Persephone Brings Forth Composition Award

By Sherrie Negrea, September 4, 2021
The orchestral piece Persephone by Patrick Holcomb ’18 was inspired by the sounds of the sea.

Patrick Holcomb ’18 was walking through a CVS in Ocean View, Delaware, when a melody evoking the sound of waves, wind, and seagulls suddenly came to him. On winter break of his senior year, he wrote down the melody and didn’t return to it until he had started graduate school at Indiana University. In May 2020, Persephone received national recognition when Holcomb won a Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) Student Composer Award for the piece. 

Holcomb was one of eight composers to win the prestigious award in 2020, which is presented annually to composers under the age of 28. Nearly 600 composers living in the Western Hemisphere competed for the prize. 

“That piece just blew my mind. I thought, ‘I have to do that—I have to write something that will blow other people’s minds.’” 

Patrick Holcomb ’18

Holcomb began composing at the age of 12 after he heard the piece Strange Humors by the American composer John Mackey being performed. 

“That piece just blew my mind,” recalled Holcomb, who is a French horn player. “I thought, ‘I have to do that—I have to write something that will blow other people’s minds.’” 

His first full-length composition was a piece for band he wrote his freshman year of high school. At IC, he expanded his repertoire, composing for woodwind quintet, string orchestra, French horn octet, voice, and other groups. 

One of the major influences on his compositional style was the ethnomusicology course on Hindustani (North Indian) classical music that he took at IC. The course led Holcomb to learn to play the tabla and Indian harmonium, which he then taught to other students. 

“I took the class on a whim, and my brain just kind of expanded 10 different times,” said Holcomb. “I absolutely wouldn’t be where I am today as a composer if I hadn’t studied North Indian music.” 

Holcomb was selected from all the graduating composition students to write a fanfare to precede the 2018 Ithaca College Commencement ceremony. 

“He was one of the best composition students that we had,” IC associate professor of composition Evis Sammoutis said. “It’s a very selective program, but even within that selective program, he excelled.” 

At Indiana University, he won several awards for his compositions, including a score for a silent film. He continued to develop his compositional style, which he compared to North Indian music for being both improvisational and structured. “By writing something on paper, which is rigid in its own nature, I wanted to write something that was also spontaneous and that had a kind of spur-of-the-moment quality to it,” he said. 

Another element of his style is composing programmatic music—pieces that are associated with a story or idea. His award-winning piece, Persephone, is based on the story of the Greek goddess who was abducted by Hades and forced to spend a portion of each year with him in the underworld. Holcomb said he envisioned the seven-minute work as an imagination of Persephone seeing her reflection in each of the six rivers she passes on her annual journey into Hades. 

After completing his master’s degree, Holcomb said he hopes to earn a doctorate in composition and follow in the footsteps of other American composers who won a BMI award when they were launching their careers.