Monday, April 30, 2018

Hearing 18th Century Paris

Turgot-Bretez Map, 1739

Paris is one of the settings in Refiner’s Fire, and while researching the city, I came across the fascinating video below that recreates the background sounds of the 18th century city. It was created by French musicologist Mylène Pardoen for the Bretez Project, which was presented at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in 2015. In addition to recording historically accurate sounds, Pardoen worked with experts to carefully map out the old streets of Paris and combine the audio with the city’s historical context to create a 3-D rendering based on one of the best maps of the day, the Turgot-Bretez Map of 1739. Turgot was the provost of Paris merchants who commissioned the map, and Bretez was the engineer who directed the survey of the city.

Pardoen explains that they chose the Grand Châtelet district between the Pont au Change and Pont Notre Dame bridges because in the 18th century 80% of Paris’ background noise was concentrated there. Since there was no gas or electricity available back then, many artisans of luxury items, such as jewelers, engravers, and furriers established shops in this district to take advantage of the greater natural light along the river. The tall houses and narrow streets on either side of the bridges captured the sounds, creating a dense sound environment.

The soundscape is based on documents such as Le Tableau de Paris, published in 1781 by Louis-Sebastien Mercier and on works like those of Arlette Farge, who specialized on the history of the 18th century; Alain Corbin, who researched the history of the senses; and Youri Carbonnier, a recognized authority on houses built on bridges.

Joust of Mariners in Front of the Pont,
Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet
In the video you’ll hear 70 sonic tableaux, many created by trades such as shopkeepers, craftsmen, and boatmen. You’ll recognize the rhythmic whoosh of air as a blacksmith in his shop in a Paris alleyway stokes his fire with a bellows; roosters crowing in the distance and pigs squealing as they’re driven to market; the babble of conversation at the street markets; carriages rolling along cobbled streets, punctuated by the clopping of the horses’ hooves; the rush of the Seine, and the washerwomen working under the arches of the bridge; the hum of flies at the fishmongers’ stalls; the noise of the loom in the woolen mill that stood at one end of the Pont au Change; the scraping of hides in the tanneries on Rue de la Pelleterie; and type being set at the print shop on Rue de Gesvres. Overhead are the cries of the seagulls drawn to the city’s waste heaps. You’ll also be able to discern how sounds echo beneath bridges and in covered passageways and the effect produced by the varying heights and construction materials of the buildings.

View of Paris from the Pont Neuf,
Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet
According to Pardoen, most of the sounds are natural, with machine noises, for example, being recorded using authentic antique devices. However, the sound of the Notre Dame pump, which drew water from the Seine, had to be artificially recreated. Pardoen recorded an old-fashioned water mill and reworked the sound based on the estimated size of the pump’s vanes. “It is a research project that will continue to evolve,” Pardoen says. “The next step will be to include the machines and devices that are now missing from the image, and allow the ‘audience’ to stroll freely through the streets of the neighborhood.”

One thing I’d really love to have is a version that has English captions. That would really help non-French speakers like me in doing research.

I’d love to hear your reaction. What did you like best about the video, and what do you think of the sounds, the changing scenes? Did it help you to visualize a distant time and place in a new way? Please share your feedback!

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