Improvised music of the sort generally labeled “avant-garde” is arcane, hyper-specialized; it tends to please small and devoted audiences and has little impact on the wider world, which is dominated by far more commercial and accessible sounds. But what if an improvised performance is more than an improvised performance? Does improvised music open a door to possibilities for social change? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t more people be paying attention?
These are the kinds of questions being addressed by a team of scholars heading up “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice” (ICSP), a multifaceted, seven-year research project led by Ajay Heble, professor of English at the University of Guelph in Ontario, and funded to the tune of $2.5 million by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
“Improvised music,” Heble contends, “is a form of creative practice that fosters a commitment to cultural listening, to a widening of the scope of community and to new models of trust and social organization.” It’s hoped, therefore, that the project will create a new level of visibility for today’s most innovative improvisers; foster productive contacts between scholars in a wide range of fields; and ultimately develop a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between art and society, and how that relationship can be channeled toward social and political renewal.
Ever since he launched the Guelph Jazz Festival in 1996, Heble has made a point of uniting theory and practice, viewing the pragmatic business of concert programming through a scholarly prism. “For a number of years we’ve offered a colloquium—an academic conference—as part of the festival schedule,” he says. “Guelph is the only Canadian jazz festival that offers this kind of ongoing education component, and it’s really taken off. A couple of co-edited books have come out of it [The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue (Wesleyan), Rebel Musics: Human Rights, Resistant Sounds, and the Politics of Music Making (Black Rose)]. And that led to the start of our peer-reviewed, open-access online journal, Critical Studies in Improvisation in 2004.”
With these activities, Heble and his colleagues established a track record and laid an intellectual foundation for the highly competitive SSHRC grant. They were unsuccessful on their first attempt, however, which made victory this round all the sweeter. From a field of at least 30 candidates, ICSP was one of two awardees in 2006. The study officially launched in September 2007.
In his book Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance and Critical Practice (Routledge, 2000), Heble spells out the implications of this kind of scholarship in the starkest terms: “[W]hat’s at stake in our understanding and assessment of the music, I would suggest, is nothing less than the struggle to reconstruct public life” (p. 230). At first blush this may seem hopelessly ambitious. But Heble, even informally over the phone, has a way of highlighting the more intuitive aspects of the ICSP mission. The task at hand, he says, is to study “the complex and often unrecognized ways in which improvisation informs debates beyond the borders of the purely artistic. Our goal is not only to understand the music, but also its broader social implications, how it opens up a consideration of issues that are central to the challenges of diversity and social cooperation in the new millennium.”
Jazz, of course, is not the only music to involve improvisation, nor the only music with an activist, political tradition. Of necessity, ICSP will have to limit its focus. “We’ll be dealing with a set of current practices that arose in response to an experimentalist impulse in the 20th century,” Heble explains. “This involves jazz, but it’s not just jazz: it’s a set of practices that emerged largely in response to jazz, but have been picked up and circulated through wider networks of cultural exchange.” What Heble is referring to, in the main, is the avant-garde or “free jazz” movement of the 1960s and its globe-spanning, genre-defying legatees.
Speaking of the “long and illustrious history that links improvised musical practices with struggles for social justice and human rights,” Heble cites such figures as Archie Shepp, Max Roach, Sun Ra, and Horace Tapscott, bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and entities like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). “A lot of these artists began with a social and ethical mandate and were explicit in seeing their music as part of a larger struggle.” ICSP aims not simply to look back at these past endeavors but to highlight present-day artists who work in a similar spirit.
“One thing we’re trying to understand is how improvised musical practices can be understood as forms of insurgent knowledge production,” says Heble, slipping into voguish academic parlance. “There’s something special about improvised music,” he continues, “something about the kind of activist listening it demands, that helps to disrupt orthodox standards of coherence and notions of fixity. It encourages us to hear the world anew.”
Ironically for a study of improvisation, ICSP’s seven-year plan is rigorously mapped out, as any large, grant-driven project must be. The team has received matching funds not only from the University of Guelph, but also McGill and the University of British Columbia: $4 million in total. The program involves 33 researchers from 18 different academic institutions; among them are the noted improvisers George Lewis (trombone, electronics) and Pauline Oliveros (just-intonation accordion), as well as UC-Santa Barbara sociologist George Lipsitz, Harvard musicologist Ingrid Monson, and University of Kansas gender theorist Sherrie Tucker. There are also 13 “community partners,” notes Heble, “ranging from the Canada Council to street-level organizations that work with at-risk youth.”
The program will encompass seven research areas: law and justice, pedagogy, social policy, transcultural understanding, gender and the body, text and media, and social aesthetics. The researchers select their areas according to interest and expertise, and each area has its own research coordinator. Similarly, there are seven research tools: policy papers; the online journal; three annual colloquia to be held at Guelph, McGill and UBC (21 conferences in the seven years); a “research-intensive” website, distinct from the journal; a summer institute; a series of five books (forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press); and a public outreach component. “We have a complicated grid,” Heble laughs, “with each person assigned a spot in relation to the research tools for each area. So, for instance, the pedagogy area has different reps for policy papers, summer institute, and so on.”
Built into the SSHRC grant is an accountability structure; Heble and the team are required to submit a “milestone report,” undergo a formal midterm evaluation, and uphold strict allocation standards. What this ensures is a focus on results. “We’re concerned with a number of specific outcomes, in arts funding policy and other areas,” Heble submits. “Improvisation tends to be disparaged or misunderstood, seen as an individual’s expression of personality without recognizing that it has these broader community impacts. We want to address these misunderstandings both among the public but also in terms of arts funding structures, pedagogy, and social policy. For example, it’s very difficult as an improviser to get funding, whereas a composer has far more options. What does that tell us about structures of legitimation and access to resources? We’re hoping to make interventions in these kinds of policy deliberations. The outcomes are concrete, and we hope they will have long-lasting impact.”
Perhaps the most readily graspable goal of ICSP is transcultural understanding. When we witness encounters between musicians “who may not even speak the same language but can make wondrous music without preparation,” as Heble puts it, “what does that tell us about negotiating difference?” The rub is that such performances are fleeting and involve relatively small groups of people. There is a tension, readily acknowledged by Heble, between the harnessing of ephemeral musical experiences and the building of long-term communal bonds and political progress. To extrapolate from a festival gig to the hope of widespread and fundamental change may strike many as a leap. Even Heble is wary of articulating concrete social-change benchmarks that, by themselves, would signify success or failure at the end of seven years.
The point, rather, is to initiate a process and build a home for a community of scholars who could enhance the public good over time. “We’ve always understood that this is going to evolve in ways we can’t predict,” says Heble, who ultimately hopes to establish a permanent international center for improv-related scholarship. “I think we’ve helped to break open an emerging field of inquiry,” he declares. “Effectively we’re defining and shaping a brand new kind of interdisciplinary study, for what I would argue is a hugely important social and cultural phenomenon.”
David R. Adler is the editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly publication of the Jazz Journalists Association, and covers jazz for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Jazz Times, and Down Beat. His writings have also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic Online, Slate, Democratiya, NewMusicBox, All Music Guide, Global Rhythm, All About Jazz, Signal to Noise, Coda, and Jewish Currents. As a guitarist, David has performed with a wide variety of musicians in some of New York’s best venues, including Avery Fisher Hall, Roseland, Joe’s Pub and Fez. During his tenure with the East Village band Keeta Speed (1996-1999), David worked with the famed producers Dave McDonald (Portishead), Patrick Dillett (B-52’s, They Might Be Giants) and Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev).
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