I’VE SAID MANY TIMES in this blog that soundwalking is a superb way to explore a place, especially a place as rich and diverse as Paris. Whilst ‘pure’ soundwalking involves concentrated listening to the exclusion of almost everything else, a soundwalk can also be the key to a wider exploration of a place especially if you use your curiosity to follow the sounds and see where they lead. Over the last few days I’ve been soundwalking along the Boulevard Barbès and the surrounding area in the 18th arrondissement. This is a part of Paris well off the tourist track and a part of the city that I find endlessly fascinating. In this post I will show how even a fairly short soundwalk, in this case a walk along part of the Boulevard Barbès, can lead to discovering things that may be hidden, but if you follow the sounds and engage your curiosity the hidden can often emerge into plain sight.
Boulevard Barbès. Paris (XVIIIth arrondissement), circa 1900. © Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet: Image courtesy of Paris en Images
A soundwalk along part of the Boulevard Barbès:
Named after the French Republican revolutionary Armand Barbès, the Boulevard Barbès is a product of Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. Once home to the sumptuous Grands Magasins Dufayel, which, on the eve of the First World War advertised itself as being the largest department store in the world, the grands magasins elegance of the Boulevard Barbès has now faded. Today, the Grands Magasins Dufayel, originally known as Le Palais de la Nouveauté until the ambitious Georges Dufayel took it over in 1888 and named it after himself, is occupied by the BNP bank and a good part of the street is filled with small shops selling mobile phones, jewelry, luggage, clothes and shoes all at bargain prices.
The former Grands Magasins Dufayel from Boulevard Barbès
The entrance to the former Grands Magasins Dufayel in Rue Clignancourt
Even if the Boulevard Barbès has gone somewhat down market since the grandeur of La Belle Époque it is still not without interest.
Crossing the bottom of the street between what is now the TATI store on one side and the Brasserie Barbès on the other once ran the Barricade rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, one of the most imposing and one of the last barricades to fall during the 1848 Revolution, which ended the Orléans monarchy (1830–1848) and led to the creation of the French Second Republic.
Site of the 1848 Barricade rue du Faubourg Poissonnière
Also of interest is N° 10 Boulevard Barbès.
This was once the Bal du Grand Turc, founded in 1806 by Joseph Teiche and frequented by Alexander Dumas père and Emile Zola amongst others. Emile Zola refers to the Bal du Grand Turc in his novel L’Assomoir. It then became the Concert de la Fourmi, one of several café-concerts in the area. Maurice Chevalier performed here in 1902, early in his professional career.
N° 10 Boulevard Barbès, Café-concert La Fourmi, around 1905: Image via Lagouttedor.net
N° 10 Boulevard Barbès today.
A little further up the Boulevard Barbès we come to N° 28. This was the residence of Irénée Cazals, a liaison officer in the Confraternity Notre-Dame network of the French Resistance during the Second World War.
Nazi soldiers march in Paris on Avenue Foch, 14 June, 1940 Image: Folkerts, Bundesarchiv
Founded towards the end of 1940, the Confraternity Notre-Dame was an information-gathering network that rallied to the Free French. It was one of the first and probably the most important intelligence network of the Resistance. Its agents were charged with gathering military or economic and political information that provided content for Free French radio broadcasts and providing liaison and radio operators who facilitated outgoing information and incoming orders.
The Confraternity Notre-Dame operated for three and a half years and during that time 1,544 agents signed on; 524 were arrested, of which 234 were deported, 37 shot, and 151 died while deported. Irénée Cazals was arrested on the 17th November 1943 and deported on the 29th November. He survived the war.
N° 28 Boulevard Barbès: Former residence of Irénée Cazals
And now we come to a shoe shop at N° 34 Boulevard Barbès, one of several shoe shops along the street.
KATA is an outlet store with shoes piled into bins and sold at bargain prices complete with signs saying, ‘No Refunds’. But behind the undistinguished shop front KATA is much more than a shoe shop: it’s an aberration, an urban anachronism.
The shoe shop occupies what was once the Barbès Palace Cinema and when they moved in to the premises in 1988, KATA was persuaded to retain the Belle Époque architecture and fit the shop around it.
This cinema built in 1914 by the French architect Louis Garnier seated 1,200 people making it one of the top cinemas in the city. It was built in the Belle Époque style and the stage, complete with red velvet curtains, the ionic columns, the neo-classical balconies and the double staircase leading up to them are all still in place.
In the early twentieth century cinemas proliferated so the residents around the Boulevard Barbès were spoiled for choice. As well as the Barbès Palace they had the Luxor, (now completely restored and reopened), the Palais-Rochechouart (now Darty), the Delta (now Guerrisol), the Myrha (now an Evangelical Church) and the Gaîté-Rochechouart (now Célio), all within walking distance.
In its early days the Barbès Palace was still influenced by the music hall so it had its own orchestra to provide musical interludes during the programme.
It also had an eye on commercial opportunities so it promoted advertising for a wide range of products and services.
The cinema fared well and up to the mid-1960s offering a programme of mainly French films and a few foreign productions although by this time it had lost both its orchestra and the ‘Palace’ from its name. By the 1970s tastes had changed and the fare on offer tilted towards action movies such as spaghetti westerns and war films. As the decline in cinema going began to bite in the 1980s, the Barbès Cinema began to show double-bills comprising an action movie and an ‘erotic’ film, although it was never reduced to becoming a genuine ‘porn’ cinema.
The final curtain fell on the Barbès cinema on 30th July 1985 with the programme for that week including Ninja Fury and Excès érotiques.
The cinema was built with two means of access: 34 Boulevard Barbès and 9 Rue des Poissonnièrs.
One of my soundwalks comprised a walk along the Rue des Poissonnièrs, into the shoe shop and then out into the Boulevard Barbes. Unfortunately, the ambience inside the shop is tarnished by strips of harsh neon lighting stretching over the displays of shoes and the music playing over loudspeakers scattered around the store.
The Rue des Poissonnièrs entrance
A soundwalk from Rue des Poissonnièrs to Boulevard Barbès via the KATA store:
Soundwalking and listening to urban soundscapes has many facets. Studying urban soundscapes can be a valuable academic pursuit as evidenced by the work of Dr. Antonella Raddichi at the Technische Universität, Berlin. Sound artists like La Cosa Preziosa often magically weave urban soundscapes into their compositions. But one doesn’t have to be an academic or an artist to appreciate urban soundscapes. Simply listening to and following the sounds with an abundance of curiosity can open up an often hidden yet fascinating world.
THE GARE DU NORD railway station in Paris is on the cusp of great change. Over the next few years the physical architecture of this station will be transformed and consequently, so will its sonic architecture.
For many years I have been recording and archiving the sounds of the Gare du Nord. My particular interest lies in investigating how sounds can define, or help to define, a place and how the soundscape of a particular place changes over time. The Gare du Nord is a valuable case study in both these areas.
The first Gare du Nord station was built in 1846 but an increase in traffic meant that a new, bigger station was soon required.
The original 1846 chemin de fer du nord station
Rebuilding took place under the direction of the German-born French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff with the new station combining the advanced structural use of new materials, notably cast iron, with conservative Beaux-Arts classicism. Hittorff’s Gare du Nord was completed in 1864.
La “Gare de la Compagnie du chemin de fer du Nord” photographiée vers 1864 par Charles-Henri Plaut
Significant changes to the station were made in 1981 to accommodate RER Line B and then in 1993 to accommodate the TGV and the Eurostar. The last major change was 2001 with a major expansion of the departures hall.
Gare du Nord TGV Departure Hall in 2017
And now the Gare du Nord is about to undergo further change.
Subject to negotiations due to be concluded by the end of this year, SNCF Gares & Connections and the global real estate company Ceetrus will set up a joint venture to carry out a transformation of the Gare du Nord. Ceetrus, in association with architect Denis Valode (Valode and Pistre architects), will lead a transformation as big as that led by the Hittorff in 1864. The transformation is due to be completed in time for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord
The transformation will see the station triple in size from 36,000m2 to 110,000 m2. With 700,000 passengers using the station each day, excluding those who use the associated Métro station, the Gare du Nord is already the busiest railway station in Europe. Following the transformation the daily passenger numbers are expected to increase to 800,000 in 2024 and 900,000 in 2030.
The transformation will include a new departure terminal in which the flow of arrivals and departures from the station will be distinct thus improving fluidity and comfort for travellers. A new station facade is proposed on rue du faubourg Saint-Denis with direct access to the departure terminal.
The Eurostar terminal will be expanded to meet the challenge of strengthened customs controls linked to Brexit.
Accessibility will be enhanced with more elevators and escalators. The new station will have 55 lifts and 105 escalators. Station security will be enhanced with more CCTV being installed.
Access to the three metro lines will be improved. The bus station with its 12 bus lines and 7 Noctilian services will be connected directly with the departure terminal, and 1,200 bicycle parking spaces will be available with direct access from the square in front of the station.
Traffic circulation around the station will be redesigned to take account of the redesigned access to the station and also the expected development of new electric mobility solutions.
The transformed station will also include a 2,000 m2 ‘European Academy of Culture’, a concept devised by the writer Olivier Guez, including a 1,600 m2 space to host events and concerts.
There will be 5,500 m2 of co-working space, a nursery, new restaurants and a one-kilometre running track on the station roof.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord
The transformation of the Gare du Nord will clearly change the visual landscape of the station but it will also change its sonic landscape. There are six main line railway stations in Paris, five of which sound very similar. The exception is the current Gare du Nord, which has a very distinctive soundscape. The size of the main departures terminal together with Hittorff’s 19th century iron and glass construction and the cacophony of waiting passengers squeezed between the parked trains and the street outside gives the Gare du Nord a very particular sonic ambience.
This is what the Gare du Nord sounded like in 2011.
Gare du Nord 2011:
Gare du Nord Departures Hall 2011
Although the major transformation project is not due to start until next year, some improvements to the Gare du Nord are already underway. When I went there last week I found men laying a new stone floor in the main departures hall, which gives us a clue as to how the soundscape of the station will change as the major construction work progresses. The sounds of the gasping trains will have to compete with the cacophony of building work for some considerable time to come.
Gare du Nord 2018:
Having recorded the soundscape of the current Gare du Nord many times I shall continue to record and archive the sounds as the station’s transformation takes place. I shall be fascinated to discover the sounds of the new, ultra-modern Gare du Nord when all the work is completed. I will though still go back to my archive from time to time and listen to the sounds of the ‘old’ Gare du Nord; sounds that have been so familiar to me for almost the last twenty years and sounds that are about to disappear.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord
OVER TWO WEEKS BETWEEN late May and early June around half a million people will make their way to the red clay courts of the Stade Roland Garros at the southern end of the Bois de Boulogne to watch the French Open tennis championships.
The French Open is the premier clay-court tennis championship event in the world and the second of four annual Grand Slam tournaments, the others being the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.
This year, the tournament takes place between 22nd May and 11th June during which time the French Tennis Federation (Fédération Française de Tennis) will accrue approximately €200 million in revenue of which around €30 million will be given away as prize money.
The Stade Roland Garros was constructed in 1928 to host France’s first defence of the Davis Cup. It takes its name from the pioneering aviator, engineer and World War I fighter ‘ace’, Roland Georges Garros who, amongst many other things, completed the first solo flight across the Mediterranean Sea.
Stade Roland Garros is a 21-acre (8.5-hectare) complex containing twenty tennis courts, including three large-capacity stadiums: the Court Philippe Chatrier, the principal court seating almost 15,000 spectators, the Court Suzanne Lenglen, seating 10,000 spectators, and Court 1, seating 4,000 spectators.
Across the leafy Avenue Gordon Bennett, directly opposite the Stade Roland Garros, is another space almost comparable in size, the 18-acre (7.2-hectare) Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, which, along with the Parc de Bagatelle, the Parc floral de Paris, and the Arboretum de l’École du Breuil, make up the Jardin botanique de la Ville de Paris, a collection of four gardens maintained by the city each with their own history and architectural and botanical heritage.
The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil was created in 1761 under Louis XV and is arranged around a parterre in the traditional French style. The main greenhouses, designed and constructed between 1895-1898 by the architect Jean-Camille Formigé, were constructed around this central area.
Among the botanical collection are many varieties of plants including azaleas, orchids, begonias, cactus, ferns and some carnivorous plants. There is also a palm house and an aviary with tropical birds.
The Grande Serre, the largest tropical greenhouse in the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil
While most long-term next door neighbours cohabit relatively peacefully, conflict can sometimes break out.
After living harmoniously next to each other for almost ninety years, the Stade Roland Garros through its proprietor, the Fédération Française de Tennis, has been locked in conflict over several years with the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil over a plan to extend the Stade Roland Garros into the historic garden.
The Stade Roland Garros is falling behind its Open championship competitors, Melbourne Park in Australia, Flushing Meadows in the United States and Wimbledon in the United Kingdom, in terms of the space and facilities required to stage a Grand Slam tournament. In order to compete and to satisfy the International Tennis Federation, the governing body of world tennis, and to satiate the inexhaustible appetites of the corporate sponsors and the media, the Stade Roland Garros has to improve its offer or risk losing its prestigious Grand Slam status.
Stade Roland Garros, Court 1, across the Avenue Gordon Bennett from the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil
In 2009 a significant expansion of the Stade Roland Garros was proposed, which included the addition of lights and a retractable roof over the Court Philippe Chatrier. The proposal also called for a new, fourth stadium with a retractable roof and 14,600 seating capacity, along with two smaller courts with seating for 1,500 and 750 to be built at the nearby Georges Hébert municipal recreation area, east of Roland Garros at Porte d’Auteuil. Factions within the Paris City Council scuppered this proposal.
This was followed a scheme to move the French Open to a completely new, fifty-five-court venue outside the Paris city limits but the Fédération Française de Tennis scuppered that.
In May 2013, the Fédération Française de Tennis announced a proposal to completely rebuild the Court Philippe Chatrier on its existing foundations with the addition of a new roof and lights, together with the demolition of Court 1. To replace the demolished court the proposal called for a 5,000-seat, semi-sunken stadium to be built in the southeast corner of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.
Here are two photographs I took from a Fédération Française de Tennis publicity banner showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ effect of their proposed invasion of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.
Maybe it’s just me, but the caption in the picture above: Près des serres historiques, un merveilleux geste architectural contribuant au renouveau du jardin botanique de ville de Paris (Near the historic greenhouses, a wonderful architectural gesture contributing to the revival of the botanical garden of the City of Paris), seems to stretch publicity propaganda to the absolute limit – or maybe we have just become so brainwashed that we simply accept ‘alternative facts’ as the norm these days.
The sad thing is that these ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures are no longer just publicity propoganda – they are now a reality.
Nine greenhouses were demolished to create this building site
Local residents, municipal authorities, garden and wildlife enthusiasts and others have vigorously opposed the plan to extend the Stade Roland Garros into the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil. They even came up with a credible alternative scheme, which seemed to gain traction for a time, and they have fought several expensive court cases to try to thwart the ambitions of the Fédération Française de Tennis. But it was the the announcement of the bid by the City of Paris to host the Olympic Games in 2024 that probably sealed the fate of the garden. Integral to the Paris Olympic bid is the new, expanded, Stade Roland Garros.
Earlier this month, on the 2nd February, the Tribunal administratif de Paris rejected an appeal against the construction permits previously authorised by the Mayor of Paris and, as a result, the final the green light was given for both the reconstruction of the Court Philippe Chatrier and ‘la construction d’un court de tennis sur une parcelle dans le Jardin des serres d’Auteuil, dans le Bois de Boulogne’. You can read the court’s judgement here.
More publicity from the Fédération Française de Tennis
In one of my previous posts I referred to the development in the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil and how the soundscape would inevitably change as a result. Well, this is today’s soundscape in this once idyllic garden.
Digging for Profit:
Of course, developments like this are nothing new, Paris is littered with places revered today built on the ruins of places revered by previous generations. So why should we care about the destruction of some old greenhouses containing a few potted plants when the alternative is a spanking new tennis stadium helping to secure a prestigious Grand Slam tennis tournament in the city and the possibility of hosting the Olympic Games?
I suppose some ‘suit’ somewhere has done the calculation: the cost-benefit analysis of keeping or losing a Grand Slam tournament, appeasing corporate sponsors, gaining or losing an Olympic bid, the prestige to the city, the country and of course, to the politicians. It will also be blindingly obvious to our ‘suit’ that there is no long-term monetary cost at all to disfiguring the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil. After all, a single ticket to the French Open costs between €55 and €2,200 depending on which day and which package you choose (and will no doubt increase substantially when the new facilities are opened) whereas entry to the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil is currently free. And as a bonus, we will close the entire garden to the general public for the duration of the French Open tournament and reserve it exclusively for our paying customers. What’s not to like?
And when it comes down to it, that’s the problem. Costs are easily measured whereas value is intangible and elusive.
How do you compare the value of an 18th century garden, its original 19th century architectural features and its horticultural collection, not to mention the pleasure it gives to those who visit it, to the money making machine that is the Stade Roland Garros and the French Open tennis championships? Does one have greater value than the other? Should the lust for prestige and profit defeat the preservation of heritage?
And to argue, as some do, that only a part of the garden is affected so it doesn’t matter all that much, is akin to arguing that someone is just ‘a little bit pregnant’!
Whatever we might think about this garden and the development taking place there, it seems that the Fédération Française de Tennis, assisted by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and the courts have served an unplayable ace and the umpire has finally called ‘Game, Set and Match’!
TRAWLING THROUGH MY Twitter feed the other day I came upon this photograph by Eugène Atget made in 1898 entitled ‘La Place Saint-Médard’.
La Place Saint-Médard by Eugène Atget 1898
The original photograph is an 18.1 x 21.9 cm albumen print created from a finely divided silver and gold image dispersed in a matrix of egg white. Albumen prints were the most common photographic printing process from 1855 until around the turn of the nineteenth century.
This Atget image chimes with me because I know this area of Paris particularly well, but when I saw the photograph I was struck by two things: First, the title, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’, and second, what did this place sound like in 1898?
The title of the photograph, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ is curious because that name does not exist in this spot today and, so far as I know, it never has. I can quite see why Eugène Atget might have thought that the space he photographed bore that name: It is at the foot of rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris dating back to Roman times and it is adjacent to the Eglise Saint-Médard whose origins date back to the 7th century. The space that Atget photographed does have the attributes of a typical Parisian ‘Place’ but as far as I can establish it is, and in Atget’s time was, part of rue Mouffetard.
Eugène Atget’s ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ on December 24th 2016
So what did Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ sound like in 1898?
Thanks to his large-format wooden bellows camera, rapid rectilinear lens and glass plates we know what Atget saw as he stood in this place but we have no record of what he actually heard.
And that’s not surprising because for most of our history we have used artefacts, architecture, pictures and words to create a vision of our past. It’s only in the last few seconds on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sound, which means that almost all our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded.
We could create a late nineteenth century soundscape of this place from our imagination of course and we might not be too wide of the mark, but we cannot create the actual sounds in that place on that day.
I admire enormously Eugène Atget’s painstaking documentation of a nineteenth-century Paris undergoing great change and I consider it a great privilege to follow in his footsteps documenting contemporary Paris in sound.
Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ – Recorded on December 24th 2016:
A Christmas Eve queue for the boulangerie close to Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’
WHEN AN URBAN LANDSCAPE changes it seems everyone has an opinion about it but when the accompanying soundscape changes very few seem to notice.
In a city like Paris where the soundscape is dominated by a blanket of noise pollution caused by incessant traffic one might assume that a change to the landscape, unless it involves a major re-routing of traffic, is unlikely to make much difference to the soundscape. But to the attentive listener there are examples where a change to the soundscape can change the character of a place just as much as a change to its landscape.
A development in rue Dénoyez in the east of Paris is one such example.
Once a very run down part of the commune of Belleville in the east of Paris, Rue Dénoyez was revived in the second half of the twentieth century with the arrival of artists who saw the decaying walls and empty shop fronts as a huge canvas upon which to display their talents turning the street into a constantly changing plein-air art gallery.
The commune of Belleville is particularly sound rich and so I go there frequently to capture different aspects of the multi-cultural soundscape and each time I go I call into rue Dénoyez to watch and listen to the artists at work.
When I went there two years ago, in November 2014, I discovered that under the banner ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – ‘Save rue Dénoyez’, a petition had been drawn up to challenge a plan by the local authority to demolish part of rue Dénoyez and replace the artists’ workshops and galleries with subsidised housing and a community centre.
The development proposal called for the buildings between N°18 bis and N° 22 bis to be demolished and replaced with 18 subsidised housing units and a crèche as well as the redevelopment of N° 24 and N° 26 rue Dénoyez and N°10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre.
Despite the petition opposing the development receiving 10,000 signatures in six months, the work was slated to begin in the summer of 2015.
Rue Dénoyez – November 2014
The petition was organised from here in part of the street scheduled for demolition and redevelopment
Any project mired in French bureaucracy is likely to remain there for a very long time, but when I called into rue Dénoyez in July this year I found that, although the work hadn’t yet begun, the artists’ studios and galleries were empty and shuttered and the emergence of ominous looking green barriers seemed a portent of imminent construction, or more appropriately, destruction.
Rue Dénoyez – July 2016
Fast forward to November this year, last week in fact: now the wrecking ball has done its work and the artists’ studios and galleries have disappeared to be replaced by a slash in the landscape.
Rue Dénoyez – November 2016
Knowing rue Dénoyez as well as I do, I must admit that seeing this new landscape for the first time came as a shock – more of a shock than I’d expected actually – and it took a while for me to absorb the dramatic change of scene.
Of course, this slash in the landscape is only temporary – the gap will be filled by the new housing project, but for me as an archivist of the contemporary soundscapes of Paris the transience of this gap is important because not only does it change the soundscape of the street but it also gives us a hint of what the future soundscape of rue Dénoyez may be.
I decided to capture the soundscape of rue Dénoyez complete with its new, temporary, gap.
Rue Dénoyez – A Soundwalk:
I began my soundwalk at the south-east end of rue Dénoyez, the opposite end from the demolition site. The sounds of dry autumn leaves scudding along the road, a young man firing up his motorcycle, footsteps passing, doors opening and closing, children making for the local piscine and neighbours gossiping filled the air in this part of the street much as they had before.
But as I approached the north-western end of the street and the slash in the landscape (8’ 51” into my soundwalk), the soundscape in rue Dénoyez changed noticeably from what it had been two years ago. Instead of the sound of artists at work shaking their aerosol cans filled with paint and spectators watching and commentating with their cameras clicking, now there was now an eerie quiet broken only by the distant sound of a crow and the rather melancholy sound of a dilapidated washing machine being hauled over the pavé.
To compare the sounds of rue Dénoyez as it was before the demolition with what it is now, listen the last four minutes or so of my recent soundwalk recorded at the demolition site and then listen to the sounds recorded in the same place in 2014:
Sounds in rue Dénoyez 2014:
And the change to the landscape is not yet finished. The building below, until recently a bistro, on the corner of rue Dénoyez and Rue de Belleville is to be redeveloped into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre thus changing both the landscape and the soundscape even further.
I began by saying that when an urban landscape changes it seems everyone has an opinion about it but when the accompanying soundscape changes very few seem to notice, and this is certainly true of the development in rue Dénoyez. The demolition work in the street is impossible to miss and no doubt everyone has an opinion about it but the change to the accompanying soundscape is subtle and requires both attentive listening and a knowledge of the street as it once was to recognise that there has been a change.
My sonic exploration of places in Paris usually consists of hunting out two types of sounds: the ‘characteristic’ sounds, the everyday sounds that exist in a place but are not necessarily unique to it, and then the ‘unique’ sounds, the sounds that actually define or help to define a place.
In its prime, rue Dénoyez had its ‘characteristic’ everyday sounds but more importantly it had ‘unique’ sounds – the sounds of artists at work shaking their aerosol cans filled with paint, which occasionally exploded, and the sounds of spectators watching, commentating and clicking their cameras. These were the sounds that defined the street.
Once the housing development is completed perhaps the everyday sounds of the street will not change all that much – dry autumn leaves will still scud along the road, footsteps will still pass, doors will still open and close, children will still make for the local piscine and neighbours will still gossip in the street, but what about the ‘unique’ sounds, the sounds that once defined this street?
The local authority say they will leave some space for plein-air art in the street but with the artists’ studios and galleries now demolished it seems the artistic soul of the street together with its once unique soundscape have been lost.
But at least I have the sounds of rue Dénoyez in its heyday safely in my archive – although now in the ‘Vanishing Sounds’ section.
THE ENGLISH WORD ‘square’ has been adopted by the French to describe a particular type of open space.
A Parisian ‘square’ is typically a small urban green space not large enough to be called a parc (the grassy variety) or a bois (the wooded variety) and not sufficiently formal in its plantings to be called a jardin.
There are a large number of squares dotted throughout the twenty arrondissements of Paris each of which offers the opportunity to escape, if only momentarily, from the urban environment and to partake of air and light. Sadly though, few Parisian squares are completely free from the noise pollution create by endless traffic.
Opened in 1857, the Square du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement is one of the squares created by Jean-Charles Alphand, directeur de la voie publique et des promenades de la Ville de Paris, during Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris in the late nineteenth-century.
The Square occupies part of the the site of a medieval fortress built by the Knights Templar in 1290. Covering some 130 hectares, the fortress or, l’enclos du Temple, featured a number of buildings important to the running of the Knights Templar Order including a church, a massive turreted keep known as the Grosse Tour (great tower), and a smaller tower called Tour de César (Caesar’s Tower).
Parts of the fortress were used as a prison during the French revolution. Louis XVI was a prisoner here from 13th August 1792 to 21st January 1793, before being taken to the guillotine and Marie Antoinette was here from 13th August 1792 to 1st August 1793 before being taken to the Conciergerie, from where she too went to the guillotine.
After the revolution, l’enclos du Temple become a place of pilgrimage for royalists so, in 1808, Napoleon I ordered its demolition. The final remnants were demolished around 1860 under Napoleon III.
Sounds in the Square du Temple:
Today, at the eastern end of the Square du Temple, also standing on part of the former l’enclos du Temple, is the majestic Marie du III Arrondissement, the local town hall.
While at the north-eastern end is the Carreau du Temple, originally a covered market built in 1863 but now a multipurpose space with a 250-seat auditorium along with sports and cultural facilities, including a recording studio.
I visited this typical Parisian square on a sunny, mid-October afternoon and, along with the lawns, the pond with its artificial waterfall tricking over rocks imported from the forest of Fontainebleau and the chestnut, Turkish hazel and Japanese Sophora trees, I found the sounds of children dominating the soundscape.
These sounds seemed especially poignant when I came upon this:
It’s a monument, inaugurated on 26th October 2007, carrying the names and ages of ‘87 tout-petits n’ont pas eu le temps de frequenter une ecole’: 87 Jewish toddlers aged from 2 months to 6 years living in the 3rd arrondissement who were deported from Paris between 1942 and 1944 and subsequently exterminated at Auschwitz.
Ne les oublions jamais.
Paris (IIIrd arrondissement). The Square du Temple around 1900. Auteur © Léon et Lévy / Roger-Viollet
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
FOR THE LAST eight years I’ve been recording and archiving the contemporary soundscapes of Paris. Searching for and capturing the sounds of this city is a fascinating occupation; it has taught me how to listen attentively to the city, it has taken me to places I would never otherwise have visited and it has introduced me to some fascinating people I would have never otherwise have met.
But it’s done more than that. Aware that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, I am always thinking about the social, cultural and historical context of the sounds I find and that has taught me how to explore and appreciate the rich history, complexity and diversity that is Paris.
For example, on Saturday I was exploring the sounds at La Plaine de Saint-Denis on the northern outskirts of the city. Although Saint-Denis and neighbouring Aubervilliers are two of the poorest communes around Paris, La Plaine Saint-Denis has become a vast media city, home to TV giants like Euro Media, Endemol and the Parc E.M.G.P with it’s 12 television studios where some of France’s most popular TV programmes are made.
But had I not been exploring the soundscape around les plateaux de télévision I would never have discovered this:
This is a former station of the Chemin de Fer de la Plaine de Saint-Denis et d’Aubervilliers, part of a 15 km industrial railway network comprising 13 tracks of 200 to 250 meters each, opened by the Riffaud-Civet Company in 1884. The first wagons on this railway were pulled by horses.
And had I not been exploring the soundscape around La Plaine de Saint-Denis I would never have discovered this alien looking building:
This I discovered is the recently opened Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord, a research institute specialising in cultural industries, health and society, globalisation and contemporary cities.
I’ve made a note to seek permission to explore the sounds in the undergrowth at the base of this architectural spaceship.
Having made this foray to La Plaine de Saint-Denis in the far north of Paris, I decided to board Métro Line 12 and travel the 40-minute journey to Issy les Moulineaux on the southern outskirts of the city. There was continuity to my thinking because Issy les Moulineaux boasts more plateaux de télévision; it is home to the TV channels, Eurosport, the Canal + Group and France 24.
Like La Plaine de Saint-Denis, Issy les Moulineaux is a place I have visited before but never really explored.
On Saturday, the first thing I encountered was a statue of General (posthumously Maréchal) Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, or simply le maréchal Leclerc or just Leclerc as he’s best known. Leclerc and his 2nd Armoured Division liberated Paris in August 1944 and it was to Leclerc that the last commander of Nazi occupied Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered on 25th August.
Although Leclerc’s bust was the first thing I encountered when I arrived in Issy les Moulineaux, I would have missed it completely had I not been on my way to record the sounds of the fountain behind the Hôtel de Ville.
After a day’s walking, a bumpy 40-minute Métro ride across Paris (all of which I recorded for my Paris Soundscapes Archive) and several hours of concentrated listening I decided it was time for a visit to a café, the Comptoir d’Issy, for a coffee and well-earned rest.
But even there I couldn’t resist working. I just had to record the sounds in the Comptoir d’Issy to add to my already enormous collection of Parisian café sounds.
But while I was doing that I spied something that caught my imagination.
Sounds in the Comptoir d’Issy:
I know very little about clocks but my first impression was that this one on the wall of the Comptoir d’Issy looked rather like a station clock. Fortunately, there was a clue – the name Paul Garnier on the clock face.
I was anxious to know more so I consulted the lady who lives in my iPhone and in un clin d’œil she revealed that Jean-Paul Garnier, known as Paul Garnier (1801-1869), was a Horloger et Mecanicien a Paris, a Parisian watch and clock maker who, amongst many other things, provided all railway stations in France with station clocks!
Paul Garnier was a member of the French Society of Civil Engineers and also a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. He was honoured for his work on electromagnetic telegraph clocks and, in 1861, he was chosen by the French government to make proposals for the development of the watch industry. He donated his entire collection of watches and clocks to the Musée du Louvre where he has a room named after him. He died in 1869 and is buried in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.
The purpose of my expedition on Saturday was to explore the soundscapes in parts of Paris that I’ve visited but haven’t really explored before. I spent many hours listening and much less time recording. As I get older, I listen more and record less.
But exploring these unfamiliar soundscapes also inspired me to explore my surroundings and helped me to not only put the sounds into context but also to discover new things – things that I would probably never have discovered had it not been for the sounds that surround them.
THE TEMPLE DE LA SIBYLLE may not be the highest point in Paris but it does sit atop a man-made cliff fifty metres above an artificial lake in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Inspired by the Temple of Vesta near Rome, the Temple de la Sibylle is the central feature of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a park opened in 1867 for the recreation and pleasure of the rapidly growing population of the then new 19th and 20th arrondissements of Paris, which had been annexed to the city in 1860.
Situated close to the former Gibet de Montfaucon, the gallows and gibbet of the Kings of France where, up until 1760, the bodies of executed criminals were left hanging as a warning to the public, the site on which the Parc des Buttes Chaumont now stands became, after the 1789 Revolution, a refuse dump and then a place for cutting up horse carcasses and a depository for sewage.
Fascinating as this is, I will leave a more detailed exploration of the park with its former gypsum and limestone quarries, its temple, its lawns, its lake and its grotto for another time. In this post I want to explore something different.
For several years I’ve been visiting the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, partly because it’s a nice place but more importantly because it’s a place that has become a focus for a particularly challenging aspect of my work.
I record urban soundscapes, particularly the soundscapes of Paris, and I’ve learned a lot about how to record urban soundscapes by studying the philosophy, images and techniques of great photographers.
The best photographers seem to be able to condense wisdom into succinct sentences:
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
– Ansel Adams
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
– Robert Frank
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
– Robert Capa
Although the context of these quotations is of course photography they apply equally to sound recording and particularly to the recording of urban soundscapes.
Robert Capa’s dictum, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’, is especially relevant to my work. Key to recording urban soundscapes is to become part of the soundscape without changing the soundscape, in other words to get close to the sounds without changing the overall soundscape. Over the years, and after much trial and error, I’ve developed techniques for doing this.
But there remains a challenge in my urban soundscape recording work that is not covered by Robert Capa’s dictum, in fact it’s the antithesis of it, and it’s a challenge that I’ve been trying to address in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
This is the view over the 19th arrondissement from the Temple de la Sibylle on top of the cliff in the park. The lake is 50 metres below the Temple and the tower blocks in the distance are 1.5 km away.
Although my photograph is unlikely to win any prizes it does I hope reflect the prospect from the Temple de la Sibylle along the Avenue de Laumière to the tower blocks at La Villette. The picture has a sense of perspective with the lake and its surrounding path in the foreground, the road crossing from left to right and the start of the Avenue de Laumière in the centre, the tower blocks in the distance and the hill beyond in the far distance.
My challenge is: how to capture the soundscape associated with an image that took 1/250th of a second to make, which stretches from 50 metres below me to over 1.5 km ahead of me. In other words: how to capture in sound the elusive concept of perspective.
With today’s sophisticated technology it’s possible to manipulate sounds in post-production to create almost any effect you want. But despite all the gadgetry, perspective remains perhaps the only thing that cannot be created in post-production; it has to be captured on location in real time.
If you listen to wildlife recordings you will often hear wonderful examples of perspective captured in sound but capturing perspective in a busy urban environment is an enormous challenge.
Getting Things in Perspective:
This recording is a 20-minute sonic exposure of the scene looking out over the 19th arrondissement recorded from the edge of the cliff directly in front of the Temple de la Sibylle. Whereas Robert Capa’s dictum would require me to be close to the sounds, here I am doing the opposite – attempting to capture a sense of perspective by recording from a distance.
I chose to make this recording in the middle of a weekday afternoon – exactly the wrong time one might argue to achieve a ‘perfect’ recording. It would surely have been better to record at six o’clock in the morning as the area was waking up or at eleven o’clock at night as it was going to sleep. Well, apart from the fact that the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is closed at those times, it depends upon what one means by a ‘perfect’ recording.
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”, Ansel Adams tells us and, in the context of my work in Paris, ‘perfect’ recordings are a fuzzy concept. The Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be, so I try to make good recordings of course, but I’m much more interested in capturing reality than perfection.
Robert Frank suggests that, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks” – good advice that translates well to the world of sound recording. I usually describe myself as a ‘professional listener’ rather than a sound recordist. Time spent listening before pressing the ‘Record’ button is always time well spent.
While hearing is instinctive, listening is an art that has to be learned and while my recording from the Temple de la Sibylle may seem to be dominated by the ribbon of traffic passing across the centre of the scene, attentive listening will reveal much more.
People it seems are wedded to their motorcars so, like in most cities, traffic overwhelms most of the streets of this city. The Mayor of Paris is trying to alleviate this to some extent but I fear she is facing an uphill struggle. In the meantime, the sound of traffic will continue to dominate the Parisian soundscape and subjugate pedestrians to unacceptable levels of noise and noxious pollution. As I said earlier, the Parisian soundscape is what it is, and not always as ‘perfect’ as I would like it to be!
But underneath the ribbon of traffic other sounds are fighting to be heard.
The sound of ducks in the lake below me can be heard throughout the piece, as can a distant church clock sounding three o’clock and an even more distant church bell chiming.
A testosterone fuelled young man makes an appearance to my right shouting to his friend on the far side of the park, there are the obligatory sirens, this time from the red ambulances of the sapeurs-pompiers de Paris, and in the far distance the very faint sound of a car alarm.
But perhaps the most surprising thing in the piece is one of the shortest and quietest sounds. It occurs twelve minutes into the piece and it’s the sound of an angler sitting on the bank of the lake fifty metres below me reeling in a fish. The sound only lasts for six seconds (it must have been a very small fish) so don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
This recording is one of many I’ve made from the hills in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont over the years attempting to capture the perspective looking out over the 19th arrondissement.
All the recordings are different but so far none of them have quite managed to capture the idyllic perspective I have in my imagination. Chasing that ideal continues to be a challenge – but that’s why it’s so endlessly fascinating.
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
– Elliott Erwitt
Judging an appropriate level to listen to sounds can be a tricky business. As a guide, the traffic at the head of the Avenue de Laumière was approximately 500 metres from my recording position so the level that you listen to these sounds at should reflect that. Less is more!
I LAST FEATURED rue Dénoyez, the plein air art gallery in the 20th arrondissement, in this blog in November 2014. At that time, under the banner ‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – Save rue Dénoyez, a petition had been drawn up to challenge a plan by the local authority to demolish part of rue Dénoyez and replace the artists’ workshops and galleries with subsidised housing and a community centre.
‘Sauvons la rue Dénoyez’ – November 2014
The other day, I went back to rue Dénoyez to see what has happened since I was last there.
Rue Dénoyez – July 2016
The development proposal calls for the buildings between N°18 bis and N° 22 bis to be demolished and replaced with 18 subsidised housing units and a crèche as well as the redevelopment of N° 24 and N° 26 rue Dénoyez and N°10 Rue de Belleville into 29 subsidised housing units and a community centre.
Despite the petition opposing the development receiving 10,000 signatures in six months it seems the project is still going ahead.
Although the demolition work was due to have been completed by April this year I found that little seems to have happened so far except that the occupants have left and the buildings stand hauntingly empty.
Undaunted though, I found one street artist still leaving his mark.
A soundwalk in rue Dénoyez:
At the end of my soundwalk I came upon a man who had lived in rue Dénoyez in the early 1970s and he reflected upon life here in those days.
If all goes to plan, work on the new development will be completed in the spring of 2018.
While new social housing is to be welcomed one can’t help feeling that some of the character of this unique street will be lost in the process. As the man who spoke to me said, “il faut que ça change”.
You can see the presentation prepared by the local authority about the new development here.