Skip to Content

Research Areas

The Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice project focuses its research on seven specific research areas.

Improvisation, Gender and the Body

Improvisation, Law and Justice

Improvisation and Pedagogy

Improvisation and Social Aesthetics

Improvisation and Social Policy

Improvisation, Text, and Media

Improvisation and Transcultural Understanding

Improvisation, Gender and the Body

Coordinator: Sherrie Tucker.

Participants: Lisa Barg, Ric Knowles, Eric Lewis, Andra McCartney, Kevin McNeilly, Pauline Oliveros, Gillian Siddall, Julie Smith, Ellen Waterman, Tracy McMullen, Deborah Wong.

Gender studies and improvisation studies have much to offer each other, yet these spheres often function independently and rarely in a way that accounts for the nuances of their complementary intersections. The team for this research area works from an interdisciplinary base that includes theoretical and historical musicology, ethnomusicology, philosophy, performance studies, literary studies, women's studies, jazz studies, and work on cultural memory and memorialization as a means to grapple with the complexities of these intersections. The group explores the relation between feminist inspired theories of the performativity of gender (Butler 1990) and the performative basis of improvised music. In this way, the research will provide further elaboration on the existing or potential relationships between collaborative music-making and community-formation in general. Research coordinator Sherrie Tucker is an interdisciplinary scholar who has been forging ties between Women's Studies and Jazz Studies since 1992 and, more recently, between gender studies and improvisation. She is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas, was the 2004-2005 Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia University, and has published widely in the areas of gender and improvisation, including the award-winning Swing Shift: "All-Girl" Bands of the 1940s.

Structures: How might the practice of creative improvisers and work in improvisation studies extend and develop the metaphor of 'improvisation' (Butler 2004) as posited by gender studies and queer theorists?

Policy: Which insights from feminist theories and improvisatory perspectives on difference might be implemented in social and institutional practice toward inclusive community-building?

Impact: What kinds of improvising communities are well-positioned to explore new ways of imagining community that benefit from rather than obliterate difference?

Improvisation, Law and Justice

Coordinator: David Lametti.

Participants: Eric Lewis, Desmond Manderson, Tina Piper, Daniel Weinstock.

Though musical improvisation is covered under the current Canadian Copyright Act, recent technologies have provoked new questions about the appropriate standard of copyright protection that such works merit. In particular, the rights of creators and users (who are often subsequent creators, as in the case, for example, of sampling) within such a context must be reconsidered in order to appropriately balance them. Specifically, fair dealing with regard to works of collective improvisation or other collaborative musical practices present evaluative problems in light of shifting notions of originality, inspiration, homage, and what one might call "legitimate borrowing." The implications of such a study may affect not only legal considerations of works of musical improvisation, but also musical and artistic practices more generally. The research coordinator for this aspect of the project is David Lametti, associate professor of Law at McGill University, whose work explores the parameters of intellectual property in analytic terms and links them to their underlying justifications and ethical goals.

Structures: What is the appropriate level and instrument of copyright protection for works of musical improvisation?

Policy: What is the appropriate threshold test of originality for works of musical improvisation and how should this originality be evidenced?

Impact: Do open access or general public licences afford an appropriate and useful alternative to existing measures for the protection of works of musical improvisation?

Improvisation and Pedagogy

Coordinator: George Lewis.

Participants: Frédérique Arroyas, Ajay Heble, Keith Sawyer, Gillian Siddall, Howard Spring, Jesse Stewart, Ellen Waterman.

The rise of jazz and other popular musics during the twentieth century gave public voice to improvisative practices that had been all but purged from the performance of Western art music. In the face of criticism that they could not theorize their own practice, jazz performers' largely autodidactic, non-institutional pedagogies – comprised of private listening, self-teaching, semi-public "jam sessions," and apprenticeships in professional touring bands – provided the critically engaged means by which to learn improvisative skills. In the 1960s, there was a flourishing of community-based arts organizations committed to extending the tradition of an alternative pedagogy of jazz and imbuing it with the imperatives of economic and social advancement within localized communities: The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (Chicago), The Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension (Los Angeles), and The Black Artists' Group (St. Louis) are three particularly trenchant examples. What has emerged more generally in the intervening decades is an alternative, hybrid pedagogy that embraces both autodidactic and institution-based learning in recognition and promotion of the crucial link between musicians and the communities in which they live and work.

Structures: What new theoretical and organizational models and practices can be developed for the creation and nurturing of itinerant-institutional partnerships for the teaching of improvisation, the development of teachers of improvisation, and theories of education that embed improvisation itself as a methodology?

Policy: In what ways can the pedagogy of musical improvisation, a methodology that embraces opportunity, contingency, and risk, inform pedagogy in other fields?

Impact: How can cross-cultural models of learning and teaching extend the communities of experimental pedagogy and how can such communities be incorporated into the academy?

Research Projects

Jazz in the Schools

Participants: Martin Eckart, Ajay Heble, Melissa Walker, Ellen Waterman

In 2008, the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice project began a research study with the Jazz in the Schools workshops that have been run by our community partner, the Guelph Jazz Festival, for the past eight years.

The Jazz in the Schools study aims to explore the role of improvisation in secondary music education. Music programs in high schools are typically centred on band instruments and choral music. Music educators carry heavy work loads and classes are often necessarily limited in scope to Western musical practices. Programs such as Jazz in the Schools aim to broaden and enrich students’ experience. In an increasingly multi-cultural classroom, we need music pedagogies that speak to and validate diversity.

Our hypothesis is that improvisation is a creative form of music making that may reach across students’ diverse cultural backgrounds to foster greater communication, creativity, and understanding.

Through Jazz in the Schools, high school and university students explore improvisational music with leading improvisers. On February 11-13, 2008, clarinetist Lori Freedman worked with six student groups; twenty-seven students then participated in a final concert in which new and seasoned improvisers joined Lori to test their creative boundaries.

Three project members attended each of the workshops and the concert. One member introduced the project and the musician to the participants, another video-recorded the proceedings, and the third observed and recorded the proceedings using an observational matrix. A series of in-person interviews with students, teachers, and Lori Freedman captured their impressions of their Jazz in the Schools experiences.

Our aim is to continue the study throughout the seven years of the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice project. One of our goals is to create a tool kit for high school teachers to incorporate improvisation into the music curriculum.

Improvisation and Social Aesthetics

Coordinator: Georgina Born.

Participants: Lisa Barg, Howard Becker, David Brackett, Cecil Foster, Eric Lewis, George Lewis, Winfried Siemerling, Alan Stanbridge, Jason Stanyek, Will Straw.

In this area of research, we will examine how improvised musical practices serve to problematize traditional conceptions of aesthetic value. The dominance of Kantian philosophical aesthetics has been destabilized by the challenges issued both by late-twentieth century cultural and expressive practices and by postmodern critical perspectives which embrace popular culture. Against this backdrop, this research will make a major contribution not only to the analysis of the aesthetics of improvised music, but also to the more general progression of aesthetic theory. The challenge posed by improvised music in this context stems from the social and dialogical practices which are foregrounded in improvisative performance. These modes of sociality demand to be accounted for in any conceptualization of the aesthetics of improvised music. While existing literature on musical improvisation does visit these issues, often in relation to particular musicians or genres, as yet there is a lack of comparative and analytical consolidation of these matters. Area coordinator Georgina Born, professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Music at the University of Cambridge, is ideally suited to leading this research area. Through ethnographic studies of cultural production, Born's research has examined the articulation of the social and the aesthetic in relation to music and other media; these studies have led to major policy contributions and consultancies for government and industry. Her writings have pursued two complementary projects concerned with the elaboration of a social aesthetics: first, analysing how social, cultural, economic and political forces condition the aesthetic; this has entailed the use of interdisciplinary frameworks that draw perspectives from sociology, anthropology, music, and the arts. Second, she has been involved in developing theories of mediation in relation to music, which provides the basis for theorising a social aesthetics by taking the socialities that characterize expressive practices to be immanent in the aesthetic experiences that they afford.

Structures: How do the cultural and social dimensions of improvisation contribute to an aesthetics of improvisation? What are the implications of rethinking the aesthetic so as to include the socialities immanent in improvised musical practices, rather than conceiving of the aesthetic as those qualities of music that transcend the social?

Policy: In what ways can consideration of the relations between the aesthetic and the social in improvised music, and a new account of its aesthetic value, inform policy deliberation?

Impact: As a society, how might we work towards a more robust emphasis on an endorsement of improvised arts, given a new understanding of their aesthetics and therefore of their cultural and social value?

Improvisation and Social Policy

Coordinator: Desmond Manderson.

Participants: Roger Dean, Ajay Heble, David Lametti, Tina Piper, Keith Sawyer, Julie Smith, Alan Stanbridge, Daniel Weinstock.

In this research area, we are exploring the social conditions in which different kinds of improvised musical practices have taken place and examine their relationship to social change more generally. At stake in this aspect of the project is an understanding of the existing and potential benefits of improvisation toward the social health of communities with regard, for example, to issues of multiculturalism and citizenship. If the dialogical, collaborative practices of various modes of improvised music invite a recognition and reconciliation of difference between practitioners, then it is worthwhile to consider how the operational aspects of such aesthetic practices relate to social interactions within and between communities in general. Methodologically, this research demands both a philosophical and a sociological component. The philosophical component will require research into contemporary and historical theories of both how and why improvised music takes place as well as to the dynamics of social change. The sociological component will require extensive research with contemporary improvisers to examine not only their own musical performance practices, but also their music's relation to social and political functions, including activism. Area coordinator Desmond Manderson holds the Canada Research Chair in Law and Discourse (Tier I) in the Faculty of Law at McGill University and has an international reputation as a leading interdisciplinary scholar and theorist of law and justice, with particular interests in the application of continental philosophy, literature, and the arts to legal issues and to aspects of social policy.

Structures: In what ways do the practices of contemporary improvisation both reflect and inform ideas about social change?

Policy: In light of the existing and potential relationship between the aesthetic practices of improvisation and the social health of the community, what implications does this relationship have with regard to arts funding in a multicultural society?

Impact: How can research into the relationship of improvisation and social policy inform improvisational practices that are specifically tailored to address social problems?

Improvisation, Text, and Media

Coordinators: Will Straw and Kevin McNeilly.

Participants: Frédérique Arroyas, Georgina Born, David Brackett, Roger Dean, Cecil Foster, Ric Knowles, George Lewis, Winfried Siemerling, Alan Stanbridge.

The principal goal of this research area is the development of a media theory of improvisative practice. While the dialogical, performative nature of improvisation may seem superficially antagonistic to the fixing of media practices in material forms, recordings have played a crucial role in the dissemination of improvised music and in the perpetuation of the communities from which this art has emerged. It is compelling to consider such communities as "memory" devices, not simply as the social group in which memories are kept alive, but also as the material residue of improvisation. Such a consideration is further complicated in "scenes" of contemporary improvisation, like break-beat-based DJ culture, in which recorded artifacts (often of improvisations) are activated within performance, thereby unmooring improvisations which had become fixed. In our view, research of this nature would be best served by the development of methods drawing upon some of the concerns of object-network theory (which hears music as a negotiation between things and people), media theory (which considers the role of technologies in the stocking and transmitting of creative practices), and sociological theory, approaches that participant Born (2005) has already brought to questions of the mediation of musical improvisation. An important emphasis in this area concerns the connections between improvisation and interactive technologies. New media theorists have engaged improvisation only to a limited extent. For instance, the nature of the challenge to viewers posed by the 'transforming mirror' of computer interaction has been effectively theorized by Canadian installation artist Rokeby (1995), while virtual reality pioneers such as Krueger (1983) and Laurel (1993) adopted forms of interactivity that recalled both musical and theatrical improvisation, albeit (for the most part) without explicit mention of the term. Going further, today's interactive web-based art and music performances almost inevitably incorporate a dimension of improvisation, and it seems evident that the concept of "scenes" includes online communities that congregate and exchange narratives around blogs and music download sites. Research area co-coordinator Will Straw, associate professor in Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, is well positioned to take on this work. He has been active as a popular music studies scholar since its emergence in the early 1980s and has developed the idea of "scene," a way of understanding the loosely-organized relationship between shifting groups of musicians, audiences, and the institutional contexts through which music flows (clubs, record labels, etc.). Co-coordinator Kevin McNeilly, associate professor of English at the University of British Columbia, uses jazz and improvisation as a key trope, and focusses on the ways in which cultural meanings are produced by and through artistic and mass media. Juxtaposing fictional and documentary depictions of jazz, his work explores questions of historicity, autobiography, gender, race, form, and production, crossing disciplinary as well as media boundaries, and theorizing the activity of listening.

Structures: What is an appropriate vocabulary by which to articulate the nuanced relationships that emerge through the recording, storage, and transmission of improvised practices?

Policy: Given the difficulties that Canadian granting agencies have faced in effectively recognizing groups of improvising musicians which feature shifting membership and complex modes of collaboration, in what ways have funding policies prioritized the career development of stable units like 'bands' to the detriment of other kinds of musical collaboration?

Impact: How have new interactive technologies affected the creation and reception of improvisational musical practices, and the emergence of new conceptions of music-making? What kinds of future developments in interactivity might condition the emergence of new, hybrid notions of community-formation, along both geographical and virtual dimensions?

Improvisation and Transcultural Understanding

Coordinator: George Lipsitz.

Participants: Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, Ric Knowles, Eric Lewis, Kevin McNeilly, Ingrid Monson, Winfried Siemerling, Jason Stanyek, Jesse Stewart, Deborah Wong.

While the methodologies of many of the other research areas are driven largely by broadly theoretical concerns, this aspect of the project will engage primarily in applying theory to historicized, site-specific case studies of improvisative practices across cultures and communities. In this way, the research will attend to the nuances of specific kinds of musical and cultural practice with particular attention to the ways such practice relates within and between the communities in which they exist. These case studies will draw on theoretical works on improvisation (for example, George E. Lewis's work on Afrological improvisation), sociological theory, critical work on race and ethnicity, and ethnographic studies. Sociologist and historian George Lipsitz, professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the foremost scholar on intercultural issues as articulated through music and, as such, is ideally suited to undertaking this research. In line with the methodology of applied theory that will be engaged in this project, Lipsitz's widely cited text, Dangerous Crossroads (1997), includes a vital examination of Québécois cultural politics in relation to musical production. He has published articles on improvisational collaborations among members of the Black Artists' Group in St. Louis and on multi-instrumentalism and musical works that include theatre, spoken word art, and visual art. The following are questions relating to potential case studies that may be undertaken here. How did improvised performances in the 1960s and 1970s reflect and shape the inter-racial relations, affiliations, and antagonisms of the time? How has the diffusion of Québécois improvisative practices such as musique actuelle contributed to a French diaspora within Canada? How do the improvisative, collaborative, and culturally hybridic practices of 'hyphenated' artists such as George Elliott Clarke and D.D. Jackson contribute to the critical discourse on multiculturalism in Canada?

Structures: Precisely how do improvisational musical practices mediate transcultural understanding at the level of specific sites?

Policy: What policy changes are suggested by the recognition of the role of improvisation in advancing transcultural understanding?

Impact: How might institutions concerned to advance transcultural understanding make use of improvisational arts?

Musical improvisation is a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.

– Ajay Heble