A Tonmeister in Paris

Walking into a situation

I remember looking around at the tiny room I found myself in and thinking: “I like it”. It was my first apartment in the french capital. An airbnb for my first month, Januar, top floor, no elevator, one small room. The walls had music posters, two guitars were hanging on the wall next to an old typewriter. A pile of old and obscure records in the corner. The bathroom had a broken window and was freezing. The only thing to sleep on was an old sofabed. I liked it.

Airbnb January
My first stay, an Airbnb room in January

The place had a cool vibe and the owners’ whole life was stuffed into it. There was something everywhere in the room. I went out in the street and it was the same. Something everywhere. And someone everywhere. If I’m not mistaken the population of Paris and its suburbs is bigger than that of whole Austria, but the surface of the city itself is smaller than Vienna, which accounts for the huge density of dudes per square meter. I believe the consistency of the city is about 80% human beings, 19% concrete and 1% Louvre.

Speaking of which, there’s only one free thing for students: museums. Everything else is whatever-it-should-normally-cost multiplied by at least 2. Here are two important numbers: rent = 700, one beer = 7. The most expensive thing to do is eating out. But there is a bit of an exception to the rule, because it’s actually worth it. French bistros have their own kind of groove. It’s not the traditional ask-for-menu/get-a-booklet/browse-it pattern.

Paris City
A glimpse at the City of Paris

Mainly because there’s no menu, there’s just ONE blackboard on which the plates of the day are written. And it gets passed around. Or better said: the waiter takes it and props it against something in your proximity. Then you decide what you want and it gets rushed to the next table. So you’re not walking into a restaurant, you’re walking into a situation. Tomorrow it will be totally different.

And sometimes you get to get up from your tiny table – quick explanation: after living in a total of four cities in my life I’ve noticed a pattern: the bigger the population density the smaller the tables – and make your way to the wine cellar so you can pick out your desired wine bottle yourself. Don’t worry if the choice is paralysing. The price will filter out your possibilities. I’m not even going to try to describe the food. I lack the vocabulary. I’m just gonna leave you with a freaky fact and a recommendation. They eat pigeons. And try “Chez Cazimir” close to gare du nord. Not just because of the food, but try and go there with someone. I had two of the best conversations of my life in that place. I might just be coincidence or some sort of hidden conversation booster device under the table. I’m not sure. Try it.

Tiny Paris apartment
Tiny Paris apartment

Every encounter between two people of the same rank, regardless of gender, is marked by the “bises” – the little kiss on the cheek that serves as a greeting. The number and intensity of kisses depends on the region. Paris is somewhere at the average: two kisses, starting with the right cheek. I think the standard in Marseilles is three kisses, but starting with the left cheek. For those interested here’s a map: http://www.combiendebises.com/index.html

Understandably, a lot of confusion is generated when people from Marseilles come to Paris for the first time. And vice-versa. I thought that this amount of mandatory kissing would make me uncomfortable or possibly anxious, but to my surprise it didn’t. Mostly because the french are really good at it. They do it with elegance and speed and it’s over before you even noticed it started. Although it’s a strange social mechanism it brings people together. Literally. I found that it relieved the atmosphere around me, making me unconsciously think everybody’s just one big family.

Once you’ve gotten the “bises” out of the way work can start. In my case this was, to put it simply: recording stuff. I took part in as many unusual projects I possibly could: filming a circus – I’m not even making this up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bR0ooSMyYOE

Recording baroque music in the cathedral of Notre Dame and taking part in a daring multichannel jazz recording. Now, anything with more than two speakers can be defined as “multi-channel” but this project was actually mixed in the Ircam institute in a 22.2 speaker ambisonic studio. Was that too much? It usually is, but that’s not the point. In Paris they make such a project each year with the students from the 3rd year of studies. They try to get as many microphones as possible and compare as many microphone setups as they can. Sometimes the project is just too daring and it crumbles under its own weight, but since it takes place in a university this is basically “ok”, as long as everybody learns something along the way.

Setting up
Setting up ©Aude Petiard

But the challenge is not purely technical. The challenge is to make the use of so many microphones logical or even necessary. The class I worked with had another challenge on their hands: the ensemble was a free jazz quartet with a dancer in the middle of them. This automatically generated the need for a video crew and I was happy to quickly find a spot in it – mostly to escape the work of hanging up about 80 channels worth of microphones.

No participant in the project is paid, so with no money invested and no money to lose the only thing motivating people is making the most out of it. So things get pretty creative and risky. Which is one thing I loved about the conservatoire and probably France in general. It felt daring. Granted more than half of the time experiments go wrong – anywhere you are in the world – but you’re still left with a new experience. The highlight of the project was a piece where each member of the quartet was in a corner of the room and the dancer was in the middle. Alongside her we put one mobile camera and she – the dancer – would pull the camera around, stop it, dance for a while and then repeat the process to her own liking.

Everything was improvised, so nobody knew what would happen next. In the final video the surround sound would follow the image, so whenever the camera turned left the sound would turn left, whenever the image would spin, the music would spin around you, blending camera and sound perspective. It was a crazy project, but it turned out well.

Multichannel Project
Multichannel Project ©Aude Petiard

The sound mix was made in the famous Ircam research centre and I got the chance to see part of the process. This was mainly possible because the conservatoire keeps a very strong connection to the sound direction students who have already finished and most of them end up in particularly cool places. Ircam, Radio France, Philarmonie de Paris etc. Some of the more successful graduates are also invited back to the conservatoire to give classes or workshops on whatever they do best. How cool is that?

Apart form that the sound direction departament in Paris has a very interesting mechanism for keeping things fresh. Educationally speaking. The exam at the end of each important course – be it aural training, critical listening, classical music recording etc. – is juried by usually three people, all from outside of the conservatoire. They try to get the right mix of people each time.

Baroque in Notre Dame
Recording Baroque Music in Notre Dame

For example: an artistic director from Radio France, an experienced music producer and, again, an alumni who finished five years ago and now has his own little label. The concept: people from all generations who are actually working in the music business. I did three exams with such juries.

My story was: walking through the door, having three relaxed and friendly people judge my skills by how useful they would be in the “real world”, giving me feedback in a very open and friendly way, maybe hearing a couple of stories and finally walking back out in the somewhat dusty academical world after having spoken to people from the bright, scary and fascinating world outside of the little university box. It felt good.

A possible workplace: Philharmonie de Paris

“You know how I would describe the french?” At the end of the semester I was talking to an american violinist. He was telling me about the deal he had with his teacher. The call-me-when-you’re-ready deal. When he felt he could play something well he would call his teacher and they would spontaneously schedule a class. It was very strange for my friend at first, but then he found out this actually worked for him.

I had kind of the same feeling, few things were strictly organised and there was a lot of room to breathe. Despite most things being “fuzzy” – responsibilities, scheduling, opening hours – this didn’t stand in the way of good results. Which is what my friend also felt and he summed this lifestyle up in the best possible way: “inefficient, but efficient…”


10 Paris / France Facts:

  • Everybody is buying bread all the time and at rush hours there’s so much bakery traffic that they had to make a “Bakery Entrance” and “Bakery Exit” door or else everything would get stuck.
  • Crossing the street is usually independent from “the thing with lights”. You observe both directions, assess the situation and if you think you can physically make it across the street the law dictates you have to take your chances.
  • There are one room apartments in Paris where this one room is as multifunctional as it gets. The stove is next to the toilet. Or the toilet is next to the stove, according to your priorities.
  • Fun fact: there is no real french word for “cheap”, only “less expensive”
  • The top of wine bottles have metadata on them. They tell you if the wine is of a protected origin, if the guy who sold the wine also saw the grapes grow and if you are a wine nerd for knowing all of this.
  • For the same money, it is better to buy an expensive Bordeaux than a cheap Bourgogne, although they will both make you poorer.
  • Real fact: a taxi from the airport to the city costs 50 Euros no matter where you’re going. A taxi from the city to the airport can cost as much as a monthly rent.
  • Real fact: you can make white wine from black grapes. The process is sometimes called Michael-Jackson-ing.
  • In French, when describing something as “cool” you would name it “owl” (“chouette”). Another really used adverbe is “vachement”, it comes from the word “cow” and can be roughly translated to “cowly”. You might say for example “That concert was cowly good”. Conversations get very zoological sometimes.
  • French cheese is sometimes alive. Don’t leave it unsupervised.

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