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Dr. Ajay Heble, University of Guelph

Project Director

This research project plays a leading role in defining a new field of interdisciplinary inquiry. It brings together a dynamic international research team with a demonstrated track record in grant management and student training, and it fosters innovative partnerships with community-based organizations. Outcomes range across a wide spectrum of electronic, broadcast, and print media, with a focus on policy-oriented and community-facing impacts. The project has a significant effect on how research is done and how its results are implemented and disseminated, both within and beyond the academy. In addition to public discourse and scholarly publication, our work highlights collaboration with arts presenters, educators, and policy makers to ensure the broadest possible impact on Canadian society.

The project’s core hypothesis is that musical improvisation is a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action. Taking as a point of departure performance practices that cannot readily be scripted, predicted, or compelled into orthodoxy, we argue that the innovative working models of improvisation developed by creative practitioners have helped to promote a dynamic exchange of cultural forms and to encourage new, socially responsive forms of community building across national, cultural, and artistic boundaries. Improvisation, in short, has much to tell us about the ways in which communities based on such forms are politically and materially pertinent to envisioning and sounding alternative ways of knowing and being in the world. Improvisation demands shared responsibility for participation in community, an ability to negotiate differences, and a willingness to accept the challenges of risk and contingency. Furthermore, in an era when diverse peoples and communities of interest struggle to forge historically new forms of affiliation across cultural divides, the participatory and civic virtues of engagement, dialogue, respect, and community-building inculcated through improvisatory practices take on a particular urgency.

Indeed, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have much to learn from performance practices that accent dialogue, collaboration, inventive flexibility, and creative risk-taking; from art forms that disrupt orthodox standards of coherence, judgment, and value with a spirit of experimentation and innovation. If, as Gilman (2000) argues, humanities research and teaching have for too long operated on the flawed assumption that knowledge is a fixed and permanent commodity, then the most absorbing testimony of improvisation’s power and potential may well reside in the spirit of movement, mobility, and momentum that it articulates and exemplifies. From the social relationships envisioned and activated through improvisational music-making, we learn that in the ongoing search for new categories of momentum resides the hope that will sustain and empower us in our efforts to work towards a more inclusive vision of community-building and intellectual stock-taking for the new millennium.

Our broadly-based team of researchers and community partners is particularly well-positioned to take on this work. With expertise in critical, literary, historical, musical, sociological, anthropological, technological, and philosophical inquiry, policy-oriented social research, law, and creative response (and in keeping with the University of Guelph’s Strategic Research Plan), our team addresses pressing issues of social and cultural transformation: human rights, transculturalism, pedagogy, intellectual property rights, the civic participation of aggrieved populations, the role of creativity in powering economic growth (Florida 2002; Piper 2002)--issues central to the challenges of diversity and social cooperation in Canada. This work builds on two SSHRC Research Development Initiatives grants which have led to the formation of a highly integrated and diverse research team with well-established collaborative procedures. These previous grants have created a climate of intellectual excitement and innovation, attracting leading scholars to our new MCRI project.

...partly because I know that’s the only way that we could solve a creative problem [using improvisation with children ranging in abilities] and what doesn’t work is trying to impose a template on the students who are not able to respond to that template.

– Pauline Oliveros (in working with Abilities First)