2016 People’s Liberty
grantee Nate May is a composer and pianist whose work is influenced by his Appalachian roots. Inspired by his upbringing, May received a $10,000 grant from People’s Liberty Project Grant II class that allowed him to compose a musical piece entitled "State: A Testimony to Urban Appalachia
," which debuted in April at The Sanctuary
in Lower Price Hill.
People's Liberty project grantee Nate May (seated), practices his original piece with MUSE: Cincinnati Women's Choir.
Though the live performance ran for only two nights, "State" was years in the making.
“I grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, and lived in Fayetteville,” May says. “While I was living there, I became really interested in Appalachian issues. I was looking for the next step to explore these topics.”
During that time, May wrote an opera called "Dust in the Bottomland," which focused on issues that Appalachians face.
That next step came when May was awarded an Appalachian Sound Fellowship from Berea College
in 2015. He was funded to collect oral histories, and he planned to use that content as the lyrical text for a piece of music. May then connected with Community Matters
in Lower Price Hill, which introduced him to Appalachians living in Cincinnati.
As May began to compose State
, word spread about the project. May was told that MUSE: Cincinnati Women’s Choir
had just moved into The Sanctuary along with Community Matters, and they, too, shared an interest in Appalachian history. May immediately reached out to discuss the possibility of collaborating on the piece, and the choir's director, Rhonda Juliano, enthusiastically took on the challenge.
“It was such a difficult piece,” May says. “They put a huge amount of work into it and pushed themselves.”
Classically-trained Cincinnati vocalist Kate Wakefield, whom May knew from school, sang the lead part, which tells the story of three urban Appalachian women using their own words. A trio of percussionists and a pianist brought rhythm to the piece.
“I’m really proud of the piece and it came across as I’d envisioned it,” May says. “And I can’t say that about every piece that I’ve written. This was the most ambitious piece I’ve ever undertaken.”
The experience of creating "State" opened many doors for May. He now works as a consultant for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition
, in addition to continuing to compose and perform regularly as a pianist. With the Coalition, May is helping to start an initiative for Appalachian college students in Cincinnati to explore their identities through research, advocacy and cultural events.
“On a creative level, having a vision that big, and that prone to failure, and then actually realizing it has given me a big head about the possibilities that I can undertake,” May says.
Buoyed by the success of "State," May says that he is now throwing himself into projects with a newfound enthusiasm and self-assurance.
“I’m taking on things I wouldn’t have undertaken before,” he says. He is now in the early stages of developing a collaborative musical project that will involve touring nationally. “It will be like 'State' in a number of ways, but even more visible nationally. I’ve found that my ego needs to be unrealistically large in order to actually accomplish what I need to accomplish. If it’s realistic, I’ll stop short of what’s possible, but if it’s unrealistic, I’ll push myself to the edges.”
May will be speaking about "State," and his other works surrounding Appalachian issues, on Oct. 6 at “Composing Appalachia: A Conversation with Nate May
.” The talk is part of a series of literary salons organized by Pauletta Hansel, Cincinnati’s Poet Laureate. The event will take place from 7 to 10 p.m. at Lydia’s on Ludlow in Clifton.
A full recording of "State," as well as photos and video, can be found on May’s website
Twice per year, eight grantees are chosen per grant cycle to prototype solutions to civic challenges. Project grantees are supported with $10,000, a launch event and access to People’s Liberty’s workplace and mentorship. Stay tuned to
Soapbox for profiles of this year's 15 other grantees.