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Let the Music Play

ae_PhilCollinsLocal composer, Phil Collins, named county’s Artist of the Year
Though he shares his name with the former Genesis frontman, chances are, unless you’ve taken a music class from longtime Santa Cruzan Phil Collins, or seen him conducting a local ensemble, you wouldn’t be able to pick him out in a crowd. And that’s just fine with him.

Collins enjoys the work he does behind the scenes. For every moment he has spent onstage playing piano or guitar, he has spent an equal amount of time out of the public eye, planning lessons, writing grants for various musical organizations he is involved with, and studying the musical traditions of indigenous peoples around the world.

 

And yet, try as he might to stay out of the spotlight, Collins’ work simply won’t allow it. He has been named the 2011 Artist of the Year by the Santa Cruz County Arts Commission, for his many accomplishments as a composer, conductor, music lab instructor at Cabrillo College, and for everything he has done with New Music Works—a local organization dedicated to developing talent through connecting musicians and composers, and publicly showcasing their art and abilities.

“This is by far the greatest award I’ve ever had,” Collins says. While he has been recognized for his compositions in the past, he views the county prize as a recognition of his life's work. To celebrate the honor, Collins will give a free concert at Cabrillo College Recital Hall on July 15.

Grandson to a former opera conductor, Collins says he used to crawl underneath his mother's piano as a toddler to listen to her play. Before he entered kindergarten, he was already plonking on the black and white keys, and he learned to read music by taking popular jazz piano lessons as a first-grader. When Collins was about 12 years old, his brother gave him an electric guitar, which he quickly learned to play, gigging around in a rock band and playing power chord pop songs.

He began his music studies at Cañada College in Redwood City. There, Collins met a professor who truly inspired him, rekindling his interest in classical music and encouraging him to follow his passion. "He was like this sage guy," Collins remembers of his instructor, John Krueger.

As he progressed in his musical education—earning a bachelor’s degree in music conducting at San Francisco State and a master’s in conducting from UC Santa Cruz—he became disenchanted with the highly competitive nature of the academy. Professors and graduate students were unsupportive of one another and obsessed with crafting what Collins calls “laboratory music”—technical, obscure works whose sole purpose was to impress critics and academics.

Music of this sort, he says, is highly inaccessible to the average listener, and has played a major role in driving casual music fans away from the classical genre.

At the same time classical composers were retreating to the laboratory, Collins observes, popular music was exploding. With the advent of multiple types of media on which music could be recorded (records, tapes and CDs) and multiple channels through which these recorded sounds could be transmitted (radio, television and the Internet), people had little reason to attend live music performance or learn how to play music for their friends and family.

For Collins, music is a form of communication. He is fascinated by non-Western cultures' use of music to transmit history and folk tales from one generation to the next. But he believes musical storytelling among families and groups of friends is regrettably on the decline in industrialized society.

“Music is absolutely required for a race to exist,” he says. A culture devoid of musical expression would not be one worth living in.

And so, although he found the musical academy stuffy, he has dedicated his life to teaching composition—with one caveat: no laboratory music.

Collins hopes the work he does at Cabrillo and New Music Works—which he co-founded in 1979 along with Tim Bell, Ron Elfving, Richard Freeman-Toole and Gene Lewis—will help inspire young people to connect with music in new ways, just as Krueger inspired him. Furthermore, he hopes to help musicians of all ages and abilities communicate with audiences.

"I really try to instill in my students an appreciation of all the elements that go into music," Collins says of his work at Cabrillo.

When it comes to New Music Works, Collins writes grants and puts on concerts with the aim of facilitating connections among musicians and composers, and making sure those artists have plenty of opportunities to share their creations with audiences in Santa Cruz. “For this music to survive,” he says, “it has to become a part of a social fabric.”

Collins’ compositional style reflects his musical philosophy. Instead of pushing the envelope into strange and uncharted territory, as other academic musicians have done, Collins prefers to take tidbits of musical influence from all over the world and from all kinds of genres and bring them together as cohesively as possible.

In order to attain that cohesion, he does not simply throw everything into the blender—rather, he picks those elements of different world traditions that fit nicely together. He hopes audiences will find the balance and harmony that he finds in his multicultural blends of the ancient and modern.

At the July 15 concert, Collins and other musicians will perform a variety of his compositions, including "Seven Haiku," which weaves Pacific Rim motifs through a 17-syllable haiku poem by Ron Federique; and "Trojan Slave Aria, which Collins describes playfully as "Rocky and Bullwinkle baroque."

 


Phil Collins performs at 7 p.m. Friday, July 15, at the Cabrillo College Recital Hall, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. No Cover. For details, call 454-7901 or visit scparks.com.

 

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