A deaf musician starts a nonprofit and business aimed at bridging the divide between the hearing and nonhearing worlds
Myles de Bastion leans over the upright piano, which has a display screen in place of the main panel above the keyboard. He pounds out a few chords, playing a range of high and low notes at various volumes.
As he plays, the screen lights up with colorful LED lights, scrolling from the bottom upward in bars of vibrant fuchsia, purple and aqua that vary in shape and size depending on how loud or fast de Bastion plays.
The piano is an early version of the technology de Bastion has been developing to turn soundwaves into light. The technical term for what he’s doing is “cymatics,” a word coined in the late 1960s to describe how sound can be made physical.
The grandson of a composer, de Bastion, 33, is, as he puts it, a “musician who happens to be deaf.” He is also the founder of the Northwest Deaf Arts Festival, as well as CymaSpace, a Portland-based nonprofit devoted to making the arts and cultural events more accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
And he’s the CEO of a small technology company, Audiolux Devices, a for-profit that manufactures for other musicians the plug-and-play sound-and-color devices de Bastion invented.
“In order to survive in this world that’s so discriminatory, you have to create your own opportunities,” de Bastion says, speaking from his office, tucked into a warehouse divided into workspaces for makers in Southeast Portland. “I have to figure out what works for myself, what other people need. Then there could be the opportunity for a self-sustaining business model.”
De Bastion started his nonprofit for the same reason he was drawn toward turning music into light: to bridge the divide between the hearing and nonhearing worlds. He realized there was a need for a space and a technology for what he described as a “cross-cultural exchange that leaves a lasting impression on both worlds.”
In college his hard of hearing friends and those in the world of music “didn’t really understand each other,” he says. “The deaf world was like: ‘Music? Why should I care about that? What’s in it for me?’ And then the hearing world would not really be patient to provide accommodation, to communicate with the deaf community.”
That’s changing as Portland joins a national resurgence in deaf culture. The city is home not only to de Bastion’s cultural festival but a deaf film festival, which will hold its inaugural event in October. Philip J. Wolfe, the first deaf person to run for Portland City Council this past spring, was the emcee for the cultural festival.
“There has been a shift in deaf culture toward being more accepting of music,” de Bastion says, “especially among younger generations.” Social media is helping change perception, he says. “Sign-language music videos are rising in popularity, especially for those who do not sign but wish to learn. Deaf people are also more empowered to create and share their own videos online now that the technology is so prevalent, easy to use and affordable.”
De Bastion grew up in a rural village outside of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. As a child, he was mainstreamed in British schools — which means he was taught to speak and he used a listening device to hear his instructors. Educators remain divided over approaches to learning and whether deaf children should be taught to sign or to speak — or both. Rapid changes in hearing-loss technology, including cochlear implants and smaller-but-powerful hearing aids, have intensified the debate. It wasn’t until he moved to the U.S. as an adult that de Bastion encountered what he described as “the pride that the deaf community had in its heritage.” That’s when he learned American Sign Language.
After studying computer animation in England, de Bastion found it difficult to land a job there or in the U.S. Few employers were interested in accommodating what de Bastion saw as minor barriers. “I just had no doors open for me,” he recalls.
Portland’s maker movement drew him to the Rose City; he founded CymaSpace in 2013. At first the nonprofit was a way of complementing existing artistic performances, built on de Bastion’s interest in electronics and programming, as well as the open-source hardware and software at the heart of the technical side of the DIY movement. Over time, CymaSpace became known for working with the deaf community to provide equal access to arts and cultural events.
“The advice I got early on is that nonprofits, any type of nonprofits, need a revenue stream,” de Bastion says. “The outreach was the one that really helped develop a business model of providing services. And that has been critical to helping us get revenue to maintain our overhead.”
De Bastion performing at Marylhurst University’s The Art Gym
Now in its fifth year, CymaSpace has a pool of freelance interpreters. About 40% of its income comes from those services. CymaSpace is still young and growing, de Bastion says, but it has been consistently in the black. Its next challenge will be to transition from a volunteer-based staff to a paid one working full time on the CymaSpace mission.
His hope is to position CymaSpace as a leader in accessible technology, culture and entertainment in the U.S. and internationally. He wants to expand to additional accessibility offerings for people with other barriers to cultural programming. “It’s always been my dream to have CymaSpace in every major cosmopolitan hub, starting with the big deaf community hubs: locally, then nationally, then internationally.”
Watch the following video clip for an overview of De Bastion’s work
As for the technology that tranforms sound into light — de Bastion founded Audiolux Devices in 2016 to manufacture the plug-and-play commercial lighting solutions. The company, which helps support the nonprofit, “comes from my struggle with trying to make music with my hearing peers,” he says.
“I didn’t have access to the words, so I didn’t know what the song was about. Things like that made me feel very isolated and not able to have a two-way musical conversation. I thought, ‘I wish there was a way that I could feel or see the information that I’m missing.’”
The technology evolved over time. De Bastion first considered professional light fixtures used in theaters, but they were too one-dimensional for his uses. Most just flashed randomly, whenever there was a loud sound. So he built something that would reflect what key he was in, what notes were being played, at what intensity or volume, and at what speed.
“At CymaSpace we invested resources early into video technology, as it is the best way to engage with our community and expand our reach online,” he says. There are still barriers for accessibility; for example, providing closed captioning during live video streaming is extremely difficult and expensive. “This is an area where I expect to see a lot of growth.”
The nonprofit is developing open-source tools based on machine learning to automatically generate captions for live video streams and live events.
De Bastion’s most recent innovation identifies multiple notes in a chord. It was inspired in part by a baby monitor, which he stopped using because it wasn’t sensitive enough. It would vibrate whenever his child moved at night, not when the baby needed attention.
“You can identify multiple notes in people talking at once. I can actually see my 9-month-old baby babbling, my 2-year-old crying, or myself or my partner,” he says. “They have their own little color. I’m working on the technology to discern the difference through analysis of the sound.”
Does running a nonprofit and startup leave time for him to play music? His performance schedule revolves around large events, says de Bastion, who recently partnered with vocalist Holland Andrews at the Art Gym, before Marylhurst University shut down.
In the wider music world, deaf culture continues to advance: To wit, ASL interpreters who interpret hip-hop to a deaf audience have become viral sensations. As local and national efforts move forward, de Bastion says he’s getting better at learning how to commercialize his inventions.
“I’m finding ways to make a living. And it’s been very successful, I have to say, to create a path, a business model that supports the cause that’s the vision behind what I do. I see these doors opening now.”
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