Improvisation Studies

I am spending a couple of days at the University of Guelph, near Toronto in Canada. You probably haven’t heard of Guelph and if so, you’re wondering why would I be in Guelph, Canada? Because in the academic world of improvisation studies, Guelph looms large. Seven years ago, Professor Ajay Heble–the founding artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival–successfully secured a large research grant from the Canadian government to create the world’s first research center devoted to the study of improvisation. The center is called “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” or ICASP for short. I’ve been one of the research team members since the beginning; Dr. Heble invited me because of my research and writings on jazz and theater improvisation.


My primary role in the project has been flying up to Guelph occasionally to participate in research team meetings. I always feel as if I get way more out of these meetings than I contribute, because the world’s top scholars are in one room for a special two days. Just to call out a few of the colleagues I first met in Guelph: Professor George Lewis of Columbia University, a scholar and a musician (member of the Chicago AACM since 1971); George Lipsitz of UC Santa Barbara; Pauline Oliveros, one of the early performers of electronic music (she was doing it in 1960) and founder of the Deep Listening Institute; and Georgina Born of Oxford University. And a wonderful group of younger scholars–graduate students and postdoctoral fellows–all of whom were supported by the grant.

This year’s meeting is special, because the ICASP grant was only for seven years and the project is ending. We’ve accomplished a lot; more than anything else has been to define “improvisation studies” as a recognized interdisciplinary field. And this has been one of my personal goals since I was in graduate school in the early 1990s, when I had trouble explaining to people what I wanted to study. (My dissertation was titled “Pretend Play as Improvisation” and was a study of children in a preschool classroom; this was really outside of the paradigm for developmental psychologists.) But Professor Heble was thinking ahead, and he was able to secure a second grant, for another seven years, this one to create a new “International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation” (IICSI for short). So the good news is that this year’s meeting, although the last for ICASP, is kicking off the new International Institute. I’m honored that I was invited again to be a Research Team Member.

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