LAST YEAR, I WALKED the full length of the Canal Saint-Denis from its junction with the Canal de l’Ourcq in the Parc de la Villette to the final lock, l’Écluse de la Briche, where the canal discharges into la Seine.
The last leg of that walk took me to the western edge of the municipality of Saint-Denis and since then I’ve been back to Saint-Denis many times to capture more of its sound tapestry.
Saint-Denis is one of the poorest municipalities around Paris and it often gets a bad press, not least because of its high crime rate – not to mention the dramatic headlines it made a couple of weeks ago in the aftermath of the 13th November attacks in Paris.
Mairie de Saint-Denis
The other day I went to Saint-Denis to record more sounds for my Paris Soundscapes Archive and among the sounds I captured were those from a soundwalk I did in Rue de la République, one of the main shopping streets.
Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, Saint-Denis hosts a huge market made up of an outdoor street market in the Place Jean Jaurès, which spills over into the surrounding streets, and a fabulous indoor food market in the neighbouring Grande Halle. I’ve recorded the sounds of these markets several times and I will feature some of them in a future blog piece.
Since Rue de la République is close to the outdoor market it becomes overwhelmed with people when the market is open but on my recent recording trip to Saint-Denis I wanted to capture the sounds in this street when it wasn’t at its liveliest – I simply wanted to capture the ordinary, everyday sounds of an ordinary street in Saint-Denis.
Soundwalking is a fascinating way of exploring and exploring ordinary streets can often reveal the unexpected.
I discovered that Rue de la République has an interesting ecclesiastical symmetry. At its eastern end is a masterpiece of Gothic art, the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France, containing the tombs of 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm.
The eastern end of Rue de la République with the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis
At the western end of the street is another church, l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée, still referred to as the ‘new church’. Compared to the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis of course, which dates from the 12th century, l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée is relatively new since it was completed as recently as 1867.
The western end of Rue de la République with l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée
I began my soundwalk along Rue de la République at its eastern end with the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis and the Mairie de Saint-Denis behind me.
Soundwalk along Rue de la République:
I didn’t realise it at the time but my soundwalk also reflected another symmetry in the street – the sound of a passing bus ringing its warning bell at the start and the sound of a warning bell on a tram on the recently opened Tram Line 8 passing by at the end.
The first fifty metres or so of the street is open to traffic but after that Rue de la République is reserved for pedestrians.
About halfway along Rue de la République I came upon the post office whose elegant exterior belies its rather scruffy interior.
What I discovered next was quite unexpected.
Directly opposite the post office is Rue du Corbillon, a seemingly ordinary side street leading off Rue de la République. But sometimes the ordinary is not what it seems.
At about 4.20 on the morning of 18th November, five days after the Paris attacks, the police sealed off the entire Rue de la République, evacuated local residents, and focussed their attention on N° 8 Rue du Corbillon.
N° 8 Rue du Corbillon
What followed was an intense gun battle with around a hundred heavily armed elite special forces, supported by the army, firing more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition amidst heavy explosions. The operation ended at 11.37 am by which time three people had died: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks, his 26-year-old cousin, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, and an unidentified third person. Eight people were arrested.
Listening to the everyday sounds at the junction of Rue de la République and Rue du Corbillon, I couldn’t help imagining the sounds that would have been heard here on the morning of 18th November – echoes of sounds heard across the city five days before.
Unlike at the sites attacked in Paris, there are no floral tributes or messages of sympathy outside the boarded up N° 8 Rue du Corbillon.
For me, the image of this building will soon be forgotten – quite unlike the images of the shuttered cafés and restaurants attacked on 13th November, which will live with me for a very long time.
Yesterday, the Café Bonne Biere in Rue du Faubourg du Temple, where five people died in the Paris attacks, reopened – the first of the attack sites to do so.
You can read about my walk along the Canal Saint-Denis by clicking the links below:
IMAGINE THE SCENE: It’s 22nd October 1895 and the Granville to Paris express, operated by the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest, is approaching Paris. Steam locomotive No. 721, hauling three baggage vans, a post van and six passenger carriages with 131 people on board, left Granville on time at 8:45 am but it is now several minutes late for its 15:55 scheduled arrival at the Paris Montparnasse terminus.
Trying to make up lost time the driver, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, a 19-year veteran of the company, makes the decision to approach Montparnasse station at cruising speed – some 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph).
Realising that the train is entering the station too fast, Pellerin applies the locomotive’s Westinghouse air brake – but it fails to operate. One of the guards, Albert Mariette, is preoccupied with filling out paperwork as they enter the station and fails to notice in time that train is going faster than it should be. Just as he applies the emergency hand brake the train smashes through the buffer stop.
Amid the deafening noise and with steam belching from the engine and sparks flying, people scatter as the engine clatters across almost 30 metres of the station concourse, crashes through a 60-centimetre thick wall, shoots across a terrace and smashes out of the station, plummeting onto the Place de Rennes 10 metres below where it ends up on its nose.
Photograph by Studio Lévy and Sons
Remarkably, there is only one fatality. Marie-Augustine Aguilard, has been standing in for her husband, a newspaper vendor, while he goes to collect the evening papers. She is hit and killed by falling masonry.
Two passengers, the fireman, two guards and a passerby in the street sustain injuries.
Photograph by Henri Roger-Viollet
In the aftermath, the passenger carriages are undamaged and removed easily and within forty-eight hours work has begun to remove the locomotive and the tender. An attempt is made to move the locomotive with fourteen horses but this fails so a 250 tonne winch is brought to the scene and with 10 men hauling the winch the locomotive is lowered to the ground and the tender lifted the back in to the station.
Gare Montparnasse, 1871 – Photograph by Charles Marville
The station the Granville to Paris express slammed through was built by architect Victor Lenoir and the engineer Eugène Flachat in 1852, replacing the original 1840 Gare de l’Ouest station, which was unable to cope with the mid 19th century growth in traffic.
In 1909 the state bought the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest including the Gare Montparnasse, which it used for new lines to Tours, Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle.
In the 1930s a separate extension was added to the station, the Gare du Maine, designed by the French architect and designer Henri Pacon in Art Deco style. Eventually, this extension became the terminus for the main lines and the old station was reserved for commuter traffic.
Site of the original Gare du Maine extension which was demolished in the 1960s.
Both the 1852 Gare Montparnasse and the Place de Rennes into which the express nose-dived are no more.
In 1951, Place de Rennes was renamed Place du 18 juin 1940 in commemoration of the radio broadcast Charles de Gaulle made from London on 18th June 1940 (L’Appel du 18 juin), in which he urged the French people to resist the Nazi occupiers (who had invaded the previous month), thereby launching the French Resistance Movement.
Place du 18 juin 1940 today – Formerly Place de Rennes and site of the original Gare Montparnasse
During the 1960s, a new Gare Montparnasse, integrated into a complex of office buildings, was built and in 1969, the old station was torn down and the Tour Montparnasse was built in its place.
The Gare Montparnasse today
Over 50 million passengers a year pass through today’s Gare Montparnasse, one of the six mainline railway stations in Paris. They use intercity TGV trains to the west and south-west of France including Tours, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rennes and Nantes, and suburban and regional services on the Transilien Paris – Montparnasse routes. They also use the busy Métro station, an intersection for Métro lines 4, 6, 12 and 13.
I went to the Gare Montparnasse the other day to capture the sounds inside the station. My soundwalk took me from the main entrance, up an escalator to Hall 1 and then to the intercity platforms in time to capture the sounds of the 15:28 departure to Bordeaux and Toulouse.
I was surprised to find that amid the hustle and bustle of the main concourse and the platforms there were places that were relatively calm and quiet. Closer to the platforms of course it was the trains that made their voices heard.
Sounds stimulate the imagination so, if like me, you have a fascination for sound and a sense of history, you might be forgiven for imagining that the sound of the gasps of compressed air escaping from the parked trains are not too far removed from the sound of steam escaping from the Granville to Paris express hurtling towards its resting place in the Place de Rennes.
The Gare Montparnasse in sound:
The fate of the Granville to Paris express was well documented in pictures. As well as the iconic photographs by Studio Lévey and Sons and Henri Roger-Viollet (above), a third equally well-known photograph of the scene by L. Mercier is displayed in the Musée d’Orsay.
But nowhere was the event or its aftermath captured in sound – a good example of just how recent our ability to capture topical sounds is and a perfect example of how much of our sonic history has passed by completely unrecorded.
I’m pleased to say that while I was in the Gare Montparnasse all the trains stayed very firmly on their tracks with none of them attempting to cross the concourse and venture outside!
Gare Montparnasse Platform 9: The 15:28 departure for Bordeaux and Toulouse
“BUILD HERE – BUILD HIGH”, commanded the archangel Michael to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, in the year 708. “If you build it … they will come”. The bishop resisted, that is until the archangel poked a hole in the bishop’s skull to emphasise the point. It was built … and they did come.
Perched on a rocky islet surrounded by treacherous sandbanks exposed to powerful tides stands the Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St Michael together with the village that grew within its protective walls.
For centuries le Mont Saint-Michel has been a place of pilgrimage but it wasn’t the search for salvation that brought me to this rocky islet. Instead, it was a chance remark made in November last year by my Minnesotan friend, Heather. That remark led me, Heather and her husband Steve, to decamp from Paris in mid-September this year to spend a couple of days exploring this remarkable place.
A little history …
Le Mont Saint-Michel stands about one kilometre off the coast of northwest France between Brittany and Normandy at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches.
In prehistoric times, the bay in which it now stands was part of the landmass but millions of years of rising sea levels and erosion reshaped the coastline. The granite rock we now know as le Mont Saint-Michel survived the ocean’s wear and tear leaving it standing in an otherwise flat and ever-changing landscape. The first occupants of the rock, then known as Monte Tombe, were Amorican Gauls who used it as a stronghold of Breton culture and power.
Thanks to the intervention of the archangel Michael (or so legend has it) a church was built on the top of the rock in 708. The Benedictines moved in some two hundred and fifty years later creating the abbey that still stands today.
The mount’s rivalry with neighbouring Normandy came to a head in 933 when William “Long Sword” annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the weakened Dukes of Brittany thus making the mount Norman, and Norman ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
During the Middle Ages a village grew up around the abbey, mostly on the eastern side of the island. During the Hundred Years War between France and England the abbey and the village were surrounded by a fortified wall, which successfully fended off repeated attacks by the English.
There were many ups and downs for the abbey and by the time of the French Revolution there were few monks in residence. Post-Revolution the abbey was converted into a prison holding religious and political prisoners.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that a religious presence returned. Today, the abbey is maintained by monks and nuns from the Fraternity of Jerusalem.
The connection between le Mont Saint-Michel and the mainland has changed over the centuries. Once connected by a tidal causeway uncovered only at low tide, this was converted into a raised, permanently dry causeway in 1879, preventing the tide from scouring the silt around the mount.
The coastal flats were polderised to create pastureland, decreasing the distance between the shore and the island, and the Couesnon River was canalised, reducing the dispersion of the flow of water. Together, these developments encouraged the silting-up of the bay.
In 2006, the French Government stepped in with a €164 million project to build a hydraulic dam using the waters of the river Couesnon and the tides to help remove the accumulated silt and to make Mont Saint-Michel an island again. In July 2014 a new bridge, designed by architect Dietmar Feichtinger, was opened linking the island to the mainland. The bridge allows the waters to flow freely around the island and improves the efficiency of the dam.
Approaching le Mont Saint-Michel from the new bridge and then passing through the medieval gate and crossing the drawbridge into the citadel, we discovered the narrow main street, lined with cafés, restaurants and shops selling trinkets, awash with tourists. Of course, a moment’s thought told me that this was nothing new; this same street has been awash with tourists for centuries.
While a good many of today’s visitors may be ticking off yet another item from their bucket-list of ‘things to do before you die’, in the past many of them would have been pilgrims risking their lives crossing the treacherous sandbanks to get here. Then, just like now, this medieval street would have been lined with eating places and traders catering for the needs of the visitors.
Apart from enjoying the company of my friends, my objective during my visit to le Mont Saint-Michel was to capture the atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage Site in sound.
Staying on the island overnight revealed that le Mont Saint-Michel has two quite distinct soundscapes: the soundscape during the day when all the tourists are there and the soundscape overnight when they are not. I set out to discover both.
The soundscape on le Mont Saint-Michel at dawn:
Listening tip: To get the best effect you should listen to these sounds at the same level that I heard them at the time of recording so it’s best not to crank up the volume too much – less is more!
This soundscape reflects le Mont Saint-Michel coming to life at dawn, the golden hour before the tourist invasion begins.
The first part of the soundscape was recorded from over halfway up the mount next to the cemetery just below the entrance to the abbey. The birds are singing from the rooftops and if you listen very carefully you will hear the distant baa of a sheep and the purr of a motor vehicle being carried on the wind from the mainland beyond.
Le Mont Saint-Michel is still medieval in that there are no motor vehicles so the only access is on foot. Consequently, you can hear the sound of two men manhandling boxes of early morning supplies up the steps to a small hotel close to where I was standing and to another small hotel further up the hill. A bell from the cemetery’s clock tower chimes the quarter-hour interrupting their efforts. The brief sounds of footsteps over gravel are from a nun who has come down from the abbey to pick wild flowers from the cemetery.
From the foot of le Mont Saint-Michel we hear the sounds of waves lapping as the tide comes in and the mount is set to become surrounded by water. The abbey bells give a full-throated peel before fading away to the distant sound of a single bell.
The dawn soundscape passes and as the new day’s visitors arrive the soundscape on le Mont Saint-Michel changes dramatically. The sound of a sea of people fills the air.
I wanted to capture the sounds of this sea of people but not simply the sounds of the endless stream of passing tour groups making their way up the Grand Degré, the narrow, steep, main street. Instead, I wanted to capture sounds that inextricably linked these people to le Mont Saint-Michel – sounds that described the location and told a story.
One place on le Mont Saint-Michel with an easily recognisable ambience of course is the abbey and since visiting the abbey is the main reason most people come to the island it seemed to me to be the most appropriate place from which to record the daytime soundscape.
Perched on top of the rock, eighty metres above sea level, on a platform eighty metres long, the abbey church was built in the early eleventh century. The church with its wood-panelled barrel vault roof is mainly Romanesque in style although after the collapse of the Romanesque chancel in 1421 the chancel was rebuilt after the Hundred Years War in flamboyant Gothic style.
The abbey is a complex structure. With the church perched on top of the rock many underground crypts, chapels and gigantic stone pillars had to be built to support its weight.
The soundscape inside the abbey of le Mont Saint-Michel:
Unlike the dawn soundscape, this soundscape was recorded as a long-form soundwalk. I believe that sounds need the space and the time to breathe, to express themselves and to tell their own story. It takes these sounds thirty-six minutes to tell their story. Apart from topping and tailing, this soundscape has not been edited so what you hear is exactly what happened as it happened. To edit the sounds would be to edit the story and by editing the story the integrity of the soundscape as it was in this place at that time on that day would I think be diminished.
To set the scene …
Heather, Steve and I resolved to visit the abbey. We climbed what seemed like an endless number of steps to get to the abbey entrance but once there we heaved a sigh of relief thinking that we’d finally arrived and the hard work was behind us. Imagine our joy then when, having bought our tickets, we discovered that we had another ninety steps still to climb!
But the extra climb was worth the effort.
The soundwalk begins in the abbey church and then follows a prescribed tourist route spiralling down through the abbey around the tip of the rock. As well as the abbey church, the route includes passing through the cloisters, the refectory, the guest’s hall, the great pillared crypt, Saint Martin’s crypt, the monk’s ossuary, the Saint Etienne chapel, the Knight’s hall and the almonry.
We arrived at the abbey quite late in the afternoon, a little before the ticket office closed. As we moved from the abbey church into the cloisters a rather jovial official appeared and gently ushered us on. As we passed through each door on the tourist route this official followed us and closed and locked each door behind us. It was rather like, ‘last one out turn off the lights!’
In fact, this was a blessing. It meant that we had time to see all there was to see without getting snarled up in the crowd. It also helped me to capture a more modulated soundscape than perhaps I would have done at the height of the day.
As you listen to the soundscape you will hear the ambience change as we move from room to room and as the tide of people ebbs and flows. There are rare periods of near silence as I fell back to let the crowd move ahead and there are times when the tour guides have to tell their flocks to ‘Shush’ because they’re making too much noise.
For me, listening attentively to the sounds around me is my way of observing the world. In my all too brief stay on le Mont Saint-Michel I tried to capture the feel of this remarkable place in sound. Capturing the sounds at dawn without tourists and then in the abbey with the tourists in full cry may not reflect all of the intricately woven sound tapestry of the island but it does perhaps reflect a significant part of it.
Had I been there longer I would no doubt have captured many more sounds but economy of opportunity concentrates the mind.
With my thanks to Heather, our brilliant Chef d’Équipe, without whose energy, enthusiasm and meticulous planning this trip would not have happened. And, of course, to Steve whose company it’s impossible not to enjoy.
I WAS RETURNING from an expedition to the Pont Marie, one of the oldest bridges in Paris, where I had been on my feet for a little over three hours collecting material for my Paris Bridges Project. It was a sultry afternoon, I was tired and in need of a sit down and some refreshment. I was heading for a café I often frequent when I’m in these parts when I happened upon a short, narrow, medieval Parisian street I’ve walked along many times but never really stopped to take much notice of, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau. For the first time, I was intrigued by this street so I paused to absorb the atmosphere.
Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau lies along the green arrow
The street runs parallel to la Seine and it’s bordered to the east by the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe and by the rue des Barres to the west with the Êglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais de Paris just beyond.
Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau looking from east to west
As I’ve said, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a short, narrow, medieval street and I was particularly intrigued by its name.
In French, the word ‘grenier’ means attic or loft so to my mind, “street of the loft on the water” didn’t seem to make much sense. All became clear though when I got home and consulted my bible on these matters, Bernard Stéphane’s ‘Dictionnaire des Noms de Rues’.
It seems that in the early thirteenth-century, a Monsieur Garnier or Guernier owned some houses in the passage between the Êglise Saint-Gervais and the river. In 1241, all of these houses were acquired by the Knights Templar save for one in which Garnier’s goddaughter lived.
The records show that in 1257 the street was known as rue André-sur-l’Eau but by 1391 it had become rue du Garnier-sur-l’Eau. It seems then that the present day rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a corruption of the fourteenth-century name, rue du Garnier sur l’Eau. So nothing at all to do with attics or lofts then!
Not only was I intrigued with the name of the street, I was also intrigued by its atmosphere. When I arrived, the street was practically empty save for the occasional passers-by pausing to look at the shop at the bottom of the street. Apart from the shop, the only one in the street, and the occasional traffic passing along the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe the street had a very medieval feel to it.
I was also keen to explore the sound tapestry of the street. After all, quiet streets in Paris are relatively rare things.
Those of you who follow this Blog regularly will know that I often use the technique of soundwalking to explore the city’s sound tapestry but the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is not a street that lends itself to soundwalking. It’s a short street and it takes no more than a minute to walk from one end to the other. In my experience, the best way to capture the sound tapestry of a street like this is to do the reverse of a soundwalk, that is to say, stay in one place and let the street walk past you.
And that’s exactly what I did. I positioned myself in the narrowest part of the street, about two-thirds of the way up towards rue des Barres, and from there I began to record and to see what would happen.
Sounds of rue du Grenier sur l’Eau:
As is so often the case, things seldom turn out the way one expects. My microphones revealed that, what appeared to be a quiet, medieval street was in fact a hive of sonic activity.
Ordinary Parisians passing by, some chatting to friends, some purposefully walking from one place to another, some carrying their shopping and looking rather weary and some simply strolling and enjoying the sunshine. Small children gambolling within sight of but not tied to their parents and testosterone-fuelled adolescents jockeying for position in life’s pecking order. And then there were the tourists, mostly in groups, receiving yet another commentary about yet another ‘site of interest’. The sounds of voices, footsteps, children running, a car horn, things falling over, a breathless jogger and rustling shopping bags were all now evident whereas they had been inaudible from further down the street. A bicycle rickshaw rattled past with the driver giving a fleeting commentary on the architecture. And another, more detailed, commentary came from an English-speaking French tour guide who was escorting a small party of Japanese tourists.
This commentary is actually worth listening to in some detail. The tour guide was talking about this timber-framed house. He tells us, or rather he was telling his tour party, that all the houses in Paris were like this until the seventeenth-century. Wood floating down the river was retrieved and used either as firewood or to make timber frames for the houses. The problem was that, because the streets were very narrow, a fire in one house could easily leap across and set fire to the neighbouring houses. To avoid this hazard, a law was issued around 1600 saying that the wood had to be covered with plaster. It’s only in recent years that some of the plaster has been removed to expose the wood. In the picture above you can see that the timber frame is exposed on the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau side of the house but the plaster remains on the rue des Barres side. This house is now a youth hostel but it’s so popular, especially in the summer, that guests are only allowed to stay for three nights.
I’m not quite sure how much of all this was absorbed by the Japanese tourists but it fascinated me!
I spent well over an hour standing in rue du Grenier sur l’Eau observing, but observing through active listening. I suspect that most of the people who passed by were aware to some extent of the soundscape around them but probably only as something in the distant background. For those engaged in conversation, these ‘background’ sounds would probably have passed by largely unnoticed.
For me though, the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau, small as it is, seemed to be huge canvas upon which was woven a colourful and captivating sonic tapestry depicting the fascinating contemporary atmosphere of this medieval street.
LAST MONTH I HAD the privilege of spending a delightful afternoon in Paris with the Italian architect and researcher in urban design, Dr Antonella Radicchi.
Antonella studied at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (USA) and at the Faculty of Architecture in Florence. She has taught and lectured both in Italy and abroad and since 2011 she has collaborated on research projects with Tempo Reale, the Florence based Centre for Music Research and Education. She has eight years teaching experience at university level and a distinctive record of publications in the field of soundscape studies and urban design.
Her primary research interests centre upon the interaction between people and the environments they inhabit focusing on the involvement of the population into the planning process of urban soundscapes through the development of open source platforms and open data sets.
Antonella is also the editor of the firenzesoundmap, an interactive, open source tool, which has become a collective sound map of the city of Florence through the involvement and the participation of the Florentine population, city users and tourists.
Antonella has kindly agreed to share her reflections about our meeting and also to share the Parisian sounds she recorded.
Soundwalking in Paris by Antonella Radicchi
I have been following the work on Parisian soundscapes by Des Coulam for quite a while and when I was about to leave for Paris in the middle of August I thought I’d drop him a line to ask whether he would be up for soundwalking in Paris. To my great delight, he replied offering to meet up the following Friday. We were to meet in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg at 2pm.
I couldn’t wait!
Since 2007, Des – who describes himself as “a flaneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris, observing through active listening” and, […], capturing “that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed.” – has been recording and archiving the “contemporary sound tapestry” of Paris so carefully and comprehensively that the British Library has been acquiring Parisian field recordings from his archive. Yet, his interest in recording sounds dates back to Christmas Day 1958 when he woke up to find that Father Christmas had brought him a tape recorder!
His idea of a “contemporary sound tapestry” is extremely fascinating: he prefers “sound tapestry” to “soundscape”, which is the widely accepted term, since it always reminds him that our lives are immersed in a complex system of interwoven sounds. Des is used to exploring and binaurally recording the Parisian soundscape through “active” soundwalking, which is quite different from the traditional method – usually practiced along a predetermined path at slow pace with the main purpose of listening to the environment. Whilst Des soundwalks along a predetermined path, which constitutes kind of a reference, he records sounds as if painting a picture: if he hears something special, he immediately goes off the route looking for that, “giving the sounds time to breath and to speak as they all have a story to tell” – as he insightfully commented while we were soundwalking.
So, on August, 15th at 2pm we met in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg and I was immediately surprised by this generous man who offered to let me conduct the soundwalk taking advantage of his binaural recording equipment, which I was very excited to experiment with as I have never used this method before.
Des’ binaural recording equipment – Marantz PMD 661 Mk11 sound recorder and Soundman OKM II Classic in-ear microphones
He also gave me lots of inspiring suggestions about how to soundwalk and about binaural recording techniques.
Me wearing Des’ binaural microphones and listening to Des’ suggestions about how conduct the soundwalk
Then, he was patient enough to answer to all the questions I asked him about soundscape studies, field recording and audio archiving techniques and we ended up debating and formulating hypotheses on the difference between listening to soundscapes in real time and listening to the recorded versions – which so far has remained an open ended question I am still thinking about!
Me and Des chatting about soundscape studies, field recording, and audio archiving techniques.
Finally, it was time to do some soundwalking and recording. We started with a first soundwalk at the Jardin du Luxembourg, which you can listen to here.
Antonella in the Jardin du Luxembourg:
My soundwalk route around the Jardin du Luxembourg
Then we moved to the Latin Quarter, close by the Pantheon and we did two more soundwalks, one along rue Descartes and one along rue Mouffetard, which you can listen to here.
Antonella in rue Descartes:
My soundwalk route along rue Descartes and Place Contrascarpe. Note the domed Panthéon on the left and the oval-shaped Roman Arènes de Lutèce on the right
Antonella in rue Mouffetard:
My soundwalk route along the rue Mouffetard from Place Contrascarpe to the Eglise Saint-Médard. Rue Mouffetard was originally a Roman road running from Roman Lutèce (now Paris) to Italy
I am very grateful to Des for the time he dedicated to me and for having so generously shared his passion and knowledge of field recording the Parisian “sound tapestry”. I came back to Italy full of energy and enthusiasm from the afternoon we spent together and I am still benefiting from that.
I hope I will have the chance to meet Des again to do more soundwalking together before too long.
And please, if you stop over in Paris, do not miss the chance to meet him. It will be a deeply rewarding experience!
IN THE MIDDLE OF a sunny August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm forced me to take shelter in a café close the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. It was a small, rather sparse place but comfortable enough to take refuge in while waiting for the rain to pass.
Parisian summer showers rarely last for long and so when the rain stopped I left the café and began walking. I hadn’t gone far when I came upon an ancient Parisian street, rue des Ursins, where the Port Saint-Landry, Paris’s first port, stood until the twelfth century.
Rue des Ursins looking from West to East
At the end of the fourteenth century, the City of Paris built an hôtel in this street called “des Ursins” in honour of a famous Italian family, the Orsini.
In 1400, the property was given to the French lawyer and politician, John Jouvenal, who from then on styled himself as Jean Jouvenal des Ursins, although he had no kinship ties to the Italian family. Jean Jouvenal des Ursins had been appointed as prévôt des marchands de Paris in 1388 and for a time he was also the King’s advocate in Parliament. The hôtel, which was partly rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, was demolished in 1637.
Rue des Ursins in 1900 – Eugène Atget
The rue des Ursins was for a long time divided into the rue Haute des Ursins, rue de Milieu des Ursins and rue Basse des Ursins, but in 1881 the street was consolidated into its current name, rue des Ursins.
Rue des Ursins today approximately from where Atget took his picture
I know the rue des Ursins very well so I might have walked past it without giving it a second thought but on this particular day I didn’t. As I approached the western end of the street I was captivated by the sounds I could hear so I went to investigate and to listen.
Rue des Ursins – A Soundwalk:
Although the rain had stopped, its echoes dominated the soundscape. Rainwater gently dripping off the roofs of the buildings either side of the street together with water trickling into the drains seemed like a long sonic reflection of the storm that had now passed. Save for the shimmering sounds of the traffic passing along the adjacent rain soaked Quai aux Fleurs, the sounds in the rue des Ursins may have been sounds familiar to Eugène Atget or even to Jean Juvenal des Ursins.
IN MY PREVIOUS POST I recounted how I went to the Marché aux Fleurs last Saturday shortly after the visit by Queen Elizabeth II and how the market had been renamed in her honour as the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The next day I returned to this flower market to witness its transformation into the Marché aux Oiseaux, a bird market.
The main part of the Marché aux Fleurs comprises two iron pavilions filled with a cornucopia of plants, shrubs, flowers and garden accessories. But on Sundays the road between the two pavilions is taken over by temporary stalls selling a wide variety of birds, from the rare and exotic to the more prosaic, together with a selection bird related accessories.
When I went there on Sunday, the road between the iron pavilions of the flower market was awash with people who, as with most markets, obviously come here not only to buy and sell but also to meet friends and other like-minded people.
Marché aux Oiseaux – A Soundwalk:
I found the soundscape in the Marché aux Oiseaux fascinating – an intriguing interweaving of sounds from two different species in close proximity, the avian and the human, with both speaking to themselves but not to each other. It seemed as though the air was filled with a cacophony of conversation.
At the end of my Sunday morning walk through the Marché aux Oiseaux this cacophony of avian and human conversation seemed to be reconciled by the unifying, man-made sounds of the distant bells of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris drifting across the market on the warm, summer air.
Here are some more sights of the Marché aux Oiseaux:
THE FRENCH SELDOM name places after living people but in the case of the Marché aux Fleurs in Paris they’ve made an exception.
Last Saturday, at the end of a three-day State Visit to France which included attending the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Anne Hidalgo, the newly elected Mayor of Paris, and the French Président, François Hollande, visited the Marché aux Fleurs, which has been renamed the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II in her honour.
It’s quite a while since I’ve been to the Marché aux Fleurs so I thought I would go along on Saturday and reaquaint myself with this renowned Parisian flower market.
Close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and bordering La Seine, the Marché aux Fleurs, in the Place Louis Lépine, has been here since 1808. Housed in iron pavilions each with a glass roof, the market offers a wide range of flowers, plants, shrubs and garden accessories as well as other hidden treasures.
Sounds of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II:
I arrived at the market shortly after the Queen had left and so, on this beautiful sunny day, I was able to walk around unencumbered by the restrictions surrounding Royal visits.
I spoke to some of the stallholders and they seemed delighted with the Queen’s visit and with the new name of the market. I also came upon two young ladies clutching an iPhone who were particularly excited since they had just found a photograph of themselves meeting the Queen on a French Television website.
Not everyone is happy with the new name though. Some on the Left said it was ‘ridiculous’ that an unelected monarch was getting such an accolade in a republic that executed most of its royals more than 200 years ago.
At the entrance to the market next to the Paris Préfecture de Police, where earlier the Queen had unveiled a street sign with the new name of the market, I discovered that work was well underway deconstructing the paraphernalia that had been erected for the unveiling ceremony. The four white, padded chairs that moments ago had hosted distinguished bottoms were now stacked on top of each other looking rather forlorn as if contemplating their fate.
In my next blog piece I will reveal what happens to the Marché aux Fleurs on Sunday mornings when the flowers and plants take a back seat and the market is transformed into the Marché aux Oiseaux, the bird market.
In the meantime, here are some more sights of the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II.
The Queen visiting the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II
Image via PA
RUE VAVIN STRETCHES from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to Rue d’Assas in the 6th arrondissement. The street is 375 metres long and 12 metres wide at its widest point and two streets, the Boulevard Raspail and Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, intersect it.
Rue Vavin is named after Alexis Vavin (1792-1863), a French politician who, amongst other things, opposed the coup of Napoleon III. As well as the Rue Vavin, the Avenue Vavin (now a short cul-de-sac) and the Métro station Vavin are also named after him.
The other day I decided to explore the Rue Vavin, to search out the places of historical interest and to do a soundwalk.
I began at the Rue d’Assas outside one of the entrances to the Jardin du Luxembourg and I walked along the street to the Boulevard du Montparnasse at the other end.
Rue Vavin – A Soundwalk:
N° 12 rue Vavin
The first building to catch my eye was N° 12.
For over eighty years this was home to the French publishing house founded in 1901 by the orientalist Paul Geuthner. He specialised in Oriental studies and published essays, texts, language textbooks and travelogues on the Near, Middle and Far East.
Paul Geuthner died in 1949 but the business continued and although no longer here at N° 12 rue Vavin (it’s now moved to 16 rue de la Grande Chaumière close by), and despite a change of ownership, the Société Nouvelle Librairie Orientalist Paul Geuthner is still very much alive and well.
Moving on towards the next building I wanted to see I paused to look at two things at the heart of rue Vavin, both of which are emblematic of Paris – a kiosquier selling his newspapers and a Wallace fountain.
The Parisian newspaper kiosk has been around for a 150 years. Today there are about 350 of them in Paris and they account for almost half of all daily newspaper and magazine sales.
And, like the Parisian newspaper kiosk, the Wallace fountain is another piece of iconic Parisian street furniture.
Named after the English philanthropist, Richard Wallace, who lived in Paris and financed their construction, these fountains were designed by the French sculptor, Charles-Auguste Lebourg. Although originally intended as a source of free, potable water for the poor and also as encouragement to avoid the temptation to turn to strong liquor, everyone uses these fountains today. For the homeless of course, they are often their only source of free drinking water. The fountains operate from 15th March to 15th November (the risk of freezing during the winter months would imperil the internal plumbing) and they are regularly maintained and repainted every two years.
And while the Wallace fountain in rue Vavin might be one kind of watering hole, on the other side of the street there’s another, the Café Vavin.
N° 19 rue Vavin
Further along the street is N° 19.
This building was once home to the École normale d’enseignement du dessin, a school of drawing founded in 1881 by the architect, Alphonse Théodore Guérin. The only private art school in Paris at the time, it was staffed by volunteer teachers and its students paid no fees. The teaching was based on a mixture of workshops and academic classes in decorative composition, perspective, the history of art and anatomy.
N° 26 rue Vavin – Image via Wikipedia
If you’ve seen the film Last Tango in Paris you may recognise the next building I stopped to look at. N° 26 rue Vavin was the creation of the French architects Frédéric-Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin.
In 1903, Sauvage and Sarazin formed the Société anonyme de logements hygiéniques à bon marché, a company whose purpose was to construct good quality, affordable housing for the poorest in society. Built in 1912 as an HBM (Habitation à Bon Marché), N° 26 rue Vavin is a good example of what Sauvage and Sarazin sought to achieve. Designed on the hygienist principles of providing accommodation with plenty of light and air the building has open terraces and is covered with white tiles similar to those found in the Paris Métro which self-clean when it rains.
Unlike with most buildings in Paris, it is forbidden to attach nameplates to the walls of N° 26 partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to avoid damage to the tiles. Consequently, the main door of the building has a very clean and uncluttered look to it.
After pausing to look at a magnificent display of blooms at a flower shop I walked further up rue Vavin to the intersection with the Boulevard Raspail where I found N° 33.
N° 33 rue Vavin
Between the two World Wars, N° 33 rue Vavin was home to the famous cabaret Le Bal de la Boule Blanche. It was here on the evening of 20th February 1931 that Georges Simenon hosted a ball to launch the first two books in the then new but now classic Inspector Maigret series – ‘Monsieur Gallet, décédé’ and ‘Le pendu de Saint-Pholien’.
Crossing the Boulevard Raspail I wanted to find N° 38 rue Vavin, once the home of the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who is perhaps best known for designing the Statue of Liberty. Instead, I found a building site with the inevitable site meeting taking place.
N° 50 rue Vavin
The last stop on my soundwalk along the rue Vavin was at N° 50. Today it’s just one of many boutiques along the street but in the second half of the 19th century this was the Maison Voignier, supplier of organ pipes to, amongst others, one of the world’s greatest organ builders, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Rue Vavin is a fairly typical Parisian street. It’s home to some or a place of business for others, it’s also a thoroughfare from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Jardin du Luxembourg and it’s a magnet for shoppers. It has its own life, its own history and, of course, its own sounds all of which I think are worth exploring.
I RECENTLY PUBLISHED a blog piece about the Musée Curie, which is located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillion of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement in what was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934. In the piece I mentioned that Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre, died in a street accident in Paris in 1906 when, crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
The other day I found myself in Rue Dauphine so I decided to record a soundwalk as I explored the street.
Rue Dauphine dates from 1607 and it derives its name from the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, son of Henry IV and Marie de Médicis. It’s quite a short street, just 288 metres long. It stretches from the junction of the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Quai de Conti (opposite the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf) to the junction of Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and Rue Mazarine.
I began my soundwalk at the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts/Rue Mazarine end of the street and then made my way towards the Pont Neuf ending at the spot where Pierre Curie died.
This is what I saw and heard …
Rue Dauphine – A Soundwalk:
It was while crossing the street at this spot that Pierre Curie slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.