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:
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:
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.
THE PLACE DES VOSGES is a square of perfect symmetry. Comprising thirty-six grand houses, nine on each side, with deep slate roofs with dormer windows over brick and stone arcades – the Place des Vosges is a Parisian treasure.
The Place des Vosges dates back to King Henry IV and the Grand Siècle. Henry was somewhat of a city planner and his original idea for the Place Royale as it was then called was to use the shell of the old Tournelles palace in the Marais as a site in which to develop a silk industry which could, he hoped, combat the Italians and boost the domestic economy. But his scheme quickly took on a different life. With the aid of his Chief Minister, Sully, the idea of providing a workers’ village in the Place was transformed into creating an elegant urban square dominated by the aristocracy.
The famous literary hostess, Madame de Séveigné, was born here in 1626, Cardinal Richelieu stayed here in 1615, the poet Théophile Gautier and the writer Victor Hugo both lived here in the nineteenth-century.
I find the Place des Vosges attractive at any time of the year but it is in the summer when the tourists flock to this space.
As well as the architecture, the green space in the centre and the history, the tourists can also enjoy the up-market street music. The Place des Vosges boasts the aristocracy of street musicians in Paris. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, especially in the summer, classically trained musicians, including opera singers and classical instrumentalists of the highest standard, perform here for free.
But even in the winter – on a cold Saturday in January – excellent street music can be found.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the Place des Vosges hunting for interesting sounds. I started recording as I was walking around the Place with no particular objective in mind – and then I came across this – a walk under the arcade arches, past the front of a café and then, further on, three musicians, a bass player, a guitarist and an accordionist, playing to an audience of one – me! What impressed me was that they were playing music because they thoroughly enjoyed playing music – audience or no audience.
I hope you enjoy the sounds and the enthusiasm of the musicians as much as I do.
I couldn’t help feeling that the ghosts of Madame de Séveigné, Théophile Gautier and Victor Hugo were enjoying it too – but what would Cardinal Richelieu make of it?
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.
Last weekend the weather in Paris was absolutely gorgeous. Rather than a Saturday in October it could have been an Saturday in mid-summer. I took advantage of it and went out and about sound hunting.
My first port of call was to my favourite bookshop in the shadow of the cathedral of Notre Dame.
To be found at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, the eclectic Shakespeare & Company is a small bookshop with a big reputation. As well as selling English language books, it is also a reading library as well as housing young writers who earn their keep by working in the shop. A dozen or so beds nestle in amongst the books and it is reckoned that as many as 40,000 people have slept in the shop over the years.
A Parisian curiosity indeed and well worth a visit.
Leaving Shakespeare and Company I walked along by La Seine to the flower market and then on to the Prefecture de Police where I found an “Open Day” in progress. Not only were the police on show but also other emergency services including the Sapeurs-Pompiers (Fire Brigade) and the Croix-Rouge (Red Cross).
I particularly enjoyed looking at the collection of old police motorcycles on display and also this wonderful old fire engine.
The biggest attraction though were the police horses who were far more concerned with eating their lunch than with the cameras of inquisitive tourists.
A delightful and inexpensive dinner in the rue de la Huchette rounded off my Saturday afternoon.
And …. oh yes …. the sound ….
I found this man singing and playing his electric guitar on the Pont D’Arcole … Ray Charles if I’m not mistaken.
I love watching and listening to street musicians. Invariably, they look to be happy and enjoying their work.
I came across this gentleman recently in the rue Mouffetard.
Not only was he making the little organ sing but he was also singing himself.
You can listen to him here …
Yesterday was a strange Saturday in Paris. I went out sound-hunting as usual. I left my apartment and went out into my little street to find it totally deserted – nothing, no people, one or two parked cars with no drivers and all but two of the shops resolutely shut. It occurred to me that this might be a public holiday that I had missed, it has happened to me before, but no, this was not a public holiday it was simply the weekend in the year when most people are away on holiday. It was quite an eerie feeling to see the streets here in my neck of the woods quite so deserted. And it was not only my quartier that people had deserted, the rest of Paris had the same air of emptiness.
Last week the temperature hovered around the low twenties with a tinge of autumn in the air. Yesterday, it was back to a summer thirty degrees making Paris hot and sultry. Read more
I am currently building two new pages on this blog. One is entitled “Street Music” which will include some of the recordings I’ve made of street musicians mainly in Paris. The other is called “Sound Of The Week” which will include my choice of a Paris sound for the week. Over the coming weeks I will add more sounds to these pages so keep an eye on them.
Take a look and tell me what you think.
Yesterday afternoon I went to my favourite part of Paris, the 5th arrondissement. After the searing heat of the past couple of weeks and the deluge last Wednesday the weather was much kinder and more to my liking. Late in the afternoon I washed up at the Jardin du Luxembourg which was full of people as always but I did manage to find a green bench under the trees where I had a much needed sit down. The Jardin du Luxembourg can be a very tranquil place if you find the right spot and the people watching can be a fascinating.
I watched the young lady on the right of the photograph wrestle with a baguette for the best part of half an hour before giving up and feeding it to the pigeons. The man sitting on the bench opposite spent the whole time I was there crouched over his notebook and and writing furiously. I couldn’t help wondering what he was writing.
I made some “atmosphere” recordings from this spot which included birds singing in the trees all around me, people talking and walking past on the gravel and the sound of street musicians away in the distance.
Presently, I decided to move off and I made my way towards the sound of the street musicians to see what I could find …
… and this is what I found. A group of six young men making music in the street outside the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg – a trumpet, two saxophones, a trombone, drums and a sousaphone together with a tin to collect the money in and a large crowd of people watching and listening. It was all good fun. I couldn’t resist recording them for my Paris Soundscape project and, yes, I did leave some money in the tin.
The recording does, like most street recordings, have the usual noises off, traffic and people talking, but that’s all part of the colour.
So here is my Saturday “Sound of the Day”: Jazz – Jardin du Luxembourg 02