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International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) Recipient of SSHRC Partnership Grant

Institute to Explore Improvisation as Key to World Harmony

How can people learn to live together in an increasingly global world? An important clue may be found through improvised performance practices, says University of Guelph professor Ajay Heble.

Somehow, musicians who have never rehearsed together or even met, who play different instruments, and who may not even share a common language can come together and make magic happen, he says.

“There’s something going on in the moment, something that resonates with musicians and artists adapting to each other,” said Heble, an English professor, musician, and artistic director and founder of the renowned Guelph Jazz Festival.

That “something” might translate to other venues and issues, providing lessons about co-operation, negotiating differences, fostering trust and meeting social obligations.

In fact, musical improvisation just may hold the key to building successful communities, here and around the globe, he says.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) seems to agree. Today, the federal agency awarded Heble and his research team a $2.5-million Partnership Grant to launch an International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation.

Following extensive peer review, the initiative was ranked No. 1 among finalists for the grant, which was one of 20 awarded nationwide. The new award builds on an earlier $2.5-million SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiatives (MCRI) grant.

“This is incredible news and well-deserved recognition of the groundbreaking work of Ajay and his team,” said Kevin Hall, vice-president (research).

“This prestigious grant is testimony to their creativity, ingenuity and innovation. They’ve established a new field of interdisciplinary study and firmly positioned Guelph as the leader in research on improvisation.”

The new institute stems from the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP) research project directed by Heble, now in the seventh year of a seven-year SSHRC MCRI grant. ICASP uses musical improvisation as a model for building successful communities.

Heble plans to broaden the scope with the new partnered International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation. Using improvisation as a teaching and learning tool, he aims to improve society by bringing together the arts, scholarship and collaborative action.

The institute will involve 56 international scholars from 20 institutions -- including McGill University, University of British Columbia, Memorial University of Newfoundland and University of Regina – as well as more than 30 community partners.

“Our MCRI grant established such tremendous momentum – nothing like it existed previously – and we were looking for ways to sustain it in the long term. This institute at Guelph is the next phase in the development of our work,” Heble said.

“To know that our proposal was ranked first is fantastic. It’s wonderful when the work you are doing is recognized and appreciated.”

Institute programs will bring together people from different backgrounds and help build and sustain co-operation, change and adaptation, including in countries all around the world, focusing on three key research priorities: community health and social responsibility; practice-based research; and digital technology.

The venture will build on the successes of ICASP, including forging partnerships with varied groups, facilitating programs for children and at-risk youth through workshops, and creating novel software programs.

“What we’re doing is unique in the world. We’ve propelled Guelph into a world centre for improvisational music as a form of social practice, an engine for change,” Heble said.

He emphasized that conceptualizing the institute and developing the grant proposal was a collaborative effort.

“I’ve benefitted tremendously from the input, support, and involvement of many amazing people,” he said. “In so many ways, our project seems to me to represent an exemplary instance of what a vital, resilient, and socially engaged community can be.”

The team includes Prof. Daniel Fischlin, University Research Chair and professor in Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies; Prof. Frederique Arroyas, School of Languages and Literatures; Kim Thorne, ICASP project manager; Prof. Eric Lewis, McGill University; Prof. Ellen Waterman, Memorial University of Newfoundland; and Musagetes, a Guelph-based organization fostering community and culture through art.

For more information on the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada's and recipients of the Partnership Grant, please click here.

Improvisation is, simply put, being and living this very moment. No one can hide in music, and improvising in music is to be truly in this very moment and being completely yourself, with all your qualities and faults. It is probably the most honest state for a human being to be in.

– John McLaughlin in an interview with Daniel Fischlin.