IC Alumnus Wins Music Composition Award

By Sherrie Negrea, July 7, 2020
Patrick Holcomb’s orchestral piece, “Persephone,” was inspired by the sounds of the sea.

Patrick Holcomb ’18 was walking through a CVS pharmacy 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 the melody down and didn’t return to it until he had started graduate school at Indiana University. In May, his orchestral piece “Persephone” received national recognition when Holcomb won a BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) Student Composer Award.

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

Evis Sammoutis, an associate professor of composition who taught Holcomb at Ithaca College, said he wasn’t surprised his former student had received the award. “I expect Patrick to do great things,” Sammoutis said. “This is just one of the steps in that direction that I was always confident would be there for him.”

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

Patrick Holcomb '18

Holcomb began composing at the age of 12 after he heard the piece, “Strange Humors” by the American composer John Mackey, performed by what would become his high school band in Vienna, Va.

“That piece just blew my mind,” recalls Holcomb, who plays French horn. “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 at IC was the ethnomusicology course on Hindustani (North Indian) classical music he took with Denise Nuttall, associate professor of anthropology. 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, who ended up minoring in anthropology. “I absolutely wouldn’t be where I am today as a composer if I hadn’t studied North Indian music.”

man smiling

Patrick Holcomb '18

Holcomb, who graduated at the top of his class in the School of Music, 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,” Sammoutis said. “It’s a very selective program, but even within that selective program, he excelled.”

At Indiana University, Holcomb won several awards for his compositions, including a score for a silent film. Outside the music world, he also won a Marc Lederman Scholarship from the Mensa Education and Research Foundation, which funded a year of his master’s degree.

Holcomb joined Mensa, an international society for people who score in the top 2 percent of a standardized intelligence test, while a sophomore at IC. “I always thought when I was a youngster that I was different,” he said. “Even as young as 10 years old, I thought my brain functioned differently. Being admitted into Mensa kind of answered a lot of those questions for me.”

At Indiana, Holcomb 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.

“I feel confident about Patrick — he is an extremely hard worker and that’s a huge quality to have as much as the talent that he already has,” Sammoutis said. “He has a bright future ahead, and I think even greater things will happen for him.”