USOperaWeb - Online magazine devoted to American Opera Spring 2003 Issue
Erling Wold Reinvents Opera

By Robert Wilder Blue

 Erling Wold
Erling Wold

A writer for The Village Voice once called Erling Wold "the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock." The phrase evokes a roll of the eyes when quoted back to the composer, but there is truth to be found in the description as far as it captures the spirit of an artist whose inspiration derives from a convergence of seemingly contradictory influences and experiences. Wold grew up in a religious family but questioned Christian doctrines and myths at an early age. He earned degrees in engineering even though his heart and soul were better nourished by art. As a composer, an early brush with the European avant-garde movement led to a stint with rock bands. But Wold's love of literature would lead to the discovery that he was a storyteller and a perusal of his works' titles betrays that destiny: 13 Versions of Surrender, I brought my hips to the table, It was in the summer that I first noticed your hair, your face, your eyelids, Dance of the Polygamists, and Ten Tan Girls for Every Boy, to recount a few.

As 2003 unfolds, Wold is enjoying a particularly busy period. The CD of his first opera, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, has just been released, and at this writing he is overseeing preparations for the premiere of his third opera, Sub Pontio Pilato. Mr. Wold spoke with USOPERAWEB about his progress up to now, his operas and his origins. "I was born in Burbank, California. My father was a Lutheran minister and there was an informal rule that you should stay in a parish for only about seven years. He was from North Dakota, so we moved from southern California when I was seven and spent five years in North Dakota. Then we moved back to southern California, then to Minnesota. We also lived in New York City for part of one year. What a ridiculous difference! North Dakota had 600,000 people and in New York there were more than 600,000 people within a mile of where we lived. But for a kid, North Dakota was a great place.

"My mother was very musical. She played piano well and when she was young she played in one of these multi-piano groups that were common at the time, that played six-hand versions of symphonies and such. I took piano lessons but it wasn't really until I was a teen that I started getting interested in music. I started listening to 20th century music right away-Stravinsky, Prokofiev, people like that. I'd be in a record store and find an album cover I thought was interesting and try it out. You could learn a lot in a record store just by reading the backs of the albums.

 Erling Wold
Erling Wold

"When I was a kid I was interested in the sciences, which has also been an ongoing theme in my life. I ended up going to Cal Tech, which is a big science research school. I was a math major and also concentrated on physics and ended up in electrical engineering. I was just starting to get interested in composition then but not enough to deflect me from this other path I was on. There were no music classes at Cal Tech, so I started taking music classes at a nearby university (Occidental College) and went through their entire program-I took every composition and composition-oriented class. Then I went to Berkeley for graduate school in engineering, but I also studied composition with Andrew Imbrie and later Gerard Grisey who was for a while a visiting professor. I went to Stanford for a year and studied in their computer music program. For a while I did a lot of electronic music."

What were your early compositions like? "I was really into the intellectual, university style of music-people like [Pierre] Boulez, [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, Stefan Wolpe. I wrote things that tended to be very complicated. It's common for young people to get excited by intellectual ideas and become a radical-everyone you know is talking about it and it's all you're reading about. When I came up here to study with Imbrie, he thought I was out of my mind. The pieces I was writing then were so crazy. I was writing a concerto for contrabass accompanied by a trombone quartet and chorus with hundreds of pitches per octave and the chorus singing nonsense syllables. When I was working on it, I remembered that the first time I heard modern music, I thought that if I ever liked these pieces, I'd know I was so far out of the mainstream I'd lose my connection to the average person. And I think that has happened to some extent. I like a lot of modern music and am still attracted to the aesthetics of modern music, but I became disenchanted pretty quickly with the university style. There was this nagging thought that I really would cut myself off from everybody except for this narrow group of people that went to new music concerts. So I kind of pushed it away. I don't really go back to those pieces very much, although sometimes I hear from people who buy those records or who want to use the music for dances or something like that. But I decided I wanted to get back out into the world. You can become very isolated off in your little studio making incomprehensible electronic music.

 Erling Wold
Erling Wold

"So I changed completely. I played the guitar and I knew people who were in bands, so for a while I played with various groups and did some writing. They were guitar-oriented bands. There was one band I was in that had seven guitars! It was extremely loud and raucous [he laughs]. You know, a lot of modern composers nowadays have moved through all these different musical worlds.

"I was always attracted to text-modernist literature was very important to me when I was young-and I liked the idea of doing something that was bigger than just an instrumental piece, something that had a dramatic aspect. If you don't have words, it's difficult to address social and intellectual issues. One of my very earliest pieces I did when I was young was a setting of [T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. A lot of people who are in 'pure' music try to address a lot of complicated intellectual issues directly in the music but they don't really come across to the audience. Typically they have to be explained in the program notes, which is why there are so many pieces whose program notes are more interesting than the music.

"And then there was an enormous change in modern music. People like Philip Glass and Terry Riley opened things up and made it okay to think about audience and rhythm and tonality and melodies again. I still am attracted to a lot the modernist art from my youth and I have absolutely no interest in going back to writing in the style of the 18th or 19th centuries. But I think some of the directions people went were based on intellectual ideas that didn't have any actual grounding, just flights of fancy. When I stopped writing in a group setting and got back to sitting in a room with pencil and paper, it was for a band-like group-getting a group of classical and non-classical instruments together with synthesizers and so on."

Does Wold think of himself as a "minimalist composer?" "A lot of people bristle at the minimalist label, although I don't know that there's any reason to worry, really. It's just a label. People like Philip Glass, especially when they started out, were minimalists. They repeated things a lot and varied them very slowly over long periods of time. I sometimes use repeated patterns or ostinatos, but there is something from my early training that won't allow me to keep repeating something without varying it. My music has developing tunes and dramatic moments that are nothing like the pieces of the early minimalists. The idea of a pulse is important and the tonality of the music is different than the tonality of classical composers of the past-that you don't have to modulate as much if you can find other ways to keep interest going. In that way, yes, I have an affinity with the minimalist school."

A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil. From left to right: Mary Forcade, Laurie Amat, Pamela Z. Photo by Marion Grey, December 1994.

Did you go to the opera when you were young? "No. In fact, I was one of those people who didn't like the opera. I think there is something off-putting about the black-tie quality and the voices being of the sort you don't normally hear in your day-to-day life and the stories being overblown and all that. Now, I've come to a kind of understanding of opera, although I tend to like modern operas more than older operas. I like [Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu-I like their dark qualities. One of the first Philip Glass pieces I heard was Einstein on the Beach and I listened to it all the way through and then started over and listened to it again. It was a life-changing experience for me. I loved the performance of [Britten's] Death in Venice San Francisco Opera did a few years ago-I thought it was very moving. What attracts me to 20th century and newer operas is not only that it's the time in which I'm residing but that I have more of a connection with the stories and language. An opera like Wozzeck has a modern sensibility for me and the story is strong. But I can cry along with anybody else seeing La Bohème."

What inspired you to want to write operas? "I always liked the mixture of theater and music and a number of the early pieces I did had theatrical elements. I don't know if I decided one day to write an opera; I just found myself writing a large piece based on a text and it felt like it should be staged. I started talking to a stage director and started accumulating the elements of a production and I decided to call it a chamber opera.

"Calling my pieces operas is a reclaiming of a term that has had a number of meanings over the history of music. In a way, it's kind of a hip thing to call something an opera, because it brings along this interesting history. I didn't really know what else to call them; they're not really musicals, they don't have dialog and songs, they're through-composed. One reason I call them operas is that I feel that the music is an equal participant in the evolution of the drama with the text. That's not always true of opera. There are some operas in which story sits out front and there's this symphony going on behind it. But with Little Girl people feel they've been through a dramatic experience and I'd like to think that it's the music that makes it into a dramatic piece. I try in each of these operas to have the music be architecturally significant, thinking about the way you take people through a large-scale musical experience."

A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil. Left to right: Laurie
Amat, Deborah Gwinn, Rachael Wylie. Photo by Dennis Letbetter, March 2000

Wold's first opera, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, based on a story by Max Ernst, premiered in 2000 with the Paul Dresher Ensemble at ODC Theater where Wold was composer-in-residence. It was a triumphant success and went on tour to German (as Die Nacht wird kommen), playing eventually in Brühl, Ernst's hometown. Wold described the opera's genesis: "Max Ernst made a number of collage novels in the 1930s out of penny novel engravings. He turned the engravings into these fantastic images. They're called novels because the sequence of images more-or-less tell a story, even though most of them don't have a text. In this particular one he wrote a text that he used as captions for the engravings, as if it were a comic book. I had actually set a small portion of it eight or so years before as a song and this became the kernel of the opera. In 1993 I went to Berlin to see the premiere of a film for which I'd written the soundtrack and had stuck the book in my suitcase. On the flight back I pulled it out and I started sketching out some music ideas on the plane for another section. I just worked on it for a few months and then I hooked up with a director (Jim Cave) to think about producing it and he suggested that I talk to a dramaturg, Carla Harryman. We restructured the text and I rewrote a lot of it to fit this new structure.

"The story is about a young girl who has a dream on the eve of entering the convent. The dream involves religion, a patriarch of course-she's entering the Catholic Church!-sexuality, the loss of her hair, her upcoming marriage to Jesus, all these things. It's a surrealist story so when you read it you have to step back a little and let it flow over you. You get what it's about overall even though you might not know what each moment is about. There's an introduction to the book about her life before the events of the story, which is a more easily understood, and I used that text as a bedrock over which all these other things were swirling around. It turns out that Max Ernst actually did run off with an underage girl who was about the join a convent around that time in his life.

"The story resonated with a lot of things in me. I had seen [Prokofiev's] The Fiery Angel about a month before Little Girl premiered, and I thought it was an incredible piece. It has a number of the same themes. Anything that is about sex and religion always appeals to me. I'm sure it's because of my background and the conflicts of being in a religious family. Even though I grew up in a very loving religious family, it was still very difficult for me when aspects of myself conflicted with the church. I have always been fascinated by religion, but I rejected it when I was pretty young.

A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil. Left to right: Rachael Wylie, Laurie Amat. Photo by Marcia Lieberman, San Francisco, March 2000

"Little Girl had a big impact on me. It brought me out into the world and it did very well for a little opera than was done in a teeny place. It was written up quite a bit and we had to turn away as many people as came to the see it. I got interest from other places and I was really excited by the whole process. So I started paying more attention to things I was reading or had read in the past that I liked, things I was seeing, and speaking with writers about ideas I had. I actually started the Pontius Pilate opera before Little Girl premiered. I began working on that in 1994 with a friend of mine, James Bisso. I wrote that piece using a full orchestra, which is economically very difficult these days and is a large reason why it has taken so long to get performed."

Wold completed his residency at ODC Theater with his second opera, Queer, based on William Burroughs's autobiographical novel. It premiered in 2001 to enthusiastic notices and audience response. The story had a personal resonance for Wold. "I had read William Burroughs's book Queer a few years before. I like a lot of Burroughs' writing but I like his early works best. He is best known as a writer who did these 'cut-ups' where he'd write a linear text but then cut up the pages and put the pieces against each other to make something new. I think people forgot that he was actually a very good writer. I'm not sure what the term 'good writer' means, but his early works are very revealing, very autobiographical and I was able to get into who he was and feel what he was writing about and that was important for me. I liked Queer because even though you could say it was gay literature, it felt universal. And there were practical things-it was a reasonable size, it was well focussed. I also liked the language and that's important because the language drives the music.

"It's told in the third person, which is strange for his books from that period. I think it was because it was a very painful experience for him and he had to distance himself from the events. He tells the story of a man (which is him), an expatriate living in Mexico, and his obsessive love for another expatriate, Eugene Allerton. Burroughs was in Mexico at the time fleeing a drug possession charge in the states. It's not an unrequited love, although maybe the guy's kind of a hustler.

You don't get much more than two-dimensional versions of the other people around him, including this person who is the object of his affections. The guy is basically uninterested and why he's hanging out with Burroughs is unclear-maybe because Burroughs has money. It's a very painful story and it reminded me of things that had happened in my life."

Queer. Left to right: Steve Toarmina, Trauma Flintstone.
Photo by Debra St. John, San Francisco, March 2001

Was there any concern that the story might not be theatrically or dramatically viable? "You know, I never really worry about that. I'm attracted to texts that are difficult. It's part of my personal challenge of being a composer of opera. This is a different attitude than some people have, I know. Some people would say that the story, the libretto, comes first and that the music is composed to support it. I have the approach that the two are equal partners and part of my job as a composer is to take a text that may not be appropriate dramatically and make it into a dramatic entity. As a composer, I have the power to take the audience through an emotional journey just with the music alone. Now, I thought Queer was a dramatic story; it has a nice structure and a nice flow. After the two men get together, the Burroughs character takes Eugene on a journey to South America -a quest to find a new drug he believes will be the answer to the questions in his life, but of course it is a failure. The story becomes very dark and gets lost in the jungle, petering out without a real conclusion. There is an epilogue about him coming back to Mexico City that he added years later but is suddenly in the first person. It's very dramatically appealing.

"I adapted Queer with a friend, John Morace. Part of the deal with the Burroughs Estate was that we couldn't change a word. We could only cut things down. That didn't bother me at all because I was attracted to the language and I was not interested in writing arias that had nice rhymes or whatever."

When you began writing for the voice, did you find that you had an innate sense of setting text to music? "Some composers don't treat the voice any differently than they do an instrument. When I write melodies for the voice, they usually come to me intuitively from the text. I rarely set verse. I find myself more attracted to prose and working with the more natural rhythms of prose. Singers say they like singing my music. They say my songs are tuneful and that they lie in the voice well. I think it comes from the fact that I do think about the voice and the text and about how it will be presented. When I was young I sang in church choirs and I always liked to sing. I sing through everything I write.

Queer. Left to right: Shane Kramer, Trauma Flintstone. Photo by Debra St. John, San Francisco, April 2001

"I was thinking about something recently that I had forgotten. One of my very first composition classes was taught by Robert Gross (there are actually a few composers named Robert Gross). He gave us an assignment to pick a poem, read it over and over until we felt as though could present it as an actor would present it. Then he wanted us to write down the way we presented it in terms of pitch contour and rhythm and use that to write a song. He didn't expect us to follow it slavishly, but to pay attention to what was innate in the text. I tend to do that to this day. When I come upon a text, I read it out loud a number of times. One of the differences between an actor and an opera singer is that the actor has free reign as far as tempo, rhythm and so forth. The opera singer has to sing what I write. So if I want the line to come across as good acting, it puts a tremendous responsibility on me as the composer to present it well. I suppose this does limit some of the things I might do from a musical point of view-I probably wouldn't have a long melismatic phrase where I take a syllable and extend it for twenty measures because if you do that no one has any idea of what the text is-they've forgotten the beginning of the sentence. So I tend to use one syllable per note a lot-things are not extremely stretched out. I want the text to be heard the first time the audience hears it even with everything else that is going on. This isn't to say that I follow this all the time. Sometimes I want to push things off the beat or put emphasis on a specific syllable for a reason. But I'm always aware of the naturally spoken line.

"It's common these days to use supertitles even for English operas in English-speaking countries, which drives me crazy. To me, that just shows that someone didn't do their job-the composer or the singer or somebody. There's no reason the text should not be comprehensible to an English-speaking audience."

On April 10, Sub Pontio Pilato will debut at ODC Theater in San Francisco. Wold and librettist James Bisso have created an "historical fantasy on the death and remembrance" of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea from 26CE to 36CE, who sentenced Christ to death. The company's press release describes the opera:

Some legends surrounding Pilate deal with his punishment. As the person who sentenced Christ to death, he is forced to die sad, broken and exiled. However, most writers seem to be concerned with his redemption, his conversion and his martyrdom. In the Ethiopian church this is taken to an extreme: he and his wife Procula are saints.

This redemption springs from two places. The first is simple: if Pilate can be redeemed and exonerate himself of guilt, so can we. The second is more insidious: the Christian Church, originally intended for the Jews, was not accepted by them and eventually ended up as the official religion of Rome. The Roman church was not interested in having Pilate, a son of Rome, responsible for the crucifixion. They officially shifted the blame to the Jews and emphasized Pilate's coercion, the washing of his hands, and used this to further what became an extreme anti-Jewish stance, the end result of which has become all-too-familiar in recent history.

With Sub Pontio Pilato, Wold returns to the religious-conflict theme. "This piece was done in a reduced version in Austria last year and will have its premiere here in San Francisco in a month. It centers on Pontius Pilate. Because he is a central figure in Christian theology, I can't ignore that appeal for me given my background. The story we are telling is not a religious story though. It's not a passion play or even a biography of Pontius Pilate. It's about a man-a mid-level bureaucrat-whose life is touched by this enormous historical event-the crucifixion of Jesus-and who becomes an enormous historical figure because of it. No one knows what history is going to make of them. For artists, this is something that one commonly thinks about-one hopes to leave a legacy-but it's really out of your control. He is interesting because he had no expectation of being famous and wasn't even aware of the event that made him famous.

"The opera follows his death and resurrection which, of course, parallel the death and resurrection of Jesus, although Jesus is not mentioned in the piece except peripherally. The main theme is how religion used Pilate. The story starts with his suicide-one of the legends that exists about him-because of his loss of faith in the traditional gods and loss of position and family and everything else. He reflects back on his life and flirts with death but then really dies, goes to some combination of the Christian and pagan hells and is resurrected. He is resurrected as a historical character and by the end of the opera he is turned into a saint, which he actually is in the Ethiopian Christian church. But historically, there was a redemption of Pontius Pilate that occurred in the early days of the Roman Catholic church, which wanted to deflect the blame for the death of Christ away from the Romans and put it on the Jews. They emphasized the washing of his hands, his intellectual discussions with Jesus. Almost certainly, Pontius Pilate died well before the beginning of the Christian church, which was nothing more than a small cult when he died, and wouldn't have been aware of it. But that didn't stop the church from later co-opting him for its own reasons."

We observed that each of Wold's operas has a distinct musical environment. We asked him to discuss his choice of musical language for his works. "I'm attracted to a lot of different kinds of music. I don't really subscribe to the modern idea that you pick an aesthetic and everything you write derives from that aesthetic. Sometimes I write things that seem completely different to me, but friends will say they can tell it's me, so obviously there's something about my language that is instilled in me in some deep way. When I write a piece, I want to create a world and I want the music to go along with that world. I don't necessarily do it consciously, but for each piece there's some decision on the overall language. Queer takes place in the 1940s, so I listened to a lot of music from that time and place and I picked instruments that could recreate those sounds. The ensemble contains some Mexican elements: a trumpet and a violin and a contrabass and guitar. There are moments where I imitate the mariachi style a little bit, but if anything, I wanted to find a more popular musical language that seemed to fit the story and the setting. Maybe these things can't be explained exactly but it felt like those things went together.

"Little Girl is a more abstract piece and I used a more traditional chamber ensemble. There are minimalist qualities to it and it feels like a modern piece. Pontius Pilate was supposed to be a huge story that sprawled across time and space and I felt I was writing an epic. So it just seemed like it needed a full orchestra. Even though we're not using an orchestra, I'm imitating an orchestra with the ensemble. There are eleven players and a lot of synthesizers and it comes across as a big orchestral sound."

Composing isn't Wold's only profession. "I've seen a lot of people take a lot of different paths in life-not only composers, but anyone who has an avocation that is hard to support in the current economic system. I'm not a full-time composer; I have a job as well. It's a struggle everyone faces who wants to be an artist these days. You have to make decisions about how to support it. When I was young, the traditional thing composers did was to get a teaching job at a university. Because I started on an engineering/science track, I was preparing to have a profession in that field. I almost switched to music when I went to graduate school, but I didn't go that way. I think it was because I saw so many people in music who were in such bad shape financially that and were struggling and weren't able to put more of their time into music. They were in the milieu and that had its advantages-being around music, among other composers and musicians. I could have gone into the university music world, but I didn't like the ivory-tower aspects of that. So at one point I decided to continue on the path I was on so that I could support myself and could still write music. It's a difficult balancing act, but it's not that unusual. I know a lot of musicians who have jobs in the tech world-I don't know why it is but there seems to be a strong connection.

"When I got out of graduate school I worked for Yamaha for a while which was the most corporate job I've had-Yamaha is a huge concern. Some of us who were working there broke off and started a company called Muscle Fish [] that made music and audio software. Our specialty was writing signal-processing software. It's worked out well because I didn't have to work full-time and I can make enough money to live on-I'm not working as a waiter and worrying about what would happen if I got sick-and be able to have time to do music. Money is always an issue and I was not one of the lucky artists who inherited it."

Do you think about the audience? "Obviously I'm not writing music geared towards a mass market. So how much does one really consider an audience? If I were really thinking about an audience, I'd be writing songs for Celine Dion because she has a much bigger following than I'll ever have. What does it mean to think about an audience? I know I'm writing for a specialized group of people. Does that change what I write? No. I need to write music that I think is good and that will have an impact and then hope for the best. Obviously, though, I wonder what the audience will think of certain things and that takes you in several directions. But, the audience is not just one type of person. It is made up of the people who actually come to see your piece; the people who buy the records; the critics; and it's your peers. Thinking about the audience can make you write a pop song or it can make you write the most obscure music imaginable. You get confused if you think too much about the audience. Sure, sometimes I wonder if it's modern enough or if it's likeable. Then I throw up my hands and do the best I can."

Any thoughts on the future of opera as we know it? "The large opera houses have huge budgets and they have to rely on ticket sales. That does limit what they can do because they have to think about filling the house night after night. There needs to be smaller venues. For the cost of one opera in a large house, you could do an entire season of smaller works. Unless they begin to do something different, though, the audience is going to die out. When my pieces get done in Europe they are done in small theaters that seat a few hundred people.

"One important thing that Philip Glass did was to form his own group. Others started to emulate that because there was a difficulty in new music, which everyone complained about, which was that no one wanted to perform your music. And if they did perform it, they gave it a couple of rehearsals and the performance wasn't very good and then nobody would do it again. So a lot of composers looked for alternate ways to get their music performed. When I wrote my operas, I knew they would get performed one way or another, even if I was the one performing them. So, I'm a producer, a fundraiser, whatever. As I have gotten more successful in my small way, others have joined on as coproducers, and people have produced my pieces independently from me as well. But I want to be involved in that first production at a really deep level, deciding who the director will be and who the cast will be and working with them and altering the piece, if necessary, during the rehearsal process."

Finally, do you have any "desert-island" operas? "I've mentioned some: The Fiery Angel, Wozzeck, Lulu, Death in Venice. Probably one of Philip Glass's pieces-Ahknaten or Satyagraha. I like Nixon in China very much. Older operas? I don't know. There are probably some. There are parts of some older operas I like but as far as the whole experience….

Is there an opera composer you dislike? "Mozart. Um, I suppose I shouldn't say that. Actually I liked The Magic Flute when I saw it one night completely jet lagged in the Hague in German with Dutch subtitles and I just floated away and there is that lovely fugal section. And I did very much like the production of La Finta Giardiniera that the San Francisco Opera did last summer, so maybe I take it back. There are a lot of operas I would never go back to. Actually there are a lot of classic operas I have not seen.

Is there an opera composer you feel is underrated? "I don't know. I'm not really an opera person and I guess I'm feeling guilty because even though I call myself an opera composer, I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of opera. Actually, I would say John Adams. I know he's complained about this-that for someone who actually fills the halls he isn't given more attention. Nixon in China is a great piece."

Does opera matter? "Does music matter? I love writing music. But I feel that as an artist who writes operas I am able to do something larger than just write music. I like all the things that are involved with opera-I even like being a producer and being involved in all aspects of the production. I want to be responsible for the whole thing. I call myself a composer but maybe my medium is larger than that. More and more I've wanted to be involved in all aspects of a piece.

"Modern music is so ignored by the populace and so outside mainstream tastes. When you write music and connect it to dance and theater, it gives an audience many more roads into a piece than when it's sitting on a new music concert in a nondescript concert hall. I guess that shows that I do care about the audience. Going to new music concerts, seeing the same people over and over-all of whom are composers-is disheartening. I wanted to make pieces where the music was important and where I felt like I was writing a piece that had architecture and structure but was also something that drew in a larger crowd. Whether that has an ultimate meaning in our world, especially as depressing as things are now, I don't know. It's still an elitist art. But I hope and aspire to making great art someday-something that has actual value. When I was a child, I was inspired by the great works that existed in the world and I wanted to add to that-to make a piece that would get some thirteen year-old twenty or thirty years from now excited about life and the world and would inspire him or her to want to create something of their own."

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