“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but the answer it gives to a question of yours.”Italo Calvino
All cities have a sound. All villages and squares, all roads and hilltops, all walks along the quai, and market day rambles. It’s easy to discount it as ‘noise’, or block it out altogether, familiarity breeding consent.
Changing trains at Strasbourg-Saint-Denis for the number 4, I hold the hanging rail, Jess holds on to me – our standard arrangement on crowded trains. Nearing the platform the soundtrack starts. Literally…the soundtrack. There’s a very good accordionist playing the main theme from Yann Tiersen’s score to “Amélie”, all minor notes, swirling and swooping in a graceful-bouncy-haunting music that crystallizes the moment, makes the camera pan in my head, saturates colors and glues my hand to my wife’s. It is obvious (to me). It is clichéd (sort-of). It is perfect (absolutely).
I had liked it immensely in the film, but here, beneath the streets of Paris, in the rush and rumble, clatter-clack of late day commute, echoing down the tunnel…Tiersen’s plaintive genius practically envelopes you. You’re not sure what you’re nostalgic for, but you are – you’re not sure what you’re looking forward to, but you do. The night is rife with adventure. We smile and enjoy, and almost (no, not almost, definitely) reluctantly board the next train – as the doors close, it’s muffled, then it fades, feeling like the station and the music are pulling away from us, rather than vice-versa. Crowded, standing, hanging, holding.
And it got me thinking about the music of Paris. Like any city, we all have soundtracks in our heads, and Paris is no different. Some we bring with us, others literally come with the territory. There are a LOT of accordionists in Paris. All of them have learned to play ‘La Vie en Rose’, and admittedly, it is a pretty damn good underscore for walking across the city’s bridges in the evening, or morning, or under rain-glazed streetlamps. You hear it a lot, and it doesn’t really get old. Sometimes two musicians will team up and play a sort of ‘Dueling Vie’. There’s a guy on the Pont de l’Archevêché who’s added the Godfather theme to his repertoire, and an intensely cool half-step down version of ‘Forget your Troubles, C’mon get Happy’, which transforms this normally peppy paean into a somewhat ominous nightmare tumble. There’s the violinist who’s claimed the Northeast corner of Square Jean XXIII, behind Notre Dame, who melds solid classical technique with manouche gypsy wailing. There’s the unpredictable guy who plays the splintered and weatherworn upright piano that he wheels around, and who looks astonishingly like a crazed Anthony Hopkins in Greek fisherman’s hat – his honky-tonk just this side of out-of-tune, manic, and strangely original.
Paris is a city that it’s almost impossible to escape music in one form or another, whether it’s spilling out of a jazz café, or from your own inner sound studio. Picture Paris, and the distant (or not so distant) strains of something, something comes to mind. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of Sidney Bechet (“Si tu vois vois ma mère” ), and Duke Ellington (give his solo composition, ‘Looking Glass’ a listen, be prepared for a brief trip to a rainy, streaky-windowed, late-night café, and a little bit of perfection).
There’s the other score of the city – the motorcycles, the rumble of the metro, the fountains, and the motorcycles, the barges on the Seine, the occasional carousel, did I mention the motorcycles? On the first night we were in our new apartment after the second time we moved to Paris I remember lying in bed, and somewhere in the dark hours I heard a man’s voice cry out from….somewhere – within a block distant, “Oh God!” In English. I was a bit alarmed, was something wrong? But then, silence. A few minutes later, again, louder, “Oh GOD!” Although this time it began to seem less a distress call and more an exclamation of wonder. Several minutes and still again, loud and epiphanic, “OH GOD…I’M GAY!”. Apparently in Paris one can learn things about oneself.
And then there’s the sounds of our new city, Arles, so different from Paris. So different from the Ohio of my youth. When I was young summer was the time of construction, and the subdivision I lived in echoed with buzz-saws and the ‘thunk-thunk’ of hammers on wood, morphing over the years into the ‘kerchunk!’ of pneumatic nail guns, riding the scent of sweat and sawdust, playing counterpoint to lawnmowers and far-off trains, barking dogs and cries of “ollie, ollie, in come free!”. These days, in a town that’s carved from limestone, streets laid out in the days of Nero, the dominant sound is the metallic chink! of chisel on stone. In the mornings a chorus of creaking, clattering wooden shutters opening. During feria, there’s the staccato clopping of gypsy horses, the bellow of bulls. And the ultimate sound of a Provençal summer, instantly evocative to my mind, is the song of the cigale, or cicada – a buzz/clatter/hum of a thousand thousand tiny aliens spying unseen from the trees. In the winter it’s the howling rumble-rush of the Mistral, banging shutters, whistling in the cour (courtyard). There are honest-to-god organ grinders on occasion, one set up shop literally just outside of my wife’s office window a while back – one Edith Piaf tune cranked out, and he was gone, not quite sure why he chose this quiet voisinage to serenade, but grateful.
And it’s the sounds, the music, the strength of emotion that somehow strike a clichéd chord, as evocative as Proust’s madeleine, as unsettling as fresh grief, as raw as realization. It is entirely possible to be in a place, hear a swoop of accordion, the whisper-rush of violins….and be nostalgic for that same exact place, or maybe it’s the memory of a different you in a different time, or a potential you yet to come. In Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ Marco Polo describes one of many cities to Kublai Khan:
“When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isidora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives in Isidora in his old age. In in the square there is a wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.”
It can conjure up chasming loss, a time before loss, and that kernel of truth that exists between permanence and evanescence. It can pull wonder out of silence, joy out of despair, and fill all the dark spaces in between.
All cities have a sound. All villages and squares…