While paintings and fossil records can present a tactile, visual, and even olfactory sense of a space’s history, sound is generally assumed to be lost forever. But of course, a large part of any landscape is sound — its constant presence and even its absence. For historians, this sound factor is a tricky thing to contend with; after all, you have to not just pick a place, but also a moment in time.
And musicologist Myléne Pardoen chose Paris, assembling a soundscape of Paris in 1739:
So far as personal projects go, “reviving the soundscapes of 18th century Paris” is pretty niche. But the amount of research that goes into putting together this kind of historical reenactment is immense — Pardoen and her team used everything from old architectural evidence to eyewitness reports of the city during the time to 3D modeling to piece together a vision of a city that’s markedly different from the Paris we know and love today.
Though the year may seem arbitrary — after all, wouldn’t Paris probably sound similar throughout at least a decade — but it’s based on the Turgot map of Paris, one of the first detailed maps of the city as it existed between 1732-1736. In order to most accurately draw out the city’s sonic details, Pardoen and her team also needed a good marker of the actual topography of the city. Then, they zeroed on in a specific district, taking pains to distinguish soundscapes for even different parts of their designated district, Grand Châtelet.
Of course, the question behind this incredible academic feat: What’s to be gained from preserving a city’s historical soundscape? It’s not that 18th-century Paris is any more or less important of such a soundscape than any other, but that it’s an easy jumping off point for an entire field of projects that are arduous to undertake, but vital for urban planners and historians in examining not just how people lived, but how these cities lived. Very few spaces look, let alone sound the same, in the span of a few years, and if the trend toward recording cities now had existed in the past, who knows what else we might’ve learned about the world that was, and what might that information have taught us about the world we live in now.
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