IT’S THAT TIME OF year again and Paris is awash with its annual Christmas markets. This year, I’ve only explored two of these markets, the enormous one at La Défense and the one on my own doorstep, which is small, intimate and always a delight.
My local Christmas market comprises thirty wooden châlets set out on Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and stretching down to the nearby church. These châlets host some exhibitors who come every year but also some new ones from different regions.
As well as the châlets with their gourmet foods and a variety of craft goods, there are the entertainers; a professional storyteller, a make-up artist, a balloon sculptor, magicians, clowns, jugglers and, of course, the street musicians.
This year we’ve been entertained once again by Alexandre l’Agodas: The pedlar of dreams and his barrel organ.
Alexandre l’Agodas: Le colporteur de rêves et son orgue de barbarie
And, as well as Russian Cossacks with traditional Russian music, we’ve had a Dixieland jazz quartet and a very impressive jazz duo.
But my favourites this year were the jazz quartet, Swing Manouche.
As their name suggests, Swing Manouche play in the gypsy swing, or gypsy jazz, style associated with Django Reinhardt in the 1930’s. Because this style largely originated in France it’s often called by the French name, ‘Jazz Manouche’.
And since I think that Django Reinhardt was a genius I was delighted to be able to record ‘Swing Manouche’ playing in my neck of the woods.
Jazz Manouche at my Christmas Market:
The three pieces I recorded of ‘Swing Manouche’ playing ends with a French Christmas favourite, Le Petit Papa Noël, which leads me neatly into wishing all of you who follow this blog regularly, as well as those who drop by as they’re passing, a very Happy Christmas and all you wish for yourselves in 2015.
WHATEVER THE TIME of year, street musicians can be found all over Paris plying their trade and bringing sunshine to the passers by.
Last Saturday afternoon I came across this gentleman occupying his usual pitch at the corner of the Quai de l’Archevêché and the Pont Saint-Louis. He is a big man who makes a big sound from a very small piano.
A Small Piano – A Big Sound:
STANDING ON THE SITE of the former convent Sainte Catherine du Val des Ecoliers, the Place du Marché Sainte Catherine is a short walk from its more elegant and illustrious neighbour the Place des Vosges in the Marais district of Paris.
The convent Sainte Catherine du Val des Ecoliers was founded in 1228 and stood on this site until it was demolished in 1767. Some ten years later a market, the Marché Sainte Catherine, replaced the convent.
The market has now also disappeared and today, surrounded by 18th century buildings, the Place du Marché Sainte Catherine is a small traffic-free square lined with trees and surrounded on three sides by restaurants. It’s one of those perfect Parisian squares where both locals and tourists gather to while away a lazy summer afternoon.
I went to the Place du Marché Saint Catherine the other day and found two young musicians adding their own special atmosphere to this delightful place.
Place du Marché Saint Catherine:
Sometimes, these hidden corners of Paris can be just perfect!
AT THIS TIME OF YEAR the air in Paris is filled with music – the music of the streets. I’ve said before that the standard of the street music here is exceptionally high and it’s always a pleasure to listen to. I have an extensive archive of the Parisian street music I’ve recorded but I’m always on the look out for something unusual.
Recently, I stumbled upon this group of musicians in the Rue de Francs-Bourgeois in the Marais district. It was a Sunday, the day when all the shops are open in this neck of the woods and when the street seems to be at its busiest.
Street Music in the Rue de Francs-Bourgeois:
In the midst of the crush of Sunday tourists these musicians were performing. There were five of them, one on bass, one on banjo, two sax players, one of whom also played clarinet, and the leader who sang and played the cornet.
Two things made this ensemble stand out as being slightly unusual for me. The first was the lady who danced endlessly to the music. I don’t know if she was connected with the musicians or just a ‘fan’ but she was certainly very enthusiastic and a joy to watch. The second was the choice of music. “The White Cliffs of Dover” is not quite what one expects to hear on the streets of Paris but I’m sure Vera Lynn would approve.
THE METRO STATION AT Bastille is a station I use quite a lot. Three Paris Metro lines run through the station, Line 1, Line 5 and Line 8 and the station is busy most of the time. Usually, passing through the station is rather tedious but occasionally it can be a complete joy.
Music in the Metro:
More Music in the Metro:
I entered full of ideas and good intentions but the plethora of big brand names and extravagant prices completely overwhelmed me so I left empty-handed.
Leaving the Galeries Lafayette I found a young man sitting on a stool playing a piano in the middle of the pavement. Living in Paris one gets used to seeing the quirky and accepting it as being quite normal but this spectacle did grab my attention.
Piano Al Fresco 01:
Quirky the sight may have been but, gallantly competing with the very harsh traffic noise, the young man gave a bravura performance.
PIANO Al Fresco 02:
IN FEBRUARY, I PRODUCED a blog piece about the Rue de Vaugirard, which at 4.3 kilometres is the longest street in Paris. Having explored that street, I thought it would be interesting to go to the other end of the spectrum and search out the shortest street in this city.
At 3.3 metres wide and 5.75 metres long the Rue des Degrés in the 2nd arrondissement has the distinction of being the shortest street in Paris. It’s been here since the middle of the seventeenth-century.
The Rue des Degrés comprises just fourteen steps linking the Rue de Clery and the Rue Beauregard. These two streets run along the former line of the Charles V wall, built between 1356 to 1383 and demolished in the seventeenth-century to make way for the Grands Boulevards.
The Rue des Degrés is so short that it’s hard to imagine that it is a formal street … but it is and like all streets in Paris it even has the street name affixed to the wall at either end of the street.
The Rue des Degrés also has the distinction of being one of the quietest streets in Paris. I went there in the middle of a Saturday afternoon yet there was no traffic, no people and scarcely a sound to be heard.
The Rue des Degrés may be the shortest and possibly the quietest street in Paris but the large Boulevards and characteristic city sounds are never far away.
A short walk from the Rue des Degrés led me to the grand Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle where I found, in great contrast to the quiet of the Rue des Degrés, this group of street musicians.
Street Music in Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle:
Home to the Palais du Luxembourg and the French Senate, the Jardin du Luxembourg is the second largest public park in Paris. The garden and the palace were created at the behest of Marie de Medici, the widow of Henry IV, in the early seventeenth-century. It’s always been renowned for its statues.
Music can be found in most public spaces in Paris especially in the summer. But musicians are not allowed to play in the Jardin du Luxembourg save for the concerts in the gazebo. However, they are allowed to play outside the Jardin and this man, with his delightful street organ, does so regularly.
The Street Organ:
Recording sound in the Jardin du Luxembourg is fraught with difficulties. The Jardin is popular all year round but in the summer there is a constant cacophony of crowd sounds, which makes recording quite specific sounds a challenge to say the least.
But, as always, with determination and a huge amount of patience it is possible to isolate some of the distinctive sounds – the joggers, the tennis players, the Pétanque players and the children’s playground.
Sounds in the Jardin du Luxembourg:
Incidentally, a game of Pétanque with its mystifying rules is, along with fireworks, one of the most difficult things to record. Those metal balls clinking into each other play havoc with a sound recorder and one is never quite sure what the outcome is going to be.
Apart from the Bois de Boulogne, which is a ten-minute walk from my home, the Jardin du Luxembourg is the Paris park that I visit most often. I’ve been there in the summer when the temperature has been 40° and I’ve been there in the winter when it’s been covered in snow and the temperature has been below freezing. But whenever I go, the Jardin du Luxemburg always seems to have a special charm. I recommend it.
I ARRIVED AT THE METRO station Abbesses by travelling the short, one stop from the neighbouring station, Pigalle, on Line 12.
The Metro from Pigalle to Abbesses:
Thirty-six metres below ground, buried in the former Plaster-of-Paris mines of Montmartre, Abbesses is one of the deepest stations on the Paris Metro network – so deep that a lift is provided to carry passengers to the surface.
For the more adventurous, it’s possible to do it the hard way by climbing the long, winding, seemingly never-ending, staircase. The effort does have its rewards, like the original tiles lining the walls of the stairwell.
Whether ascending by the lift or the stairs, the rewards waiting upon reaching the surface are certainly worth it.
This has to be the most photographed Metro entrance in the world. It’s one of Hector Guimard’s originals and one of only three that are left – the others being at Porte Dauphine and Place Sainte-Opportune. The Abbesses entrance was originally the entrance to the Hôtel de Ville station but it was moved to the Place des Abbesses in 1970.
The Place des Abbesses takes its name from the former Abbey of the Dames des Abbesses founded as far back as 1133 by Adelaide of Savoy, the wife of Louis VI. The reputation of the abbey – and of the Abbesses for that matter – waxed and waned over the years but it managed to survive in one form or another until the French Revolution when it was finally suppressed. Madame de Montmorency-Laval was the last abbess and she came to a sticky end – she was sent to the guillotine in 1794!
If Madame de Montmorency-Laval were with us today, what would she find on the site of her former home?
She would find that there are still ecclesiastical references. The Crypt of the Martyrium, which she would have known well, is the chapel built on the site where, allegedly, Denis, Bishop of Lutetia, (later Saint Denis) was decapitated in 250AD. She would be pleased to know that the chapel is still alive – but only open to the public on Friday afternoons. She would find the Eglise-Saint Jean-de-Montmartre, a more recent ecclesiastical structure, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist in 1904.
She would be very familiar with the cobblestones in the Place des Abbesses and I like to think that she would approve of the rather delicate sound of traffic slowly rumbling over the pavé which has a curiously romantic feel to it.
She would no doubt find the sound of today’s street musicians in the Place des Abbesses curious but, since music was an integral part of abbey life, maybe she would not entirely disapprove.
I like to think she would also approve of the contemporary creation – the “I Love You” wall – a wall of deep blue glazed tiles with dashes of pink inscribed with the words “I Love You” in over three hundred languages.
All in all, I think Madame de Montmorency-Laval, like the flocks of tourists who visit each year, would be well pleased with today’s Place des Abbesses.
I spend a lot of time walking the streets of Paris hunting for interesting sounds to record. Sometimes I walk in vain – interesting sounds can be an elusive commodity. More often than not finding good sounds to record is a matter of luck rather than expertise – it’s about being in the right place at the right time.
My sound hunting wanderings take me all over the city of Paris but there are some streets that I return to again and again, partly because of their history, partly because of their character but mostly because of their atmosphere – rue de la Huchette, rue St Jaques, rue de Lappe and the street I went to yesterday, rue Mouffetard, about which Balzac said, “No neighbourhood of Paris is more horrible and more unknown”.
The street market at the bottom of rue Mouffetard
It is true that in Balzac’s day rue Mouffetard had, to put it kindly, a reputation! But it’s reputation today is quite different. It is now a lively, bustling street full of history, character and atmosphere and it just keeps drawing me back time and again.
Sitting in the bistro Le Mouffetard last Saturday afternoon with a glass of Leffe and a copy of Le Monde, I was half watching the world go by and half reading the news of terror plots from cargo aircraft, when a sound drifted in through an open window.
A three man jazz ensemble had installed themselves across the street and they were just beginning their afternoon’s work. I went to investigate.
Rue Mouffetard never fails to provide something interesting for this chasseur de son to record. This was one of those elusive moments that comes from being in the right place at the right time.