Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

04 August 2010

A useful fantasy

STREET RECORDING HAS fascinated me for longer than I can remember. The fascination is rooted in the attempt to capture that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed. The phrase is not mine but that of Robert Doisneau, the great French street photographer, who also said, “There are days when simply seeing feels like happiness itself . . . You feel so rich, the elation seems almost excessive and you want to share it”. Substitute “listening” for “seeing” and that’s pretty much how I feel about street recording.

I have a fantasy. I want to sit outside the Café Séverin on the corner of the Place Saint-Michel and point a microphone down the narrow street, the rue de la Huchette. I will record the sounds of that street for twenty-four hours. I will then turn the clock back ten years and do another twenty-four hour recording from the same place. I will turn the clock back again another ten years and so on until I find myself recording the same street a hundred years ago.

A street which is now a bustling tourist trap full of bars, restaurants, kebab shops and expensive beer, would have been very different then although the buildings would have been more or less the same as they are today. A hundred years ago the rue de la Huchette was also a bustling place comprising two hotels, the Hôtel du Caveau and the Hôtel Normandie, three butchers one of which was a horse butcher, a newspaper shop, a taxidermist, a bookbinder, a yarn and thread shop, a dairy, a bakery, a draper, a barber, a laundry, a grocery shop, a goldfish shop, a music shop, a doctor, a dentist and inevitably, a bordel. Then, as now, a whole community lived in the apartments above the shops.

And what would I learn from this fantasy, from this gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed? I would learn much, not only about the sounds of the rue de la Huchette over a hundred years, but how those sounds have changed and evolved. I would have recorded a changing and evolving atmosphere and sense of place. I would learn how life was lived in that street then, compared to how it is lived now. I would learn that the bordel is now a kebab shop. I would have brought the rue de la Huchette to life in a way that no photograph could. I would have recorded a living social history and, given what has happened over the last hundred years, a National history too.

My fantasy of course will never see the light of day. But if the street recordings I and thousands of other people make today serve as a valuable, living, social history for historians and even sound enthusiasts in a hundred years time then our efforts will have been more than rewarded.

Robert Doisneau was quite right, “You feel so rich, the elation seems almost excessive and you want to share it”.

Des Coulam writes the Soundlandscapes blog at