Musical Intuition

Students in Italy program stretch their improvisation instincts with German trumpeter, composer

By Kelley Bruss

Furman’s Music in Italy program always gives students a semester full of stretching experiences – but the program hit new high notes this year in a seminar with German trumpeter and composer Markus Stockhausen.

“My ideal is a music which is beyond all stylistic directions, and denies none,” says Stockhausen, whose father was a pioneer in this kind of music. “Intuitive Music is the most challenging, but also the most rewarding and joyful way of music-making.”

Furman students gave a successful concert after just two and a half days of rehearsals.

“Many of them had not improvised before, or very little, but they found ways to express themselves quickly,” Stockhausen says. “Some were really brave in the best sense, adventurous.”

Music in Italy began in 2006, partnering from the start with the Accademia dell’ Arte in Arezzo, Italy. Each fall since then, 10 to 14 students have participated. They study Italian and music history, have individual music lessons and coaching, take a class in conducting and participate in an interdisciplinary, experiential course on Italian arts and culture that includes trips around Tuscany.

On fall break, students typically travel to attend performances and recitals in cities such as Paris, Berlin, London, Vienna and Salzburg.

Jake Henjes ’21, a music education major, says it’s about more than the music itself – experiencing it in the great churches and concert halls of Europe has been life-changing.

“Understanding the spaces leads to an understanding of why composers may have written what they did, to use the space to their advantage and create different effects,” he says.

Guest artists have always been a part of the program but as faculty have developed a network of contacts in the region, “it’s gotten larger and better each year,” says Mark Britt, chair of Furman’s music department and a professor of low brass. Professor William Thomas, who retired in 2018, was the founder of the program, but Britt has been a part of Music in Italy from the beginning.

Stockhausen is “a musician of the highest caliber and his work with the students was elegant, patient and inspirational,” Britt says.

Students working with German composer and trumpeter Markus Stockhausen

Furman’s music program is primarily classical, so students have limited experience with improvisation.

“Intuitive Music is synonymous with free improvisation, but does include some rules of harmony, style and order,” Britt says.

Those rules, laid down from the earliest theory classes, create the foundation from which the musicians can then manipulate and experiment. For the students – and Britt, too – it was a musical workout. After spending almost an entire career playing from a printed page, the “language of improvisation” is an exciting new world.

“It is all created on the spot by listening to others and trying to build a story through the sounds,” says Blake Merritt ’21, who’s studying violin performance and music theory at Furman.

He considers the time with Stockhausen a highlight of the study abroad program.

“Because of the lack of sheet music, the workshop forced me to worry less about ‘playing correctly,’ and I ultimately became a more relaxed player, which I believe will help me significantly in the future,” he says.

Britt was thrilled with the music the group produced.

“We started out with a mute twirling on the floor … and we went from there,” he says.

Students used no written music for the entire 90-minute concert.

“I think the performance took all of us by surprise,” Britt says. “It was far more creative and effective than any of us could have imagined before we started our work with Markus.”

Stockhausen says learning to trust your own instincts is as crucial in music-making as it is in other areas of life.

“And improvising together is a whole other story in encountering your fellow musicians,” he says. “You get to know each other very fast and on a deep level.”

And the rich experience isn’t only for the musicians. Intuitive Music offers a unique gift for the audience as well.

“You can witness and hear the creative process,” Stockhausen says. “And often music comes out that is just unbelievable. People transcend their personal limits and find new ways to express themselves.”