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 REALLY LIKE BELLEVILLE. It’s in the east of Paris, straddling the 19th and 20th arrondissements but it also incorporates parts of the 10th and 11th as well. Like many of the independent communes surrounding Paris, Belleville was incorporated into the city in 1860.
The French singer and cultural icon, Edith Piaf, emerged from these working class roots. The story is that she was born in the street, in the snow, under a lamp post, outside N° 72 rue de Belleville.
Further down the rue de Belleville is Aux Folies, a former theatre where Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and many others performed regularly.
The Rue de Belleville is the main artery through the commune and it’s home to its fair share of traffic.
Although we accept the sound of traffic as part and parcel of city living it can be irritating and a nuisance, but if we stop and actually listen to the sound of traffic it can often take on a different hue. It’s sometimes possible for traffic and pedestrians to exist in harmony rather than at odds with each other. I recorded these sounds in the Rue de Belleville last Saturday and I think they illustrate the point.
Traffic in the Rue de Belleville:
Today, Belleville has a culturally diverse population and it’s home to one of the city’s two Chinatowns which means that, along with echoes of Edith Piaf and the sound of traffic, there is a rich and diverse tapestry of sounds to be heard.
On Saturday I walked along the Rue de Belleville amidst the Chinese traders selling their wares in the shops and on the street.
I also called into the Chinese supermarket to wonder at the range of Chinese foods and spices most of which I’d never heard of and certainly didn’t recognise.
One of the features of Belleville that I find fascinating is the Chinese men who gather close to Belleville Métro station in the late afternoon. They form in groups to talk and to exchange news and gossip and although I can’t understand a word they say, I find the sounds endlessly fascinating.
As I said, I really like Belleville.