Quick—what do you hear at this very moment? Is it the voices of people you love or the click of a keyboard or the buzz of a cell phone? Whatever it is, the soundscape is ephemeral. Unless, of course, you decide to click the record button, making the sounds live on forever. Before the rise of modern technology though, everyday noise was impossible to capture. Now one musicologist is working to change that, reports Laure Cailloce for CNRS News. She's reconstructing something that simply can’t be heard anymore: the sound of 18th-century Paris.
Her name is Myléne Pardoen, and her sonic reconstruction of Paris’ Grand Châtelet district in 1739 is the result of a collaboration between scholars from disciplines ranging from history to sociology to 3D representation. Pardoen tells Cailloce that she chose the district because it had a large concentration of the era’s background sounds, from tradespeople to the echoes captured in its unique architecture.
Pardoen and her team used everything from historical research to architectural measurements of the size and properties of bridges and tunnels to eyewitness, contemporary accounts of the city. The scholars selected 1739 because it was a convenient year to study—it was when Paris’ mayor commissioned a birds-eye view of the city that became one of the most famous maps of Paris. It’s so detailed that it gave plenty of clues on architecture and potential sounds to the team.
As the video shows, Paris of 1739 was quite different from the capital city today. At the time, it was transitioning between Paris of old and new after a restoration effort by Louis XIV, who constructed many squares and monuments in an effort to modernize the city. “Paris is the world,” playwright Pierre Carlet de Marivaux wrote of that era, "Next to it, all other cities seem mere suburbs."
Despite its centrality in Europe, the city still had plenty of dark corners and almost medieval qualities—prostitutes and pickpockets mixed with poets, painters, and merchants in a city rife with second-hand stores, stables and dwellings grand and humble.
In case you think that the sounds were computer-generated, don’t: As Cailloce notes, only the sound of the Notre Dame pump was computer-generated, and even it was based on the sound of an actual pump that drew water from a river. By capturing the sounds of a bygone past, Pardoen and her colleagues are doing what urban planners are now trying to do before city sounds fade away forever. The attempt may be retroactive, but it’s no less fascinating—and it might even make you want to savor the sounds of this moment more.