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From opera to improv: UCM professor getting ready for Jacksonville

Jacob Sentgeorge, associate professor of music and voice, watches a rehearsal of Hairspray in the James L. Highlander Theatre. Sentgeorge is the play's music director. The play runs in Highlander Theatre Thursday-Sunday. (Photo by Chris Holmberg/Muleskinner)

Imagine getting ready to perform at an annual, nationally-recognized event.

Now imagine you only have weeks to prepare. And you’ll be performing with someone you’ve never performed with before. They live in a different state, so rehearsing is not an option, at least not in a classical sense. The piece you’re performing? You’ve done it before, but it filled less than a third of the amount of time it needs to fill for this event.

Seems normal, right?

For Jacob Sentgeorge, associate professor of music and voice at UCM, it’s not too far off.

Sentgeorge will perform at the 9th Annual Electroacoustic Barn Dance, Nov. 14-16 in Jacksonville, Florida. He and Brian Riordan, a composer and performer who lives in Pittsburgh, will perform “Brownshirts in the Hundred Acre Wood,” an interpretation of the poem of the same name by Kyle Minor, an award-winning author who lives in Indianapolis.

“I’m looking forward to this as we are working remotely on the project,” Riordan said. “I live in Pittsburgh, he lives in Missouri, and we’ll be performing in Florida with little or no rehearsal. Actually, the upcoming performance will be the first time we’ve ever played together.”

Riordan said he and Sentgeorge met at MOXsonic last year and have wanted to do something together, and the Electroacoustic Barn Dance presented an opportunity.

Sentgeorge was also encouraged to apply by Eric Honour, professor of music technology, and Jeff Kaiser, assistant professor of music, who have previously performed at the festival.

“Mark Snyder, the impresario of the EAB, has created a festival that is different in so many ways than other festivals on the electroacoustic festival/concert circuit,” Kaiser said. “Playing there is a joy. It is a different feeling to play for an audience made up of people that do what you do. It creates a sense of belonging to a group, a pressure to do well and additional pressure to stand out.”

Central to his performances is Sentgeorge’s fondness for poetry, and he said when he found “Brownshirts in the Hundred Acre Wood,” he knew he wanted to do something with it.

“I’ve always been kind of obsessed with poetry,” he said. “I want the poetry to be in the foreground, this weird poem especially, and then have the electronics enhance it.”

Jacob Sentgeorge, associate professor of music and voice, plays the piano at a rehearsal for Hairspray. Sentgeorge is the play’s music director. (Photo by Chris Holmberg/Muleskinner)


Electroacoustic performances utilize live sound and live processing of that sound. Sentgeorge and Riordan will read the poem while recording, rerecording, processing and looping their voices and other sounds. Most of their upcoming performance will be improvised.

Sentgeorge said while there is planning, an improvised electroacoustic performance isn’t something he can rehearse until he gets it right. Since he doesn’t necessarily know what it’s going to sound like, “right” doesn’t even exist before he begins.

“I run it, and I have my variables, and I kind of know (what it’s going to sound like),” he said. “(But) it’s not even close (to 100 percent). It’s maybe 10 percent.”

He said that’s part of what he likes about it.

Sentgeorge spent years developing his vocal and performance skills as a trained operatic singer, which includes everything from physical training to learning several different languages. It’s something he said he enjoys, but it’s a regimented process that takes a lot of time and comes at a price.

“I love what a long tradition that is. I really do,” he said. “And then I also hate it. The absolutely long training, the absolutely strict traditional way of, ‘That’s good, that’s not as good,’ that whole continuum. I’ve marched down it…. And it’s cost me a lot, psychologically.”

It also, quite literally, comes at a price.

“I can’t stand how wealthy opera has always been,” Sentgeorge said. “It’s always kept people out. The training that I went through was crazy-expensive and I have a lot of student debt.”

Sentgeorge said electroacoustic music has a similar issue – it costs a lot to break in. But he said he and other musicians want that to change.

“The community that has grown up is mostly white guys,” he said. “It’s kind of the same thing as opera: It takes a lot of money and wherewithal to understand the software. I think most of us have this feeling of, ‘Let’s get this out. Let’s make it simpler. Let’s extend our community.’ Jeff (Kaiser) always reminds me, ‘There’s somebody in their garage right now making something that is just going to whip your head around in about a year.’ The talent is universally spread, but the opportunity isn’t.”

Part of the experience for Sentgeorge is the performance, something he said he’s grown to enjoy.

“I’ve been on stage since I was 6,” he said. “I haven’t always loved it, but I do now, and I’ve gained from that interaction.”

One of the things he’s gained is recognition for is unique styles and abilities.

“Creatively, Dr. Sentgeorge has brought back an aspect of his work – live digital signal processing – that he was experimenting with when he was himself a student,” Kaiser said. “His work is very creative and shows the wealth of possibilities to improvised electroacoustic music in general.… The possibilities are mind-boggling, and he has had some absolutely stunning performances.”

The medium, and his upcoming performance with Riordan, provide Sentgeorge a way to blend his musical training, his love for performing and his affinity for poetry into a unique experience, both for him and for the audience.

Even if he doesn’t know for certain yet what that experience will be.

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