January Workshops

Creative (Mis)understandings, an artistic research project led by Johannes Kretz along with senior investigator Wei-Ya Lin was ushered in by intense two weeks of lectures, workshops and sharings in which a team of composers from Vienna/Berlin received the group of indigenous Tao people from Lanyu island, Taiwan. The team based in Europe included Bernd Brabec de Mori (ethnomusicologist), Iris ter Schiphorst (composer), Hui Ye (composer), Marc Antoine Camp (ethnomusicologist), Ming Wang (composer), Sandeep Bhagwati (composer), Wolfgang Liebhart (composer). The Taiwanese team comprised of Chien-Ping Kuo (Tao activist, expert for traditional music), Sinan Sakayan (a Tao school teacher), Chien-Hsiang Lin (a documentary film maker/ video artist) and Si Pehbowen (Tao dancer/singer).

Based on previous research and engagement with the Tao people by Kretz and Lin since 2005, the first phase of the project was intended to be a platform to meet in person and gather a sense of each other, share preliminaries about the respective cultures and music traditions. This shared space for meeting was enabled by multiple collaborative workshops, lectures, excursions and informal gatherings from 15th to 28th January 2019. This article highlights some of the key impressions and questions as also exploratory forms that emerged in this intensely creative space and trace possible trajectories to build on in the next phase of the project.

Emerging impressions, in-between (cultures, traditions...) and changes

Janhavi Dhamankar - Edited by Daliah Hindler, Johannes Kretz and Wei-Ya Lin


As Kretz observed, the intensive interactions for two weeks provided most of the pieces of the puzzle for this research project. These can provide the bedrock for the creative aspect of piecing the emergent richness of questions, images, concerns together. Highlighted below are some of these puzzle pieces, which emerged as powerful metaphors through the intensive workshops:


  • Endangered species: Bhagwati raised the question of the social relevance of being a composers today. The implications of being part of an endangered community were shared by the composers based in European. The Tao team perceives primarily a thread of their fast disappearing traditions due to the cultural colonization of Lanyu by the Han majority in Taiwan. Kuo fears that the loss of their traditions will result in even greater power imbalance.


  • Being in-between (cultures/traditions): Ye shared her concerns and social identity struggle about feeling in-between, being a Vienna based Chinese artist. This in-between-ness also characterizes the workspace of this project, in exploring the links - between Lanyu and Taiwan, between different music styles (European and Tao, classical, electroacoustic and folk), between the music practices of the older and younger generation Tao people on Lanyu.


  • Polishing the cracks: In his method of trans-traditional music making, among other techniques Bhagwati explained “polishing the cracks[1]” such that the differences between participants and their differences are highlighted or even emphasized in order to “let them (the differences) exist and fit in like a mosaic by making the sharpest edges stand out”.


  • Bridge the gap: Lin expressed her motivation in this project to reduce the gap between the older and younger generation Tao people on Lanyu. This gap is caused by several factors: Regarding language, due to policies of the school system the eldest generation only speaks Tao language, the mid generation partly Mandarin, partly Tao language and the youngest generation only Mandarin. Besides, the economic situation causes significant differences in the live and the attitudes of the different generations.


  • Transformation of traditions, moving forward: In response to Kuo’s fear about losing the Tao music tradition, Liebhart shared a quote by Gustav Mahler, “Tradition is not the worshipping of the ashes, but the handing down of the flame (Tradition ist nicht die Anbetung der Asche, sondern die Weitergabe des Feuers)“. This image offers a momentum and a forward pointing nature to the idea of tradition rather than being a static entity, entangled in its own mandates. Thus, it lends a process oriented, rather than a conservative idea of holding on to the past, which can open our approach to new possibilities for safeguarding the tradition (in the context of this project - of Tao songs, of western composers) from dying out. 

  • [1] He describes this as one option of techniques of trans-traditional music making: I) Grafting (each musician adheres to his/her practice, only not rooted in their own tradition, but changing the roots) II) Learn to love the common enemy (search for a common enemy within the group so that the rest of the musicians unite and what remains is to love this only one enemy, rather than each musician being at loggerheads with all others) III) Polishing the cracks (thematise the difficulties/misunderstandings and make a piece out of it) IV) Everybody is a conductor for everybody.

Shared concerns and questions

Janhavi Dhamankar

Edited by Daliah Hindler, Johannes Kretz and Wei-Ya Lin

Preserving tradition

The crucial concern voiced by Kuo and Sakayan was of preservation: How can the Tao music tradition and Tao language be preserved and passed on to the next generation? How can these be made relevant to the younger generation?

A similar concern and a possible solution regarding Croatian music traditions from Austrian Burgenland was offered by Filip Tyran in his presentation on Tradition and Innovation in Musical Creation Process. As cultural contexts, professions and identities change. The music, which we identify with and its relevance, also changes. Tyran proposes two approaches:

  1. Folklorization, where traditional compositions can be adapted and designed for the stage; or
  2. Innovation of traditional repertoire i.e. infusing contemporary elements into the traditional composition, while keeping the original aesthetics intact.

Concerning the preservation of the Tao language in her own teaching method, Sakayan highlights the element of games and encourages her students to learn outdoors. Teaching students the Tao language by connecting Tao words with objects in nature, motivates the children to learn the language much better than in a classroom. In her activity for publishing print media (especially newspapers) on Lanyu, Sakayan has also successfully documented Tao poems and stories for children. These books use images of the Tao way of life extensively and could provide a lasting learning impression in children.

The Tao youth seems to be attracted to western pop culture and music, preferring these genres over their traditional singing practices.

  • Could transforming the traditional songs with a contemporary twist be considered as a first step to spread awareness, initiate a dialogue with the youth about their music tradition in Lanyu?
  • What processes can be undertaken to explore this possibility or motivate the Tao youth to try different approaches of folklorisation and/or innovation?



Exchange with Minorities

The question of being minorities surfaced several times during these workshops. While the Tao people are one of 16 indigenous minorities of Taiwan, Bhagwati highlighted the plight of composers as an “endangered species” towards the international music industry.

Composer Iris ter Schiphorst shared her work, staging real life struggles and experiences of minorities through performing text and music by improvisation and intervention. However, the relevance of such performances to the Tao people remained unexplored due to time constraints.

In this regard, a visit to Romano Centro in Vienna offered a space to engage with the life of the Roma minority in Europe, and opened another perspective by comparing different minority contexts.  Furthermore, Kretz reminded to the rationale of the project, that combining the strengths of minorities can function as mutual support, fighting together, standing up for each other. However, whether socio-political minorities (like the Tao and Roma) and artistic minorities (composers) share the same problems is worth further exploration. It will require further investigation of how we understand “minority” in various contexts.



Nuclear Waste

The nuclear waste plant on Lanyu is a major concern for the Tao. A visit to Nuclear Engineering, Seibersdorf was on the schedule during their stay in Vienna. Though the Seibersdorf plant does not handle less radioactive material than the plant on Lanyu, the processes of safe handling (which include collection and segregation), storage, monitoring, documentation and disposal of radioactive waste in Austria as well as decommissioning of facilities were discussed. Kuo shared situation on Lanyu regarding radioactive waste, which also does not have a definite timeline to store the waste. In this perspective Seibersdorf also is in a problematic situation, since their contract with the Republic of Austria will expire in 30 years, and the necessary further measures are not yet been defined.


Concepts of Interaction

Janhavi Dhamankar

Edited by Daliah Hindler, Johannes Kretz and Wei-Ya Lin

The following key terms – proposed by Bhagwati – and their relevance for the project were discussed:

  • Trans-traditional (rather than trans-cultural): An important concept put forth by Bhagwati, that might help this project in its further phases, is trans-traditional. While attempting to work together with different musical backgrounds, needs, contexts, the strong differences between Lanyu traditional singing practices and other music traditions (for example classical, electro-music etc.), the required techniques, aesthetics, motives, production values will become visible. Usually, this problematic is shaped by what is not possible/permissible in a specific context of music creation. Due to the “belief” and/or urge to safeguard the essence of one’s tradition exceeds the mere communication or transfer to others. However, as Bhagwati upholds, music making is not a matter of culture or communication or being born into. It is rather a tradition, which can be learned. If all participants approach this project with a trans-traditional attitude (instead of a trans-cultural one), it can lead to genuine creative (mis)understandings. As already mentioned this can be sought by “polishing the cracks” e.g.: emphasizing differences instead of hiding them, letting them exist, embellishing them, making them visible, so that they can fit in to creating a “mosaic by making the sharpest edges stand out stand each other down”.


  • Musicking: Bhagwati explicated Christopher Small’s term “musicking”, which refers to creating the architectural space in which the music occurs, the relationships within this space, which give rise to what the music means (i.e. to look at music not as a piece, but an activity). This compositional term tied in with Sakayan’s approach to teaching language through doing. Her students learn new words in the outdoors while living through the corresponding situation. She treats language as an activity rather than passive learning in a classroom. When the children go through an experience, the need to express this experience results in learning the corresponding words. In both situations, the semantic content is emergent rather than defined beforehand.


Along with the above key terms, music making in varied traditions was also shared. In composing a song for the workshop, Bhagwati captured the ethos of the two weeks of exchange between the teams based in Europe and in Taiwan:


Wir saßen beisammen in wechselnden Räumen,

verschiedene Menschen, und sprachen von Träumen.

Träume vom Gestern, Träume vom Heute, Träume vom Morgen.


Wir dachten gemeinsam in wechselnden Sprachen.

Das Träumen ist einsam, wir wollen erwachen

Wachsein im Gestern, Wachsein im Heute, Wachsein für morgen.


Wir wollen miteinander das Denken verweben,

das Sprechen verwandeln, um Träume zu leben.

Denken an Gestern, Denken im Heute, Denken für Morgen.


This lyric points out the connection that was sought between these groups, whose differences are so evident and valuable. Yet, the platform created by these workshops for two weeks facilitated an interweaving of thoughts, dreams, lives and made us aware about our past, present and future (concerns), even though they may be different. Kuo expressed that the style of the song seemed rather strange and unfamiliar to him. However, he further explained that it is extremely impolite in Tao culture, if one does not respond or answer the other’s song with a song. He is glad that Bhagwati answered to his own song, sung previously during the reception organized by the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in Vienna.

Further Contributions

Janhavi Dhamankar

Edited by Daliah Hindler, Johannes Kretz and Wei-Ya Lin

Through her presentation Music in the Life of the Tao: Tradition und Innovation based on her dissertation project, Lin explored why, when and how the Tao people sing. She also described, how taboos govern their singing practices. She also clarified that in the Tao music tradition, there are certain melody types for specific occasions. New lyrics are invented for these melody types. Thus, based on these melody types and the connected contexts, new experiences and information are incorporated with new texts.

In his workshop, Kuo focused on the structure and interpretation of the Anood melody type. The second part of the lyric in a strophe is repeated again in the first part of the lyric in the coming strophe, in order to help everyone memorize the text of each line. Additionally, the last syllable of each line is prolonged. This gives the opportunity to the singer to highlight his strength by singing in one breath as long as possible. This is what lends the aesthetic to the song. A long breath is a sign of being a good diver, being able to catch more fish and support one’s family. Through the musical creations of these Tao singers and Western composers, the contradistinction in understanding and shaping of the aesthetic field and the relation between life and art production surfaced strongly in these workshops.

As her personal contribution for farewell, Sakayan shared a video recording, one night before her return to Taiwan. It presents an endearing song for children in Tao language describing the importance of flying fish in the everyday life of the Tao people. A father has caught many flying fish for his family, expressing the wish, that this would happen every day. This is a metaphor for the intensive work of the project team members and the future outcome of the project.

Another significant contribution were the improvisation games conducted by Bhagwati in his workshop. These games brought forth the sensitivity that can be evoked to be able to work together with people from various backgrounds. He led the entire team into a pointing game, where each participant imitates another one in an intertwined circular structure. This demands each participant to be aware of his/her own minimal movements, mannerisms, and pay attantion of the connected person imitating every nuance of movment and noise. This game allows the participants to bypass prejudices or judgments they may have about a particular person. Gradually the attention of the participants grows from the individual to the collective; eventually, the group arrives at some kind of synchronized movement.  Slowly, a collective dynamic of the entire group emerged and spread a feeling of resemblance, resonance and connection within the group.

In her lecture titled "My work as a Taiwanese composer and musician in the West: self-identification, problems and hope", the composer, musician (Guzheng, Pipa) and music educator Ming Wang told us about her background, her education in visual arts, about Chinese music and western new music.
She showed short examples with sound and video recordings of her compositions as well as interpretations of European new music on Chinese instruments.

Her idealism to keep alive Taiwanese music traditions led her to organize and participate in intercultural projects, in which she has been participating over the last 20 years with various teams and ensembles. She explained some of the difficulties in the cooperation between western and Taiwanese musicians, who have different approaches and styles of playing. She also experienced that many Taiwanese musicians still believe that western music is superior and that many of them therefore prefer to play western music.

Funeral songs: Taboos shape the song culture of the Tao

Daliah Hindler


During the visit of the Tao cooperation partners in Vienna from 15/01 to 28/01/2019, we got various impressions into the life and the traditional practices of the Tao. An important event was the presentation of Chien Ping Kuo on 19/1/2019 about Tao funeral songs.

Chien Ping Kuo, Tao activist and expert for Tao songs, takes the research team on a journey to a part of his tradition, which is shaped by taboos. He points out that funeral songs use one of the six ritual melody types, which is Sprechgesang. These recitative-like songs are handed down orally.

Taboos shape – among other aspects of life – the song culture of the Tao. Singing funeral songs by the wrong person or in the wrong context may cause misfortune and affect the well-being of a family. Although this presentation is an act of breaking taboos, nevertheless he still wants to give us a deeper insight into the subject of funeral songs in his role as a culture bearer and researcher.

It is the first time that a funeral song is recited outside of the Tao community and in a foreign country. We feel very privileged to witness this premiere. To prevent a possible misfortune, Chien-Ping used pork and liquor as sacrifice to prevent negative energy. He speaks to the spirits as following: “Don't be nervous. We do research about you. The misfortune should remain here in the Alps”.

For me this is a very powerful image and insight to perceive the world from the traditional perspective of the Tao.

Singing songs are a central part of the Tao's funeral ritual. Only the closest persons recite them, and the songs serve to commemorate the beloved one. Chien-Ping describes the ritual on the basis of a couple. For example, if the husband dies, his wife recites songs about their common daily life. The grieving ritual lasts three days. During this time, she wears fine clothing and sits on the ground. She uses tools and stones in the function of percussion. The melody always stays the same. She sings until she looses her voice.

If a wife passes away, her husband puts on his amour (helmet, knife, protective west) and sits on the top of their house with a spear. He sings about her, about her hard work, and how much he misses her.

Chien-Ping sings a funeral song as an example for us. But he avoids the percussive beats in his presentation in order to avoid irritation of the gods/spirits.


Sad, sad,

you are gone from this world.

I am I - you are you.

We are not in the same world anymore.


Keeping Traditions Alive: Between Folklorization and Transformation

 Daliah Hindler

One of the main subjects during the two workshop weeks in January 2019 – discussed in a controversial way and highlighted from many points of view – was the preservation and transformation of tradition in a society, especially in dealing with music and sounds. The tradition(s) of the Tao, like many others in the world, are endangered in this globalized time era, which is of great concern to the culture bearers. Bridging the generation gap in the Tao society may play a crucial role in this issue.

The focus of the discussion went from raising questions to opening spaces for new ideas. I want to give an insight to some of the possible approaches.

Si Pehbowen, a representative of the younger Tao generation, explained the issue of change and preservation of traditions from her perspective: the younger generation is in-between the new world with capitalist ideology on one side, and the traditional values on the other side. She feels that she is sometimes outside of the Tao culture with her mother being Han (largest ethnic group in Taiwan and China). Usually women are in charge regarding daughters to pass on the Tao traditions.

The majority of young people listens to music in English language and imitates foreign artists. Only recently, young people have become more aware of their own heritage and started listening to the music of other indigenous Taiwanese groups.

Si Pehbowen wishes to explore how to take advantage of using media to revive Tao culture.


In his lecture Tradition and Innovation in Musical Creation Process the musician Filip Tyran, who describes himself as bi-cultural, spoke about his creative work in regard to his Burgenland-Croatian heritage. Burgenland is a part of Austria at the border to Hungary and Slovakia. Hungarian landlords forcibly relocated the Croatian minority there in the 16th century. They are living in a language island, surrounded by various communities, which have heavily influenced their language and cultural development. Traditionally, the Burgenland-Croatians were farmers and of Christian believe.

The traditional song culture is strongly linked to the customs, both, of religious and important life events. The society has changed massively and is no longer dominated by the Christian values and the farming lifestyle. The songs lose their cultural context and need to be redefined in a new context of the contemporary society.

Filip Tyran talked about two of his ensembles that deal with the musical heritage in very different ways. He explained that songs are omnipresent in the life of the Burgendland-Croatians and important in defining culture.

Kolo Slavuj is a folklore-ensemble that cultivates the traditional music, dances and costumes in a folkloristic way – taking traditions out of their traditional context, adapting and performing them on stage in a rather “authentic” way. This dance culture was researched and rediscovered in the 1970s.

Basbaritenori is a vocal ensemble, which interprets the traditional melodies in an innovative and contemporary way. Traditional melodies are complemented with musical arrangement derived from Jazz harmonies. To highlight his point, he told us how his grandmother reacted. She understands his intention, but was very critical towards the new interpretation. She asked him: Is it a new fashion now to sing so out of tune/or wrong (Ist es modern so falsch zu singen)?


Ethnomusicologist Marc-Antoine Camp gave several examples of how music traditions are transformed. His point of view is that the idea of preservation is problematic, because music has to change together with social developments. The aspects he highlighted are:

  • Transformation of sounds (how?)
  • Relationships of acting people (who?)
  • Goals of transformation (why?)

He showed an Afro-Brazilian funeral singing ritual while carrying a dead person from the settlement to the village cemetery: these traditions were stopped because in the context of a modern world, they weren't necessary anymore, and the culture bearers were glad to stop the ritual. Ethnomusicologists believed that they have to preserve the tradition and heritage by producing a studio recording. Their goal is to represent the African heritage in Brazil. Marc-Antoine Camp is critical about the production, which was carried out outside of the functional context.

Camp's example of the transformation of the Rorogwella Lullaby (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HD9vjEuLQdc) from the Solomon Islands (Northern Malaita, Baegu language group) is well-known as a copyright dispute. The song was transformed into the song Sweet Lullaby by the group Deep Forest (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIF5EEneWEU). The group received a Grammy Award in World Music for its second album using also other examples from all over the world. The singer and the indigenous group never received any royalties. Deep Forest earned a lot of money from their exoticized version of the song.

Yodelling in Switzerland (Muothatal) was the third example. The tradition has the specific function to call the cows back to the stable. The tradition was transformed into popular music yodelling by Christine Lauterburg (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDjgPn_FoH0) in the 1990s, which was perceived as provocative, even though it was not intended to question the tradition. The modern version became very popular.

The examples and approaches mentioned above show that the challenges faced by many indigenous groups and minorities are complex. The (cultural/generational)  "in-between-ness" affects the reactions of individuals and collectives in the process of transformation. The cultural, philosophical and aesthetic consequences are diverse and varied. We are excited to the coming experiences and outcomes what our approaches in dealing with transformations will be in this project.

Questions raised by the team members and invited lecturers included:

  • Should the process of change in traditions/music/language be repelled or promoted, and how?
  • How and why do transformations occur?
  • Who may/should/must be included in the transformative process?
  • How do social changes affect the aesthetic, the meanings and the functions of music or sounds?
  • How can those (musical) traditions, which are loosing their contexts and functions, be transformed, in oder to be adapted to the changes occuring in the respective context?
  • Who profits from the products of a transformative process? How to deal with the concept of copyright e.g.?



Preliminary Conclusions

Janhavi Dhamankar

Edited by Daliah Hindler, Johannes Kretz and Wei-Ya Lin

In the discussions of this first phase, several pertinent issues were raised and highlighted.

From repeated informal and formal discussions, an urgent need to archive the Tao songs emerged through the interactions in January. In the Tao songs, lyrics are essential. A significant part of the Tao songs is ritualistic i.e. sung within a defined social context. Thus, through the lyrics, knowledge from the practice regarding important life events is passed on and shared. The increasing lack of interest in these traditional songs among the Tao youth is a cause for concern, since it reduces the transmitting of knowledge to the next generation. Hence the need to preserve, the wisdom in these Tao songs was voiced, a possibility to archive this medium of knowledge production and transmission was explored. Mobile recording equipment for fieldwork has been provided, the collecting process will start soon.

Kuo expressed that due to years of colonization the Tao culture was constantly only interpreted by the ‘outsiders’.  Various strategies of overcoming this and building up structures, giving the Tao their own voice to represent and express their history and culture, were discussed. Pehbowen wishes to explore, how to take advantage of media technology to revive Tao culture, to attract the attention of the younger generation.

Sakayan, who had quit her job to work in this project, intends to research the women's repertoire of songs in the Tao tradition. So far her experiences have yielded limited results, but she is convinced that music is also an important medium to promote the use of Tao language.

Though majority of the group agrees on this open approach without a fixed goal in mind, Kuo being an activist at heart craves for a social change on Lanyu through this project. His worries – being treated like “material” to be collected by westerners – though valid, seem to be founded in mistrust and bad experiences of the Tao in several phases of colonization. A first step suggested by Kretz is to communicate to the Tao people that there is no hierarchy, no predefined master plan. In fact, the concept of co-creation by and between music makers both, from Europe and from Taiwan, should contain relevance for all participants. Different sub communities of the Tao might have different approaches and interests. Kretz also highlighted, in the spirit of artistic research, that since this is not necessarily production-oriented research, the collaborative process and its documentation are important. It will require patient networking during the next fieldwork phase with people on Lanyu, who are interested to join the project. This should also respect their interests as well as their necessities of daily life. As a result, subgroups may emerge in the team, which wish to engage in different formats and topics.

One of the aims of this project might be the creation of a scalable compositions i.e. creating music, which could then be adapted to various contexts in Lanyu, Taiwan and abroad, ranging from genres of popular music to concert hall music in Europe.

Although the next phase may pose many difficulties accented with differences, (requiring sensitive measures of slowly building up trust), Kretz suggests that these gaps can be bridged by the power of creativity, which is shared within the group. This should connect all participants on same eye level, from where the further initiatives can start.