Monthly Archives: April 2012

I Hate…Er, And Now Sort of Like Bruckner, Part III

To catch up, Part I is here and Part II is here.

5) The power of Bruckner can’t be assessed from a Youtube video. Go see a live performance.

I don’t know when the next Bruckner performance in my area will be (as it turns out, the last one was April 20 and, uh, needless to say, I didn’t go). But I’ll keep an eye out for future performances. This idea should have crossed my mind immediately, as I’ve written about the great divide between listening to recordings and listening to live performances before. In January I wrote a review of a performance of a piece – Ligeti’s violin concerto – that I don’t know I’d enjoy on-disc, but that in-person actually came across as quite interesting. Maybe for whatever reason Bruckner falls into the same category.

I also think it’s important to remind myself that Bruckner never imagined that his work would be heard via tinny tiny speakers. He clearly intended every performance of his orchestral works to be Events of Epic Sonic Proportion, meant to be experienced communally with a huge live orchestra. Perhaps the modern ubiquity of recordings, and the subsequent…I don’t want to say “cheapening,” but it’s the only word that comes to mind…of musical performance somehow contributes to the perception of his work as being overblown and pompous. Nowadays, unless we hear a Bruckner symphony live, it’s simply not the big communal event that he must have envisioned, and I suppose it loses something integral when it isn’t. You know how performers have their historical practice, attempting to recreate certain aspects of what the performance must have been like in the past? Maybe listeners should have a version of it, too.

6) Bruckner may have had autism or Aspergers or a similar condition.

Wow, here comes another weighty issue…the practice of attempting to diagnose historical figures using modern medicine. This one is way too complicated and controversial for me to even dip a toe in. That being said, I’d be interested in reading any reputable research that has been done on the subject. Or even what people think about this practice in general. It seems to be increasingly common.

7) Um, if you hate him, avoid him. How hard is that?

I feel hesitant about point-blank ignoring a composer whose work I don’t like at first listen. Everyone should be. Many pieces I couldn’t stand at first listen are now some of my dearest favorites. But clearly none of them have had as uphill of a battle as Bruckner. And that’s the struggle I’m trying to document.

8) Be patient. Don’t force the love. Let yourself grow into it. Some things take a lifetime to appreciate.

After mulling all the suggestions over, this one has emerged as my favorite. It glows with a patient wisdom I’ve (clearly) yet to acquire.

The day I posted this essay, I watched the first of Bernstein’s six Harvard lectures. (Highly recommended, by the way.) He said something that nearly made me squeal with delight. I can’t remember the quotation word for word, but it was something along the lines of “I reserve the right to be wrong.” If Leonard Bernstein can reserve the right to be wrong, can you imagine how entitled I am to it? I look forward to seeing how my relationship with Bruckner’s work develops. I’ll be the first in line to denounce this article if my opinion changes.

9) You are a lot of contradictory things.

Yes, I certainly am. I found out in the comment section of Part I that I don’t understand God – I’m an excellent writer – I’m the author of horrific slime – I’m hilarious – I’m a naive sixth-grade bully – I have an antipathy toward men – I’m strangely attractive. I voiced a widespread opinion that wasn’t particularly shocking while at the same time subscribing to disturbingly disrespectful heresy.

Clearly this hubbub speaks less to what I am and more to what Bruckner is: a man who created work so massive, and so massively controversial, that we’re still arguing passionately about it more than a century after his death. Which is an accomplishment absolutely none of us can boast of. That’s a bottom line we all can agree on.

Right?

Thanks for taking the time to watch me wrestle with all this in public. You’ve all been very gracious, even when I’ve been upsetting. I owe any insights I may have gotten this week to you…

And yes, to Bruckner. Who I feel I should address directly.

***

Dear Mr. Bruckner,

Well, this is awkward!

I wish we could sit down and talk. Really. I wish I could take your skull into my hands and stare into it and somehow understand you. But I can’t, so here’s what I want to say. Your work has made an impression. It made me care enough to voice an unpopular opinion. You tested my honesty and integrity as a writer. You made me stop and think some hugely, hugely important questions about how I engage with music and music history. And consequently somehow in the last week or so of hating you, I’ve come to be…almost fond of you. In a really, really weird twisted way. Maybe someday I’ll hear the glory – understand you, the man – hear a magical performance, finally, that moves me to tears – and become an evangelist for your work.

Or, I’ll grow as a listener and human being and still actually kind of not be able to stand a single note you wrote. You know. Either/or.

But. Either way, it’s something – it’s better than what I started out with. You, along with all of my readers, made me think. Being taught is the best thing a blogger can aspire to. As long as you keep me the heck off that list – (and I’m guessing you will) – maybe we can live in peace.

I’ll see you down the road.

Yours, Emily

***

(And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did end up making the conscious decision to stop responding to comments, even though each and every one of them is truly very much appreciated. I’m actually taking a vacation from my blog’s comment section, period, until the brunt of Brucknergate is past. I felt like for a couple days there that I was so close to the bark that I wasn’t seeing any of the forest. I hope to emerge from the break with additional perspective, although I may not get back in time before the blog is archived. But as always, if you want to have a discussion with me via private message, feel free to initiate one.)

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I Hate…er, Strongly Dislike…Bruckner, Part II

So! What were you guys up to this weekend?

I didn’t do much. I practiced. Wasted time on Facebook. I didn’t feel well, so I napped. Played with my dog and my cat. Thought about taking a bike ride, but I have allergies, so I decided to postpone that. I also sat on my bed and pondered my closet for a while, trying to figure out if I should put my winter clothes in storage. You know, normal low-key stuff.

Oh, yeah, and I also caused a major [bleep]storm on violinist.com.

So…whoops? I guess? I’m a ninety-pound size-two girl with a soft voice and a sweet smile who last caused a ruckus eighteen years ago when I was put on the only time-out of my childhood because I wouldn’t stop flicking the kitchen lights on and off. Seriously. For anyone who I offended, I do feel (sort of) bad (although not so bad that I’m retracting any of what I wrote). I never meant to imply that it’s a good thing I hate Bruckner, or that you should hate Bruckner, or that anyone should hate Bruckner, or that I’ll always hate Bruckner. To be honest, “I Hate Bruckner” was written more to let off snarky steam than to make an intellectually cogent case for anything. I wasn’t expecting having to write Part II with hundreds of raised virtual eyebrows waiting for me to continue my heretical argument. Naïve? Probably. At least I admit it.

Part II was originally going to be a liveblog of me wading through Bruckner 8 for a third time, trying to pinpoint what exactly about it is so repellent to me. I may do such a thing in future, but it didn’t take long to decide that reliving the comment section in all its glory would be much more exciting and educational.

So. To get everyone up to speed… In “I Hate Bruckner, Part I” I wrote:

In the Adagio we behold nothing less than ‘the all-loving Father of mankind in all his infinite mercy!’ Since this Adagio lasts exactly twenty-eight minutes or about as long as an entire Beethoven symphony, we cannot complain of being denied ample time for the contemplating of the rare vision. At long last, the Finale – which, with its baroque themes, its confused structure and inhuman din, strikes us only as a model of tastelessness – represents, according to the programme, ‘Heroism in the Service of the Divine!’ The blaring trumpet figures are ‘heralds of the gospel truth and the conception of God.’ The childish, hymnal character of this programme characterizes our Bruckner community, which consists of Wagnerites and some added starters for whom Wagner is already too simple and intelligent.

Oh, wait – that’s actually not me; that’s brutally sarcastic music critic Eduard Hanslick writing in 1892. Sorry, I get us mixed up sometimes. (As soon as I found that quote, I knew I had to shoehorn it into this blog somehow. Can you believe we’ve been having this debate for over a century? We’re treading the same ground that Brahms and Wagner et al. did. Ecclesiastes 1:9, y’all.)

Anyway. Actually, what I really said in “I Hate Bruckner” was that 1) I hate Bruckner and 2) I’m frustrated that I can’t explain why. I also compared him to a creeper who hangs out at a gas station, and then made a short amateurish video that Hanslick might have made if only he’d had access to Windows Movie Maker. Okay, you should be up to speed now.

I wish I had the skill to weave in summaries of all the responses I got into some kind of cohesive narrative summary, but I don’t, so I’m going the list route. Below are summaries of the most common types of comments I got, along with some musings on the (fascinating) questions they raised.

1) Hate is a terrible word to use in the context of talking about great composers. It puts readers off, undermines your argument, and reeks of sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake.

I respect that. I discussed a bit about what the word “hate” means to me in the Part I comment section. Which was an interesting thing to verbalize, as I hadn’t really thought much about it since ninth grade, when I started using the word “hate” in earnest. I won’t repeat myself here, but if you’re interested, head on back for a fuller discussion.

That being said, I do think there is something to be said for engaging with a piece, having a strong negative reaction, and then expressing it in direct, honest language. In this particular context, I don’t regret my word choice. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

2) Yeah, I definitely agree; Bruckner was a major creeper. It doesn’t help when one knows he was one of Hitler’s favorites. / How dare you call Bruckner creepy? Bruckner’s personal life is no business of ours. He had nothing to do with the Nazis!

Okay, so…wow. What a huge topic. And the more I think about it, the more surprised I am that we don’t talk about it more. How does a composer’s life influence our understanding of his work, and how should a composer’s life influence our understanding of his work? Is there an established field of study that attempts to answer these questions? Because I really think one could spend an entire musicology career on them.

Here’s a pattern I’ve come to spot in my own thoughts… If I like a composer’s music, I will be much more inclined to be forgiving of their personal shortcomings. (Beethoven was a terrible father figure to his nephew? But…the seventh symphony!) If I don’t like a composer’s music, but have sympathy for his personal suffering, it will enhance my appreciation of his work. (Shostakovich was fighting for his life with his art? Okay, now this angst makes sense.) If I don’t like a composer’s music, and then I find out things that bother me about his biography, that puts up an additional barrier to me liking his music. (Ninety minutes of bombast and lists of hot students? Yeah, no wonder I don’t like him.) Is this logical? Um, no. But it’s a consistent pattern, and I’m aware of it now. So hopefully in future I can keep this in mind and better pinpoint why I feel the way I do about certain composers’ work.

I am, however, still wondering how the life and deeds of an artist should tie into how we approach their output. (Even subconsciously.) I write stories instead of symphonies. Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that I someday have the honor of writing a novel that is studied after my death. How would I want my biography tied up with my book? I don’t know. However, I do know that readers would be able to draw a heck of a lot richer conclusions about what I created by knowing something about who I was. Because, like any artist, I hide in my work. My work and I have a symbiotic relationship, and often it’s impossible to see the dividing line between the two. Surely Bruckner operated in the same way – don’t all artists? I feel like it should be the right of the people of the future to dig through any facts they may possess about me and make judgments – positive or negative – on me and my work. And if what they find makes them more or less likely to like me or my work, then that’s their business. But everyone obviously feels differently. What would Bruckner have wanted? Does it matter? I don’t know.

That’s a long way of saying, I’m still formulating thoughts on the subject. Which is good. This is such a huge meaty question, with so many broad implications, it would be a shame to be able to chew it all over with conviction by one’s early twenties. However, I do confess that nobody has convinced me one way (music should be heard independently of a composer’s biography) or the other (the biography of a composer should be kept in mind as we engage with his music). Which leads me to believe the real answer is somewhere in the foggy complicated middle.

One thing I’ve decided for sure, though: the Bruckner Nazi charge is irrelevant. Anything that happens to a composer’s work after he’s dead? Off-limits. For instance, Perry using Copland-esque music in this ad doesn’t make Copland a Republican. (Permit me a moment to giggle at the thought of Copland endorsing Rick Perry.) (And just in case anyone jumps on me, I’m not implying that conservatives are Nazis; Copland/Perry was just the first classical-music-in-politics comparison to come to mind, as it was prominent in the news not many months ago.) (Okay, moving on quickly before another flame war erupts…*dashes off*)

3) Aside from the issue of whether it should have any bearing on how we listen to Bruckner… Keeping lists of names of much younger students who you find physically attractive isn’t necessarily a creepy thing to do. People do a lot worse.

This was a recurring theme that, to be honest, shocked the socks off me. I’m not arguing that people don’t do worse, but…still. Wow. I’m not sure if this chasm in perception is due to a difference in age, gender, sexuality, or something else entirely, but it certainly is a tremendous tremendous chasm. I’m not gearing up for an argument; I don’t want to rehash what’s already been thoroughly hashed; I think either you find the fact The Lists existed disturbing, or you don’t, and I’m not going to waste breath attempting to convince anyone of anything. I just want to note for future reference that behaviors I take for granted as [insert adjective here] may not be viewed as such by large swatches of the population. And just as I expect other people to keep in mind where I’m coming from, I need to keep in mind where other people are coming from. Of course this is Empathy 101, but still, we can never be reminded too often.

This point also has made me think about how I, a young non-heterosexual female, engage with a history written largely by older heterosexual men. That’s quite a lot of bias on both sides to contemplate, and I have a feeling it will take a lifetime to sort it all out.

4) You should write an essay about what you love about Fauré.

YES. I’m totally crazy over this idea. Praising a composer whose work I love is much more my style; trust me. I’m not sure when I’ll get to this, but consider it to be on the docket. My passion for Fauré is so much stronger than any hate I might have for Bruckner. Prepare for a rhapsody of praise!

(The discussion continues in the next part…or two. I’m not sure yet whether to have two or three parts. Because there were a lot of responses to sift through. Bear with me.)

(Also, I haven’t decided if I’m going to engage in the comment section this time around. As rewarding as it was, it did take a lot of intellectual energy out of me, and I’ve got stuff to do…like practice. So if I don’t get back to you, don’t take it personally. However, if you really want to continue the discussion, as always, PM me, and I’ll try my best to get back to you privately.)

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I Hate Bruckner, Part I

I hate Anton Bruckner.

For the last two years, whenever I’ve had any spare time, I’ve been drifting through Grout’s History of Western Music and taking notes at the end of each chapter. I then listen to Youtube videos of the mentioned works and follow along with scores on IMSLP. Even though Grout succeeded in sucking nearly every human element out of his narrative, I’ve uncovered a lot of great pieces this way and put them into historical context. I’m a nerd and I’ve enjoyed the project. Always.

But this week…

Bruckner.

Bruckner. For some reason, I hate this guy.

I don’t remember when I first heard his music. But I do remember the impression it left: what the hell?

It’s entirely possible I read about him before I heard any of his music. He was an insecure country bumpkin. His heroes were Wagner, Beethoven, tremolo, this rhythmic pattern, and Christ. He came to a Beethoven exhumation without permission and cradled the skull. And he was obsessed with teenage girls, even when he was old enough to be the girls’ grandfather, going so far as to keep a list of who he found physically desirable. I can deal with one or two creepy traits in an artist…because let’s face it, most of the great composers were creeps in one way or another…but Bruckner. He just takes the creepiness to a whole new level. For some reason literally nothing endears him to me. He seems like the great composer version of the lonely old guy who hangs around gas stations, mumbling things to himself and asking female clerks easily answerable questions. You know he’s probably harmless – maybe he’s even nice – but you have no desire to get any closer to find out.

I listened through the eighth symphony the other day while reading through the IMSLP score. I was twitching throughout the entire thing. The music repelled me – repelled me in a way no other music ever had. And I couldn’t explain why, which made me even twitchier. I GUESS MAYBE BECAUSE EVERYTHING FELT AS IF IT WAS IN CAPITAL LETTERS! EVERYTHING WAS LIFE OR DEATH OR BRASS OR TREMOLO FOR SEVENTY-FIVE MINUTES STRAIGHT! AND JUST WHEN I THOUGHT IT WAS ALMOST OVER I LOOKED AT THE CLOCK AND SAW THERE WAS STILL AN HOUR LEFT TO GO OH MY GOD SOMEONE GET ME OUT OF HERE!

I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fauré is my favorite composer, and the two couldn’t be more different. Bruckner is sun, Fauré is moon. Fauré is the wistful urban sophisticate who sums up delicate, ephemeral emotions in emotionally ambiguous nocturnes. Bruckner is the one who apparently can’t say anything worthwhile without a hundred-piece brass section blowing away for over an hour.

A totally scientific comparison of what goes through my mind when I listen to Fauré versus what goes through my mind when I listen to Bruckner

But I’ve been thinking about it, and realizing I’m not giving Bruckner a fair shake. Since I learned his biography before I had a chance to really dig into his music, I know I was biased against it from the start. Should what a composer did in his life influence what we think of his work? I don’t know that it should – so why does it? Personal life aside, why is his work so repellent to me? (Because I’m pretty sure I’d still hate it even if I thought he was a super amazing guy…) What exactly about his work is repellent to me? Orchestration? Harmony? Tempo? Lack of contrast? Everything? How can one person cry at one passage’s strength and beauty while I start cackling at its absurdity? Will I someday hear a Bruckner interpretation that I enjoy? How much of my hatred is the fault of conductors and performers? How much of my hatred is my fault? What exactly causes certain people to love certain styles of music, and others to loathe others? Could I ever – gasp – love Bruckner, if I invested the time and energy and resisted the ever-present urge to make fun of him?

Stop making me think, Bruckner! It was so much easier when I could just point and laugh at you.

So. This might be masochistic but I’m putting myself through the wringer again, re-listening to Bruckner 8 and live-blogging it, trying to answer some of those questions. I may even – and this is blasphemy – cut out the parts I don’t like, thereby adding my own wrinkle to the Bruckner Problem. I’m perversely curious as to what such a symphony would sound like. If in the future I use this project as evidence that I knew nothing at the age of twenty-two, so be it.

Do you love Bruckner? Why? Please convince me I’m a mean sixth-grade girl bullying a naive nerd, because there’s a part of me that wants to love Bruckner. Really. Honestly.

Do you hate Bruckner? Why? Help me understand this strange reaction I’ve never had before. Because, in case you didn’t hear yet, I hate Bruckner.

Do you have no opinion about him? That seems to me to be the most shocking position of all. How can an hour of this possibly evoke a “meh”?

Next time…the live-blog.

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Review: Premiere of Judd Greenstein’s Acadia, Minnesota Orchestra

If I could go back in time a few years to talk to my twenty-year-old self, the first thing I’d say is, prepare for endings and beginnings. Prepare for rebellion, discombobulation, and a new ambition that will stun you with its ruthlessness. Prepare for a pivot; prepare for change.

It’s no coincidence that this new taste for new things has been reflected in my musical life. In the last year, I did my best hipster impression at my first indie rock concert – said “screw it” and learned some challenging new repertoire I’d been holding back on learning without a teacher – joined a semi-professional orchestra, and didn’t die – took up viola on a whim, and liked it – found myself cheering on an effort to commission a half-hour orchestral composition – and then, strangest of all, found myself attending the premiere of said half-hour orchestral composition. (Is this the same girl who as a teenager pretty much refused to listen to anything written less than a hundred years ago? Really?) I’d never been to a premiere before, so I didn’t know what to expect. But for a variety of reasons, I decided to dress up Friday night and give it a chance.

And I’m so glad I did.

The program, consisting of the premiere of Judd Greenstein’s new four-movement orchestral work Acadia, attracted quite the mix of patrons, ranging from well-dressed elderly couples to young families to enthused hipsters. Two college kids sat behind me, one of whom had never been to Orchestra Hall before. He burst out laughing when he read in the program that Greenstein is writing his doctoral dissertation on hip-hop. “Dude, that is just so cool. Can you imagine?”

The concert was part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics series, so, as is customary, the first half of the show was devoted to discussing and dissecting the piece, the second to performing it in full. To start things off, series host and Orchestra violist Sam Bergman observed that music that exists on the page alone isn’t really finished; it requires both performers and an audience to bring it life. This inspiring thought made me applaud all the harder when Greenstein himself came onstage to take part in the discussion about his work. If he was remotely nervous at the thought of talking in front of hundreds of people about the piece he’s devoted the last year of his life to writing, he didn’t show it. He immediately won the crowd over with an air of relaxed, good-humored genius. Thanks in large part to his eloquence, the first half of the show was over in an enlightening flash. After intermission, conductor Sarah Hicks ascended the podium and cued the orchestra to begin.

At first listen, Acadia was astonishing. I’ve never heard anything like it. I got dizzy attempting to put various passages in context – oh, look, Pärt! Glass! minimalism! Copland? hip-hop! Romantic sweep and color! jazz! Ravel! Boulanger? movie music! … Bon Iver? These genres aren’t supposed to mix, but the mix not only worked; it felt inevitable. The themes came and went, bubbled to the surface then melted back into it, sometimes yearning, sometimes insistent, always full of character and rhythmic drive. Like a good lover, they were both attractive and interesting: attractive enough to catch your attention at first glance, interesting enough to spend time getting to know. The pace was unnervingly masterful – almost frighteningly so for a composer who has never attempted a work of this scale before. The narrative struck me as being one of journey, reflection, then finally acceptance, maybe even celebration. Change. Evolution. Growth. Happily, Greenstein was smart enough never to detail what exact events had inspired him, so instead of feeling as if we were merely listening to his experiences, we felt as if he were giving voice to ours. There’s a power in ambiguity.

Certain passages were so clever and so unexpectedly beautiful that I looked around to try to catch someone, anyone’s, eye. Can you believe this?, I wanted to ask them. Are you feeling what I am? What am I feeling? Because I don’t know – I’ve never felt anything like this before. What do you think?

But no one else met my glance; rows upon rows of people were totally absorbed, sitting absolutely quietly, concentrating. No coughs, no sneezes, no rustling of programs. It felt as if the very walls were listening.

As I sat there, I toyed with the thought of what it must have felt like to attend a premiere of a piece by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Bartók. Did premieres of the (for lack of a better word) classics feel different from others? Did they feel anything like this? The communal electricity here was a strange mix of thrilling and hot, happy and anxious. I watched the impassive back of Greenstein’s head twenty rows ahead of me. Did he know he’d created something really special, or was he merely hoping? For that matter – had he? Is this piece really as fantastic as I think it is, or am I just predisposed to like it after having followed its progress for so many months? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t know.

A little over half an hour after it began, Acadia’s satisfying (and surprising!) last note reverberated through the hall. The audience clung to the sound. It wasn’t long before a grateful Greenstein was taking bows before a very loud standing ovation.

Will Acadia have a life beyond the Minnesota Orchestra? I’d be comfortable placing a bet that it will, and I’m not a betting woman. But even if it doesn’t, it and the project around it accomplished things classical musicians always say we want to do, but rarely actually get around to: it brought a new audience into the hall, it took (some pretty crazy) risks, it gave a brilliant young composer a chance to test-drive a world-class orchestra. In an industry that spends an awful lot of time bemoaning its ever-approaching irrelevancy and demise, those are things to celebrate.

In January Greenstein wrote some words on the Minnesota Orchestra blog that have been stuck in my brain for months. The day I got back home, I went to reread them. After hearing the piece they described, they resonated more than ever.

“I first heard the term Acadia in the context of Acadia National Park, where I spent a few incredible days camping with a good friend, a long weekend that turned out to be a pivotal time – literally, in the sense of a pivot – in my life. If I were to break my life into two sections, the first part would end in that Acadian weekend, hiking in hills on the edge of open ocean, exploring the southern tip of that land that stretches along the coast, upward to the Arctic… And so, for a commission that means as much to me as any I’ve ever received, I wrote this piece with that word in mind, a pivotal word for a composition that may mark the end of something, or the beginning.”

Endings and beginnings. Who knows what kinds? The beginning of a young composer’s triumphant career writing for orchestra? – the end of the Minnesota Orchestra’s commitment to new music? – the beginning of a new way of paying for commissions? – the end of a time in my life when I only feel capable of engaging with the work of dead men? – the beginning of my personal musical maturity, and the end of its childhood? The beginning of the concert life of Acadia? – the end of it? I have guesses and gut instincts, but honestly, I don’t know. No one does. We may have brought Acadia to life, but now it has to live or die on its own merits. Nonetheless, no matter what happens in the future, what happened last weekend was special – unbelievably so – and I’ll always remember it.

A portion of Greenstein’s autograph, inscribed with an important theme from Acadia

***

And even if you weren’t there, maybe you’ll remember, too, because a free recording of Acadia is available here. You have to sign up for an account with the Minnesota Orchestra, but doing so is quick and easy. Both Twin Cities critics gave the piece a rave, and everyone I’ve heard talking about it loved it, so it just might be worth your while to check it out.

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