Michael Houstoun
Michael Houstoun - Archive

Graduation address upon receipt of honorary doctorate.

Good afternoon everyone and welcome to this celebration of intelligence, hard work and accomplishment.

It is a day of great good fortune for me and I am mindful of that larger musical community to which I belong and which will have helped such a happy honour to come my way.

May I offer therefore a special welcome to those graduating from the NZ School of Music.

Welcome to the post-university world of music. This may bear no relationship to the world of music you’ve known until now, although chances are you’ve made it this far without a whole lot of extra cash in your pockets. That at least is good preparation!

At one stage when I was wondering about the content of this address I thought I might talk about why it is important that every household in New Zealand should contain a piano, and how this would lower the crime rate and promote greater overall harmony and happiness.

But then I thought it could be more relevant to muse on what happens when a significant body of people get together for a communal event - an event such as this one that we are all part of here, as I speak.

I believe a graduation ceremony has two quite distinct sides.

For those of you who are not here to pick up a degree, your focus will probably be confined to an individual or two, a family member or friend who is graduating. You will wait for their turn, breathe a sigh of relief when they don’t trip on their way across the stage, applaud vigorously and look forward to getting together with them after the ceremony. Your sense of community will be conditioned by this individual focus. It would be impossible to lend the same level of attention to every single graduand, and why would you.

On the other side, chances are the graduands will have a much stronger sense of this as a community event. Yes, they know that family and special friends will be watching. And, yes, they hope they will not trip up on their way to the stage. But they will also feel the audience as a single body, thus enhancing the experience of their graduation as an entrance to the larger community.

What I am saying is: a graduation ceremony is a rite of passage and in this resides its importance and value.

Now...bearing the music graduates particularly in mind, I would like to mention another sort of communal event. This happens to be one of great importance to me personally, and most probably the real basis of the reason I am honoured here today.

I’m speaking of - the concert. Or, more specifically, the concert devoted to what we call classical music, because what I will endeavour to describe can never occur at a noisy rock concert.

For me, a concert is an opportunity: not so much to ‘show my stuff’, as to be part of an experience that cannot be had any other way.

This ‘experience’ can never be guaranteed and many concerts do not provide it, although they may have other satisfactions. It strikes me too that it is harder to achieve when the forces on stage are large in numbers and there is the increased potential for visual distraction.

Within this experience, or what I might also term ‘this formidable sensation’, is contained a seeming paradox in that both the sound of the music and the silence that surrounds it are felt equally and simultaneously.

What I am getting at is...that moment, or succession of moments, in a concert that is usually described with the phrase “you could have heard a pin drop”. This refers to an atmosphere of an entirely different order from that produced by a collection of well-mannered citizens who know the rules about keeping quiet at concerts.

Now, it is my experience that people usually can’t agree about much to do with music. For Mr A the Bach was the best, but Mrs B preferred the Chopin and Mr C doesn’t like anything written before 1945. So the ‘pin drop’ experience somehow transcends these personal preferences. Why and how this happens is quite mysterious. But even more mysterious is the effect of it happening to an entire audience at once. And it can last for quite a long period of time, even complete movements.

As many as 1000 individuals in a hall are having a transfixing personal experience, simultaneously, and this produces a shared communal experience of extraordinary richness and satisfaction. The communal magnifies the personal. Often quiet tears flow and the ‘formidable sensation’ can have an afterlife lasting ad infinitum.

It promotes tranquillity of spirit, an increased love for one’s neighbour, and it lessens the fear of death. And it all occurs within a bubble of perfect silence - no coughing, rustling, no tension anywhere - just hearing and being. It is truly a magical thing.

The performer or performers are obviously a fundamental part of this experience, but it cannot be contrived. It will happen when the performance is flowing unselfconsciously. And the pure attention of the audience will lift the performer in ways the performer can not envisage or prepare for. The flaws in the performance will have no significance.


If you gathered an audience together in this room and played them what was considered the greatest recorded performance of a certified masterpiece on the very best audio equipment, they could never in a thousand years have the experience I am inadequately describing. It can only happen ‘live’, the sound of the music must be created right then and there.

So, all you beautiful students and lovers and friends of music, this is where the world of music is really ‘at’. Go out and seek this experience, and when you have it - either as performer or audience member - spread the good word.

And don’t forget to buy, borrow or steal a piano.

I would like to play to you a piece of music by Franz Liszt whose 200th birthday we celebrate this year. I do it without any expectation of creating a transcendental experience, but I hope nonetheless that you will enjoy it. It is inspired by the sonnet No.123 written by the 14th century Italian poet and scholar, Francesco Petrarca. This sonnet has been translated as follows:

I beheld on earth angelic grace
And heavenly beauty unmatched in this world;
Such as to rejoice and pain my memory
Which is so clouded with dreams, shadows, mists.

And I beheld tears spring from those two bright eyes
Which many a time have put the sun to shame;
And heard words uttered with such sighs
As to move the mountains and stay the rivers.

Love, wisdom, courage, pity and grief
Made in that plaint a sweeter concert
Than any other to be heard on earth.

And heaven on that harmony was so intent
That not a leaf upon the bough was seen to stir
Such sweetness filled the atmosphere.


Graduation address upon receipt of honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington 18 May 2011


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