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"parfois l'amour tourne à l'obsession ..."

january 28, 2005.

On monday evening, january 24th, while waiting on the city bound platform at the Bérault metro station for a train to take me to Belleville, where I was to have dinner with a friend, I saw a strand of cassette tape on the track. Bérault is a pretty clean station and even the track 'gutters' have a neat and almost shiny appearance. They always seem to me as if recently swept, in sharp contrast with the litter covered dump view that one is offered when looking down at the tracks from the platforms at many of the other hundreds of Paris tube stations.

The bit of dark brownish vinyl was swirling in the draught coming from the tunnels. I spotted it doing so from quite a distance. Surely over the past couple of years I must have developed some sort of a 'virtual nose', that makes me sense clods and knots of (cassette) tape as soon as I get within a certain distance of them. This particular bit had gotten stuck behind a crossing of plastic tubes, covering electric or other cabling. There wasn't a lot of it, some twenty to thirty centimeters altogether, I estimated; but it definitely was a strand of cassette tape ... How on earth did it get there? Left over from a cassette that, as cassettes every now and then tend to do, had 'crashed' in a passenger's walkman, angrily torn out and into pieces, then thrown away on the platform? Where some time later most of it was swept up by one of the cleaners that regularly make their rounds? I had to fight the urge to stante pede jump down into the track's gutter and grab it ... Just a quick hop in, and then, hop, out again ...

parfois l'obsession...

The digital clock hovering over the platform said it would be some three minutes before the arrival of the next train. I looked around. Just behind me there was a gigantic poster announcing the opening in parisian theatres of Josh Hartnett's 'dangerously sexy thriller' Wicker Park, on wednesday january 26th. "Parfois l'amour tourne à l'obsession," it read ... That seemed pretty appropriate. It made me grin ...The platform was near empty. Besides those overlooking the platforms, I wondered, would there also be cameras surveying the tracks? And would the RATP record the goings-on? I didn't see any camera pointed specifically at the tracks ... though I guess they'd have to be surveying both platform and track ... Come to think of such things, one realizes how little one really knows about them ... What, for instance, are the parts of the track that are feeding the current to the trains? ... Should avoid touching these, I guess ... danger de mort ... but then again ... current or no current, I felt like being under high tension already ... and it did look to me as if there was more than enough of space to move safely down there ... So ... Just a quick hop in, and then, hop, out again? Who would even notice? On the other hand, such a 'jump down the track' is the kind of sudden out-of-the-ordinary movement that one tends to notice, to feel happening, even if one is not directly looking at it ... But wouldn't I be out and up again before anyone could have even cried out 'Heyyyy!?' ... ? ... Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts ... Damn. I had been thinking too long ... By now digital count-down had gotten to but one more minute before the next train. And, well, I did not jump down the track. In the end I didn't have the courage. Or maybe I was just being sensible. And acting my age, I just got on that train.

there!

It is quite some distance down from the platform to the track, and the spot where the tape continued to swirl and shine was even further away ... Let me give you an idea of how far by measuring the distance in arm lengths: say I'd lay down on the platform's rim, I would have needed to be able to reach somewhat over an arm's length down, and somewhat over two arm's lengths across ... No way ... Next I found myself wondering what happens in case someone accidentally drops something of value on the tracks? Bag, wallet, keys, cell phone ... That will not be too unusual an event. I guess if necessary one will cut the current for the short while it'll take someone of the staff to jump down and pick up the object dropped, to return it to its rightful owner. So that might be an option ... But wouldn't it be kind of hard to explain that I'd like to temporarily interrupt underground traffic in order to get hold of a couple of centimeters of cassette tape? ... Maybe I should throw in my wallet or credit-card? "... Oh, and while your at it, would you be so kind to also get me that little bit of plastic tape that's stuck there? ... Please ...?!"

All this kept crossing my mind on the way to Belleville, and then on through our tasty chinese dinner at the "Jardin de Belleville" in the rue des Couronnes. "Votre talent sera reconnu", the after dinner fortune cookie told me. But it didn't say when ... Reason enough, upon my arrival back at the Bérault station, to take another look at 'my' strand ... Still there, indeed. Still silently swirling, shining; still as unreachable as before ...

... Maybe you should know that earlier that day, on yet another metro track, at the line 2 platform of station Jaurès, I had spotted a baby soother ... Dear, oh dear .... the piece of tape at Bérault was one too much ... I mean, how could I possibly pass by two such collectibles within the course of one day without being able to pick up even a single one of them? I had to get prepared for situations like these, I said to myself. I simply had to ... "Kent nu reeds Uw vluchtwegen!" ... I should equip myself, get me a fishing rod or something ...

fishing for soothers

Next morning I picked up a lengthy piece of cane that I found lying around in the kids' room, bent a fine hook from a paperclip, and attached that firmly to one of the cane's ends. Fishing rod or something indeed! ... Good enough surely to get hold of most of decently sized clods of tapes from about two meters distance; and maybe even smaller bits, or so I imagined, like the one in the Bérault station, if I'd additionally attach some bits of cello tape to the hook, to make them stick, thus preventing the tape from slipping off again ...

And then I went out fishing ...

As experience has taught me, clods of tape and other stuff lying around in the streets do stay put for quite some time. Apart from me and some of my ilk, this sort of rubbish is of (a far more detached kind of) professional interest only to street sweepers. And these just do not pass by a given spot more often than once a day (in the more central parts of cities), a week, or even less frequently (as in most of the suburbs). In the now soon to be three years of my 'collecting', it does happen occasionally that I spot something from inside a tram (exhibit #4), or bus, and am able to get back to it in order to pick it up only several hours later. I have never seen it happen yet that in the meantime the 'thing' had disappeared ... Like a couple of weeks ago, on the 27th of december, in Maastricht, when taking the kids downtown to watch a movie (The Incredibles), and I spotted a cassette on a parking lot, from inside the bus. On our way back we got off the bus at the stop nearest to the place where I had seen the cassette. And, yes, it was still there, waiting for me to pick it up: a crashed TDK AD-C90 cassette, marked with a small neatly typewritten sticker, reading: amusement 20a. Apparently it used to be part of a well-organised cassettotheque. Upon restauration and play back I came upon a hilarious personal mix of dutch, belgian, german and anglophonic variety classics - very, very campy indeed ...

The amusement 20a-tape is the 110th item in the Found Tapes Exhibition, fragments of which meanwhile are part of exhibit #22, the latest addition to our 'online 'freak' show', which with every next addition keeps gaining in interest. Picking up these tapes is like taking pretty much random samples of what's playing on people's walkmans and car stereo's (for I am convinced that that is where most of these tapes 'came out' of), and with the increasing volume of samples the picture emerging (one among many possible, almost all of which will never materialize) of "the sound heard by the people" is getting ever more complete, and 'true'.

bebe

A lot of the, meanwhile 112, items thus far have remained 'unidentified', but there's also much that I did manage to 'classify'. With a little help of the web it turns out to be relatively easy to positively identify many of the anglophonic and french popular songs that I come across, even though in most cases it is the very first time I hear (of) that particular 'group' or 'artist'. For if the find contains a decent length of part of a song, it often will be pretty evident (from the refrain or other repeated lyrical parts) what the song's title is. Or I note some other peculiar or unusual phrase in the lyrics. I then Google that 'title' or phrase, within quotes, and adding the word 'lyrics' to my query. Surprisingly often, bingo, Google leads me to the complete lyrics of the given song on one of the many web sites dedicated to popular music lyrics. These fine sites in many cases also provide the name of the artist, and often as well title and year of release of the album(s) on which the song appeared. Now it could be that the particular version I've got on a found tape actually is an interpretation of the song by another artist. So in order to be sure to have both title and artist correct, I then verify by looking for a preview of the song either in the iTunes Store, at Amazon's, or at some other online music-retailer's site. And yes, more often than not, this does the 'identification job', quickly and faultlessly.

Rocky IV

Obviously this 'method' is of no use in case of instrumental music, or when a song is sung in a language that I am not familiar with - arabic, turkish ... just to give some examples. Here what one eventually would need is an as-complete-as-possible online database of (data on) music recordings, highly sophisticated sonic classification- and pattern recognition software, and a possibility to upload (fragments of) sound files in order to have them analyzed and matched against the database content. I'm afraid, though, that a such tool for quite some time yet to come will remain but a pipe dream ...

For the time being I'll just have to rely on human ears. These can not be beat ...

Earlier this month Miryam Aroua, who is a native arabic speaker, was so kind and patient as to listen through the complete Exibition, and help me out with the many found tape fragments that are 'arabic to my ears'. I learned a lot. Miryam for instance was able to confirm that the instructions in arabic on find #75 are about driving, cars, traffic ... and probably were part of an instruction tape for (professional?) drivers, set up in a 'questions' and 'answers' way. She also identified the particular accent of the speakers as probably being moroccan. For, of course - and I should have known - there's arabic and there's arabic. Much of the 'arabic music' fragments in the Exhibition, according to Miryam, are of either algerian or tunesian origin. Which, given the fact that they were found around Parisian suburbs of course does not come as a surprise. On two of the finds (#52, #70 ) she recognized the highly popular 'raï' star Khaled, on yet another one the wonderful Oum Kalthoum (#29). And I learned that some of the finds that I classified as 'arabic' actually were something different altogether, like 'turkish' or 'iranian' ... But for the two finds that I classified as spoken/sung 'arabic prayers' (the 100th find, picked up on september 12th of last year in the Amsterdam Oosterpark neighborhood, and the second of two tapes that I found on april 8th in the parisian suburb of Bobigny) I wasn't that far of the mark. In both cases, Miryam told me, these were recitations from the Koran ...

Vincennes blues

And meanwhile, evidemment, I continue to harvest tapes. So far this has been a most fruitful month. My son Alec spotted this year's first find, when visiting on saturday afternoon january 15th a friend at his mother's Artist Supplies Store, on the corner of the avenue Aubert and the avenue de Paris in Vincennes. He showed it to me ("Daddy, I have a surpise for you!" he said) when I passed by at the store to accompany him back home. It was lying just behind the large iron gate giving entrance to the courtyard of the apartment building at nr. 106, next to the building's dustbins, mixed up with dry leaves and twigs from a pine tree (see picture) - surely a recently disposed of christmas tree. A 'season's greetings' find, and a most wonderful one it turned out to be, as on it there's a fine recording of a (French) band rehearsing, having a go at a couple of rhythm-and-blues songs ...

And yeah, I did get myself that baby soother at Jaurès, sure enough. Piece of cake, that one. But there wasn't much left of what might've been my pièce de résistance, on the metro track at the Bérault station. The larger part of the tape had disappeared, cut off and blown away probably by the suction of the trains passing over it. Just a couple of centimeters remained there, still sticking from the crossing of the plastic tubes, but far out of reach. Not even with my home made 'fishing rod' would I be able to get a hold of it.

Ah well, so be it. I can't win them all.

[ Earlier related SB-entry: à la tranquilité; next related SB-entry: Found Tapes for Spies ]

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