For the love of language and song: NC composer and poet laureate intertwine arts

By Christi Marsico • Staff Writer

North Carolina’s poet laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer listens to the CD “Alma,” composed by Harold Schiffman, in the mornings as she begins her day and when she drives to her home state of Georgia.

“Every time I hear the cantata, I hear more,” Byer said.

The CD holds special meaning to Byer as texts from her book of poetry, “Wildwood Flower,” inspired the composer to write the CD.

“With every artist no matter the medium you have echoes of works that add another dimension,” said Byer, a Cullowhee resident.

The word alma means “soul” in Latin, and while the poet and composer didn’t know each other until her words inspired his music, their mutual love for the mountains destined them to create the art that crossed their paths.

Written for a mixed chorus, mezzo-soprano solo and orchestra, “Alma” has been professionally performed three times most recently with a European premiere this past October.

Conducted by Mátyás Antal, the cantata was performed by the Gyor Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hungarian National Chorus in Gyor Hungary, which also coincided with Schiffman’s 80th birthday.

The composer

Born in Greensboro, Schiffman knew since age 13 that he wanted to be a composer.

Performing at local venues, he wrote his first pieces of music at age 14.

Schiffman has spent his life composing, and while music is his passion, poetry has been his muse.

For many years the composer has made contributions to the Academy of American Poets, and in the summer of 1993 he received a copy of Byer’s “Wildwood Flower.” Her book of poetry had been selected by the Academy of American Poets as the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1992.

“I just fell in love with the poems and sent her a fan letter,” Schiffman said.

In 1999, a Hungarian conductor wanted Schiffman to compose a mixed chorus and orchestra cantata, and Schiffman thought of Byer’s poems.

“Kay’s poems have marvelous rhythms, wonderful images and fantasy,” Schiffman said. “They are also wrapped up in nature, and I love that, too.”

The composer asked the poet’s permission, and the process of writing his first large choral composition began.

The art of arrangement

Schiffman didn’t analyze the poems he read, allowing the rhythms to come alive in his ears. He felt “lucky” as the music suggested itself out of the poetry.

As he made musical sketches, the music made itself happen and was very “tonal.”

“The poetry was accessible and there were clear forms and from those forms came ideas,” Schiffman said.

The composer felt the central piece of the composition was “Lullaby” due to its rhythm and harmony and related it to everything else he wrote.

In “Alma,“ there are six movements involving texts from “Wildwood Flower,” as well as two Biblical excerpts from The Song of Solomon and The Book of Job.

“Alma is a very romantic lyrical piece of music that has a rich orchestration,” Schiffman said. “Kay has illusions to Celtic and Appalachian music and some passages sound like folk music.”

To intertwine all the ideas involved, the composer turned to his favorite poem “Alma,” which not only inspired the title but opens the cantata.

“Alma is about a fictional mountain woman who lived around the turn of the century,” Schiffman said.

While working on his composition for the CD recording, he met Byer in 2000 at a concert at Western Carolina University.

In 2002, Schiffman finished the cantata, and has drawn critical praise since its CD release in 2004.

He currently resides with his wife, Jane, in Robbinsville part of the year, and while being commissioned for numerous works, Schiffman is thinking about setting new poems from Byer.

A distinguished background

After high school, Schiffman attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received his master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley.

Following service in the U.S. Army from 1951-54, Schiffman went on to earn his doctorate at Florida State University.

Throughout his musical career, Schiffman was influenced by instructor Roger Sessions in principal composition and mentor Ernst von Dohnányi.

Hired as a faculty professor at FSU in 1959, Schiffman went on to be the founding director of Florida State University Festival of New Music in 1981. He retired in 1983 and was designated Professor Emeritus two years later.

He presently serves as chair of the Music Advisory Board of UNC Greensboro, and has been commissioned to write music by many diverse groups. For more information on Schiffman visit

The poet

Byer, born and raised in Southwest Georgia, promised herself she would live in the mountains that held a fascination with her since childhood.

Upon receiving her master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she taught poetry in the master’s of fine arts program at the UNC Greensboro. She served as Poet-in-Residence at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, and received the 2001 North Carolina Award for Literature.

Byer has received writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council.

Residing in Cullowhee, she is currently North Carolina’s poet laureate.

She has lived in the mountains of North Carolina since 1968, and when she first arrived in Cullowhee, she felt compelled to get a sense of her new home allowing the cadence, rhythm and way of life to connect with her.

In the midst of changing times, Byer found the mountain way of life staying relatively the same.

“Living toward the land made me feel particularly close to people,” Byer said.

While forming friendships, Byer looked to the mountains for poetry letting the local music and stories permeate her imagination.

Among her many published works she sensed something was different about the “Wildwood Flower” collection.

“These poems would just come to me and I just knew what to say,” Byer said.

Hiking in the Smokies, she imagined what life would be like living ruggedly in the mountains.

While writing she remembered Alma Presley, a friendly neighbor who had welcomed her.

“She was a generous and colorful old lady, and I became found of her,” Byer said.

The fond memory of that neighbor turned into the main voice of her poems as she titled one of them “Alma.”

Byer has always had a passion for music and singing, and when she heard Schiffman’s composition of her poems, it gave her goose bumps.

“He really captured it,” Byer said. “He caught the shades of the voices— the bounce and lilt and the cold sense of being trapped.”

Traveling to Hungary this past fall to see the European premiere of Schiffman’s “Alma” brought a resurrected youth to the poet.

“My poems connected with people so far away and spoke to them like the mountains spoke to me,” Byer said.

The poetic process

Byer describes “Alma” as a woman finding her way through her story by song.

“She was a singer of her own story and grew out of her struggles by singing her way through the dark nights,” Byer said.

The poet believes that women have been devalued in the mountains with little communication between a man and wife as the woman’s role was to be “silent.”

In her first poem “Wildwood Flower,” Byer deals with survival.

In “Empty Glass,” the poet lets the mountain woman’s voice sing despite the desperate cold and isolation.

In the second section, Byer notes the “undulating quality” of her poems as the mountain woman sings back through memories.

“She imagines herself becoming part of nature,” Byer said. “Harold’s music captures that journey of hers.”

While the core poems for Byer are “Alma” and “Empty Glass,” due to their mystical and lyrical aspects of nature, her poem “Lullaby” emerged from the particular image of heavy snow.

During one winter, Byer’s husband noted concern for the pressure of a heavy snow on their roof.

“I thought of Alma alone with snow on her roof,” Byer said. “She’s isolated and alone and needs to dig herself out of this place because she’s suffocating. She sets up a state of mind and she needs to find a way out which is why there is repetition of sound and image.”

It took Byer a year to write all the poems in “Wildwood Flower,“ and another year to organize them.

With other endeavors such as “Appalachian Song Book,” Byer proves her love of language is interwoven in the mountain’s musical fabric.

For more information on Byer visit her blog at

Go to top