The Man Who Records Paris

The Man Who Records Paris

When Briton Des Coulam retired five years ago, he did as most of us would do—he devoted himself to an activity in which he felt most passionate.  What makes him different from most of us is that the activity that he chose is in a little-known field called acoustic ecology. Within this field, he dedicated himself to a specialty called soundscape studies, the recording of sound emitted by a particular environment. The environment that he chose to record was the city of Paris, the setting that he has been living in for the past fifteen years.

Coulam spends about four days a week strolling around Paris listening for sounds to record, particularly those that are representative of the neighborhood in which he finds himself. Although his interest in the different types of sounds that the city produces is broad, he is particularly fascinated by the sounds of the metro. He knows, for example, that the current MF 67 trains on Line 5 have been in service for over forty years and that they are gradually being replaced by a new model, the MF 2000. The new train will forcibly produce a different auditory effect, so Coulam determined that he should record the sounds of the old train before it is taken out of service.  At the Quai de la Rapée station he alternately stood on both platforms to record the sound of the trains’ squeaky wheels as they entered and left the station.  He also recorded the sounds of the trains ascending and descending the helicoidal curve that leads to the Viaduc d’Austerlitz, the bridge that spans the Seine.

Coulam finds the music of street musicians particularly enchanting. Click the following link, and listen to a recording of two jazz guitarists in a bistro on rue de la Roquette:

On March 23 of this year, ten new bells were installed in the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral.  Coulam was there to record the event!

To record the sounds of the city faithfully, Coulam had to learn how to listen acutely, to immerse himself in the sounds, and to be discreet. He learned that if people see him carrying a large, furry microphone and a large sound recorder in an over-the-shoulder bag, they will change their behavior and modify their sounds.

Coulam is gradually passing his sounds to a Paris soundscapes collection in the British Library Sound Archive, in London. During February 15th – 16th, the library hosted a two-day symposium on field recording.  A recording of Coulam’s presentation can be found here:

Des Coulam has a blog and website on which he shares his comments, photographs, and soundscape recordings: His sounds have been broadcast on BBC Worldwide and various radio stations around the world.


Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

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