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.

21 June 2011

Les Passages Couverts – English Style

I AM AN ENGLISHMAN living in Paris where I record sound. Most of my work involves capturing the street sounds of Paris but I do sometimes venture further afield.

Recently, I spent a long weekend in the north east of England partly to recharge my batteries and partly to record the sights and sounds of that delightful part of the world.

Northumbrian countryside

But while I was there, echoes of Paris were never far away. Sometime ago, I wrote a blog piece about les passages couverts, the wonderful early nineteenth-century Parisian arcades that first introduced the notion of primitive ‘shopping malls’ - a group of shops clustered together, inside and under cover. Delightful as these passage couverts are, they are not exclusive to Paris - they are to be found in England too.

Arcade picture 1

I discovered this one, the Central Arcade, whilst visiting Newcastle-upon-Tyne recently. It’s Edwardian, built in 1906, designed by Oswald and Son of Newcastle and I think equally as elegant as the Passage Verdeau or the Passage Jouffroy in Paris.

Arcade picture 2

What made the Central Arcade particularly special was the completely unexpected surprise I came upon whilst I was exploring it. In the arcade is one the UK’s longest established and largest music stores which goes by the unlikely name of JG Windows. It’s a veritable emporium of all things musical - acoustic and digital pianos, keyboards, synthesizers, electric, acoustic and classical guitars and much, much more.

Arcade picture 3

Stepping inside, I was delighted to find my sound of the day.

Inside JG Windows:

A man walked in off the street and sat down at an £8,000 digital piano. He put his briefcase down beside him and began playing. The lower register of the piano was transformed into a string bass for his left hand whilst his right hand caressed the piano sounds in the upper registers. I was transfixed. When he finished playing, he simply picked up his briefcase and left just as quickly as he came without speaking a word to anyone.

I couldn’t help wondering what his story was. Was he a frustrated musician who couldn’t afford an £8,000 digital piano? Maybe he was road testing it with a view to buying it – or maybe he just needed a musical fix before heading off for his next appointment. Who knows? Whatever his motivation the sound he made obviously pleased him … and it certainly pleased me.

What I took away from this was that, if we take the time to listen, there are captivating sounds to be found everywhere – in Paris, in London, and in Newcastle too.

Des Coulam has a passion for recording and preserving our sonic environment. He writes and records the Soundlandscapes blog at