“Noise is to sound what weeds are to flowers” said Des from the Soundlandscapes blog when we were working together on a project earlier this year. I had made the mistake of saying that we needed to record some ‘noises’ rather than ‘sounds’, and he quickly put me in my place.
However, as we began recording the sounds of the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, it soon became evident that noise was in the air too. The périphérique motorway was in earshot, and its dull constant rumble was polluting the natural rustles and chirps of the garden.
The delicate distinction between a noise and a sound once again popped its head up recently with the launch of a new website in Paris: http://www.bruitparif.fr/en.
Offering live information on noise levels in the capital through a series of brightly coloured maps and charts. It’s almost like a child’s game, but the subject itself is very serious. “Noise is a very significant source of annoyance in Ile-de-France (the Paris region) due to the high concentration of housing and the exceptional density of transportation infrastructures” announces instantly the homepage of the site. “Among disturbances of quality of life” it continues, “noise is the first nuisance mentioned”.
The website was created by Bruitparif, a non-profit organisation which aims to fight against noise in the Paris region. Two kinds of maps can be found on the site. A static map which paints the historic noise hotspots across the city (the darker the colour, the higher the decibels), and a series of live charts from active captors in experimental zones (for example next to motorways and train lines, and more interestingly, near the bars of the Rue Amelot).
Walking through this polychrome city is an interesting experience, and one which offers many surprises. Seine-side apartments may be amongst the most expensive in Paris, but they are also situated in areas of deep purple. Indeed, it seems that the richer areas to the west and south are globally noisier than their more popular eastern and northern neighbours.
The périphérique is unsurprisingly a river of purple surrounding the city, and cemeteries and hospitals large patches of peaceful whites.
The message vehiculed by this site seems to be that all noise is bad. Nobody, it seems, likes a noise, but sounds – music, wind in the leaves, bird song, gently trickling streams – are universal pleasures. So when does a sound become a noise?
The French national organisation for standardisation (AFNOR) gives an official definition, stating that ‘tout son inopportun est un bruit’ (all inappropriate sounds are noise). However, this description seems both vague and arbitrary.
For Des, a sound obsessive who spends much of his time today trying to capture the most atmospheric of them around Paris, “noise is simply sound in the wrong place and usually in the wrong quantity”. It's an attractive, succinct description, but one that also seems to reflect his worries as a technician.
In a city of 2 million people, our personal conceptions of sound will never be entirely shared. The sounds that give us the most pleasure in life - conversation, laughter, music - can also seep into other people's lives and become life-ruining noise. Finding the right balance is probably the most important cement of all in any city, and it is the job of this organisation to see where in the city the equilibrium is leaning dangerously towards noise. For if there is too much noise, nobody will be able to take pleasure from sounds.
Click here for the noise maps.
Click here for the Rumeur live measurement service.