Think Out Loud

Deaf Musician Myles de Bastion Founds Northwest Deaf Arts Festival

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Portland, Ore. June 20, 2018 11:03 p.m.
Myles de Bastion is a deaf musician and the force behind the first Northwest Deaf Arts Festival.

Myles de Bastion is a deaf musician and the force behind the first Northwest Deaf Arts Festival.

Myles de Bastion/Facebook


Dave Miller: This is "Think Out Loud" on OPB and KLCC. I'm Dave Miller. The first-ever Northwest Deaf Arts Festival ... is billed as an inclusive, multisensory extravaganza, made equally accessible for the deaf community and their hearing allies. It's made up of dance, poetry and even music. I'm joined now by its founder. Myles de Bastion is a deaf musician, designer and founder of CymaSpace, a Portland nonprofit focused on inclusive events and technology for Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Myles de Bastion is here, as well as his (ASL) interpreter, Andrew Tolman, who may help us out as we go. Myles, it's great to have you on the show.

Myles de Bastion: Thank you. I'm really excited to be here.

Miller: What happens at the Northwest Deaf Arts Festival?

de Bastion: We have an inclusive and accessible event for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and the hearing allies here in Portland. I'm really excited to be showcasing top national tech talent, and also open source technology that we developed at my nonprofit, CymaSpace. We display sound visualization and open captioning and we hopefully will have some tactile audio system so that the deaf community can feel and use their other senses.

Miller: Some of these are things that you developed yourself or or with your team at CymaSpace. In terms of the sound visualization, what is it? What does it mean? What does the audience see, whether they can hear or not, through the music.

de Bastion: Our wonderful team of volunteers have been working year round to develop cutting edge systems, to make sound information into a visual and tactile experience. So something that I've been working on for about five years now, and I'm really trying to take a scientific approach to mapping the sound frequency and amplitude information to light colors and movement. So, there's nothing really quite like it out there. At first, I was looking for an off the shelf product that I could use. Even a professional lighting system. But they just couldn't give me the detailed visualization of sound that I was looking for. As a deaf musician myself, I was struggling to make music with my hearing peers, I wanted a way to see the sound. So we automatically ended up having to build it for ourselves, and now I'm kind of really excited to debut this system at the Northwest Deaf Arts Festival.

Miller: What does it look like? I mean just for the non, you know, audio people out there, when you're talking about amplitude, that's volume and frequency, it's pitch — high or low tones. And somehow you're using light, visual information, to communicate that sound. What does it look like?

de Bastion: That's a good question. We've been experimenting with different approaches to what could be considered visual sound, and I have gravitated toward using the electromagnetic spectrum of colors. Because there's a correlations between the frequency of light and the frequency of sound. So in other words, if you imagine low sound like the bass or the kick drum. I like to match that to red frequencies. And at the end of the scale is ultraviolet. So that one would be for the high frequencies and something like vocals would be more in the mid range and kind of in the green spectrum.

Miller: How did you come up with those, those colors? I mean, and is there an emotional connection to them? Do they, do they mean something to you emotionally? The low tones and those particular hues, those colors and the high tones and other colors ... ?

de Bastion: I'm a bit of a tech nerd so I really wanted to use the scientific method to create an algorithm that actually kind of make sense in real life situations. So the only challenge with sort of mapping the entire spectrum of light, it doesn't take into consideration musical information, such as octaves, and the western classical scale, or the key. So I've taken it even further and I'm mapping the note information, the scale, you know, C, D, E, F, G to the colors, and the color wheel, which repeat. So if the sound goes up an octave, in other words, if frequency doubles then the colors also change in their physical proximity of the space. So I kind of ran out of ways to use color to map music information. So I started using spatial information to create that correlation.

Miller: As you said, you're a scientific person, you want to do this scientifically. But what about the emotional content? I mean, what does it feel like for you when you see some visual representation of music? Can you, can you feel the beauty of it in a particular way?

de Bastion: Yes, absolutely. We receive many, many comments about really how mind-blowing the experiences is by someone who's never seen it before, comes in and the sound that happening, maybe the music starts playing or they're interacting with the technology themselves, clapping, laughing and singing and just the real time element is really immersive. And also the tactile component is catering to multiple senses, which creates a long-lasting, memorable experience.

Miller: How did you get interested in music?

de Bastion: Well, my family, uh, is very artistic and we have many musicians and songwriters and my family. So I was very influenced by that growing up.

Miller: Were you born deaf?

de Bastion: Yes, I was born with a profound hearing loss. And it wasn't until I was about 4 years old, that my family actually figured it out that I wasn't actually having access to sound, so they ran and gave me hearing aids and at first I didn't like those at all. I just threw them out across the room and I thought, like, what is this new sensation? But after a while was like oh, wow, it's giving me more information about the world around me.  And then when I became really fascinated with sound, but as far as the tactile and the visual component, I remember being seated upon my grandfather's knee who was a songwriter and composer in Budapest, and I was in front of the piano, understanding the symmetricality of the white and black was really fascinating for me. So I've really been drawn to the patterns that exist in sound.

Miller: What could you hear or what could you feel when you were sitting on your grandfather's knee and he was playing piano?

de Bastion: Well, that was another really surprising thing, was just the tactile component. When I physically interact with this instrument that you know, when I move over here, towards the low end, I could start to feel something under my hand. And that was also kind of like unraveling this mysterious sensation, and really, I wanted to know more about, you know, why am I feeling this here? And then as I went to what the higher end. I wasn't feeling anything. So I was like, confused why that was happening. So, it took me a long time to learn that there are different frequencies that could be felt or seen.

Miller: And the lower ones are, as anybody knows who has been at a concert near a speaker, you can hear the bass, you can feel the bass, I should say, in your stomach and your body. And the higher tones, you just can't feel. Are you more drawn as a hearing impaired person to, to the notes that you can feel viscerally?

de Bastion: Yeah. I am very drawn to the sort of physical aspect of sound and music. But I didn't really have access to the stories, the narrative say in, folk music or hip-hop, the words, I just didn't have access to.

Miller: Unless you, unless you read them in advance.

de Bastion: Yes but for me there's a disconnect between reading and experiencing it because I don't even know when to tell you the story is being narrated at different time. What is the pacing, what is the alliteration, the rhythm from that. I was missing out on that and I wasn't drawn to that until much later when I had access to American Sign Language, which suddenly opened up the visual storytelling aspect of music.

Miller: And potentially in real time … you've become a musician, though, yourself. Both making electronic music as, as a producer, as a maker of instruments. And also as, as a guitar player, I want to play an excerpt for our audience of you strumming some chords.

I apologize that you can't hear the music you'd made, but, but I guess, I mean, the fact is that, that you're used to that. How did you become a guitar player?

de Bastion: Well, I was really drawn to the guitar as an instrument, because of the theatricality, firstly, of seeing all these rock stars, rocking out on stage. But then the electronic component where, all these wonderful devices that I could I could plug into to manipulate sound, plug into an amplifier and then suddenly I can have control over the volume and really crank this thing up until I can feel it. And so that's when I got really drawn into the tech component of sound and producing sound I could feel and see and experience in different ways.

Miller: What is the experience like for you of playing an acoustic guitar? One that's quiet, one you may feel some of the physical vibrations as it's you know, literally touching your chest. Um, but you can't crank it up. What is it like to play that piece of wood?

de Bastion: Well, for an acoustic instrument, I really have to revamp my entire body around it to try to transfer the vibration into my chest cavity. And then I also rely a lot on my chin, to rest my chin on instrument. Because the chin is very close to the inner ear. And the bone conduction that can happen there, so that's another way that I can use tactile sensation to get closer to the sound.

Miller: Is that something that you had to learn yourself or is that just something that that deaf musicians are taught? Ways to use your body as a resonating instrument?


de Bastion: Definitely something that came about through lots of experimentation. And just having a fascination with the different instruments.

Miller: If you you're just tuning in, I'm talking right now with Myles de Bastian. He is a deaf musician, designer, founder of CymaSpace. It's a Portland nonprofit focused on all kinds of inclusive events and inclusive technology for Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. And he is the founder of the Northwest Deaf Arts Festival.

Let's turn to the festival, including some of the people you brought to Portland. One of them is the hip-hop artist, Sean Forbes. Who is he?

de Bastion: Sean Forbes is a good friend of mine. And he is very popular in the deaf community but he is maybe not as well-known in the hearing world, but we're trying to change that. And he's worked with gosh, like Marti Matlin from Children of a Lesser God, and he's also worked with Eminem out in Michigan, Detroit, where he's from. But what's really fascinating for me is how he incorporates American Sign Language and hip-hop into a wonderful new art form that is opening doors for the deaf community to have access to music. In some ways I feel like hip-hop is having a resurgence within the deaf community because of the powerful storytelling aspect that is now being revealed through the art of sign language.

Miller: I want to play our audience part of one of Sean Forbes's songs. This is called "Hammer."

Miller: Who are some of the other acts that you're excited about?

de Bastion: I'm really excited about Antoine Hunter for the first time on stage. And he's a wonderful, award-winning dancer from Oakland. And he's bringing out a troupe of three dancers. I'm a little concerned about the size of the stage at Mississippi Studios. We're really having to having to press hard to create as much space for these wonderful dancers to spread their wings. But I trust that they are professionals and can adapt to the size of the venue. I'm also really excited about the wonderful Raymond Luczak who's coming out from Ohio. He's a wonderful activist within the gender and queer movement. So really excited to be having him here during Pride. And a lot of his poems convey evocative gender inequality issues. So I think that he's a really big draw for this event too.

Miller: And you performed as well?

de Bastion: That's correct! ... the Board of CymaSpace asked me to step in and create a little piece for the local community as well. So I've been scrambling to put together, a story, a performance story that revolves around deaf culture narratives.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for what that's about?

de Bastion: It's a kind of science fiction story, set in another world, another dimension, but this world has no air, and you know, without air, there can it be no sound.

Miller: Nothing to vibrate to, to bring the sound to ears.

de Bastion: Yeah. So I just kind of wanted to level the playing field. I kind of wanted to put the topic of deafness and deaf identity to the side for a second and just imagine a world where everyone could just not hear and what would that mean? What would the cultural story look like for that kind of environment?

Miller: What do you think it would look like?

de Bastion: Ha ha! Well, I think, you know, if you want to find out, you're going to have to come to the performance.

Miller: [laughs] You're good at not giving us the spoilers.

de Bastion: I don't want to give away too much of the story …

Miller: I want to play our audience one more song. Something that you provided us in advance. It's something that you created called "Star." Before I play it, can you give us a sense for how you put music together, given your level of hearing?

de Bastion: Yeah. I touched upon the fact that I'm fascinated with the physical experience of sound, the way that I approach music production is I focus less on lyrics and vocals and singing, and more on the textural element and the dynamics to convey their story itself. So a lot of my performance is the extreme changes from, you know, beautiful, lush, gentle soundscape to kind of a loud, wall of noise, roaring sound noise that will be really visceral and felt. And that's the way that I create an emotional response for myself. And hopefully others will feel and see it too.

Miller: Let's have a listen to this. This is "Star" by my guest Myles de Bastion.

[music plays]

Miller: You know, going back to what we were talking about at the beginning, your efforts to turn music into visual experiences in various ways. Even if, if they become beautiful and interesting, visual versions of musical experiences. I mean, I think you would, you would agree that, that it's not the same thing as the, as the original musical experience itself.

Why focus on translating music into light as opposed to working on, on beautiful native visual art or, or some kind of some kind of, of senses-art that, that is native to that sense. Why focus on a translation?

de Bastion: In my mind, it's entirely possible to make sound visible and that it actually is the sound. And that's the point I want to stress. That it's not just random lights that are flashing in time with the music. It is a system that is analyzing the audio information and taking that data and just transforming it into the light domain. It's shifting it up into a higher frequency experience. And I really believe it's just a transformation of energy. So at the end of the day, we're all experiencing the same thing. And that's a really important part of my message is … you know, we really all have access to this wonderful pool of — not to get onto a like, a spiritual element —

Miller: Do it!

de Bastion: But the cosmos is out there, and the electromagnetic spectrum, gravity, energy, vibration, movement, light, sound, love and community is really all, in mind, it's all one and the same thing.

Miller: You've said in the past that when artists involve more of their senses, their work is not only more inclusive and accessible, but also engaging and exciting. What advice do you have? I mean that was, that sentence was about artists, but it needn't to be restricted to artists. I mean, what advice do you have to, to all of us? In terms of how we can be more conscious of involving our senses on a daily basis, with the aim of inclusivity and accessibility?

de Bastion: Yes, accessibility and inclusion is incredibly important and is at the heart of the mission of CymaSpace and the Northwest Deaf Arts Festival. So, I really encourage people who are out there creating works, whether it's artistic or a cultural event, to be thinking about ways to include everyone can be involved. What does that mean? And our purpose is to be expanding the senses and the services we provide. It's not just a visual and tactile experience that we provide, but there's ASL interpreters, there's open captioning, so people can see what's being said written on the wall. And so all of these measures ensure that that more people will have access to a community to feel included. And it's my dream to really see people coming together to see, not only the deaf and hard of hearing in this isolated bubble but also the hearing world and the hearing peers, coming in, supporting the deaf community, seeing these wonderful deaf artists and enjoying what deaf culture has to offer. So, the festival is a wonderful, bicultural exchange. So please feel that whether you're deaf, hearing, doesn't matter. All are welcome, all can come and all can enjoy this experience.

Miller: Myles de Bastion, thanks very much.

de Bastion: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

Miller: Myles de Bastion is the founder of CymaSpace, and he's also the founder and organizer of the Northwest Deaf Arts Festival.