funeral, the church where Richelieu was baptised and where both the future Madame de Pompadour and Molière were married. I followed the sound of the bells and began recording. The sounds led me into a little courtyard at the side of the church. I waited until the sounds of the bells faded and then, spying a very old, well-worn door, I opened it, entered the church and walked into a magnificent wall of sound coming from the Van den Heuvel organ being played by a young man sitting at the giant five manual console in the nave.
The Bells and Organ of Église Saint Eustache:
“… not the wasting of time but the spending of time.” And in this place, on this day, the spending of time was an investment richly rewarded.
Yesterday marked the third birthday of this blog. When I began it the world of blogging was very new to me and I had little idea of what I was doing or what shape this blog would take. All I had was a vague idea that I wanted to share two of my passions – the city of Paris and recording the everyday sounds around me. Now, three years on, this blog has taken on a life of its own with over 200,000 visitors and over 1,000 loyal followers.
To all those who visit this blog regularly, to those who just stop by as they’re passing and to all the friends I’ve made all over the world as a result of this blog I just want to say a heartfelt “Thank You”.
This recording of the sounds of the bells and the organ of Église Saint Eustache is a celebration of the life that this blog has taken on and I dedicate these sounds to you all.
JUST ONE WEEK TO GO and Christmas will be upon us so this seems like the appropriate time to post my audio Christmas card.
My Audio Christmas Card 2012:
This audio card is made up of a handful of the sounds of Paris that I’ve recorded during the past year. It’s been a good year for the Brits in Paris with Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France and Mark Cavendish winning his fourth consecutive stage of le Tour in the Champs Elysées. We also had a presidential election and I was in the Place de la Bastille recording the sounds on that memorable night in May when the crowd erupted as the exit polls showed that François Holland had won. I’ve also included sounds from the Elysées Palace when François Holland was sworn in as Président de la République. There is some of the wonderful street music that enriches our lives in Paris as well as a glimpse of the French Army male voice choir and, of course, the wonderful sounds of the Paris Métro.
This compilation is dedicate to all those who visit this blog regularly as well as to those who happen to drop in as they’re passing by. I extend my grateful thanks to you all.
I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and all that you wish for yourselves in 2013.