Michael Houstoun
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Massey University Graduation Address 13 May, 1999.

Kia ora. Greetings one and all.

My congratulations to those of you who are graduating this year. You are the ones who have truly laboured for your degrees and diplomas. I really should be playing background music to accompany your walk to the stage. But, instead, I have decided to talk to you and I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with these non-musical notes.

I am glad this ceremony is taking place in the Regent. Stages like this are where the most vivid moments of my musical life occur. And for us, as a community, they are the equivalent of the outdoor arenas of times past - a place where our cultural lives are played out. In a place such as this a certain magic can happen which suspends the problems of the so-called real world and allows an experience which is, at the same time, both personal and communal - and even, at the very best of times, transcendental.

To be a concert pianist is to be different things to different people. For some, for example the Inland Revenue Department and those who prefer to look rather than listen, I am an entertainer. For others, for example many of the music students around the country, I am someone who knows more about music than they do. For yet others, and perhaps for the most, I am the means to hear the music they love.

But today I want to separate out another of my roles which is less-often discussed although quite widely felt. This role I will call ‘Custodian of a Ritual’ and that ritual is the CONCERT - the concert which is a ‘live’ event, unique and self-contained.

The history of Western thought has been a movement towards the full development of the individual. We cherish our individuality. For instance, it is quite clear to me that concertgoers disagree amongst themselves as to what exactly they have heard. Each listener is attached to their own particular subjective experience. And the wonder and bliss of great music - in all its forms - is that it allows this, totally. There are no rights or wrongs about reactions to music. There are no absolute meanings of any phrases or movements or pieces.

Of course a consequence of this is the slightly surreal situation in a concert where, although I’m playing a single piece of music, say a Beethoven sonata, everyone is hearing it in slightly different ways.

I have to confess, too, that this individual experience of music can happen without the benefit of a concert. If you are happy with a second-hand, watered-down electronic experience you can listen to CDs. But to listen to music at home in your room or through headphones is to miss out on something on which I place great value and which I call the Ritual.

For as much as the subjective individual experience of music is undeniable, so is another experience of music altogether. And this other experience of music only happens at a concert. The nature of this experience is difficult to describe but is most often summed up in the phrase, "you could have heard a pin drop."

What takes place, what happens, is a feeling that a larger collective experience has enveloped and somehow transcended the multifarious individual experiences of an audience. The music itself has taken over and freed the listeners from their individual reflections and distractions. The atmosphere in the hall becomes electric, other-worldly. Nerves are tingling, but not from tension - rather from release. All is alive, alert yet relaxed, expectant yet satisfied.

In such circumstances, the concert - this Ritual - involving the performer or performers and audience in a special space — is a communal experience par excellence. You can leave such a concert with the consoling or elevating feeling that what has been just for you has been also for everyone. The relationship of the One to the All - or might I say the identity of the One with the All - has been given clearer focus.

All cultures try to come to grips with the problem of reconciling the individual and the communal spirit. And through the ages rituals have developed to promote some kind of understanding and resolution of this dichotomy. People like me show up to foster such rituals, to take on the custodial role. But, regrettably, it seems to me that as individuality and individualism deepen, ritual is increasingly denigrated if not abandoned.

Today, here, we are each of us unique and separate. And yet we also are "we." This Massey graduation is a ceremony and a ritual which helps us to understand this. But this spirit, this sense of things, is not so easy to maintain when we’re out in the world, often seemingly and necessarily alone, each of us pursuing our various distinctive goals and desires.

When I asked about the nature of this address it was suggested to me only that it should in some way be directed to the graduands. This seemed to mean that I should exhort you to something. So I will!

I suggest that every now and then - that is, as often as possible - you seek out a promising musical event. It can be classical or contemporary, ethnic or exotic, whatever - but the event should offer ‘promise’ and quality.

Then, go.... just go! The concert, the ritual, the artist (or artists), the ambience - these will do the rest.

Now, may I wish you, each and every one, good health, good fortune and good morning.

Massey University Graduation Address. 13 May, 1999


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