And, because we get a day rate on the theater, we hold our music school fundraiser on the same day as Sound of Silent Film so now I’m having our school fundraiser on 4/20 too which is kind of weird right? Thank goodness we’re not selling muffins or brownies or something as part of the event.
I was told recently that 4/20 came about because it was police code but according to Wikipedia it’s because of five high school kids who called themselves the Waldos because they met at a wall to get stoned way back in 1971 which technically should have made them the Walldos but let’s let it go. They had a treasure map leading to an abandoned cannabis crop and were going to meet at 4:20 to go find it.
They never found the treasure but they coined the term 4/20 and inspired the movie The Goonies though obviously some changes were made. One of the kids later became a roadie for the Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh because of course he did and he told Lesh their word for getting high was 4/20 and it became a common term among Dead Heads from whence it eventually leaked out to the general public.
You may not know this about me but I followed the Dead for one summer way back in 1993 when I was a tender lad of twenty-one. My girlfriend and two friends and I concocted a scheme to go to a Dead show in Ohio and sell a ton of tie-dye T-shirts and veggie burritos and make so much money that we could drive to Nova Scotia and spend the summer camping out and reading Kafka. Well I was planning to read Kafka all summer, not sure what they were going to do. Not that Kafka would have lasted the whole summer. I would probably have gotten through his complete works in a couple of weeks and then gone stir crazy.
Anyway, as you can probably guess, the plan didn’t work. Although sales of the shirts and burritos were surprisingly strong, the VW van we bought to get us to Ohio and which we were going to live in in Nova Scotia was a piece of junk and kept breaking down and we traded it for a gas-guzzling black van with no windows. Basically we earned just enough money to get us to the next show where we would sell more burritos and shirts and earn just enough to get to the next show and so on.
Instead of reading Kafka in the serene Prince Edward Island countryside I spent my nights in dingy campsites reading The Castle by flashlight to the accompaniment of drum circle jams which frankly is less than ideal. I went to four or five shows that summer and never saw one of them though we did get “miracle” tickets once but our sculptor friend Takashi really wanted to go so we gave him the tickets.
I don’t remember anyone saying 4/20 that summer but I kind of had my nose in a book the whole time so I’m hardly a reliable witness. I wonder if Phil Lesh still celebrates it? Maybe he’ll show up to our fundraiser. We could do a Dark Star jam.
In the other story the moon just suddenly blows up one day for no apparent reason that anyone can discover. There’s no sound and no fury, it just blows up and where there was a moon there are now seven distinct chunks of former moon.
The seven moon chunks hold the former moon’s orbit so at first it seems like everything will be alright but then scientists figure out that the moon chunks will strike each other over and over again making smaller and smaller chunks many of which will rain down on the Earth until eventually there will be a continuous rain of former moon chunks that will wipe out all life on the planet and create a system of dust particle rings like Saturn has.
The world’s leaders have to tell everyone that they’re going to die horrible deaths within the next two years. Unless you vote straight ticket ha ha. But seriously no, everyone is doomed.
They then choose the smartest and most useful people they can find to blast into space and live in a space station for two thousand years until things calm down and they can come back to Earth and start over again, which would be like stretching your legs after the world’s longest road trip.
The first story recently inspired a piece of music but I made a vow long ago never to write disaster music so I’m staying away from the second as inspiration and reading it merely for enjoyment although honestly it’s a bit more about how the space station works than I would like and not so much about how seven-plus billion people would handle the knowledge that they have less than two years to live which I have to admit is more interesting to me than the inner workings of a space station designed to last two thousand years though I can see why for some engineering-minded people that would be the interesting part so I hardly fault the author.
At any rate the first story is the Daughters of the Moon by Italo Calvino and it’s part of his Cosmicomics collection of short stories which I first read in college thanks to a teacher whose name I no longer remember. I’m planning to write a large-scale work inspired by several of the stories and the first is, you guessed it, Daughters of the Moon.
It’s for clarinet, violin and cello and will be premiered at the next Concept Lab on March 31st, the complete info for which is below along with a few other performances. Viva la luna!
Now if it were me I would have bought one of those wooden separators you put up between rooms but that’s just because I don’t have the extra cash to take on the expense of another entire apartment to solve a trivial problem.
At any rate, with that knock our fates were sealed. After much discussion we decided that what we really should do was to buy a place. There are a lot of reasons why this is a good idea but as it turns out buying a place in New York is, well, hard. After much searching we found a co-op in our price range that Tom Hanks’ character in the Money Pit might have run screaming from. We put in an offer immediately and it was accepted but the buiding’s paperwork was not in order. In fact it was out of order.
Because of this, getting the clear to close has taken a very long time. Our landlords extended the lease one month for us but then they really had to separate that baby and dog and so they gave us the boot in November and thus commenced our Time of Wandering.
We never knew how long to rent a place for because our broker kept saying we’d be approved at any time. So with all of our stuff in storage we spent the last two months living in a series of Airbnbs throughout New York, a little bit in New Jersey and of course partly in Chicago. But life doesn’t stop just because your apartment has been converted into a single occupancy dog hotel.
The truly strange thing about the last two months is not that I’ve spent my days working at a series of different desks looking at pictures of different people I don’t know. The strange thing is that I’ve spent the majority of my time composing music for the first time since grad school. I mean, I’ve always composed, just not usually as my primary activity.
But starting with that knock on the door it seems like the universe is giving me a swift kick in the pants. In rapid succession my radio show was canceled, we lost our apartment to a terrier, I got hired to score a feature-length film, I was asked to compose music for no less than six upcoming concerts, people have been reaching out wanting to play other pieces of mine, and my dream project of adapting the film Le Jetée into an opera is moving forward.
It’s truly been dizzying and disconcerting but I’m rolling with it. This week I’m in an apartment in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium which I know primarily as the place that George Costanza used to work. I’m putting the finishing touches on the last reel of the film score and am about to walk over to the new place in Washington Heights to meet one of our contractors. I think this new reality might just suit me. I do wonder how the dog is doing though.
From the window display I see that they are fluent in more than 70 styles of mustache including classics like the Chevron, Fu Manchu, Pencil, Walrus and Handlebar but also more adventurous options like the Dreadnought, Hussite, Blunderbuss and, my personal favorite, the Tiny Dancer.
You can also bring in your own custom mustache designs of course and nothing is too outlandish providing, and they’re careful to make this clear, that you have the facial hair to back it up. They will under no circumstances help you cheat nature with mustache implants and are insulted that you would even ask.
They do, however, have several efficacious oils and tonics that stimulate the follicles to improve blood supply to the ‘stache region of the face and promote luscious growth. If you don’t mind standing in the invariably long line you can also try one of their popular testosterone shakes which come in three flavors: Olive Oil-Saffron, Burnt Caramel Swirl and Jägermeister Bavarian Kreme-Filled Donut.
At the moment they’re gearing up for the holiday with a special offer on Caveman Christmas Holiday Combo Mustache Oil and Mustache Balm. Buy now and they’ll throw in the Striking Viking Mustache Comb and Scissor Set for only a hundred dollars, a savings of nearly three percent. I would kill for the chance to buy this.
Sadly, if you’re one hundred percent facially follically challenged like I am you’re not welcome inside, even to buy the tonics you so desperately need, and so I have had to glean all of this information by standing outside with my head pressed against the window staring forlornly at the mustachioed wonderment within.
Last night something extraordinary happened though. A man sporting a splendid Empire Lampshade left the store, walked over to me and wordlessly placed a bottle of Uncle Larry’s All Natural Lavender Bee Pollen Facial Hair Growth Tonic in the palm of my hand. He tipped his hat and disappeared into the fog.
Needless to say I hurried home and vigorously applied it. No results as of yet but I have hope. He has at least given me that much. If it works out I’m leaning toward the Birch Box though I certainly haven’t ruled out the Galactic Spiral Arm.
I wore old jeans and my most comfortable T-shirt for this task and didn’t bother to change when I went to WFMT later in the afternoon for a meeting and so it was a fun irony that I was wearing my WFMT shirt as I was told that Relevant Tones had been canceled and apparently had been canceled for some time and I was one of the last people to know.
My feelings about this have been complex. I got into radio by accident in 2006. I was giving a talk at the Chicago Cultural Center and someone came up to me afterward and said that I should be in radio. I was like yeah that sounds great and he said, no I run a radio station and I’m offering you a show.
That was Craig Kois who was the head of WLUW at the time and I started a show called Relevant Tones that aired on Sundays at 6:00 PM. My show aired after a three-hour show of Latin music hosted by a guy named Gustavo who always spoke Spanish to me even though my Spanish was terrible back then. “Quieres grabar?” he would ask as I walked in. Do you want to record? Sadly I never recorded the show in those days and now don’t have those archives.
After my show was Labor Express, hosted by a guy named Jerry who was the calmest, nicest guy in the world off air and a ranting maniac on air. His show was about socialism and it always started with a protest song which he’d fade down whilst taking in a huge lungful of air, wait a tick, and then let rip. “WELL THEY’RE AT IT AGAIN, DEFRAUDING THE WORKER OF HIS HARD-EARNED DUES.” I always hung around to hear the first few minutes and then listened to the rest in my car driving home.
Relevant Tones in those days was always live, I didn’t have a producer, I just brought in CDs or had guests and basically played whatever I was listening to at the time. There was no thought of a broader mission or of serving the contemporary music community at that time, it was just me talking about and sharing music on my radar including my own music which is always on my radar.
In 2009 I met Jesse McQuarters when he played bass on a piece of mine called Sawtooth Hammer. The concert was at the historic Green Mill tavern and over drinks afterward we talked about how cool it would be to get Relevant Tones on WFMT. Jesse was a producer on WFMT’s flagship show Exploring Music and we met numerous times over the next year or so.
The station was open to the idea of a contemporary music show but we were told we’d have to personally raise $100,000 to get it on the air which just wasn’t going to happen. Meanwhile Jesse and I made seven pilot shows and WFMT aired them and they were unexpectedly popular. The station agreed to re-air them while we tried to raise funds. They ran for 21 weeks and nothing happened and that would have been that except for a fortuitous lunch meeting in which my friend Janet introduced me to Greg Cameron who was the COO for the parent company of WFMT and its sister television station WTTW.
Greg was very interested in all things contemporary and the next several months were a whirlwind. He raised the money we needed, he put me on the cover of the WTTW magazine and I was on Chicago Tonight talking about contemporary classical music. We had a glitzy launch party and he was talking about making contemporary music a station-wide focus in the wake of their sixtieth anniversary. A year later we syndicated nationally and were on thirty-ish stations around the country and we got a big grant from the NEA. It felt like we couldn’t lose.
But then I developed a raging addiction to cocaine, became impossible to work with and even got into a fistfight with Bill Murray. Oh no wait, that’s Chevy Chase, I was cool. I kept my head down and over the last seven years I worked with three producers to make two hundred and sixty episodes. We won the ASCAP Deems Taylor award, traveled to twenty some-odd countries, interviewed dozens and dozens of composers and performers, did live events from National Sawdust, Le Poisson Rouge and Lincoln Center and created a body of work that I’m very proud of.
That said, I’m not entirely upset to be giving it up. Making a weekly produced radio show has been a lot more time-consuming than I ever realized it would be and it has definitely negatively affected my productivity as a composer. As Relevant Tones comes to an end I find myself feeling nostalgic for the show and I’m disappointed that it’s being canceled. It’s impossible not to feel that WFMT is rejecting me personally and, even though I know that’s not true, it still hurts.
But at the same time I find myself suddenly awash in composing opportunities and I have no idea how I would have the time to write all this music if I was constantly having to research new shows, record promos, interview guests, keep up with the never-ending glut of emails, and of course record the actual shows.
Growing up if I ever said something negative my mom would say “cancel transmute” which was something she read in one of her spirituality books. It meant to cancel the negative thought and turn it into something good. Although I have no negative feelings for WFMT and in fact still revere it as the legendary institution it is, I can’t help but think of that expression. It’s time to transmute. I’m no longer a radio host but at the same time I no longer have something convenient to hide behind and use as an excuse not to pursue composing with all of my heart.
I’ve included a short list of my upcoming compositional projects below. I’m really excited to jump into them with everything I have.
ACM was performing in one of their galleries as part of an open studio event and I was running late because I had hit an incredible traffic jam on the way down, apparently caused not by any external factor but instead by a kind of collective stupidity, a powerful will-to-delay that would not be ignored.
So I was flustered and annoyed and completely oblivious of my surroundings when I walked in the front door and started looking around for the elevator, and I looked up and saw this gigantic painting that caused me to stop in my tracks and forget all of the petty things I had just been thinking about a certain timid driver behind the wheel of a vehicle laughably named Intrepid.
In front of me was this gigantic oil painting with a color scheme so rich you felt you could fall right into it. It had a clear composition but was an abstract painting. The inspiration was primordial, an ancient cave painting perhaps, but unlike any cave painting I had ever seen. It was altogether something completely new in my experience. It was a painting by the Zhou Brothers called Life.
I found out later that the Zhou Brothers work on their paintings in tandem, communicating in real time in what they call a “dream dialogue.” Because they frequently host live painting events it’s possible to see this in action and it really is quite freaky to watch. Two guys move around a giant canvas climbing on ladders, never saying a word, making what appear to be random brush strokes that are actually part of a meticulous creation though unplanned in advance. It’s a form of magic.
Chinese art critics have labeled their approach to painting “Ganjue Zhui” which not surprisingly doesn’t translate very well but which sort of means Feeling-ism or Intuition-ism. It’s similar I suppose to the Zen concept of the Beginner’s Mind in that they start from a tabula rasa, but in this case there are two minds communicating the same vision at the same time.
I made my way to the fourth floor and we played our show, (which consisted primarily of a new work we had commissioned from sound artist Ben Vida called Liminal Bends that played with electro-acoustical properties in a way that continually tricked the ear so that throughout the piece you were never quite sure what you here hearing,) and then I spent the rest of the night wandering the galleries enthralled by these curious, wonderful paintings. I decided that night that I would write music inspired by them.
I took pictures of the paintings in the art center and went online and looked at dozens more and finally chose three that I would “set” to music. I wrote the gallery and requested permission and was very happy to hear that not only were the Zhou’s up for letting me do this but that they wanted the piece to be premiered in the gallery in front of the paintings.
The paintings I chose were Life, the first one I had encountered, Open My Door and Group Dance. I tried to avoid conscious thought as much as possible in writing the music and to adopt a version of Ganjue Zhui so that the music could be free of any distracting surface thoughts. All three pieces came quickly and were performed a few months later for the first time at the Zhou B. Center with the paintings looking on inscrutably.
“Three for Zhou B.” as I called the piece has been one of my more successful pieces and was performed several times but inevitably I moved on to other projects and so I was very excited when the wonderful chamber group Picosa said that they were going to perform all three movements on an upcoming concert on October 10.
Below are the paintings and links to the music. Take a break from our mind-numbing day to day reality and head back in time to a primordial past created by two artists who communicate telepathically.
I thought I’d see if I could pick up the new Jonathan Lethem or perhaps this satirical science fiction book from 1936, War With the Newts by Karel Capek that I had read about in the Review of Books the previous weekend, but the fiction section at the store was jammed with tourists so, somewhat ironically, I found myself in the New York section, which was empty, where a book called Vanishing New York immediately called to me.
I bought the book and started reading it on the trip back home. The author is Jeremiah Moss and his book is a neighborhood by neighborhood chronicle of independently owned businesses: music venues, bars, restaurants, cafés and shops, that have been forced to close because of high rents and that have been replaced by chain stores.
The book gives some history too about why people are moving back to the city from the suburbs and how the eternal search for lower rents combined with the city’s willingness to give tax breaks to major corporations combined with the fact that there is no cap on what a landlord can charge for an apartment or storefront combined with the fact that landlords actually get tax breaks for empty spaces so they can afford to keep them empty while they wait for the perfect corporate chain tenant, how all of this has led to, in Jeremiah’s view, the erosion of the city’s very soul.
And if that wasn’t enough, now the rent has gotten so high that many of the big chains can no longer afford to stay open either and so we have a proliferation of high-end empty storefronts throughout the city, what’s known as high-end blight. I read all of this on my A-train ride back to Bed-Stuy and decided to build an event around the theme of the Vanishing City.
I wrote Jeremiah through his website and asked if he’d participate in a panel discussion about this and I asked the head of Open House New York Greg Wessner as someone who would have a more positive counterpoint and then for more of an urban planning, what are the factors behind this, kind of perspective I asked Vishaan Chakrabarti who is an accomplished architect and the author of the book Country of Cities. Amazingly they all said yes and I immediately panicked. This isn’t my field after all, I’m just some guy who read a book on the train.
But then I thought it could be interesting to pair this panel presentation with a concert of “vanished” New York composers, folks who thrived in the New York of the ’70’s and ’80’s which everyone says was the golden era. I talked to my friend Frank Oteri, who will also be on the panel, and he suggested Arthur Russell and Tui St. George Tucker, neither of whom I had heard of though I’ve since immersed myself in their life, times and music.
I knew I wanted to program something by Julius Eastman too and then another friend recommended Ben Weber, a composer who knew each of the others and was a kind of mentor figure to artists in the Village in that era. I pitched the idea to Lincoln Center and, again amazingly, they said yes. So it’s all happening on September 20th at 7:30 PM. The event will be taped for broadcast on Relevant Tones and we’ll be streaming it live from WFMT’s Facebook page so I hope you can tune in.
And in the meantime I’ll stay out of bookstores for a while. Don’t need to get inspired again anytime soon after this one.
Not my first paid gig but my first gig. I was fresh off the boat so to speak and saw an ad from someone looking for pianists for a show called Monster Piano. I don’t think they do this anymore but it was like thirty pianos with two people to a piano playing cheesy things like Somewhere, My Love. It didn’t pay, required that I attend three rehearsals in the burbs plus the concert and I didn’t have a car at the time so in short it was the kind of gig only a still wet behind the ears 22 year old would think was worthwhile.
The gig was posted on the bulletin board at the old Carl Fischer music shop on Wabash where I was working at the time. I was paid $6 an hour to help people purchase everything from Billy Joel’s Rootbeer Rag to Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto because the movie Shine had just come out and everyone thought it would be cool to buy that piece and practice it until they went insane though needless to say the vast majority of people just didn’t have what it took, not to play the piece necessarily though that’s certainly true but I mean to become insane trying. People just don’t have that kind of dedication anymore.
At any rate I would leave Carl Fischer after a long day of listening to people hum tunes at me in the vain hope that I’d recognize them and track down the out of print sheet music for the song even though everyone knows that out of print is out of print and we didn’t even dream there would be something like Ebay back then and I would go to DePaul to practice though I wasn’t a student and would have to sneak in which hardly required ninja training and I would practice and practice because I really didn’t want to be the one pianist out of sixty who screwed up and knowing my luck would be the only individual pianist anyone would actually hear just as I played a wrong note during the chorus of The Man I Love.
I practiced a lot and the gig came and went and I got a ride home from someone who was dating a guy who worked for the Federal Reserve Bank which I thought was cool even though I had no idea what that was. We were listening to a Jazz trumpeter on the radio and I said that’s Miles, I always recognize Miles and she said are you sure it’s not Chet Baker and I said, yes I am because Miles uses a mute like ninety percent of the time and Chet never uses a mute even though I’m not sure if that’s true though I think it is.
I got home to my little studio apartment and put away my music notebook, made a snack and watched network television because I couldn’t afford cable TV and we didn’t have things like Netflix or Red Box back then so watching a movie wasn’t an option. I remember so much about that night but weirdly don’t remember what I watched though if I had to guess I would guess that it was M*A*S*H. Seems like M*A*S*H was always on back then. Some things never change.
Literally everything we humans do creates jobs. From watching television, to drinking beer, to shooting off guns in the woods, to shooting guns at your television while drinking beer in the woods, (just to name a few of my favorites,) there simply isn’t a human activity that doesn’t create jobs. And yet artists are asked to justify our existence based on how many jobs we create? It’s a stupid and insulting thing to ask us to do and it’s misses the entire point. To reduce art and the people who make it to jobs created is so woefully off base that I don’t even know where to begin.
Do I point out that creating art is actually part of what makes us human? That art helps us to see the world through another person’s point of view? That being viscerally reminded on a regular basis that we don’t exist in a solipsistic universe is a good thing? Do I point out the lifeline that the arts give troubled kids? Or that creativity helps us realize that the world can change and that we can change it?
In the same vein it pains me to hear people talk about the economic benefits that immigrants bring. Again I feel it should be obvious and again I feel that it’s missing the point. Even a child can tell you that a closed system will lead to decay no matter how large the system may be. Close it off, add time and you will get decay. That’s self-evident but beyond that there is the question of morality.
Is it right to turn desperate people away? Is it right to send people back to a country where horrible things will almost certainly happen to them? Is it right to want prosperity for ourselves and our loved ones and not for others? Is it right that our ancestors took advantage of America’s formerly generous approach to immigration but that, now safely settled, we slam the door shut?
I’ve been stunned lately by the fervor of the anti-immigration sentiment. I get that it’s driven by fear but what makes them think they have an exclusive right to fear? We all feel fear. Like the impulse to create, it’s part of what makes us human. Everyone reading this has worried about death, illness, money, loved ones or the general uncertainty of life. Honestly when you think about it, it’s crazy that we have no control over how and where we’re born, into what body we’re born and how long we live. It’s a haphazard way to run a universe if you ask me, but that’s the deal. There are no guarantees.
But there is humanity and that idea transcends any one individual. Being a conscious being is a moral responsibility. Unless you’re a sociopath you believe that we have a responsibility to help each other. And yes it’s true that we could do a kind deed to someone and they could murder us in return. It’s true that we could let refugees into this country and terrorists could hide among them. It’s also true that we could turn them away, give into fear and then, finding that we’re still fearful, drive others away and turn on ourselves. Fear isn’t an itch you can scratch. Give into it and it becomes your reality.
Forget about fake news, alternative facts and post truth. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that it’s impossible to know what’s right or wrong anymore. Right and wrong still exist and helping people in desperate circumstances is right. Seeing the humanity in all people is right. Sharing prosperity is right. The universe is a dangerous place and there are no guarantees. We will grow old, get sick and die. But we can live with dignity and we can uphold the highest standards of what it means to be human. Not because it creates jobs. Because it’s right.
Anyway, one of the interesting things about Richard Hell is that he started out as a poet but started the Voidoids because as he says, “it sounds obnoxious but I wanted to influence the culture and there’s maybe two poets per generation who get to do that.”
This is interesting to me because my contention lo these many years has been the opposite, that we can change the culture over time so that it is more conducive to the creation and appreciation of things like poetry and, oh I don’t know, let’s say contemporary classical music.
I was having a very nice rye whiskey with my visiting guests from Mexico recently at a bar in Manhattan called Brandy Library, a gorgeously appointed room replete with bookshelves that, instead of books, were jam-packed with exotic whiskey bottles, and we started talking about this very thing.
Having produced concerts in both Mexico and the U.S. I was saying that what I find most interesting about playing and programming music in the U.S. is that people always tell me how glad they are that they came. No one says this in the other countries in which I’ve worked.
But here they say it because they know that it was a close thing. They almost stayed home and watched Netflix but they made the game-time decision to go to the concert and once they were there they were so glad they got out of the house.
It’s interesting to me because no one says this after they see a movie, like, oh I’m so glad I managed to get my butt off the couch to see the new Avengers movie tonight. This is partly because seeing the new Avengers movie was never in doubt and partly because we’ve normalized going to see blockbuster movies to such an extent that people do it without even thinking and often without even enjoying the experience.
With respect to Richard Hell though, I would say that the answer isn’t for all of us in the arts to form legendary punk bands, develop a drug habit, lose a couple of decades, clean up and become respected elder statesman writers, as interesting as that would be. I think there’s another way.
As I sipped my whiskey the other night I couldn’t help but think about Budweiser. Partly as a joke like what would the sommelier, (yes there was a whiskey sommelier,) say if I ordered a Budweiser with a straight face. But also thinking about what they’ve been able to do with advertising.
I mean they’ve conditioned millions of people to drink Bud Light despite the fact that it’s objectively a bad product. Just like Hollywood has conditioned us to go see the latest blockbuster even though at least half of them are mediocre CGI fests.
Since I’ve often seen firsthand that people in this country thank us for the experience that we artists provide, which is our product, my question is how do we condition people to go out and hear unfamiliar music, attend poetry readings, check out the latest opera and beat a well-worn path to the doors of their local storefront theater?
The answer is advertising dollars and a mascot. I’m thinking some kind of Spuds Mackenzie-esque arts dog. Or maybe Culture the Vulture? Parrot Lunaire? Buff McPoetson? Clearly this will need more thought. Perhaps we should meet at the Brandy Library for a brainstorming session?
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