Skip to Content


As a form of musical practice, improvisation embodies real-time creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration. Improvisation must be considered not simply as a musical form, but as a complex social phenomenon that mediates transcultural inter-artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, community, history, and the body. This project focuses primarily on jazz and creative improvised music. The dominant theoretical issues emerging from this music have vital social implications. Of particular interest are identifiable and radical strains of improvisational music making in which concepts of alternative community formation, human rights, social activism, the rehistoricization of minoritized cultures, and critical modes of resistance and dialogue are in powerful evidence. This project investigates the ways in which improvised music plays a role in shaping notions of community and “new forms” of social organization, with the goal of developing a new field of interdisciplinary scholarly endeavour, one that promises to place the civic function of improvised artistic practices firmly at the centre of both broad public debate and informed policy decisions about the role of arts in society.

Research Structure

The structure of the project has been designed to facilitate cross- and interdisciplinary work. Research project coherence and integration is accomplished structurally by three overarching research objectives: Structures, Policy, and Impact. There are seven primary research areas: Law and Justice; Pedagogy; Social Policy; Transcultural Understanding; Gender and The Body; Text and Media; and Social Aesthetics. Each research area is comprised of scholars from a wide range of disciplines. Having philosophers, musicologists, sociologists, cultural theorists, and literary scholars, for example, all working on the topic of “Improvisation and Transcultural Understanding,” yields a kind of exciting collaborative work that is rarely undertaken in academia. Furthermore, the research tool committee for policy papers is comprised not only of legal scholars and political theorists, but also of philosophers, literary scholars, musicologists, and anthropologists, and thus ensures that these papers address a wide range of policy concerns and speak for (and speak to) multiple constituencies. A further broadening of the scope of the project as it evolves is anticipated and groundwork has already been established for future collaborations with medical researchers and with scholars in architectural and environmental design.

Research Methodology

This project forges innovative alliances between scholars, creative practitioners, arts presenters, and policy makers: it recognizes the extent to which improvised music-making offers a resonant model for a marriage of theory and practice and for addressing broad critical, social, cultural, and intellectual issues from a diverse range of perspectives. Improvisation is a complex and wide-ranging activity, with important artistic, cultural, social, and political aspects that necessitate the use of multiple paradigms of inquiry. This project employs a large array of cross-disciplinary methodologies such as ethnography, textual and musical analysis, historiography, and participant observation. Our goal is to foster genuinely interdisciplinary research and to derive the best research methods from the work of project participants. Only then might new methodological paradigms emerge. The challenge is to draw upon the broad and diverse methodological and disciplinary expertise of the research team to enable researchers to see beyond the assumptions and perspectives associated with their home disciplines. Our research draws on theoretical, empirical, ethnographic, text-based, and archival approaches for the collection and analysis of data. Arguing for the importance of improvisational and aesthetic practices in the well-being of a multicultural society requires an extensive literature review examining government commissioned reports on arts funding and contemporary theories of politics, culture, ideology, and aesthetics together with a careful analysis of the implications of this review for how we approach policies of citizenship and participation. Case studies in which improvisation has been used in both Western and non-Western communities, in order to facilitate reconciliation and forgiveness or bring about social change, are also a crucial element of this research. Furthermore, given that improvisation can encompass a vast range of approaches that are learned in idiosyncratic, site-specific, and largely non-institutional ways, our research requires the input of practicing improvising musicians. In this way, the perspectives of practitioners help to inform and be in dialogue with the diverse theoretical perspectives that each member of the interdisciplinary team contribute.

Research Objectives

1. Structures

To reveal the complex structures of improvisational practices and to develop an enriched understanding of the multiple social, political, and cultural functions these practices play.

Improvisation's cultural significance is misunderstood and in dispute both in the academy and in the broader public understanding. In pedagogies, criticism, arts funding policies, and support structures, improvisative music is often looked at askance. Since improvisational musical practices are central to many marginalized communities (Heble: 2000), the resultant failure of scholars to investigate improvisation has led to a failure to recognize the extent to which it provides a model for flexible, dynamic, and dialogical social structures that are both ethical and respectful of identity and difference. Given this serious lack in our understanding of how improvisational music produces its social, cultural, and political effects, we ask questions concerning how improvisation articulates conceptions of race, culture, ethnicity, class, nation, and gender, as well as how improvisation might be seen to symbolize history, memory, agency, and difference (Born and Hesmondhalgh: 2000, Radano and Bohlman: 2000; Radano: 2003). Improvisation, therefore, offers a salient point of entry for theorizing a broad range of pressing issues of cultural concern: power and resistance, identity formation, transcultural collaboration, intellectual property rights, multiculturalism, alternative pedagogies, community development, human rights, and new networks of social interaction. Drawing on the work of co-investigators G. Lewis and Lipsitz, and collaborators Stanyek and Monson, our team asks questions about how improvisational practices themselves are structured and how meaning arises and is exchanged through improvisation. In turn, this study permits us to address how improvisation is facilitating global and transcultural conversations and how (and to what extent) diverse identities, cultures, and viewpoints are being brought together through improvisational music making. How, we ask, do artistic and social practices get transformed as they move across cultures? To what extent might improvisational music making, as Attali predicted (1985), be seen and heard as a paradigm for the constitution of sociality? How exactly does sound announce cultural and political identity? What can improvisation tell us about how communities get organized, how identities get formulated?

2. Policy

To demonstrate the policy implications of this new and enriched understanding of improvisation (for pedagogy, intellectual property rights, arts funding, and multiculturalism).

In keeping with Martha Piper’s contention (2002) that interdisciplinary research in the humanities can and should provide the basis for informed public policies that get translated into effective social and cultural programs, we work in partnership with co-investigator Weinstock (founding director of Le Centre de recherche en éthique de Université de Montréal) to assist a broad range of stakeholders working outside the academy (arts presenters, granting councils, media, policy-makers). With the objective of integrating an enriched understanding of improvisation into the decisions of informed policy-makers, our team is working to provide strategic advice to these stakeholders to build greater public understanding of improvisation’s role in creating economic opportunities, in promoting alternative models of pedagogy and community formation, in revising our understanding of intellectual property rights, and in meeting the challenges of a diverse and multicultural world. Drawing on the work of research collaborators and community partners with expertise in education theory (Sawyer), multiculturalism (Siemerling), arts funding policy (Canada Council, Jazz Festivals Canada, Guelph Jazz Festival, Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, Open Ears Festival), and intellectual property rights (Gold, Lametti--Directors of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy at McGill), we are preparing four policy papers in these specific areas.

3. Impact

Through a commitment to examining practice and grounding theory in site-specific contexts, to assess the (often utopian) claims made for the social and cultural impact of improvisation, and to explore improvisation-based models for social responsibility and action.

We investigate how improvisation can ground new forms of social mobilization that accent agency, difference, the rethinking of democratic practices, and resistance to oppressive systems of knowledge production (Heble 2003). Following Scott’s (1990) formulation, improvisation might be read as one of a number of “forms of public declared resistance” to practices of domination. Consequently, a theory of agency as it is manifest in many improvisational practices can enable us to develop new definitions of--and potential structurings for--collective democratic endeavours. How might an examination of the distribution of power in improvised expression, we will ask, provide models for social responsibility and action? The work of Bhabha (1994), Belgrad (1998), Heble (2000), and Fischlin and Heble (2003) provides contexts for such issues. Our research assesses the claim that improvisation, by promoting an awareness of transcultural discourses, and by providing an atmosphere for the acknowledgment and articulation of difference, can facilitate direct intervention in political, social, and economic discourses.

If people talked the way they drummed in improvisation, then I think the world would be a lot nicer…

– Youth participant, ICASP improvisation workshop