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Dr Joseph KOO

77th Congregation (2014)

Dr Joseph KOO
Doctor of Social Science


In the ‘Record of Music’ in the Book of Rites, we read that ‘music originates from tone, and its root lies in the human heart being moved by external things.’ Because the composer’s production of beautiful sounds starts with a movement of the heart, music is the most emotionally expressive of the many art forms, and its performance in turn moves audiences more than other performing arts. Hong Kong’s creative achievement in music is extraordinary, and is famous at home and abroad. The last few decades have seen the composition of a great number of moving pieces, and foremost among the composers of these is the man standing on the stage today. Renowned in the world of music for over half a century, he has been called the Godfather of Cantopop. He is the consummate musical craftsman Dr Joseph Koo. Dr Joseph Koo was born in 1931 in Guangzhou. In his early years he liked painting. When he was 17, he came to live in Hong Kong. He went to work by day and studied at night, and life was hard. At the age of 18, as a consequence of the practice needs of his sister, the famous singer Koo Mei, he began to learn the piano, studying with a professional teacher from the Philippines. He worked with concentration and practised hard, and such was his extraordinary natural talent for music that in a very short time he had mastered the principles of musical theory, the ramifications of harmony and the skills of a performer; he also had great powers of assimilation, and was gifted with enormous facility. He therefore changed course and became a pianist, and was employed as a bandleader in a night club. This was the beginning of his long career as a composer and his dazzlingly successful life in music. In 1961 the Shaw Brothers started shooting Endless Love, and were looking for a theme-song for the film. Dr Koo’s first composition ‘Dream’ was duly chosen for the soundtrack, and was sung by his sister Koo Mei: “They say that life is like a dream, but I say dreams are just like life.” The song was a stunning hit, and was instantly popular all over Hong Kong. It harmonised brilliantly with the plot of the film, the music and the images enhancing each other, and the haunting melody lingered movingly in the mind. Dr Koo’s musical talent had emerged for all to see. Then the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA, recognizing his excellence, offered him a scholarship to study music there and learn traditional music theory. He also enjoyed the generous sponsorship of Sir Run Run Shaw, which enabled him to give all his attention to his studies and complete the course successfully. After graduation he returned to Hong Kong, where he composed, arranged and provided soundtracks for the two big film studios Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. He won several prizes, including the Best Music Awards at the Golden Horse Festival, Taiwan and the Asia Pacific Film Festival, and his reputation began to take off. But he was never content to rest on his laurels, and in the 1980s he went to the US again, this time to the Dick Grove Music Workshop in Los Angeles for the advanced course in music there. He worked unremittingly, sustaining his passion for composition and pressing on tirelessly from beginning to end. He showed great diligence and care in everything, from musical theory to practical composition, and worked with concentration and determination at all times. In 1967, when Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) first went on air, Dr Koo was invited to join the company, and was appointed Music Director. It was his job to provide live accompaniment for the variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight. After that, he focused on the composition of theme songs for television serials, composing in 1974 for the serial Lovers Marriage a theme song with the same name, which was performed by Sandra Lang. This song was a smash hit in Hong Kong, and it set off the Cantopop craze, establishing Cantopop’s position in the mainstream of the local music scene. Over the years since then Dr Koo has composed more than 1,200 songs. He is best known for his theme songs for TV serials. His themes for martial arts serials, from ‘The Book and the Sword’, 'The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre’ and ‘The Romantic Swordsman’ in the seventies to ‘Both are Forgotten in the Mist’, 'Forget all the Feelings in Your Heart’, and ‘Strong Love in Two Hearts’ in the eighties, are known in every household. His themes for fashion serials, from ‘Hotel’, ‘A House is Not a Home’ and ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ in the seventies to ‘The Brothers’, 'Heart Debt’ and ‘Hard to Tell the Good from the Bad’ in the eighties were universally loved. By performing Dr Koo’s popular songs, singers achieved instant fame, and even sometimes became the superstars of their time, carrying all before them. Dr Koo’s compositions combine Chinese and Western styles without allowing either to predominate, and in this way they break new ground. In ‘Forget all the Feelings in Your Heart’ the melody is built on the Chinese pentatonic scale, but it is harmonized in the Western style. At the beginning, the sound of a Chinese flute slowly introduces a touching plaintive melody to the words “Forget all the feelings in your heart, leave behind love and obsession; let the sound of laughter drive away old sorrows, and let wine wash away the past.” A mood of solitary melancholy is created. Dr Koo also provided classical verse with new musical settings. ‘Farewell My Concubine’, sung with deep feeling by Jacky Cheung, voices the heroic ambition of Xiang Yu, founder of the short-lived Western Chu dynasty (‘my strength rooted up mountains, my might shadowed the world’). ‘Mang Jiang Hong’ represents the out and out hatred of the nationalist warrior Yue Fei, whose ‘bristling hair thrusts at my helmet as I stand by the rail and the pattering rain abates’. Sung lustily by Roman Tam, it conveys the hero’s powerful force and lack of restraint. In Dr Koo’s beautiful music, ancient and modern are fittingly combined, and strength and softness both take their place. As a result the music is deeply moving and lingers long in the mind. Over the decades Dr Koo’s songs have become part of the collective memory of the people of Hong Kong. In 1979 the song ‘Below the Lion Rock’ even became a landmark in Hong Kong’s history, and the progressions and cadences of the music managed to epitomize the spirit of the people, their solidarity in times of trouble, their suppression of differences for the sake of finding common ground, and their quest for consensus. It is not just a song that everyone in Hong Kong knows well, it carries the imprint of Hong Kong’s history and is deeply significant. Dr Koo’s contribution to Hong Kong society has long surpassed the normal scope of the composer’s role. For many decades now Dr Koo has been carrying off awards and prizes. Among the most important are the Hall of Fame Award of the Radio Television Hong Kong Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs Award; Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire; and the Music Accomplishment Award from the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong (CASH). In 1988 he was awarded the Bronze Bauhinia Star by the HKSAR Government. In 2011 he was given the Life Achievement Award by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and invested with an Honorary Doctorate by the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. Recently he has been presented with Doctor of Humanities, honoris causa by the Hong Kong Institute of Education, in celebration of his lasting contribution not just to the musical world of Hong Kong but to Hong Kong society as a whole. Dr Koo retired in the 1990s and emigrated to Canada, but he remains deeply concerned with music in Hong Kong. In 2008 and 2010 he conducted the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra playing a selection of his famous compositions over the years: the concert was titled ‘Romance of the Chivalrous Hero – All-time Favourites by Joseph Koo’. In 2009 he was invited by CASH to serve as adjudicator for the CASH Songwriters Quest, another instance of his continuing contribution to music in Hong Kong. A few days ago in this very auditorium, the CU Chorus put on a fund-raising concert entitled ‘A Tribute to Joseph Koo’. There were guest performances from Ms Paula Tsui, Mr Hins Cheung and Professor Joseph Sung, and Dr Koo himself took the baton as guest conductor. There were over 1,400 music fans in the audience, and they were invigorated by the elegance of Dr Koo’s performance. Mr Chairman, let us join together in recognising the enormous musical achievement of this extremely talented man. The essence of the people of Hong Kong finds expression in the notes of his melodies, and over several decades he has played his part in building the collective memory of Hong Kong’s millions of citizens. His music has touched countless hearts, and his artistic achievements and wealth of success have been epoch-making in scale. It is my privilege to present to you Dr Joseph Koo for the award of the degree of Doctor of Social Science, honoris causa.