Commencement 1989

George Martin's Commencement Address

George Martin and Dizzy Gillespie received Berklee honorary doctor of music degrees in 1989, and Martin delivered the commencement address—transcribed below—to graduates and their families.

I am indeed honored and delighted to be with you today, and I am particularly thrilled to be sharing this moment with someone who has always been a hero of mine, Dizzy Gillespie. 

George Martin (left) and Dizzy Gillespie

And there is a double honor for me, because of what I am. Some of you may have noticed, if you are really observant, that I do not hail from your country. I am an alien, a foreigner, a limey—actually a cockney, and I think it is doubly generous of you to take to your hearts someone from another land working for another people. But that is typical of the kindness of the American spirit that I have always found.

Music has always been of special importance in the United States, not least because you have contributed so much to the musical culture of the world. I can think of no other people whose musical influence has been so profound and universal, no other country which has melded its folk music into a new language and developed the most popular form of music in the world today. It is impossible to conceive what our lives would be like today without that musical heritage. From the blues created by the American Negro, the lineage of jazz has grown steadily, taking influences from folk and country music along the way, and in turn developed the vigorous offspring of rock and roll. And that melting pot has brewed the sounds that fill our ears today.

All this music demanded new sounds and technology, and Americans found a way of designing new instruments like the electric guitar, the Hammond organ, and more recently electronic instruments and synthesizers. Even the saxophone was adopted and transformed from an orchestral novelty into a vital new band sound, and the trumpet, in the hands of masters such as Dizzy here, has become a new and important voice expression of his genius.

For many years we folk across the pond tried hard to keep up with you, but found it difficult to match the quality of your writers like Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Ellington. Pop music was an American art form. But we kept trying, and in the 60s made our breakthrough. Learning from you, taking the best of your music, we worked at it, gave it a bit of European gloss and sent it back to you as a new sound, and we keep trying to do that today. You were generous; without that acceptance I would not be here today. And for that I thank you.

I like your attitudes, too. I do not find snobbishness here between different kinds of music. This college is a superb example of a healthy impartial approach that knows no barriers, no pigeonholes, no classical looking down the nose, no rock and roll sneering at their opposite numbers. You show the existence of only two kinds of music: good and bad. I have always believed that one form of art can learn a great deal from another, and I have always tried to incorporate, where appropriate, influences from other sources. Cross-fertilization was bound to improve the breed.

But technology has not always been to our advantage. In many ways it is harder today for young musicians starting out on their careers than it was for me when I began.

Coincidentally, it is 40 years almost to the day since I left music college to begin my career in music. And I tell you right now I would hate to be starting out in 1989.

For one thing, for music to improve it has to be created live. This may seem a paradox coming from someone who has spent most of his life in a recording studio. But I believe in the spontaneity of performance and the ability to move the soul of the listeners with music that happens at the time.

In Europe there is a sinister growing dependence on visual entertainment. TV and video have become the opium of the masses, with prerecorded and programmed sound satisfying their eternal hunger. The staple diet of millions of people is junk music. Like junk food, it may fill their bellies, but it doesn't improve their style. They are hearing with their eyes and listening to nothing.

Well, maybe that is a bit pessimistic, but I think we have to do our darnedest to counter this trend and get people to realize that mimed performances are not as good as the real thing.

I am often asked if any of the records I have made would have benefited by modern technology. I love technical wizardry, and I am enormously excited at the potential that is available today. Our tools are so much more sophisticated these days, and of course they can make life easier. But we have to remember that they are just tools nothing more and true art, true music comes from the heart and soul of the human being. So the answer to the question posed is: I believe my productions may have been easier to make if I had had today's technology. They may even have been quicker—they would probably have been a little different—but better? I seriously doubt it. Something like Sgt. Pepper may even have been not as good because different techniques would have altered its style. I cannot contemplate what a liberal use of sampling would have done to it. I would have lost a lot of those lovely human imperfections which add up to a roundness that clinical correctness fails to give.

Oh, and while I am on it, let me tell you that there is no way Pepper could have seen the light of day if Geoff Emerick and I had used drugs of any sort. That kind of crutch never improves art, no matter how glamorous it may seem at the time.

Pete Townshend said to me the other day when we launched a new school in London for the performing arts, "George, tell the young ones how to cope with success." I knew what he meant. Success and its hand in glove partner, failure, are equally difficult to handle, and everyone has to deal with both in different quantities in their lifetimes. The despair of rejection, or failure, is easy to imagine and is well documented. The perils of success are less evident. For one thing, it is a mirage, and you never really ever get to it. There is always more to do, more to learn, and always someone better than you are. Mind you, there's always someone worse as well! But public approval is a heady wine, and too much can be not only intoxicating, but downright harmful. Keep a sensible opinion of your own worth true to yourself, without the honeyed words of your admirers. They can eat you alive if you are not careful, yet drop you like a hot brick if you dare to go out of fashion.

Lord knows that it is hard to get to the top, but it is a darned sight harder staying there. The music business is littered with shooting stars that have burned out. So pace yourselves. It is not a sprint that you are running; it is more like a marathon. And remember, you have to keep running.

Obviously talent is required. It goes without saying. Equally obvious is the need for constant application, plain hard work. Every first-class musician that I have known works hard at his talent, not because he has to, but because he enjoys it. Someone like my friend Mark Knopfler seems to enjoy talent that requires no effort, but I promise you he practices on his guitar everyday to keep his technique up to scratch.

Timing is everything. When I left college all those years ago, I earned my bread playing the oboe, but I wanted more than anything to succeed as a composer. It was the time of the grand film scores, and I thought if only I had a break, I, too, could write terrific film music. It was my idea of heaven.

Well, I did write for films eventually, and very different it proved to be to my imaginings. And a lot happened on the way there. I had my share of success and failure, rejection, and acceptance.

I was lucky enough to join the record industry at a time of change, just before its big expansion. I took a job at Abbey Road studios to give me a bit more money, and I became hooked on the fascination of recording. I was lucky enough to arrive at the right time, and to become part of a team that was learning as it was developing. It was hardly science in those days. We flew by the seat of our pants, and improvisation was the order of the day. That timing, that luck, is something that we all need. Everyone has opportunities of one sort or another throughout their lives, and one cannot expect to benefit from every one. The trick is to recognize the break when it comes and to take advantage of it.

And when luck goes against you, don't let it get you down; it will all even out in the end. Try and relax with your art. Everyone is allowed a little failure now and again. The reassuring thing I have learned from working with geniuses is that no one is perfect; no one is so good that he does not need help.

I said you were running a race, a marathon. Well, on second thought that marathon is relay race, and I am close to passing on the baton. A lot of you are going to take up the baton passed to you by those ahead of you. Music of the future is in your hands. Cherish it; it is a vital part of humanity.

Thank you again for this great honor. I am deeply grateful.