As far as I can see there are music shops. Outside each one, musicians sit with bowls of green tea, playing ancient melodies on pot-bellied reed flutes, single stringed huqins and high pitched whiny violins punctuated by the odd paiban wood-clapper.
They wave and smile at me as I walk past, the only blonde in the world, inviting me to try the instruments and the tea, nodding congenially when I show my calloused cello fingers to indicate the benign presence of a fellow muso.
Walking past countless western guitar shops with their rows of Strats, Gibsons, Fenders and Hawaiians, I wander into little booths stuffed with zithers of all sizes. Drawing my fingers gently over the strings, I’m immediately transported into the serene and herb-scented waiting room of my brutal Chinese Tuina masseuse, tannoyed arppegios accompanied by soothing superimposed waterfalls.
Locals playing Huquins, sounding like amplified pentatonic mosquitoes to my ignorant western ear.
Two larges shops are filled with cellos and earnest looking people playing something reminiscent of Bach.
The air shimmers wih the fragrance of cooking. Noodle bars, sesame bun stands, duck soup vendors and tiny restaurants jostle shoulder to shoulder in the maze of side streets leading off from Xinjiekou South Street, filled with people going about their business in a neighbourhood of low level houses, bustling bicycles and tiny tea houses that appear untouched by time.
I’m in Beijing on a 4 day hit and run visit with London Sinfonietta and have made a firm decision to ignore the 7 hour time difference and explore as much as possible in the few free hours allotted.
My bag stuffed with little gongs that make a “pow” sound when whacked really hard, tinkling tingers, bamboo flutes and an industrial quantity of chrysanthamum tea, I set off for the nearby Jingshan Park.
Or so it looks on the city map the hotel provides. In fact, this spectacular park turned out to be a good 25 minute fast hike away. The scale of the city is unimaginably vast. Main streets are as wide as 2 Pall Malls and everywhere the traffic broods, bumper to bumper, unmoving, choking the air with thick fumes.
Katie Melua’s song There are 9 million bicycles in Beijing needs a rethink.
Incidentally, I was once a cello backing girl for Melua and was impressed by her razor-precise cool delivery, un-showy pixie prettiness and overwhelming tedium of the songs, imbibed with fanatical devotion by a packed Radio 2 audience of solo middle aged men in questionable jackets.
Not so unlike new music audiences really, just fewer beards.
Prices of cars in China have recently been inflated way beyond even western market value in an attempt to curb the appalling traffic congestion, but the new micro class of China’s super rich buy them anyway, and the problem continues which, combined with the dust that swirls in from the Gobi desert, make this one of the most polluted spots on earth. In summer it must truly be a suffocating hell furnace.
But we are incredibly lucky. We’ve arrived on one of the very few days of the year when the air has been cleared by fierce wind and rain, and for these few hours, a clear bright sky and crisp autumn sun reminds us of a pre-industrial age, allowing us a rare glimpse of the spectacular mountains surrounding Beijing.
People drive their cars here like bicycles, swerving suddenly and without warning to fill any available gaps, every second seeming to promise certain death for the many pedestrians who follow the same rules: simply go when you see your chance and the strongest survives. Several times I took cover behind a bowed old man with stick or woman with baby to avoid the oncoming machine stream, all completely ignoring the token pedestrian crossings or traffic lights. But to no avail. All take their chances in the moment.
As well one might do in a nation of 1,344,130,000 souls (this year’s figure) and growing. Everywhere you go, people jostle each other, but without getting upset as you certainly would do here if someone dared to push ahead in a post office queue or supermarket line. You simply have to work a little harder here to get noticed amidst the vast ocean of humanity.
People queuing for the subway by Beijing central rail station last winter.
On the central axis of Beijing, north of the Forbidden City, I enter the tranquil bamboo grove that announces Jingshan Park, roughly the size of two Hyde Parks combined, set around a central lake. On every corner music was being made. In one ornately carved band-stand, a group of elderly ladies take turns in singing in that wobbly high soprano we all associate with Chinese song.
A few yards along couples of all ages and gender combinations (well, not tranny, but you know what I mean) perform a kind of jive-meets-foxtrot-meets-disco to Sino-Lithuanian-Eurovision-synth-bop. Walking further around the lake a group of middle-aged ladies, all with jet black hair, take part in an exercise class that looks like a combo of synchronised ballet and Chi Gung; incredibly graceful gestures with precise movements of the hands, all coordinated to ghetto-blasted Chinese folk songs. Passers-by stop and sing along.
Some of the spectacular pavillions on the hill by the lake, overlooking the Forbidden City.
Next door a different kind of sino-pop blares from speakers hung from Ginkgo trees overhanging the lake. A bunch of single men and woman perform a robotic but creative form of Chinese Dad dancing. Some wear shades. Everyone looks happy. Onlookers sing along.
My impression was that, whatever the political system, music is very much alive and well here at a really grass roots level. A cloud of song and dance appeared to rise from the lake along with the ornate three storey pavillion in the central island.
Group Tai Chi in the park, done to something sounding like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets acu spa.
But I can’t help wondering how in 5 thousand years (probably more?) of one-time most sophisticated civilisation on earth, that the music of this nation still hasn’t moved past the pentatonic scale.
But hey, what do I know of the intricacies of their music tradition? For all I know its finest notes have vanished, like the music of the ancient Greeks. After all, even though written evidence of Greek musical theory survives, no one really knows what it actually sounded like. And so it must be with music of all ages as civilisations come and go.
My Dad recently got obsessed with an enthralling book by Gavin Menzies called 1421. The Year The Chinese Discovered the World, which explores evidence suggesting that the Chinese had circumnavigated the world at least 70 years before Columbus.
(The generally accepted notion that no one could have discovered the world before Columbus is extremely dodgy in my view).
Former British submarine lieutenant-commander Menzies spent 15 years researching his theory, triggered by discovering spookily accurate 15th century world maps by Chinese cartographers. Whatever the truth behind his discoveries, the book points to a civilisation significantly more advanced than it’s European neighbours of the time, highly skilled in architecture, painting, mathematics, astronomy, textiles, boat building, philosophy, medicine, maps and trading.
“On 8 March 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen set sail from China. The ships, some nearly five hundred feet long, were under the command of Emperor Zhu Di’s loyal eunuch admirals. (Note: EUNUCHS). Their mission was ‘to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas and unite the world in Confucian harmony.”
Attempting their own form of Confucian harmony, The London Sinfonietta find themselves performing in a hall within a shopping mall that looks for all the world like Basingstoke. The hall is sandwiched between the new Apple Store, Benefit Cosmetics and opposite – yes, you’ve guessed it – Starbucks. A huge screen outside the hall dwarfs a row of Beijing Music Festival flags, flashing 50 ft images of western models in western fashion to blasting western pop music.
It took an hour of progressively desperate phone calls from Sinfonietta’s long-suffering concert manager, via a hierarchy of SEVEN different officials to get Gaga to stop obliterating the rehearsal the other side of the screen.
One of Beijing’s many Starbucks. Note total absence of Chinese translation.
This kind of east-west paradox is at the heart of my brief experience of China, a communist country with the most aggressively capitalist culture I’ve ever seen. Giant posters of Julia Roberts advertising Lancombe tower over the rapidly disappearing low level buildings I mentioned earlier, along with their ornate roof carvings, red lanterns, rows of tiny shops selling clothes, jade, spices, cigarettes, shampoo, washing lines strung between dumpling vendors and old men playing cards, drinking tea at tables in streets thronged with bicycles.
Lady Gaga. Ruiner of London Sinfonietta rehearsals.
A block away from wizened, squatting old ladies selling pomegrantes and baked yams on street corners, loomed the vast marble temples of Chanel, Prada, Gucci, Dior; Western luxury goods manufactured in the sweat shops of Shanghai.
Speaking of squatting, public loos were mostly in that vein, and, more upsettingly for my delicate English sensibilities, often used with doors LEFT OPEN.
More disturbingly, I was told that in remote rural provinces, if a western woman has to obey the call of nature, local women gather round to observe. With interest.
My memories of Shanghai (on another concert hit and run) are of another unimaginably huge city, full of aggressively phallic skyscrapers multiplying literally as one looked, out-Manhattaning Manhattan. The rich-poor divide was breathtaking, savagely illustrated by the 10 quid I paid for a single espresso in the Marriot, and the same paid for a banquet for 5 people, including limitless beer, one block away the same evening.
Beijing is stuffed with the same contradictions, but feels a little slower, more secretive, less aggressively upward moving. Although I did get invited to a restaurant in Beijing where you could buy imported French wine for £3000 a bottle.
If you’ve seen the latest Bond but have never been to China, Shanghai really does look like that, a kind of super shiny futuristic Gotham City.
And I simply can’t pass by Skyfall without observing that it sorely needed:-
1) Proper shags. The whole point of Bond is that he is a misogynist multiple shagger. To cut away from his liaison with Moneypenny to exploding fireworks was ridiculously coy. (Not that she was particularly shagly in the first place.)
Gratuitous zip unfastening should be at the heart of every Bond movie.
2) MUCH more of John Barry’s marvellous Theme. Skyfall’s sound track teased with tiny thematic snippets until we were finally permitted one, but ONE complete rendering of the music that differentiates Bond from other action thrillers.
This was the worst case of theme tease I’ve ever experienced and I DON’T LIKE IT.
3) less of Daniel Craig looking like a Playstation killing robot.
But I DID like geek-spotting film quotes from Orson Welles Lady from Shanghai, Bladerunner, The Queen (the bit in Scotland) and Hitchcock’s Rebecca (Manderlay burning down). And I LOVED the unexpected homosexual plot twist. Without giving the game away, a gay friend of mine clutched my hand at the extraordinary moment when it’s hinted that
JAMES BOND MAY NOT BE A GAY VIRGIN
and breathlessly said, “well, it’s taken 50 years…”
Now where was I?
Oh yes, a shopping mall in Beijing, and a programme of English music conducted by George Benjamin, including his marvellous chamber opera Into the Little Hill based on the Pied Piper of Hamlyn story, with libretto by celebrated playwright Martin Crimp,
I had the good fortune to play in the first UK performance of this truly beautiful piece at the Linbury Studio at the Opera House. Those who were there will remember how the power suddenly failed 10 minutes into the show, forcing audience and performers to be led to safety by torchlight out of the blackness into which they’d been unceremoniously plunged.
Star singers Sue Bickley and Claire Booth doing their thing in the fated, and fêted, London performance of Little Hill a couple of years back. Their expressions could indicate premonitions of the imminent power collapse.
After heated conference backstage, the girls dressing room decided that the show HAD to go on by way of the upstairs bar of the Lindbury. And so it did in perhaps one if the best concert experiences of my life, with the audience sitting on the floor, by the bar, wherever they could find a space, utterly engaged with music without a single visual aid.
Just the music and text, speaking for itself without visual frills.
No matter how many times I play in this piece – and it’s now quite a few – the impeccably heard layers of delicate string harmonics, resonance, dramatic tonal shifts and silvery orchestration never get boring. One mark of truly good music must be that it continues to reveal itself after many hearings. And for the record, everyone else in the band feels the same way about this piece, a rarity in contemporary music performing circles I can tell you.
Composer Eric Whitacre. For context read on.
This performance was given one of its best with mezzo Katalin Karolyi – who was a great friend of Ligeti’s, and recently starred in Gerald Barry’s outrageous Importance of Being Ernest - along with the extraordinarily razor-sharp precision and dramatic power of soprano Hila Plitmann, whose voice I had heard on recordings of music by the fabulous David Del Tredici (for much about whom see a couple of posts back), whose music she has been singing for 16 years or so.
Hila is married to composer Eric Whitacre, who shot to stratospheric fame a couple of years back with his composition for internet choir, and was recently signed to Storm Model agency – although Hila says the media has vastly overemphasized the latter fact, and that Eric has yet to do a single fashion shoot.
Actually, Hila herself could easily be on Storm’s model books as you can see from this pic.
Let’s face it, there aren’t too many composers who get signed to major international model agencies.
Whitacre showed up to the rehearsals in London and kept calling Benjamin “Maestro”, much to his delighted embarrassment.
The first half of the Beijing programme was comprised of Birtwistle’s darkly funky Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum (1977) – a delicately spiky piece of writing which you MUST check out if you don’t know it. I really love this piece, but suspect it totally baffled the Chinese audience, who will have heard nothing like it.
Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Not signed by Storm as far as I know.
The director of the Beijing festival told me that this London 2012-themed year has featured Chinese premieres of music by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, our programme and … John Cage’s 4’33”.
Given the Chinese have absolutely none of our western symphonic DNA and it’s journey through Schoenberg and beyond, WHAT do they make of Cage?
Like, what does 4’33’’ means to a Chinese audience ? I’d love to know. Is their silence different?
Some of the Sinfonietta players described teaching sessions with students at the Beijing Conservatoire, and said that whilst they were all technically competent, the notion of phrasing Mozart, for example, was completely alien to them and had to be taught by literally writing in every last crescendo, diminuendo and ritardando that make up the classical shapes that are second nature to their western colleagues.
In the same vein, how could I have an instinct for the gestures, aesthetic, sound colours or impulses of Chinese or Indian or South American music without being brought up with it? Or Ghanaian drumming, or Japanese Kabuki?
It was interesting to hear the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra the first time they were in London playing Tchaikovsky. Although the notes were pretty much in the right place, much of it sounded completely alien, almost unrecognisable in places, familiar music spoken with a heavy foreign accent.
In China, there are currently some 10 million children learning piano alone. They practice. A lot. And the music they are learning is mostly (from what I gather), western baroque, classical and romantic music.
I’ve recently been auditioning students for our own marvellous National Youth Orchestra, whose cello section I have the huge privilege to coach. A few of those of those auditioning were Chinese, travelling over specially for an English musical education. (Why?). They have scary mothers who ask other mothers how much their kids practice.
Yes, I’ve read Tiger Mother, but won’t go there now.
Our music conservatoires and schools house increasing numbers of these hard-working children born of China’s economic elite, fast becoming the few who can actually afford the staggering fees, and actively sought out by British music conservatoires and universities who need the cash.
A sad young undergraduate cellist at Trinity Laban College told me that it now costs £40,000 to do a 2 year post grad at the Royal Academy of Music. FORTY. THOUSAND. POUNDS. Before accommodation and living expenses in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
I PROMISE you this isn’t a “help, help the Chinese are coming!” rant (for that see South Park’s appalling The Chinese Problem episode). But more of a quiet observation (from my extremely limited experience) of how rapid economic growth and rampant capitalist values don’t necessarily mean absolute cultural philistinism. Our classical music is seriously on the agenda in China’s big cities. It’s valued. Even if they do it very differently.
Is this cultural imperialism in action?
Discuss. (But not now).
Who knows, maybe in time they will become the main guardians of Western classical art music if that evil baron of anti-culture, Simon Cowell (above) and his unwitting dark hench-persons Katherine Jenkins, Myleen Klass and Gary Barlow have their way.
Terrifying fact. The biggest-selling string quartet of ALL TIME is Bond.
But somehow I doubt it. I’d like to think the power of our own marvellous art music is too great to get killed off by supermodels in ballgowns flicking their hair around to Vivaldi with a rock beat.
(Please forgive me Bond girls! Those of you I know are super nice, intelligent and work v v hard at what you do. But you must see my point in this context.)
The second piece in the Sinfonietta’s Beijing gig was Oliver Knussen’s exquisite Songs Without Voices (1992), another piece that opens up its bejewelled treasures with repeated listenings and playings. You can hear it on Spotify.
The last piece before the interval was oboe concerto Extase II by Chinese composer Qigang Chen, met with ecstatic applause by the usually reserved audience. And no wonder. Sinfonietta’s Gareth Hulse (left) gave a performance of staggering virtuosity, effortlessly negotiating circular breathing, rapid fire note flurries and some of the most accurately pitched high sustained quarter tones I’ve ever heard from this most tricky of instruments.
Two words I usually wouldn’t put together:
But I would if Gareth was playing.
Qigang Chen’s score hinged around a folk tune well known to the audience, identical to the second line of In the Bleak Mid Winter. (Many of us continued to sing Frosty Winds May Blow for some time after the show.) The piece was a sort of Chinese inflected Ligeti combined with Hollywood c. Clint Eastwood and the theme tune from Dallas. But for all that had a certain something.
“During China’s Cultural Revolution countless individuals lost the opportunity for formal training in the arts, and it was only in 1977 when the Central Conservatory in Beijing reopened that a generation of musicians could once again seek education. Part of the illustrious 1978 graduating class was Qigang Chen (left) who later went on to study with Olivier Messiaen.” (Text c/o Boosey’s, his publisher.)
Overall the concert was a big success and apparently had gone down well with the shoppers outside who got to see/hear the music from the same screen/loud speaker system that had tormented us earlier in the day. Their listening presence was indicated by discarded McDonald’s wrappings.
Music for the People, innit.
Almost my first sight, straight off the red-eye from Heathrow was the huge image of Chairman Mao that graces the main gate to the Forbidden City, an image soaked in blood in my mind’s eye from the little I learnt in school about the Cultural Revolution.
People from all over this vast continent had gathered at this historic place, some dressed in Mao tunics, most in western clothes, and a few in strange head-dresses and padded jackets, clearly from faraway lands. Many had terrible teeth.
Incidentally, I saw very few women in skirts or dresses. The vast majority wear trousers, and everyone on the street is dressed casually, practically, rather than for effect. Evil fashion lords haven’t yet infiltrated the highstreet, probably cos no one can afford the Chinese-manufactured gear we’re all swathed in from Primark, M&S and Next (to name but 3).
The Forbidden City! Magical words for a big fan of The Last Emperor, arguably Bertolucci’s masterpiece.
The young Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, looks out on his subjects in this still from the film, shot in situ. Those coloured lines are made up of people. That’s how vast it is.
Note mountains in background.
The scale of the place is hard to describe. You walk through enormous square after enormous square, each demarcated by the same high windowless walls in rusty red, framed by beautiful elaborate golden roof carvings of mythological animals, guarded by huge stone lions and impressive stone font things.
Titles of streets and buildings indicate a thought system entirely different from ours: The Hall of Mental Enhancement, Temple of Comparative Bliss, the Gate of Divine Might.
Throne rooms and living quarters were roped off, some behind glass cases, all covered in thick dust, giving the impression that nothing had been touched since the Last Emperor child played amongst his elaborately dressed courtiers. In fact, it was probably a mere month’s worth of Gobi desert dust clinging to the royal hangings.
How strange to be in a place closed for so many centuries to the outside world! And even within the city, there is a sense of secrecy, places you are not allowed to go, the very height of the walls precluding a peep into the unknown world that once existed, the whisperings of hundreds of concubines long since faded into ether.
The emperor’s throne, covered in dust the day I saw it.
Outside in Tiananmen square another order of reality exists. It’s perhaps the most palpably evil place I’ve ever been. It’s VAST. CRAWLING with police. A huge horrible monument to power. Concrete. Brutal. Unspeakably ugly.
Here’s James Fenton’s poem about it.
The police presence is inescapable. They throng the tube, security checks at every possible entrance and exit, all over the city.
When a friend called to me on the hotel phone, there was a whir-click on the line and I was reminded that here Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are banned, bugging is common practice, and there are some 30,000 people employed in internet censorship.
But on a superficial level, people in Beijing didn’t look oppressed. Perhaps it was the amazing weather. They appeared friendly, helpful, relaxed and not the xenophobic dictator-crushed lot you might expect. A surprising number spoke English. Well. And I felt safe at all times, maybe (ironically) because of the police.
Tiananmen Square. I didn’t use the iconic image of the student standing in front of tanks we all associate with the name. It’s there in our minds anyway.
One of the most beautiful spots I visited in Beijing is the Lama Temple, the most famous active Buddhist temple outside Tibet. A profound sense of peace radiates from the fragrant osymanthus trees that lead up to the temples filled with huge Buddhas, and people making devotions in front of large incense burners whose sandalwood-infused scent clouds the air a mile away.
The resident monks are from Mongolia and, erm, Tibet.
As a friend told me, the sinister truth is that these monks will be officially approved, the monastery reconstructed from the revolution’s ravages and the whole set-up, magical and inspiring as I found it, allowed to exist in order to give an impression of official tolerance.
I wonder what writer Lu Xun would have made of the 21st century? Tipped off by Alexander Goehr, I found myself at the house of this godfather of modern Chinese literature, now a small but beautifully presented museum about the author’s works and life.
Born in 1881, Lu Xun (right) lived through a particularly bloody chapter in a particularly blood-soaked country, and had the extraordinary courage to use his exceptional literary talent to bring injustices into print, at great personal risk.
He was the first to translate Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Gogol and Edgar Allen Poe, amongst other great European writers into Chinese, and his writing style reflects all of these seen through a Chinese lens saturated with over 2000 years’ worth of his own country’s literature, art and philosophy..
I managed to acquire copies of his most famous works, mostly short stories written in both Baihua (vernacular) and formal style in a beautiful edition in Chinese and English, illustrated by woodcut prints, an art he both collected and propagated. This is world-class writing of enormous sophistication, crackling with humour, compassion and savage sarcasm at the injustices meted out by those in power. It reminds me of Joyce, Kafka and the great Russian writers of the 20th century.
Although a hero of early Chinese communism, hence the wonderful museum, it’s clear his work transcends politics. Lu Xun is ultimately a liberal and humanist rather than political flag waver, and his work really should be known better here.
Woodcut illustration by Wu Sihong, 1933.
You can get hold of a Penguin edition of his complete fiction here .
Epic as this post is, I can’t leave you without mention of one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, at a restaurant with the marvellous name, Da Dong.
“Chef Dong” had prepared his signature duck that melted on the tongue, crisp date pear things that glowed in a liquid nitrogen cloud, glistening cabbage in a chestnut and saffron soup, succulent prawns in delicate chilli mayonnaise, softest fried aubergines in herbs and spices that revealed themselves in layers, seconds after each bite, sweet scallops tingling with fennel seed, garlic and cumin, sautéed sweet water lily root and an extraordinary black sesame soup – a thick broth that soothed and sweetened and calmed the body like a mother’s song.
Just as well I’m not a restaurant critic.
To continue the food theme, I got invited to a post-show banquet in an unfeasibly stylish restaurant hidden somewhere by the Forbidden City, kept open for our party and hosted by Lady D…, a Chinese Malaysian lady of spectacular elegance, whose trust foundation had paid for our concert.
A society beauty in her day, her divorce settlement a few years back had made big headlines here, rumoured to run into 9 figures (in US dollar terms). How wonderful she should choose to spend it on music!
Red lanterns as far as the eye could see on Ghost Street, close by another restaurant I went to that served chicken feet, ox hoof, bull-frog, sea slug and seriously sinister mushrooms.
Around the table sat the odd property tycoon, CEOs of major financial organisations and British Council bods, mostly ex-pats in suits. Surprisingly, not the wankers you’d expect, but really switched-on people dedicated to bringing British folk, classical, jazz and left-field indie bands to remote provinces of China, along with theatre, poetry, fashion design and visual art.
How amazing is that? And what on earth do the locals make of it? And once again, do we need to ask that cultural imperialism question?
It’s now really time to go and do some cello practice, but I leave you with an extract from Lost Horizon, the dream fantasy film directed by Frank Capra in 1937 about a party of Brits and Americans who escape bloody revolutionary clashes in China by plane, only to find that they’ve been kidnapped by a Mongolian pilot, then crash into the Himalayas and get rescued by a mysterious community living in Shangri La, a remote paradise somewhere in Tibet completely cut off from civilisation.
Ignoring the saccherine sub-Straussian sound track and outrageously sentimental aesthetic, the heart of the drama features a speech by the ruling high lama priest, (aged 200, Belgian) outlining the principles that make Shangri La work. Although he looks uncannily like Freddy Krueger in this scene, much of the old boy’s words still apply, in my view.
“Look at the world today.
Is there anything more pitiful?
But when has the world known any other time?
What madness there is, what blindness, what unintelligent leadership.
A furiously racing mass of bewildered humanity, strengthening not in wisdom
but in vulgar passions, crashing headlong into each other,
motivated by greed and propelled into brutality.
The time must come when evil will destroy itself.
So here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditation.
Here we shall be to guide the footsteps of a weary people.
Here we shall be with our way of life based on one simple rule:
And it is our hope that Shangri La’s brotherly love will spread throughout the world.
And when the strong have devoured each other,
then, at last,
The meek shall inherit the earth.
Stay tuned for the next episode.
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