Q&A with City of Noise author Aimee Boutin

boutin3Aimée Boutin teaches French literature and culture in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University. She answered some questions about her book City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris.

Q: What might one hear while walking down a 19th-century Parisian street?

Aimée Boutin: Nineteenth-century Parisian streets were very noisy. One might hear the rattle and clank of horse-drawn vehicles on rough stones, the calls of coachmen amid traffic noise, barking dogs, church bells ringing, boys shouting out the news, but some of the most distinctive sounds of Paris were the cries of small-scale tradespeople and the clamor of street musicians. Old-clothes-men sold second-hand clothing, glaziers peddled window panes, costermongers hawked fruits and vegetables, water-carriers and milkmaids broke the morning silence, violet sellers and chickweed vendors crooned meekly. Each had a distinctive cry designed to soar above the city din. Peddlers’ traditional cries were known as the Cris de Paris and had been celebrated as Paris’s sonorous blazon for centuries.
What one might hear would depend on the neighborhood where one strolled. In the medieval core of the old city, tradespeople peddled goods and services and their soaring voices could be heard equally well at street level or in top-floor garrets. On the Pont neuf, in the theater district along Boulevard du Temple, or on the Champs Élysées, one would be more likely to be deafened by street entertainers, organ grinders, and buskers. Boulevards were full of commotion and the calls of the orange seller or the grinding of the barrel organ would assault the ears of passersby.

Q: What types of primary sources did you use to reconstruct the soundscape of 19th-century Paris?

Boutin: To reconstruct the sounds of the city, the cultural historian of the senses must draw from a range of different sources including guidebooks, caricature and visual art, journalism, music criticism, poetry, and anti-noise legislation. I found literary guidebooks to be a rich source of information on the sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Paris. Foreign journalists such as John Sanderson in the 1830s or Rowland Strong in the 1910s left detailed accounts of their sensory impressions and confirmed what I found in French literary guidebooks inspired by Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Tableau de Paris. The most important of these guidebooks was the multivolume illustrated guide to (mostly) Parisian social types titled Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1840-42). The music critic Joseph Mainzer contributed a fascinating series of verbal sketches of peddlers replete with musical scores to this volume. Mainzer’s verbal sketches along with the visual sketches by caricaturists such as Gavarni and Bertall depicting the fragmentary sounds of the city were inspired by the multimodal genre of the Cris de Paris. The book reproduces several images from the graphic tradition of the Cris and references singer Dominique Visse and the Ensemble Clément Janequin’s recording of Renaissance and 19th to 21st-century Cris on the Harmonia Mundi label.

These often humorous sources from guidebooks and caricature complement the municipal ordinances on peddling that suggest changing social attitudes toward the volume of the streets—although no organized noise abatement campaign existed in nineteenth-century France. I also draw on poetry because it helps us make sense of the artistic potential of noise. The poetry of Charles Baudelaire and of other poets of the avant-garde provides an incisive critique of bourgeois attitudes to street noise and tradespeople. Even today, Baudelaire’s prose poem “The Bad Glazier” leaves few readers indifferent to its blaring window-bashing.

Q: What surprised visitors from other large cities about the sounds of Paris?

Boutin: Many visitors from other large cities were struck by what they perceived as the unceasing racket of the Cries of Paris. To them, peddlers’ vocalizations, in all different keys and in random order, sounded like a discordant charivari and caused disorientation. The shrillness of the Cries was a recurrent theme in both the writings of foreign visitors and of native Parisians. High pitched sound demands our attention and piercing catcalls that assailed passersby could be especially intrusive. Yet, a few visitors, especially toward the end of the century when nostalgia for pre-modern Paris set in, were charmed by the musical qualities of street cries which sounded like the soundtrack of Old Paris. Many writers at the turn of the century continued to filter their aural experiences through cultural memories of the Cris de Paris, even when it was less and less likely to hear the declining street trades.

Q: What was the role of the figure of the flâneur in 19th-century urban culture? How does it relate to the concept of the city as concert?

Boutin: A fixture of the literature on Paris, the flâneur leisurely strolled the streets attuned to all their sights and sounds. Walking in the city, as has often been stated, nurtures empiric observation and introspective thinking. Yet, the flâneur’s aural acuity has not been sufficiently emphasized in the traditional literature on flânerie. Sketches about the type in nineteenth-century French literary guidebooks frequently comment on what the flâneur hears as he stops to listen to street singers and musicians. The flâneur pays close attention to the city sounds that other urban dwellers tune out. The writings of Victor Fournel offer an especially rich treatment of the sensuality of flânerie. In City of Noise, I develop the trope of the city-as-concert to reflect the flâneur’s role as composer of the sounds of the city. Indeed, he (for the flâneur is typically male) orchestrates different sound cultures into a pleasing harmony inspired by the multimodal tradition of the Cris de Paris. Harmony attenuates discord and makes people believe in a conciliatory social order. As a trope, the city-as-concert can both foster complacency toward class conflict and heighten awareness to the sounds of those clashes.

Q: Who was Baron George-Eugene Haussmann?

Boutin: Baron George-Eugène Haussmann, prefect of the Seine under the Second Empire (1852–1870), is responsible for transforming the city of Paris under the behest of Napoleon III. To him we owe the wide boulevards, expansive crossroads, and vistas for which the city is known today. Although he adopted, adapted, and extended his predecessors’ policies and projects, “Haussmannization” was a comprehensive plan that left few aspects of urban planning untouched. He modernized the city’s sanitation systems, standardized its architecture, expanded parks and railroads, regulated circulation, and annexed the suburbs. To remake Paris into a modern metropolis, Haussmann ordered the destruction of the medieval core of the city and forced the poor who lived there to move to the outskirts. These transformations led to an overhaul of the sonic organization of the city.

Q: How did Haussmann’s renovations of Paris change the city’s soundscape?

Boutin: Although Haussmann is often remembered as the urban planner who transformed Paris into a spectacle that delights the eye of the flâneur, one can equally say that Haussmannization profoundly changed the city’s soundscape. The acoustic intimacy that once characterized Old Paris was destroyed with the narrow labyrinthine streets and crowded neighborhoods that sustained it. A combination of urban renewal that effected material changes to city space and social policy restricting the circulation of tradespeople hastened the decline of street commerce and toned down the volume of city noise. Increasingly bourgeois city dwellers expected quiet interiors and sought tranquility in public parks, such that over time Haussmann’s renovations of Paris had an impact on thresholds of intolerance for the intrusiveness of street noise.

Q: How did poets, musicians, and painters attempt to record the sounds of Paris’s street commerce in their art?

Boutin: City of Noise gave me the opportunity to reflect on the range of ways art can record and preserve sound in an era before audio recording. City noise was by no means a topic new to the nineteenth century. Rather, nineteenth-century treatments renew long-standing traditions dating back to the Roman poet Juvenal, the medieval poet Guillaume de la Villeneuve, and the Renaissance composer Clément Janequin—but they do so with a new sense of urgency and a new consciousness of the precariousness of the past.
Charles Baudelaire famously questioned how one might transpose street cries into poetry in the preface to his collection of prose poems. Two trends emerged from my research. Some poets and painters chose to harmonize the sounds of Paris treating peddlers with heart-warming sentimentality. The euphonious representations of the streets by Victor Fournel, Arsène Houssaye, Jean-François Raffaëlli or Fernand Pelez fueled the urban picturesque. The photography of Eugène Atget, while less out rightly mawkish than Pelez, also partakes of the desire to document and preserve the types and soundscapes of the past that motivated archivists and collectors of all things that recalled the Vieux Paris. Others, like Baudelaire and his followers, experimented with irony and parody to capture the jarring discordance of street noise. Modernist poems like “The Bad Glazier” or Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Poor Pale Child” discomfort by forcing us to realize that we cannot turn the ear like the eye away.

Today scholars continue to find innovative ways to hear anew the sounds of the past. The First Sounds Project aims to make the earliest attempts at audio reproduction accessible to twenty-first-century listeners. In a different vein, the multimedia Projet Bretez reconstructs the sounds of eighteenth-century Paris. It is fascinating to make connections between the attempts of writers, composers, and artists to record city noise with only words, notes, or images in nineteenth-century Paris, and the technology-enhanced soundwalks and phonography of contemporary sound artists available online at sites such as http://soundexplorations.blogspot.com/ and http://www.sensorystudies.org/sound-gallery/

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