Posts Tagged ‘gamelan’

Performance diary: Javanese Wayang Kulit at Asia Society

March 18, 2012
Gamelan Kusuma Laras, the Javanese percussion orchestra that I’m part of, presented a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) at Asia Society last Friday night featuring famous dhalang Ki Purbo Asmoro and members of his company Mayangkara (from Solo, Java). Originally I was supposed to perform in the show with the gerongen (chorus), but I had to miss a bunch of rehearsals so at a certain point I realized I wasn’t going to be able to learn the music well enough, so I decided to sit it out. Much as I love playing and have enjoyed being in concerts in the last couple of years, I’m really glad that circumstances were such that I got to sit out front and enjoy the show this time.

For me, it was an opportunity to revisit the experience of falling in love with gamelan the first time I saw a wayang (performed by the Royal Court Gamelan of Yogyakarta at the 1990 Los Angeles Festival). Certainly, for a Westerner, you start out paying close attention to every single thing, trying to “make sense” of the gestures, each puppet, each sound, each word on the screen, each song that is sung… Watching wayang as if it’s a play in the theater and trying to tune out everything else pretty quickly becomes exhausting, confusing, and frustrating. Somehow, slowly, imperceptibly, you give that up, and the whole thing takes over, and you realize that you’ve entered another world, a kind of trance state, where no single element is primary, but hundreds of little tiny elements are adding up to a whole experience. Extraordinary! Then everything becomes completely engrossing and enjoyable, including the movements of people in the audience coming and going, people taking pictures, musicians laughing and joking among themselves (and yes, even making “mistakes”!).

Typically for wayang, Dewa Ruci (Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment) is based on an episode from the Mahabharata and follows one of the five Pandawa brothers on his quest for perfection in life. He undergoes two big adventures, one in the forest and one in the sea. In between these parts of the tale, there was a comic interlude, which is the part of the show which the dhalang improvises at every performance, tailoring his remarks to current events and the particular audience he’s playing to. In this case, President Obama made a surprise appearance among the various wayang characters (wise men and ogres and mothers and brothers, etc.), and Ki Purbo invited (or should I say commanded?) Kitsie Emerson, who had been sitting at her laptop skillfully providing translations for the English-speaking audience, to play kendhang (the drum that leads the gamelan). Here’s a small, sort of random excerpt from that passage of the performance:

The singer, Yayuk Sri Rahayu, was fantastic. Andy and I watched most of the show from the auditorium, where you could see all the musicians and the dhalang and his puppets as he manipulated them, while off to the side was a video screen showing what the shadows looked like. As is traditional for wayang, the audience was invited to go up onstage and sit behind the screen and watch the show from there, so we sampled that perspective as well. It was hard to read the translations (projected onto a screen over the stage) from there, but the detail of the puppets (carved into thin buffalo hide) was the reward for sitting here.

Good show, gamelanistas!

My life as a Culture Vulture: week of February 19

February 25, 2012

Busy fun culture week.

SUNDAY: I got to see the penultimate performance at the Encores! series of Merrily We Roll Along at City Center. It’s always been one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, if not my very favorite. This is the adaptation of a Kaufman and Hart show-biz drama that moves backwards in time, starting from the present when the central character, Frank Shepard, is a super-successful Broadway composer who’s sold out to Hollywood and then moving back through the pivotal experiences and relationships that made him who he is.  I’m not even that much of a musical theater geek, but I saw the short-lived original Hal Prince production in 1981 and loved the show and the music and the emotional sweep of the show, despite the ridiculous costumes and production design. As with many Sondheim shows, it was impeccably recorded (by Thomas Z. Shepard for RCA Records), and it’s through the original cast recording that many, many people grew to love this show. It’s great theater for the ear and a fantastic score. To my taste, there’s never been a better Charley Kringas than Lonny Price (especially his version of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), and I’m very partial to Ann Morrison’s performance as Mary (for me, she kinda owns “Like It Was” and “Now You Know”) — plus Jason Alexander’s finest moment, as Joe.

I’d go see any production of Merrily that comes down the pike. I did see the pretty mediocre York Theater production (directed by Susan H. Schulman, starring Malcolm Gets) but the gold standard has always been James Lapine’s staging at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 with John Rubinstein, Chip Zien, and Heather McRae. Encores! tapped Lapine to mount the concert version at City Center, and he did a great job — not quite obliterating my fondness for the La Jolla version, partly because the full staging made that production more forceful. But it was pretty damn good at City Center. The show is such a moving, intense, bittersweet, super-ambivalent slice of adult wisdom — rueful in suggesting that we inevitably lose significant shards of our integrity as we age, upsetting in its honesty about the light and shadow aspects of friendship,  and yet inspiring in the way it captures youthful idealism. It’s a deep show, and it’s hard not to be moved to tears by the kids at the end claiming “It’s our time!” At City Center, I couldn’t help thinking that today’s versions of the twentysomething Frank and Charlie and Mary would be Occupying Wall Street.

Lovely performances by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Mary and Charley, but for me two other performances by non-hyphenated actors were revelations: Colin Donnell as Frank and Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie (above). Donnell is so good I may have to go see Anything Goes, and Stanley is definitely star material — she got to do the new number that Sondheim cooked up for this production, the act-two opener that gives us an excerpt of Frank and Charlie’s hit show, Musical Husbands.

MONDAY: I’m a big fan of Edmund White and will read anything he writes. I enjoyed Jack Holmes and His Friend a lot while reading it, so I was surprised to feel a little letdown by the very ending. It seemed weightless and inconsequential. But the form of the novel, which centers on a gay man who is in love with a straight friend, is somewhat experimental, so it works on you after the fact. The four sections alternate between third-person omniscient narrative and first-person narrative by Will, the straight guy — I think this is White’s first attempt to write in the voice of a heterosexual male, and at times it seems strained and somewhat cliched, though I can’t be sure if that’s intentional on White’s part. Ultimately, it’s an intriguingly detailed, characteristically sexually explicit take on how the advent of AIDS affected the kind of straight people who were just starting to explore the sexual freedom gay men claimed for themselves in the 1960s and ’70s.

I was alarmed to read an interview with White in the Gay and Lesbian Review, where he mentioned that he recently had a stroke. Nevertheless, his writing here is strong, and many passages dazzled me and made me laugh, such as this description of two women working as personnel directors for a literary magazine: “They’d been sitting in the same small office, with its dust and snake plants, for thirty years. Every surface was covered with files. They wore hats perched incongruously above their wide, bloated faces, like flowers taped to livestock.” And: “He’d never thought of his grandmother as a woman before — more as a matron with a firm, molded mono-bosom and a diamond brooch and a low, Southern twang than as a woman with soft white breasts like warm dachshunds in constant motion, dogs with huge brown noses.”

TUESDAY: Anthology Film Archives in the East Village is running a fantastic and comprehensive film series devoted to the Wooster Group, including a 10-program retrospective of film and video documentation of their glorious stage productions. When I ran into Cynthia Hedstrom at St. Ann’s Warehouse last week, she urged me to show up for the video reconstruction of Rumstick Road, and I’m so glad I did. The middle piece of the group’s Three Places in Rhode Island, Rumstick Road was really the work that launched Spalding Gray’s career as a solo performer and storyteller. At the center of the piece is Spalding telling the story of his mother’s suicide, using tape-recorded recollections by his father, his grandmother, and a psychiatrist who’d treated his mother. And Elizabeth LeCompte was just beginning to hone the tools that have made her the legendary genius director she is: having the actors lip-synch the recordings and developing with her three outrageously talented and fearless performers (Gray, Ron Vawter, and Libby Howe) and kindred-spirit techies (Jim Clayburgh and Bruce Porter) a variety of physical actions and visual images to complement the verbal material.

The piece was first shown in 1977 and performed periodically through 1980 (I saw it, weirdly enough, when it had a brief uptown run at the American Place Theater), back when the Wooster Group was called The Performance Group and were virtually unknown and barely scraping by. Various bits and pieces of Rumstick Road were captured on video, film, and audiotape but never a complete documented performance. Recently, LeCompte and filmmaker Ken Kobland sat down with the hodgepodge of chunks and ingeniously reconstructed the entire performance. It’s very rough and sometimes crude, which is of course perfect for LeCompte’s aesthetic. And looking back at the piece now, it’s astonishing to see how original and strong a work of art it is. The reconstruction includes a number of close-up shots that enhance the viewing experience (I hadn’t retained a clear memory of the crazy moment when Ron Vawter, wearing a latex old-lady mask, examined Spalding’s mouth at length, pulling out and stroking his tongue with his fingers). It was thrilling to re-experience the show, but also sad recalling those wonderful young actors lost to AIDS (Vawter), suicide (Gray), and mental illness (Howe).

WEDNESDAY: Rehearsal with Gamelan Kusuma Laras. I’m excited that I’m slowly, slowly starting to learn how to play a new instrument, bonang panerus (below), with lots of help and coaching from more experienced players (thanks, Carla! thanks, Dylan! thanks, Oki!).

THURSDAY: I finally finished reading Electric Eden, British music critic Rob Young’s dense, ambitious, obsessive, and impressive history of a certain stripe of British pop-folk music. He originally set out to focus on a specific set of quirky, seminal bands and performers who bridged the gap between traditional English folk music, rock and roll, and post-Dylan singer-songwriters — the likes of Fairport Convention (whose members included Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny), the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Donovan, and Nick Drake. But his research led him to deep thinking about the British history and culture and geography that music emerged from, and he also found himself tracking the artists forward through the tributaries of psychedelia, art-rock, glam-rock, punk, and other sound experiments. It’s one of the most impressive, intelligent books about pop music I’ve ever encountered, extremely well-written, scrupulously factual, and free of cheap, stupid generalizations.

I learned lots about music that was near and dear to me as a precocious teenage listener, and he writes about tons of artists I’ve never heard of before who sound fascinating (Mighty Baby? Comus?). His discography alone provides a graduate-level study guide to some beautiful and curious musical byroads. I never knew, for instance, that the Beatles created a 15-minute sound collage called “Carnival of Light” around the time of Sgt. Pepper! Here’s his succinct description of the tipping point, when the hippie-dippy pastoral rootsiness of acts like the Incredible String Band began to be eclipsed by the dark urban edginess of David Bowie: “If folk, folk-rock and its tributaries were, however subconsciously, believed to spring from collective, stable racial memory, glam tipped music into a wilderness of masks and mirrors, divided selves refracted through a succession of grotesque invented facades.”

FRIDAY: I was asked to give a nine-minute talk introducing the Wim Wenders/Sam Shepard film Paris, Texas at the Rubin Museum‘s Cabaret Cinema series, which prompted me to read this informative interview with Wenders and also gave me the delightful opportunity to watch the film again. I hadn’t seen it since it opened at the New York Film Festival in 1984. Man, Robby Muller’s cinematography is spectacular, starting from the opening shots of Harry Dean Stanton striding with absurd purposefulness through the lunar landscape of the Grand Canyon. And Ry Cooder’s music has never been more beautifully matached with a film. I will admit that I slipped out early, so as to avoid watching Nastassia Kinski, whose performance I recall as acutely embarrassing. The Rubin is a great museum, the people who work there are super-nice, the place was packed and buzzing on a Friday night, and I look forward to using my gift membership to view their always-engrossing exhibitions, starting with a show I know Andy will want to see: “Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics.”

Performance diary: tUnE-yArDs at American Songbook

February 12, 2012

Every musical education is necessarily idiosyncratic. Watching Merrill Garbus’s ebullient performance at the Allen Room with her band tUnE-yArDs, I had fun tracking the pieces of my own listening history that allowed me to even begin to comprehend her startling, wildly original musical attack. The first time I heard someone use looping to create a rhythm track was in the fall of 1980, when Laurie Anderson started performing “O Superman” (ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha) — now any number of solo performers have pedals at their feet and keyboards at their fingertips to conjure a digital orchestra. Garbus has a particularly goofy yet precise way of building tracks using her voice, a tomtom, a snare drum, and a high-hat with a tambourine parked on top of it. The additive principles of her compositions/arrangements remind me a lot of gamelan music, which I first heard at the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 but didn’t really understand until I started playing with a gamelan myself a couple of years ago. And the long-lined polyrhythms churned out by the rest of her band — bassist Nate Brenner and saxophonists Noah Bernstein-Hanley and Matt Nelson — unmistakeably refer to the Afro-beat sounds of Fela Kuti, whose music I heard for years but never really grasped until I saw Bill T. Jones’s dazzling stage musical Fela! That’s a pretty unorthodox lineage for a singer-songwriter, n’est-ce pas? Garbus is pretty ostentatious about her performance-art background and kooky self-presentation — she took to the stage with yellow and black stripes painted on her face and led the audience through mini-workshop exercises in communal toning and “breath of fire” in and amidst performing tracks from her breakthrough album w h o k i l l (especially exhilarating renditions of “Bizness” and “Gangsta”). She’s definitely one of the more eccentric entries in Lincoln Center’s enterprising American Songbook series.

At the end of the show, she invited ticketholders to join her outside in Columbus Circle, where some of her faithful tUnE-yArDs army assisted her in creating a tongue-in-cheek political/spiritual ritual wrapping the statue of Christopher Columbus with yellow-and-black-striped police tape only custom-designed to say “Occupy.”  Fun!

Theater review: A HOUSE IN BALI

October 20, 2010

My review of Evan Ziporyn’s opera A HOUSE IN BALI, which played three performances at BAM last week, has been posted on I was intrigued by the production because it involved the participation of a Balinese gamelan, and I’ve just this year started playing gamelan myself with a group that performs Javanese gamelan. (A gamelan is a kind of Indonesian percussion orchestra.) But the show was pretty disappointing to me.

“As a college student, Ziporyn was understandably entranced by the wild, clangorous, hypnotic sound of Balinese gamelan…[For this piece, he]  had librettist Paul Schick adapt [Colin McPhee’s memoir A House in Bali for three singers with very traditional operatic voices …  and wrote a score to be played by the new music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars (with which Ziporyn has performed since 1992) and Gamelan Salukat (founded in 2007 by young Balinese musicians in Pengosekan Village). There are a few moments when the Bang on a Can ensemble provides some lovely underscoring, and a few minutes when the gamelan gets to do its lively, rowdy thing with astonishing precision. But most of the time these elements are all jammed together, and the results sound agitated and ugly.”

You can read the full review here.

Culture Vulture

August 16, 2010


I’ve read two novels this summer that have stuck with me. The Imperfectionists is Tom Rachman’s first novel (Christopher Buckley gave it a rave review on the cover of the NY Times Book Review), about an English-language newspaper published out of Rome. Very interesting structure – every chapter focuses on a different staff member, each portrayed in a somewhat different, idiosyncratic style. In other words, a fantastic series of character studies. Most memorable: the low-level copy editor who’s sent to interview an aged writer to write an advance obituary, and the woman who’s the chief financial officer who encounters on a plane ride a longtime reporter whom she’s fired. And ultimately it’s a paean, and I guess you could say loving obituary, to the newspaper business, rapidly disappearing as the internet steals away everything we used to buy newspapers for.

Then there’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (above), another fascinating structuralist novel in two parts. The first follows a hack reporter for British art magazines as he drinks and drugs his way through the 2004 Venice Biennale, where he meets a beautiful American woman and has a shipboard romance with her. The second half switches from third to first person and follows the same character on a travel assignment in India, where he ends up going native and losing his mind. Very sophisticated narrative, brilliant passages of writing. I perversely loved the way parallels the author implants in the two sections – the first section climaxes with a scene of heterosexual analingus (who knew heterosexual men could rhapsodize so lovingly about eating ass?) and the pivotal scene in the second part revolves around the narrator getting smacked in the face by the shitty tail of a sacred cow. Now those are scenes you don’t read every day….


I spent a few weeks this summer methodically working my way through the 19-disc boxed set of everything The Beatles every recorded. I have all these records on LP and have had them since they were first released…and yet, Beatlemaniac that I am, I got a lot out of listening to the complete works in order and reading the elaborate liner notes – not so much the original liner notes, which were rarely illuminating, but the historical notes and the technical notes. It’s astonishing to learn that the Beatles’ very first album was recorded in one day, a marathon 13-hour session, on four tracks. And that they recorded everything they were going to record in about seven years. Seven years that changed the world. I was especially intrigued to track how the original versions of these albums as they were released in England differed from the American releases. One of the 19 discs featured tiny 5-to-10 minute mini-documentaries about recording each album – there are little tidbits of information but nothing earth-shattering. A great companion for this boxed set is the soundtrack to Cirque du Soleil’s Love show, which George Martin and his son Gilles completely remixed from scratch, and the documentary film about creating that show. I guess I’m one of those people (like Allan Kozinn of the New York Times) who will never get tired of poring over Beatles minutiae. I notice, too, that my opinion of the songs has really never changed over the years – the songs I love, I’ve always loved. And certain songs I never liked and am quite bored to hear even today (“Hey Jude,” “All You Need Is Love”).

Also, this summer I’ve begun to realize the dream of a lifetime: playing gamelan. I’ve always been intrigued by gamelan, which is a kind of Indonesian orchestra consisting primarily of percussion instruments (metallophones and gongs), especially after seeing the Royal Court Gamelan from Yogyakarta, Java, give three performances at the 1990 Los Angeles Festival (including an all-night wayang kulit, or shadow-puppet play). I got the name of a local gamelan group in New York, and a couple of weeks ago I finally summoned the nerve to show up for one of their rehearsals. The guy leading the rehearsal, a young American music scholar named Jon Rea who’s spent time in Indonesia, immediately sat me down in front of an instrument, showed me how to play it, and I proceeded to play for the next three hours. I’m hooked. I want to play this music for the rest of my life! I’m just learning the basics, and it’s sent me back to listen to the three recording of Javanese court gamelan that Nonesuch Records released in its fantastic world-music series called Explorer. These recordings were made in the field by a guy named Robert Brown, and you can read his descriptions online here. And I encourage you to check out the music! I prefer Javanese gamelan, which is stately and beautiful, to Balinese gamelan, which is often faster and more aggressive – luckily, Kusuma Laras (the group I just joined) plays Javanese gamelan from the town of Solo.


I’m way behind on museum shows, but I did make expeditions recently to the Whitney and to MOMA. At the Whitney my mission was to check out the show of paintings by Charles Burchfield curated by Robert Gober called “Heat Waves in a Swamp.” I’d never heard of Burchfield, who died in 1967, and was most intrigued by his efforts to represent sound in his landscape paintings (birds, insects, telephone wires). Also at the Whitney is a Christian Marclay festival, a riot of performances, installations, and exhibited objects. One curtained-off room is showing a slideshow whose soundtrack consists of two talks given by Marcel Duchamp; another room features a slideshow of onomatopoeic signs, product labels, and clothing; in the main room, one wall is taken up with a chalkboard on which museumgoers are invited to scrawl graffiti, which every so often musicians come along and play as if it were a score. I like how big contemporary art museums are spending a lot of time and energy creating shows that invite the audience to be active and alive. Another show at the Whitney, “30 Performative Actions,” surveys multimedia work that somehow includes actions, gestures, etc. I find grainy videos documenting past performances pretty dull to encounter, but I did enjoy stepping on a painting that Yoko Ono designed to be mounted on the floor for just that purpose.

Ono seems to be having a bit of a vogue right this minute – the atrium at MOMA, which recently drew gigantic crowds to observe Marina Abramovic, is currently given over to her “Scream Piece.” (above) The piece consists of an instruction painted on the wall:  “Scream. 1. against the wind 2. against the wall 3. against the sky.” Nearby is a microphone and speakers. Anyone can walk up to the mic and perform the action, and they do, all day long. It’s kind of hilarious. Two months ago there were signs all over the museum warning visitors that they’re likely to encounter naked people at Marina’s show; now there are signs everyone warning visitors that those blood-curdling shrieks they’re hearing are part of the Yoko Ono art installation. Upstairs at the “Matisse: Radical Invention” show, you can see people flinch every time a scream rings out.

I love Yoko’s conceptual art pieces – they were my first introduction to conceptual art, or performance art. When she first became famous for dating John Lennon, I was intrigued by her and (as a junior in high school) bought her book Grapefruit, which is filled with hilarious poetic instructions. My favorite back then was “Water Piece”:

Steal a moon on the water with a bucket.
Keep stealing until no moon is seen on
The water.

There’s something very sweet about re-encountering this work at MOMA. In the garden is her “Wish Tree,” where every day people are writing down wishing and tying them to the tree.

I was feeling a little tired and cranky walking through the Matisse show so I didn’t take much of it in. The magic of Matisse has never captured me, although in this show I found myself drawn to the most abstract pieces, especially “The Piano Lesson” (above). I was intrigued by some very un-typical drawings in the Picasso show. And there were some very cool things in “Contemporary Art from the Collection,” including a number of pieces by General Idea I’d never seen before (and that the museum is showing for the first time). See my photo diary entry for some things that caught my eye.


Andy’s writing a novel in which there’s a character who takes as her role model Pam Grier, so we decided to Netflix one of her early classics and watched Foxy Brown – a pretty cheesy low-budget blaxploitation flick mostly remarkable for its hilariously garish period costumes. Having just recently seen Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, we could see the lineage, and it was pretty fascinating listening to the DVD commentary by writer-director Jack Hill. Foxy Brown was originally supposed to be a sequel to Coffy, the surprise hit that first put Pam Grier on the map, but at the last minute the studio (AIP) decided sequels were box-office poison and Hill had to rewrite the script hastily giving her a different name.

Andy is a big fan of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-volume graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, and in anticipation of seeing the movie (which opened this week) I sat down and bombed through all six volumes myself. It’s a fun wacky story about slacker kids in Toronto, just out of schools, working dead-end jobs, playing in crummy bands, having crazy desultory romances. I love the rock and roll references and the easy prevalence of gay characters. The visual style leaves something to be desired – it’s based on manga, so many characters tend to look alike. And like so many serials, the story kinda runs out of steam by Volume 6. Still, I enjoyed tapping into that world and have been looking forward to seeing the movie, especially because the title character is played by the adorable Michael Cera.

Well, it’s pretty amazing. I’d prepped Andy on Michael Cera by showing him Juno. And walking across Central Park on our way to the Lincoln Square cineplex, he gave me a brief dossier on the director Edgar Wright, whose previous movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz managed to both satirize a film genre (zombie movies and buddy-cop flicks) while at the same time managing to be a satisfying example of it. That precis served me well in watching Scott Pilgrim, which is a crazy mash-up of video game, comic book, and slacker-crowd indie flick. In certain ways it is a critique of Hollywood action movies that shamelessly borrow/steal adrenalin-pumping moves from video games at the expense of traditional narrative. And yet Wright makes the case for the value of cannibalizing (or paying tribute to) these various genres in order to accomplish a certain kind of extremely contemporary storytelling. I’m the last person in the world who would be able to spot every tiny reference to video games (unlike Andy, who started giggling knowingly at the very first frame, the Universal Pictures logo as it might have been rendered in eight-bit sound by an early ’80s game board) but I totally dug the movie for its wild spin through narrative strategies and visual schemes. It reminded me in some ways of Slumdog Millionaire in its sheer drive and freedom. Boiling six volumes of the graphic novel down to one under-two-hour movie allowed Wright and screenwriter Michael Bacall to squeeze out some of the longeurs and generic fight scenes. The music is kinda great — although in the book Sex Bob-omb, the garage band Scott plays with seems to be pretty crummy, in the movie their songs are written by Beck and don’t sound too lame at all. And the song performed by the Clash at Demonhead, a band fronted by Scott’s ex-girlfriend Envy Adams, is terrific — I’d buy their album! Good performances all round — I was especially delighted to see Alison Pill, busy New York stage actor, playing the key role of Kim Pine (drummer for Sex Bob-omb and another ex-girlfriend of Scott’s). The character who ends up seeming disappointingly insubstantial is the female lead, Ramona Flowers (well-played by Mary Catherine Winstead), the girl of Scott’s dreams (literally) and at first all hip and groovy but ultimately kind of a cipher overshadowed by her series of evil-but-charismatic exes, each of whom Scott has to duel in order to win her hand. But maybe that’s the point — sometimes we project onto our beloved qualities that he or she doesn’t actually have, because, you know, it makes for a better story.

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