Home is where the art is for Hong Kong contemporary music composer Daniel Lo
A Jockey Club scholarship allowed 30-year-old to complete a doctorate in Britain, where he found an enviably vibrant music scene, but he says art should be an artist’s response to his own culture and society
Composer Daniel Lo Ting-cheung has a promising career that many of his contemporaries can only dream of. The 30-year-old has been commissioned by orchestras such as the Hong Kong Sinfonietta and Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, and his works have been performed in North America, Europe and Australia.
Yet all Lo wanted to do, when he was at secondary school, was to become a jazz drummer.
When he secured a place at the University of Hong Kong in 2005, he followed in his engineer father’s footsteps and majored in chemistry. Composing was never on his radar until he met a tutor who also ran contemporary music courses at the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions. There, he learned more about the genre and his interest in music was reignited. “I’ve always known in my heart that I want to be a musician,” says Lo.
After spending an entire term break in his first year huddled in the library, reading scores and listening to CDs, he decided to switch to studying music. Lo graduated with first-class honours in 2009 before completing his master’s degree in music composition in 2012, both under the supervision of Hong Kong composer Chan Hing-yan. This year he received a doctoral degree in from the University of York in the UK, having received financial support from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Music and Dance Fund.
Set up in 1980, the Jockey Club fund aims to promote education and training in music and dance by conferring scholarships on local artists of outstanding talent. On August 13, Lo will join more than 30 musicians and artists, including past recipients of scholarships from the fund such as choreographer Yuri Ng Yue-lit, at the Kwai Tsing Theatre for a performance of new works under the direction of Sinfonietta music director Yip Wing-sie, entitled “Endless Journey” . It is the first performance given by a recently formed association of Jockey Club fund award recipients.
Lo will present his latest piece, On the Wings of the Spring Breeze, which he wrote during his time in Britain. Inspired by a poem by Li Bai, a Tang dynasty Chinese poet, the work for solo flute embodies an emotion familiar to every student who has studied abroad – homesickness.
“I am trying to portray the nostalgic feeling but I also want to take it one step further. Homesickness is often talking about memories and recollection,” says Lo, “but when the place we’re missing is changing, what are we really yearning for? Where does that attachment come from? And how do we cope with it?”
Lo has worked with dancer Judy Yiu and video artist Max Lee to better communicate that message. The feeling of attachment will be physically represented by a long piece of cloth worn by Yiu, and a video will slowly compress until it disappears to depict a city’s transformation, a sentiment many in Hong Kong will identify with.
Despite finding the music scene in Britain and elsewhere in Europe more vibrant, Lo has always felt that Hong Kong is where he wants to be.
“I think contemporary art should be an artist’s critical response to his own social, cultural background. And I am only able to do this by going back to where I’m from. After all, in the UK I’m only a sojourner,” says Lo.
LISTEN to Lo’s Home City Dream City for orchestra and field recordings
Lo incorporates elements of Hong Kong’s soundscape in his compositions. In Home City.Dream City, a piece commissioned by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in 2014, for instance, the composer and sound artist wandered the city armed with a recorder, collecting ambient sounds on streets, construction sites, and outlying islands and even protest chants, before integrating the intriguing cacophony into the work.
“I used field recording, which truly represents the voice of the city. As for the music part, it’s my musical response as a young artist, which is slightly more abstract. But the results of interweaving both is my recollection of the city,” explains Lo.
Though for most artists and musicians, art is about self-expression, for Lo it’s he opposite.
“My creative works surround one thing, active listening. It’s a term I coined,” he says. “Listening is also an art form and it takes practice, especially in Hong Kong, where everyone is quick to voice their own opinions and we often fail to notice some subtle but beautiful sounds around us.
“I hope my music can be a medium for audiences to become more sensitive to the world around them.”
Given that few local arts organisations have big production budgets, commissions are hard to come by. “Composers are passive; they have to rely on other musicians to perform their music. So if you are a beginner, no one will perform your music,” says Lo, who built a name for himself by participating in international songwriting competitions and music festivals – he was one of 16 composers from around the world selected for the prestigious Young Composers Meeting in the Netherlands in February.
“I realise just how fortunate I am. The more experience you get, the more you realise how lacking you are,” he adds.
Endless Journey, August 13, 8pm, Kwai Tsing Theatre, HK$100 Urbtix. Inquiries: 3509 7083