Thoughts on and around Klaus Schulze’s ‘X’

Klaus Schulze | Xde | 1978

kasteel2

“Ethics and aesthetics are one.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

A review by Antonio Espinosa


I


By the time the French composer and theoretician Jean Philippe Rameau codified tonal practices in his seminal pamphlets, the intuition for the system he was describing had existed for at least a century. This intuition is often hastily perceived as an exclusively harmonic one. However, though its tenets were successfully systematized through the idea of harmonic function, this idea implied and framed a holistic conception of musical construction. The system of cadences shaped both melody and structure, to the point where we could speak of a tonal system of musical dynamics. Here we are not using the word ‘dynamics’ in the musical sense of volume, as indicated by dynamic markings, but rather with the sense provided by the Oxford Dictionary’s definition:

“The forces or properties that stimulate growth, development, or change within a system or process.” [1]

The tonal system of musical dynamics is thus, quite simply, the aggregate of expectations and possibilities with regards to “growth, development, or change” created by the tonal system of tonic, dominant and sub-dominant harmonies. The mechanics of this system end up determining every aspect of musical construction, all of which are a part of our more broadly defined “musical dynamics,” because music exists in time and is therefore, in one way or another, always moving.

As for the importance of this terminology to our inquiries, let us ask a vital question: why does music, which is essentially organized noise, make us feel stuff? This is an enormous question, one on which a myriad of books has already been written by smarter, more consistently sober people (I recommend turning to Roger Scruton’s impressive study, The Aesthetics of Music, for a good start). However, so that we may move along with our little article before our dear readers shift their attention away in order to look at kitten videos, Facebook memes or, God forbid, internet pornography, let us turn to another prestigious Anglo-Saxon academic institution, Stanford University, more specifically their short article on music from their Dictionary of Philosophy:

“The expressivity of music seems closely related to the resemblance between the dynamic character of both the music and the emotions it is expressive of. It is implausible that funeral marches might just as easily have been in quick-paced compound-time. Even in such cases as the snare drum, it seems possible that the instrument was chosen for the battlefield in part due to the expressive character of its sonic profile.” [2]

Clearly the word “dynamic” is used here in a similar sense to the one we have just established, and not simply as a term for the loud-soft dichotomy and the gamut in between usually represented by dynamic markings in standard musical notation. Though other factors, particularly extra-musical associations that a piece of music may have gained through individual or collective experience, must not be thrown aside entirely, this certainly seems like a solid answer to the question of why music is capable of inciting emotion. Thus, it is only natural that the tonal dynamic system, along with any others of its kind, would bring along with itself a series of specific “emotional” implications, or things that the music incites in us naturally through the ways in which it moves and progresses.

What sentiments then do the inherent dynamics of tonality correspond to? This is another very long and difficult question. However, let us attempt to gloss over a possible answer in such a way that we may offend the complexity of this beautiful tradition as little as possible. Tonality is a product of post-Renaissance Europe, growing out of the immense polyphonic textures of church music in the 15th and 16th centuries, along with the early homophonic language of Italian operas and madrigals by composers such as Claudio Monteverdi. Tonal music accompanied European civilization through its period of greatest economic and military splendor; the age of great empires and great inventions, the advent of modern scientific thought, the philosophical Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the glory days of urban bourgeois society.

odessa

In fact, the music of the Common Practice Period, as the period in which tonal practice was dominant came to be known (usually given as 1650-1900), is often one of the things brought up when invoking the cultural glory of this civilization, and rightly so. It produced an enormous number of masterpieces that took advantage of the system’s profound but malleable logic and the great expressive capabilities inherent to it. For those unacquainted with tonal theory, it is enough for our purposes to paraphrase the aforementioned Rameau in saying that tonal music thrives and moves by generating tension and then resolving it. This may sound simple, but Western art music ran on those principles for nearly 300 years, stretching and exploring its possibilities in a million different ways. Though the basic method for generating this tension is harmonic, it translates immediately into every other aspect of musical construction, from rhythm to large-scale structure, all of which become subordinate to this basic harmonic principle of generating tension and resolving it. It’s easy to see how, as music’s harmonic tendencies drew away from the immediate resolution of tension, opting instead to experiment in prolonging it and offering various “unsatisfactory” resolutions, structures were simultaneously modified to accommodate these new developments. In fact, let us paraphrase the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in calling the history of Germanic classical music, “a journey from the relative diatonicism of J.S. Bach to the saturated chromaticism of the current generation.”

The attentive reader may have noticed something particular about the previous sentence. Yes, Germanic classical music. For let us not kid ourselves, though great practitioners of tonal classical music sprung up from all corners of the European world, for about 250 years it were the German-speaking peoples who were driving the bus. Before them, for about 200 years it had been the Italians, and before them the French and the Flemish. But now, with tonality, it was the Germans, and the tonal system, though born largely from Italian music, reeks of their cultural baggage, for both good and ill. Diverse as the music of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Strauss may be, there are common sentiments that run throughout it which we now take for granted: an omnipresent rigor, a heroic seriousness, a dramatic heaviness. Let us remember the words of everyone’s favorite moustache-bearing musical amateur, when speaking of the “great European narcotics”:

“Recently even a third has been added — one that alone would be sufficient to dispatch all fine and bold flexibility of the spirit — music, our constipated, constipating German music.” [3]

Schoenberg and his disciples felt, and often stated, than in their eyes they were doing nothing but following the tradition of German music before them, following the greats in a straight line by destroying what was left of conventional tonality in the increasingly unstable and agonizing music of the late Liszt, Mahler and even Schoenberg’s own early music, by banishing centricity altogether. However, this shift ended up being perhaps even more significant than even they expected, as it forced music to stumble into a whole new system of dynamics. With the stable return to center banished, the new system abolished not only resolution, but any traditional sense of tension as well; when you know something isn’t going to resolve into anything resembling stability, then the expectation and therefore the tension go out the window. The smarter composers amongst them created out of this new approach a brand new dynamic sentiment in deep correspondence with the contemporaneous state of the European psyche: frigid, crystalline, streamlined, anxious and awe-inspiring. As this author sees it, atonality remains the quintessentially modern music. [4]

When the “crisis point” in tonal music was reached, atonality was not, however, the only proposed “solution.” As Schoenberg was often keen to point out “Debussy was the real revolutionary.” Claude Debussy, a Frenchman infatuated with Wagner, and a mediocre composer in his youth, began to strike gold when he integrated the music and scales of other cultures into his Western classical training. Though modern proponents of multiculturalism would love to point to Debussy as an example of cultural enrichment, alongside increased rape stats and falling pork sales, the truth is that Debussy’s innovation went much deeper than simply borrowing a few Asian scales. He rethought Western musical dynamics entirely by emphasizing not the linear “unfolding” of a piece that came out of the tension/resolution dynamic, but texture, timbre and other previously “secondary” aspects. In fact, if we wanted to be vague and inaccurate, but poetic, we could say that Debussy de-emphasized music’s existence in time and turned the focus to the present moment of sound. He thus offered a way out of music’s increasingly claustrophobic ‘Germanism;’ the density, the complexity, and, above all, the excessive pathos and melodrama of that painfully over-prolonged and over-emphasized tension, tension, tension.

With this Debussy opened the gates for much of 20th century Western art music; from his immediate successors Ravel and Satie to the American minimalists to composers as varied and individual as Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti and Pierre Boulez. There is also one particular style of contemporary popular music that owes its very existence to Monsieur Debussy: ambient, and with it, the music of one Klaus Schulze.


II


Klaus Schulze was part of the German krautrock scene in the early ’70s, probably one of the most interesting “scenes” rock music and its offshoots have ever produced. Starting out as the drummer for the legendary Ash Ra Tempel, he quickly turned to making solo music with the aid of truckloads of fancy analogue synthesizers. By 1978 he was an established and successful solo musician, who had published a number of powerful and innovative albums in the nascent genre of electronic music, as part of another prestigious German 20th century music scene which sprung from krautrock; the Berlin school of electronica. His oh-so-cleverly titled tenth album is, without a doubt, the crown of his career.

klaus

X is a double album, containing almost two full hours of music spread across six tracks. Each one of these tracks is a “musical biography” of a particular historical character: the writers Frank Herbert, Georg Trakl, Heinrich von Kleist and Fred “Flinstone” Nietzsche; Ludwig II of Bavaria (the King who built Richard Wagner a bloody castle); and the musician Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, eldest son of J.S. The men of our merry company have certain significant traits in common amongst themselves. For one, they all come from the Germanic cultural sphere, with the exception of Herbert, an Anglo-Saxon. The lives and works of these diverse men share common threads and themes, most notably, a profound tragic pathos; a deeply lived intensity of will that expresses itself through a blunt but pure love of power, strength and poetry. This attitude often put them at odds with the increasingly neutered, sniveling and hypocritical European world that they inhabited. [5]

The album is divided into two discs, but this division does not line up with the more notable musical halves of the album, which rather divide the album into two sets of three tracks. The first three songs are pulsating suites built in layers around a short figure, in a style often employed by the Berlin School. However, from the album’s opening track, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” Schulze brings in drummer extraordinaire Harald Grosskopf, and creates a truly unique combination of ambient stillness and the driving constant motion of Grosskopf’s brilliant drumming. The man is spectacularly sensitive to any dynamic change in the synths, no matter how slight, and his added emphasis helps the pieces feel truly alive.

“Nietzsche” grows slowly out of a low hum that twists and transforms itself but never truly leaves, even as the song becomes a massive cosmic jam session, with all the internal ups and downs and twists and turns you would normally expect from a highly skilled rock band improvising, but which are being created by the two musicians. However, between the harmonic stillness and the ever-present layers of loops, the jam begins to sound anxious and desperate rather than meditative. As the drums become more and more frantic in their ultimately futile attempt to escape the song’s brooding opening hum, melodies come and go, fading into the walls of sound. Tension certainly exists, but it is created by the percussion, and by the intense insistence and repetition of the synth lines. This is not the kind of tension that “resolves,” and instead the song ebbs in and out with awe-inspiring naturalism, like the cycles of the moon, or the whispers of a tide.

Both the short and melancholic “Georg Trakl” and the driving “Frank Herbert” are great examples of the subtlety the classic Berlin style could achieve with very little movement. The style is not expressive or emotional in the traditional classical sense, but it certainly creates a sensation, one of space and atmosphere rather than story or drama, relying mainly on layered repetition to generate motion. Even the transpositions of the main theme which occur in both songs, an event that would normally indicate further drama to unfold, simply step back into the initial tonic after a bit, dissipating any sense of linear narrative. These pieces are outwardly still, almost frozen, but the world of sounds therein is immersive, their ethereal flow contagious. The previously mentioned Debussy approach is latent here, as sound itself takes center stage, but Schulze remains entirely individual. His instinct for musical movement escapes all tonal conventions, though it is deeply grounded in tonic centricity, yet does not feel as jagged or unnatural as the more radical 20th century dynamic systems. This is largely thanks to said tonic centricity, but also to the fact that Schulze takes his textural focus to heart, allowing each change in these “Debussyian” elements the proper space it requires to be structurally significant. Schulze manages to frame every motion, no matter how small, so that it becomes absolutely vital, generating a sense of intense will and concentration.

Great as these songs are, the album really takes off with track four, “Friedemann Bach”. The song piles layer upon layer with an almost unnerving degree of naturalistic patience. The main drone takes a while to appear amidst the hazy noise, and is followed by fragmented, uneasy melodies played by lonely, distant strings (real ones, played by the Orchester des Hessischen Rundfunks) that continually attempt to construct a dramatic theme, but fade time and again behind the eerie insistence of the drone. Again the tension is palpable, but it is not created by harmonic or melodic means, and it certainly does not resolve. The tension here is mainly textural and dynamic (the term here used in its usual sense); repetitions become more and more vehement as they rise and fall in volume, or as more layers join the impenetrable wall of sound, only to disappear into the primordial hum. Schulze also knows timbre damn well, and he chooses exactly the right synth and drum sounds at exactly the right points in the composition to augment that sense of tension. Because of the importance of these elements, it is no surprise that Schulze takes mixing and mastering into his own hands, as every detail in the sound is an important part of the composition itself.

wittgenstein

This track fades into the equally monumental “Ludwig II von Bayern,” the album’s half-hour centerpiece. Here Schulze borrows a theme from one of the Vivaldi Op.3 concertos. Disassociated from its original context and looped, the Vivaldi only reminds our instincts of tonality through outward appearance, but the piece moves in an entirely Schulzean manner. After a brief opening, fragments of string melodies are presented one after the other, with little in the way of dramatic flow. In fact, there is a fragmentary feeling to the whole piece, starting with its almost excessively clear tripartite structure. The sensation is similar to that of viewing a series of related pictures and Schulze’s innovative genius is in full display with this strange structural technique. Though it is clear where one sub-section ends and the other begins, they still melt into each other in a manner that feels perfectly intuitive, without suggesting any of the traditional narrative tropes related to other styles of music.

As the melancholy strings of the opening give way to the hypnotic two-note drone of the middle section we are reminded that this music is moving constantly, but it feels, strangely, as if it were standing still, in profound concentration. The final section of this song is another outstanding testament to Schulze’s uncanny patience, and possibly the highlight of the whole album. The composition builds and builds and builds, but Schulze doesn’t let go until everything is just right, until every single layer and variation in sound has had time to be properly considered, to properly assimilate itself into the enormous backdrop of the drone. The conclusion of the track is absolutely thrilling, but not in the way the climax of a Beethoven symphony is thrilling. In fact, it’s hard to even call it a climax, as once the layering is finished the song simply goes away. The excitement doesn’t come from an ecstatic sense of heroic achievement or conclusion, but from something resembling the hypnotic attainment of a state; a mountain climbed through sheer willpower and austere perseverance.

The album closes with “Heinrich von Kleist.” This song develops similarly to the previous two, but it is the only one on the album that lacks percussion. It remains astonishing just how immersive Schulze’s approach can be even without this vital element: one can be lost in the sound for hours, while just enough happens to keep the mind moving along and maintain interest at a very natural pace. Other than the drums, the main sonic elements here are consistent with the rest of X: melancholy strings waver in and out of the mix, strange whooshes and synth leads come and go while a monumental pad holds it all together. By far the quietest piece on the album, it lends the whole thing a sense of continuity, despite the evidently fragmented nature created by the loose biographical program. The way the album flows so seamlessly from the beginning of “Bach” to the end of “Kleist” is a large part of what makes it such a mesmerizing listen, but it also serves to highlight that the first three tracks are simply not on the level of this final trilogy.

All in all though, the album certainly feels like a united work. There is a uniform and highly individual aesthetic, even if it is explored a lot more thoroughly on the last three tracks. Through meticulously layered repetition Schulze creates an entirely different kind of movement that, though highly sophisticated and individual, feels visceral and spontaneous. It is perhaps inaccurate to say that tension here “builds” or “rises.” From the moment one of these pieces begins the uneasiness and the intensity are there, and they never go away. This is not only a testament to Schulze’s masterful selection of timbre and his brilliant drones, but also key to understanding how truly novel and important his approach can be.


III


It would be patently unfair to say that Western classical music has had no worthwhile developments throughout the past century. There have been many brilliant composers, many of whom worked within more or less traditional formats and are well loved by audiences today, such as Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten. It is the radicals who get branded as hermetic academics stuck in a mindless, self-indulgent circle jerk, and there’s more than a grain of truth to that. However, despite John Cage and Julius Eastman and other similarly pointless buffoons, the truth is that there have been those amongst them with truly brilliant ideas. The problem with this music though is precisely that it is driven almost exclusively by ideas. It is incapable of generating more music outside of itself, of truly inspiring others, in the sense of acting as a springboard for further creation and development, because it is always rooted in final concepts, not in a world feeling; a general sentiment for movement within life and music. It is music divorced from what we could call a, you guessed it, dynamic intuition.

cruz

Where academia has failed, the strange phenomenon of the popular music underground (a phenomenon that deserves its own overlong analysis) has triumphed. Hardcore punk, neofolk, trance and techno, the extreme subsets of heavy metal; all of these have created viable dynamic systems, ways of feeling musical construction born from ways of feeling and experiencing the world; systems with their own sets of limitations and expectations, that have fostered living, breathing musical scenes of an organic character. This malleability within limitations and implicit rules is essential for culture, and it simply cannot thrive without it. Of these underground styles ambient is without a doubt the one with the largest potential for sophistication and growth, and Klaus Schulze’s X has offered us a prime example of why that is.

What exactly then does Schulze do? Well, if you ask me, Gabe Lewis wasn’t too far off. Schulze emphasizes the “Debussy” elements of timbre, texture and volume, structuring the dynamism of his music around these, driving harmony and melody into a secondary level. This creates a completely different type of dynamic movement that, unlike that of tonal music, is mostly unconcerned with moving from point A to point B. The dynamics of Schulze are not about delaying the resolution of agonizing tension, or even resolving tension at all. In fact, Schulze’s primarily textural form of tension is very different from the harmonic one created by tonality. It is not the inherent “longing” of tonal mechanics, but rather a firm pulse that ebbs and flows, but always remains.

It is extremely important to note however that Schulze does not simply do away with melody and harmony. In fact, Schulze’s music is mostly diatonic, though certainly not tonal. His melodies, insofar as they can be so called, are short, self-contained ostinatos, similar in a way to the riffs of death and black metal. Also like these genres, he is mostly harmonically stiff, grounding himself to a single chord or a short sequence of chords, such as in the opening of “Heinrich von Kleist”. This harmonic grounding allows him to branch out as far as he wishes in the sonic sphere while maintaining the fantastic floating state of near stasis that permeates X. The aforementioned diatonicism helps Schulze retain a whiff of European classicism, even when he is most intensely quiet and still.

The stillness suggested, however, is not a meditative one, at least not in the sense usually invoked by the Eastern masters of the art, in which contemplation diminishes the suffering and trials of the world to absolute insignificance, and a form of transcendence is achieved. As Julius Evola found, along with many of the more sincere Western thinkers who have dabbled in and explored the East, this type of meditation, for good or ill, is not the type most given to Western character and culture. [6] The intense, concentrated style of Schulze is perhaps most akin to what could be called active meditation, or the process of acute concentration to the point of transcendence during the course of powerful, meaningful action.

We find in the Bhagavad-Gita, that most spectacular and bellicose part of the mighty Mahabharta, the crystallized archetype for this type of action in the hero, Arjuna. As Mircea Eliade explains it:

“The important thing is not renouncing one’s historical situation, making vain efforts to rejoin the Universal Being-but rather to bear constantly in mind the perspective given by the contemplation of Great Time, while still performing the duties imposed on you by historical time. That is the lesson taught by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita.” [7]

This ideal is deep and old, and as our own civilization drew away from it in a frenzy of urbanized banality, many cried out for its reintegration. The first was that ghastly and terrifying Dane, Soren Kierkegaard, and the last was the even more ghastly and terrifying Ludwig Wittgenstein. Together they flank a series of philosophers, writers and poets who advocated a Western return to transcendental action, or, to use Kierkegaard’s terminology, authentic life choices, the type that permit a man, and by extension a culture, to truly exist. Aside from the two previously mentioned, we can count amongst these writers figures such as Nietzsche, Dostoievsky, Trakl, Heidegger and many more, including of course the rest of our merry Schulzean band. [8]

krishna and arjuna battle

Though history has yet to come up with a better term than “existentialism,” a term that inevitably invokes a few unpleasant Frenchmen who shall remain nameless, the link between the different approaches these men took to thinking, art and life itself is patently clear to the sensitive observer. They harbor a return to a more “spiritual” way of thinking (to use Eliade’s terminology, an openness to the Great Time) yet they are also deeply and entirely modern, unaffected by harmful nostalgia or any desire to “turn back the clock.” These men sought to lead the West away from a “world-feeling” which had become decadent and obtuse, not by advocating for the return of a previous Western man, but for the coming of a new one, whose “feeling for life” would be renewed by the extremity of the modern era; a spiritual quietist of deep awareness, driven far beyond the realms of urban and bourgeois morality and into the realm of absolute, essential action.

It was Nietzsche himself who said, “All true, all original music, is a swan song.” [9] Perhaps the music of Schulze is the swan song that corresponds with this strange group of disparate writers, who sought to renew the Western spirit by quieting down all the senseless pomp and drama of its external excesses, by leaving only the silent but permanent drive for meaningful deeds within. Perhaps Schulze’s beautiful music is a final elegy for those arrows of longing as they finally fail to reach the other shore.

Whatever the case, the music of Schulze remains an enormous feat. With X he creates an immersive sound world where only the essential lives, a world with its own set of rules of motion with which the listener becomes acquainted in so natural a fashion that it is barely noticed. X is not an emotional or expressive album, but it is certainly an intense experience. The album’s careful layering, percussive intensity and richness of timbre are all great achievements, but its most important ones are its ease of action and its immanent flow: graceful, concentrated and fierce. I invite you, dear reader, to listen to X very carefully, not with your mind but with your bones. The swan song may yet become a clarion call.

Ein Schatten bin ich ferne finsteren Dörfern.
Gottes Schweigen
Trank ich aus dem Brunnen des Hains.


X

Klaus Schulze

Klaus Schulze - X

Disc 1
1. Friedrich Nietzsche (24:50)
2. Georg Trakl (5:25)
3. Frank Herbert (10:51)
4. Friedemann Bach (18:00)

Disc 2
1. Ludwig II. von Bayern (28:39)
2. Heinrich von Kleist (29:32)

Notes:
[1] The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press.
[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/music/
[3] Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche, translation by Walter Kauffman. The other two “great European narcotics” were alcohol and Christianity.
[4] Atonality and serialism get a bad rep amongst those who scoff virulently at the slightest mention of the word “modern” in a context that isn’t derogatory to the point of insult. However, this author recommends that every serious fan of Western music at least give the thing a proper try. No matter what you think of it, the music of the Second Viennese School is, at the very least, an outstanding technical achievement, and absolutely unlike any other music in the world. Literally no other musical tradition that we have knowledge of has attempted to do away with centricity. The LaSalle Quartet has a brilliant set on DG that covers all three composers of the SVS, and it makes for a great starting point.
[5] Though these details may help us get a sense for the general feeling of the album, and even the individual songs, I will not spend time here on overtly detailed programmatic speculation. Whether a specific drum sound is supposed to represent a particular novel of Herbert’s, a poem of Trakl’s, or a specific one of Nietzsche’s diarrheic fits does not seem relevant. Given the songs’ general quietude and reliance on drones I believe it is safe to say that the songs are inspired by the “atmosphere” Schulze associated with a particular character rather than specific portions of their lives or ideas.
[6] However, Western music has flirted with this ideal, most notably in the work of the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, an eccentric aristocrat fascinated with the mystical doctrines of the East.
[7] Images et symboles, Mircea Eliade, shitty translation by moi. Original French text:
“L’important n’est pas toujours de renoncer à sa situation historique en s’efforçant vainement de rejoinder l’Être universel – mais de garder constamment en esprit les perspectives du Grand Temps, tout en continuant à remplir son devoir dans le temps historique. C’est exactement la leçon done, dans la Bhagavad-Gitá, par Krsna à Arjuna.”
[8] Although the author admits to being insufficiently acquainted with the work of Heinrich von Kleist.
[9] Nietzsche contra Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, translation by Walter Kauffmann

See also:
Piously Pissed – A review of Urfaust‘s Apparitions
The Joy Before Death – A review of Kamaedzitca’s xQzTN 3087

About Basajarau (5 Articles)
Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins.

4 Comments on Thoughts on and around Klaus Schulze’s ‘X’

  1. I’ve always found that when it comes to early electronic music, Schulze’s as quintessentially German as Kraftwerk. It’s just that he and his music embody the “mystically-minded philosophical romantic idealist” stereotype of Germans as Kraftwerk do the “rational scientific and efficient” one.

    The two sometimes even converge, as you see in a thinker like G. W. F. Hegel or the elaborate philosophical schematisations of his creative process that Klaus Schulze publishes in the recent re-issue liner notes for his early albums.

  2. Austin Starr // March 15, 2015 at 15:43 // Reply

    very interesting altho the stuffiness of his writing style gets to be a bit much rather quickly. I didn’t see where he had defined ‘dynamic’ which he said he had done. did you? thnx for posting.

  3. Jacob Shaw // March 18, 2015 at 05:48 // Reply

    Good read!

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