Spanning one and a half miles of drab industrial facades that morph into houses and multi-family dwellings, State Avenue doesn’t come across as inspirational. But it’s the defining border of Lower Price Hill, home to a large Appalachian community.
Last year, Nate May, a graduate student in composition at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, began collecting oral histories of Lower Price Hill residents. These formed the basis for his multimedia oratorio State: A Testimony to Urban Appalachia, which has its world premiere this weekend at Community Matters’ Sanctuary in Lower Price Hill.
Slight and soft-spoken, May is himself Appalachian, and as a kid he had little interest in his background. “Huntington, W. Va., was a place I wanted out of,” he says. “I wanted to play Jazz, and there weren’t any opportunities.”
He headed to the University of Michigan, where he received a grant to spend a year studying in Cape Town, South Africa. It was the last place he expected to hear West Virginia jokes. “I was offended,” he says. “That’s when I realized I had this identity as Appalachian.”
In 2013, May collaborated with community organizer Andrew Munn to create Dust in the Bottomland, a 40-minute monodrama for a singer and pianist that tells of Munn’s struggles with mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Following the premiere in May’s hometown, Dust has been performed in five states and on radio and television. But May wasn’t entirely satisfied with the work’s structure. He wanted to create real characters based on their own words. “I didn’t want to be an interpreter of people’s lives,” he says.
May’s decision to attend CCM was based in part on Cincinnati’s Appalachian heritage and his plans for a new project. He met with the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition and Lower Price Hill’s Community Matters, which signed on as May’s community liaison. His plans got a boost with grants from ArtsWave and People’s Liberty. A Facebook post drew several responses that led to interviews with eight men and women who migrated to Cincinnati. And the work began.
From the 1930s on, higher-paying jobs and the desire for a better life spurred waves of Appalachian migrants north — today, as many as 34 percent of Cincinnati’s residents are migrants or their direct descendants.
May winnowed down more than 14 hours of interviews to three stories from women with entirely different backgrounds but with the shared experience of leaving home, yearning for it but not returning.
These stories are the oratorio’s text; fragments of other recorded interviews are heard in the interludes. May describes the text as “an honest but necessarily incomplete snapshot of a displaced people and their origins.” And the words are literally close to home: Aileen Thomas and Debbie Shelton live just off of State Avenue; acclaimed storyteller Omope Daboiku now lives in Dayton, Ohio.
May created a musical language that was true to the stories’ words. The traditional mountain music in the score calls for an untuned banjo, Ball jars, vibraphone and cast iron skillets. The choral music is by turns brittle, spiky or mellow, punctuated by rhythmic shifts and long melodic lines. It’s a formidable challenge for any choir.
Fortunately, May enlisted MUSE, Cincinnati’s award-winning women’s choir. He attended its November concert featuring Appalachian music. “Their huge fan base totally blew me away, and they were so passionate about the music,” he says.
Cincinnati Entertainment Award winner Kate Wakefield takes on the demanding solo lines. Trained as an opera singer and known for her performances of original materials, Wakefield is the ideal interpreter, May says.
MUSE’s artistic director Rhonda Juliano got her first look at the final score three weeks ago. Unfazed by 13 staves and a 164-page score, Juliano says she is excited about State and its multimedia aspects, including images and interview sound clips.
It’s difficult music, and May says he’s very pleased with what he’s heard in rehearsals.
“It’s a world I’ve been living in for months,” he wrote on Facebook. “I can’t wait for y’all to inhabit it with me.”
STATE premieres Saturday and Sunday at The
Sanctuary in Lower Price Hill. Reserve free tickets:musechoir.org/store/tickets/stateconcert.