Musical Improvisation, Social Change Focus of Major Research Grant

September 04, 2007 - News Release

Musical improvisation as a model for political, cultural and ethical dialogue and action is the focus of a $4-million international community/university research project headed by a University of Guelph professor.

Prof. Ajay Heble of the School of English and Theatre Studies will lead the "Improvisation, Community and Social Practice" project, which involves researchers from 18 universities across Canada, the United States, England and Australia. It is supported by a $2.5-million Major Collaborative Research Initiatives (MCRI) grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

The project is one of only two initiatives to receive a prestigious MCRI grant this year. Grants are awarded following extensive peer review.

"This grant is testimony to Ajay’s excellence as a researcher and the importance of this work," said president Alastair Summerlee. "This research will propel Canada into being a world leader and focal point for leading-edge critical research on improvisation."

SSHRC president Chad Gaffield added that the council is "proud to support top-quality collaborative research initiatives such as this one. This project is helping us build Canada’s research strength and capacity. Collaboration among research disciplines can create new forms of knowledge that build understanding, while training the next generation of scholars."

In addition to the SSHRC support, funds were committed by U of G, McGill University, the University of British Columbia and Université de Montréal, as well as private partners and stakeholders.

Improvisation is arguably the most widespread musical practice in the world and the least understood, Heble said. Musicians collaborate to make real-time creative decisions so that the creative process is very much in the foreground. The impetus for "Improvisation, Community and Social Practice" stems from post-1960s forms of experimental jazz and creative improvised music that work outside traditional musical paradigms, he said. Such forms of improvisation demand shared responsibility for participation, an ability to negotiate differences and a willingness to accept challenges of risk and contingency.

Music plays a tremendously important role in society, Heble said. "By modelling forms of social organization, it can literally help us hear the sound of change," he said. As part of the project, researchers will investigate the ways improvised music in particular plays a role in shaping notions of community and new forms of social organization.

"By exploring how musical improvisation opens up consideration of such vital issues as human rights, alternative community formation and transcultural understanding, we are getting at issues that are central to the challenges of diversity and social co-operation in Canada," he said.

"What's particularly exciting about the project is that we’re shaping and defining a brand-new field of interdisciplinary study, but one that has historical roots in the work of improvisatory greats such as Sun Ra, Horace Tapscott, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp and Pauline Oliveros. Their music exemplifies participatory virtues of dialogue, respect and community building."

Heble is also the founder and artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, one of Canada’s leading presenters of improvised music. The festival is among numerous community partner groups that will be involved in the seven-year initiative. Other partners are the Canada Council for the Arts, the Daniel Langlois Foundation and the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The project has three overall research objectives:

• revealing the complex structures of improvisational practices and developing an enriched understanding of the multiple social, political and cultural functions these practices play;

• demonstrating the policy implications of this new and enriched understanding of improvisation for education, arts funding, intellectual property rights and multiculturalism; and

• assessing claims made for the social and cultural impact of improvisation and exploring improvisation-based models for social responsibility and action.

Research will focus on issues raised by seven areas related to improvisation: law and justice; pedagogy; social policy; transcultural understanding; gender and the body; text and media; and social esthetics. In addition, working closely with community partners, researchers will create outreach projects to bring world-class improvising musicians together with youth and disadvantaged groups.

The project outcomes will include 21 colloquia, a summer institute, a research-intensive website, five books based on the findings, policy papers and a peer-reviewed electronic journal. A large portion of the grant will support training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

"We believe there is huge potential now to document and demonstrate the ways in which creativity and innovation can be vital tools for building sustainable communities, promoting social co-operation and adapting to unprecedented change," Heble said.

For media questions, contact Jean Burrows, public relations officer, Improvisation, Community and Social Practice, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53958, or

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