Thinking on their feet 

By Barbara Black

When jazz musicians improvise, they’re doing something so daring that it makes classical musicians envious. Musical improvisation is creative, unpredictable and risky, and when it works, it’s glorious.

A group of researchers have been given a grant of $2.5 million from SSHRC to apply the improvisation techniques used by jazz musicians to social and political activity. It was one of only two projects to receive a Major Collaborative Research Initiatives (MCRI) grant from SSHRC this year.

The project is called Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice, and two women with Concordia connections and a focus on gender issues are involved.

Andra McCartney is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies with a doctorate in music. She creates “soundwalks” that use ambient sound to create art. McCartney’s work, which is influenced by the Vancouver sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp, is an invitation to consider space through sound and reflect on how we relate to a specific place.

For example, she has just finished a project on the revitalization of the Lachine Canal. She recorded sounds from the trail that runs the length of the canal over several years to create “sonic images” that reflect the profound changes in recent years to the neighbourhoods along the canal.

The SSHRC project fits in well with her intense interest in making artistic use of the sound around her. “Musical improvisation is based on active listening during playing, as opposed to a compositional approach, where concepts are defined beforehand,” McCartney told the Journal. “It’s thinking on your feet.”

Moreover, as a member of a scholarly circle called the Gender and Body Group, she will bring a feminist focus to the project.

“Feminism in music appeared very late, in the early ’90s,” she said. “Readings on improvisation [in music] are primarily written by men. Despite their idealistic rhetoric, few women improvisers are discussed.” The research project aims to address this imbalance, while also considering other issues of gender and the body, such as improvisation and disability, or the gendered aesthetics of improvisation.

Linnet Fawcett did her PhD thesis at Concordia on recreational skating. It was titled “Evoking Affect, Becoming Movement: From Writing that Skates to the Swaggering Midlife Female Trick Skater.” She did most of her research on community rinks, developing “an experimental ethnographic practice that allowed me to gather the traces of these ‘disorganized’ sporting bodies and their verbal and physical conversations as they circulated out there on the ice.”

Linnet Fawcett and Andra McCartney are part of a $2.5-million SSHRC grant that links improvisation in music with social change. Magnifying glass

Linnet Fawcett and Andra McCartney are part of a $2.5-million SSHRC grant that links improvisation in music with social change.

Now Fawcett is a postdoctoral fellow at the Université de Montréal’s Centre de recherche en éthique (CREUM). Her role in the SSHRC project will be to examine how improvised social and creative practices affect “personal transformation and the creation of wider social networks” at a Montreal mental health housing facility called l’Abri en Ville.

She will use the idea of “ethical jazz,” i.e., a consent-based way of working together, to create projects with residents. This could take the form of songs performed in a public park by a choral group from L’Abri, but it could equally prove useful in drafting policies regarding social housing and health care.

McCartney says this work will focus on “aural aspects of domestic activity that our visually oriented society so often misses, in the hope that these interventions might spur new audiences to act in more politically engaged and socially caring ways.”

The principal investigator of the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice project is Ajay Heble, a professor of English and theatre studies at the University of Guelph who is also a jazz pianist, and has linked the project to the Guelph Jazz Festival, which provides an occasion every summer for the researchers to share their findings.

Heble is inspired by the great jazz improvisers who exemplify the participatory virtues of dialogue and mutual respect. A number of international figures in the field are involved in the project, notably George E. Lewis, Georgina Born and Pauline Oliveros.

Seven areas of concern will be pursued by the 33 investigators and other researchers: law and justice; pedagogy; social policy; transcultural understanding; gender and the body; text and media; and social aesthetics. The total budget of the project, including other funding sources, now stands at about $4.2 million.


Concordia University