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Wooden spoons and metal bottles ready for collective clanging at 7pm to celebrate frontline workers (Image: New York City, 2020).

Sensing Crisis

An interview with Jon Bernstein, Los Angeles-based composer, producer, and musician on how our senses are adapting to the shifting soundscapes.

Stretches of quiet pierced by blazing sirens. The two-minute outburst of pots and pans banging at dusk. Apartment hallways filled with the smell of baking bread and simmering stews. With the Coronavirus pandemic slowing and stopping cities around the world, as a human-centered design studio, we at Openbox have been reflecting on how our senses are adapting to quieter, interior-oriented lives. We’re also exploring how we can continue to engage our senses (beyond eyes glued to screens in video calls!). To better understand the nature of sound and how it shapes our lives, we reached out to Jon Bernstein, L.A.-based artist who works with sound to create collective experiences.

AY: What can you hear right now?

JB: Small birds enjoying the first warm day in a week, a distant helicopter, a caged bird in a neighbors’ apartment, the hiss of traffic on the 110. Traffic has shifted its pattern over the past few weeks, but remains a constant source of sound filling my corner of the San Gabriel Valley. The normal heavy drone of rush hours has gone. Many of the drivers take advantage of the emptiness by driving much faster and I hear many are more motorcycles as well. Every 10 minutes or so the train comes by (I live close to the LA Metro’s Gold Line) and as a former New Yorker, I’m still struck by how quiet the train is — it sounds almost like a strong breeze.

AY: Tell us how you first discovered sound design?

JB: I grew up playing piano and I was interested in composing since childhood. I can’t pinpoint a precise moment, but I remember that my first teacher was more strict and oriented towards classical performance. At that time, I found it very frustrating as I have always had a very improvisational attitude and wanted to create my own music. I first started thinking about and experimenting with sound by messing around with the inside of a piano — plucking the strings, weaving papers into them, or playing percussively on the interior. My father is a computer scientist, so I was exposed relatively early in life to concepts like synthesizers and electronic music. In high school, I started using computer programs to really analyze the music I was obsessed with. I tried to hear hidden layers and sounds within, and I think that is where I really got started with the idea of sound design.

AY: I’ve read that sound is our first sense to be activated —that it works faster than smell, taste, or touch. Do you know why that is?

JB: Sound is vibration, not only heard in the ears, but also felt in the body. And it can travel very long distances. Long before any form of modern technology, humans have used sound to communicate in person and to communicate with people miles away. Many languages are made of sound, but other forms of sound — especially musical sound — can be a mode of communication between people who don’t share the same languages.

Jon Bernstein’s quiet view and soundscape from his home in Los Angeles.

AY: How does sound affect our overall wellbeing or consciousness? Are there particular sounds we should be tuning into during times of crisis?

JB: I don’t think there is any limit to the range of effects sounds can have on our state of wellbeing, positive or negative. On an emotional level, sounds can provide immense pleasure or immense pain whether it’s in response to music and the memories it brings up, or the way it can make our bodies move. We all have a mix of physical and mental reactions to certain sounds and frequencies. I’ve observed the rising popularity of ASMR videos as people discover a strong sensation of pleasure from hearing certain ranges or types of sounds over and over again. There are certain sounds we find very satisfying on a physical level, but these vary from person to person. On the other hand, there are some sounds that are truly harmful. We can see a range of this in practice from “dispersal” devices that target teenage loiterers with high-pitched tones to the use of sound and music as forms of torture and psychological warfare.

I think it’s natural in a moment of crisis for one’s senses to become a bit more heightened. But it’s different when the crisis is ongoing for a period of months or years. I think there is some desensitization that happens. In the case of this specific crisis, I have been thinking we may find ourselves focusing more on the tone of people’s voices. Where I live, it is now mandatory to wear a mask outside and it can be especially hard to discern facial expressions or moods in an already tense environment.

AY: In home isolation, what sounds are we missing out on?

JB: As I’m a city dweller, the most glaring absence to me is that of crowds, of ambient chatter, a busy office or restaurant, or the crowd in a venue. However, there are lots of places where people live without these sounds and where the sonic landscape of daily life has likely not changed as substantially. As much as I miss some of the sounds of the time before — especially that of a cheering crowd at a concert — at the same time, I think it might not be so bad that our ears are getting a break.

AY: What sounds are you tuning into today?

JB: As it has become quieter, I find myself more attuned to the wildlife that we share space and life with, even in an urban environment. It’s hard to tell if I’m hearing more of it because I’m paying more attention or because the new quietness is more encouraging to animals—probably a combination of both! I also find myself easily distracted by sound, as I am in one place for so long I pay more attention to every little thing, wondering what every passing helicopter is up to, or what the coyotes are singing about.

AY: Many of us find ourselves even more so turning to screens to connect with each other. Tell us about your ideas for how we might use sound to create shared experiences and a sense of connection?

JB: The other day, one of my neighbors brought a double bass out onto his patio and gave an impromptu performance. I have heard and seen stories of similar very local events from quarantined areas all over the world: people singing or playing instruments out of windows. And I think many of us are beginning to use our devices more for direct communication; for example, sharing a family meal together over video conference or even just making a phone call when one would have previously texted.

AY: What are some things we can do to incorporate healthy sound into our days?

JB: I think that over the past couple of decades we have developed a somewhat unhealthy relationship with sound and music, not just because there is so much of it, but because we are increasingly trained to think of it as background. We have music on while we are working or socializing. There is ambient noise and chatter that we regularly and actively tune out. But I think it’s healthy to spend time just listening — both to the ambient sound around us, in and of itself. We can also remember to listen to music for its own sake: to sit and listen to an album or even just a song and focus on it entirely, rather than having it as the background for some other activity.

AY: Do you have a dream sound project you’d like to do?

JB: I have so many it’s hard to know where to begin, but right now I’m simply dreaming of a time when I can return to live performance, both in terms of theatre work and just playing with my band (whom I miss dearly). I also have been very slowly developing an idea over many years involving nonlinear ambient music that would function both as an album and as a tool for people to enter a creative mind-space.

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Jon Bernstein is a Los Angeles-based composer, producer, and musician. Primarily known for work on innovative podcasts such as Welcome to Night Vale, Alice Isn’t Dead, and Our Plague Year. Jon is also a pianist in the L.A. new age/folk band RAQIA and creator of the electronic music project Disparition. Prior to relocating to Los Angeles, Jon worked as a sound designer and composer for Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway productions in the downtown NYC theatre scene including Wake at the Connelly Theatre and The Downtown Loop at 3LD, and at fringe festivals in NYC and Edinburgh.

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Stories of human-centered design for people, cities, and planet.

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