Deaf Arts Festival engages all senses
Deaf culture will be on display through music, lights and body movement, when the first Northwest Deaf Arts Festival takes place Saturday, June 16 at Mississippi Studios.
Hip-hop artist Sean Forbes and a variety of musicians, dancers and poets are part of the inclusive and innovative experience for deaf and hearing concert-goers alike.
What is deaf music? It is performances backed by sound visualization and open captioning techniques, as well as American Sign Language. By leveraging the science of cymatics and sensory substitution, smart light displays and tactile technology, it creates an immersive and unique experience that makes sound visible and felt.
It's put on by CymaSpace, a Portland nonprofit arts and technology incubator, founded by deaf artist/designer Myles de Bastion, who grew frustrated with the idea of making music despite limited hearing.
Forbes is a leader in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) music movement. He uses sign language at his concerts and has created a series of popular music videos with deaf actress Marlee Matlin and percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Also participating are Antoine Hunter of the Urban Jazz Dance Company and renowned deaf poet Raymond Luczak.
The Tribune caught up with de Bastion, via email, for some thoughts on the subject:
Tribune: Congrats on establishing the festival. What kind of reaction and feedback from DHH people and others have you received?
De Bastion: We are seeing a lot of excitement for this festival, especially on our social media channels. A lot of comments about bringing the event to other states, too. There's definitely a need for an event focused exclusively on showcasing DHH artistic and cultural talents in the Pacific Northwest. About 20,000 DHH people reside in the greater Portland metropolitan area.
Tribune: This sounds like an aspect of the music industry that is really breaking through. In what ways has it changed just in recent years?
De Bastion: Interest by the deaf community for music that is made accessible to them through sign language has ebbed and waned since the 1980s. "Signed Song" performers (mostly skilled interpreters) who translated songs into ASL were popular and respected in colleges and universities until the '90s, when the general mood among inculturated deaf people became more political. For awhile it wasn't considered PC to embrace hearing-based entertainment. All that changed in the digital age. There is now a growing trend for ASL interpretation of music because of the emerging technical ability to create multimedia easily and quickly.
At CymaSpace we are going one step further by innovating technology for music videos and live performance that enhances sound visually. Interest in our work is high and DHH people are immediately drawn into it. The movements and facial expressions of sign language synched with visual cues work together to make a more complete, immersive experience for the DHH person.
Tribune: The combination of sounds that you feel and lights that they see and captioning all work in concert, so to speak, and makes for complete enjoyment of music?
De Bastion: We are aiming to create a radically inclusive and immersive environment that caters to multiple senses. Interactive technology allows our projection, lighting and captions to work in harmony with the sound and performers, all in real-time.
Tribune: You've been at the forefront of the movement in Portland. Can you talk about how it's changed people's lives?
De Bastion: There currently is little support for deaf artists themselves in the mainstream entertainment industry. CymaSpace productions gives them an outlet for their talent. When we make our cultural events more accessible, everyone benefits. Artists are able to reach a bigger audience that previously may not have been able to appreciate their works. Importantly, those with disabilities get a chance to share their unique perspective on life. The most rewarding thing is how the practice of inclusion informs and inspires new ways to create and share.
Exposure to live perform-ances can influence and empower a cultural group in a way that digital videos cannot. Anyone can watch Sean Forbes on YouTube, but when the deaf community sees him live, they see the potential for change in their own lives.
Tribune: How has it changed your life, as far as appreciating this form of music?
De Bastion: I was born profoundly deaf and was given hearing aids at age 4, which helped convey a window into the world of sound. It was impactful to experience a new sensation for the first time. I did not have access to high frequencies, so speech, singing, flute and violin were inaccessible for me. I was more drawn to the tactile component when learning instruments. I enjoyed the physicality of performance and the vibration of instruments with an extended low range like a grand piano, cello and baritone saxophone.
Discovery of ASL music and open captioning opened up new doors for music appreciation. Finally the story and narrative were revealed, which added a whole new context to music. This is the area that really draws the deaf community and could be considered a primary reason for the rising popularity of deaf hip-hop. The focus being on rhythm, movement and heavy bass and percussion sounds in tandem with a lively physical performance are immediately engaging.
The Northwest Deaf Arts Festival starts at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16, at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi Ave. All-day tickets are $80, $100 day of show. There are two individual shows, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., with tickets starting at $25. For more: www.nwdeafartsfest.com.