Sean Forbes is an impatient person.
"I'm the type of person who's like, 'Let's make this happen now,'" says the metro Detroit-based recording artist and co-founder of D-PAN, the Deaf Professional Arts Network. When it comes to Forbes' most ambitious undertaking to date, he and longtime friend, collaborator, and composer Jake Bass have plenty of anxiety and have had countless sleepless nights. For them, the Deaf and Loud Symphonic Experience at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is their opportunity to incite change — as well as pull off something that has never been done before.
"I feel fortunate that I've been able to do this for this long, because the average career of a musician is very short," Forbes says. "My family and friends are always like, 'Wow, you just keep going. You don't give up.' This show is the biggest thing that we've ever done and that's saying a lot because we did a show and Stevie Wonder showed up in the middle of the show. To be able to do this in our hometown with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra [and] to even be players that bring something to the party is unbelievable."
What they've set out to do with Deaf and Loud is reformat the typical concert experience to make it accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing, without making it inaccessible to everyone else. Bass has enlisted the help of famed Motown arranger Paul Riser to reimagine Motown classics with three performers who are deaf (including Forbes), a 60-piece ensemble from the DSO, and a complete rhythm section to infuse the new arrangements with Forbes' and Bass' hip-hop and rock sensibilities. Each piece of music will have lyrics attached to it that will be phonetically displayed on a screen and in sync with the orchestra, which Forbes says has required trial and error to perfect a new approach to visual programming.
"It's a very big production," Bass says. "It's been amazing to talk with Paul [Riser] about what it was like back then and to sit in the studio with Marvin Gaye like it's nothing to him. It's a trip to have him put his stamp on what I'm doing and kind of be that bridge from that generation to today. Plus, the DSO has never done an event like this before, so it's really cool for everybody involved to be working together to achieve the same goal, to make it accessible for everybody, and everyone's learning more about that — especially with the orchestra. For them to understand and realize, OK, we need to approach this setup so that it could be felt the way it's supposed to be felt, is amazing to see."
For Forbes' and Bass, their 13 years of collaboration led them to a meeting with Evelyn Glennie, the 2015 Polar Music Prize Winner and the world's only full-time, classical percussion-soloist. Like Forbes, Glennie has been deaf since childhood and also like Forbes, she has learned to "feel" music in a very literal sense. (For her, that means playing barefoot during performances to feel the sound's vibrations.) After flying out to Vermont to attend a residency, and again to her home and studio in England, Glennie approached the duo with the desire to tackle "Detroit music" in a big way, even asking them if they happened to know Eminem or his people. Little did she know the six degrees of separation was closer to one degree in Forbes' world.
"The deaf community may be a small breed of musicians, but Detroit itself is a small music community," Forbes says. "When I first started coming around D-PAN, Eminem was still working at 54 Sound, next door. I would do a session with Jake and I would walk by Marshall, say hello, and go in the other room and I remember thinking, 'Nobody's ever going to believe me.' But with Evelyn, it was like, should we collaborate? Should we do a show? It was like, 'What should we do?' Let's do everything."
Since starting their journey together, Forbes' and Bass have accomplished much — from their first collaboration, "I'm Deaf" (the viral 2010 track and accompanying video by Adrean Mangiardi for a song in which Forbes' humorously proclaims he's "Deafer than Def Jam") to the eventual release of Perfect Imperfection, Forbes's 2012 debut album which garnered quick praise from Spin, The Washington Post, XXL, Vibe, and NPR. In terms of Ferndale-based D-PAN, now entering its 12th year and perhaps its biggest yet, Forbes' and fellow co-founder Joel Martin can take pride in having filled a glaring void in the deaf and hard of hearing community by developing specialized American Sign Language music videos as well as entertainment and tools for interpreters, educators, and companies. Since its inception, they've also launched DPAN.TV, a source for ASL news content which includes deaf anchors and closed captions. The network was the first to livestream presidential debates with ASL interpreters for the 2016 election.
"When we started D-PAN, there was nothing like this," he says. "There were no sign language music videos online. People were just catching onto what accessibility really meant. And access to music, it was always important to me because I grew up in a musical family who took the time to lip sync songs to me. How can I take that upbringing and bring it to the masses and create an experience that everybody can enjoy?"
As they enter the home stretch before the DSO show, both Forbes and Bass say they want to make one thing very clear: Deaf and Loud is not reserved exclusively for the deaf or hard of hearing audience. It's about bringing accessibility, awareness, and music to the foreground. While they continue to dream big by entertaining the idea of taking Deaf and Loud on the road or formatting it for an annual show, all they're focusing on right now is getting it right and making a difference.
"I'm a person who loves music," Forbes says. "Yes, I happen to be deaf, but I want my music to be enjoyed by everybody, just like every other musician out there. It's not about me at the end of the day. It's about how can I get up on that stage at the symphony hall and change somebody's life. Whether it was somebody goes onto become an interpreter, somebody goes down to go into video production, and they're like, 'OK, you know, before we put this video out we have to put closed captions on it.'"
"You have to be a certain kind of person to see past the things you've experienced in your life and ask how can I change somebody's life by just being me?" he adds. "It doesn't have to be anything more or anything less. Just be who you are. And that's what I did."
Deaf and Loud Symphonic Experience will take place at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 16 at Orchestra Hall; 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-576-5111; dso.org; Tickets are $50+.
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