Posts Tagged ‘Olaf Rupp’

For this assignment I have chosen to review Olaf Rupp’s acoustic performance and Atau Tanaka’s much more technological approach to improvisation. I specifically chose to review these two performances because I was fascinated with the way that the artists were able to manipulate their instruments and also the means in which improvisation was carried out.Simalarities can be drawn between the two performance’s, but going by first impressions they seemed to be on completely differeny levels. The most notable difference between the two pieces was the instruments that were being used for the performances.

Olaf Rupp’s choice of instrument was a classical guitar, fitted with nylon strings. There were no effects used to alter his guitar’s sound in any way, this meant that the main improvisational factor of the performance was how he physically played his guitar. My first observation when Rupp began to play was his abilitly to manouvre around the fretboard with such speed, while still being able to precisely pick out the notes. This shows that he is a highly proficient musician and has taken the time to master his instrument before trying to expand his playing through improvisation. To me this is an important factor when thinking about performing and improvised piece. The more you know about your instrument then the further you can implement your knowledge to find new and innovative ways of playing it.Rupp demonstrated many impressive techniques of playing his guitar, most notably the way he would play the notes with his fretting hand, and the speed of his picking hand. Sometimes Rupp would have his fingers on the strings but not have them pressed fully down to the fretboard to obtain a harmonic like sound. Another way he demonstrated improvisation while playing was to shake the guitar to produce a vibrato like tone from the guitar.

Throughout the piece I was looking for a structure that Rupp may have set out before he played. I found it difficult to break the piece down into sections or follow it as a progression through different stages. For most of the performance the tempo seemed to stay relatively the same, slowing down in some places, only to return to the same pace set at the beginning. This gave the piece a slightly repetitive feel to it, but it was still interesting to watch and listen to. The lack of rythmic variation was compensated for by Rupps’ impressive technical ability on his instrument. He was able to produce a wide variety of sounds from his guitar, some of which he used more frequently than others. For instance there seemed to be a recurring trend of aggressive short notes, almost as if he was stabbing at the strings to achive this affect. He would also use his instrument percussively by banging on the strings and also on the actual body of the guitar.Another observation I made about this piece was that it was a solo piece, so it was soley improvised by Rupp. He didn’t have anyone elses ideas to feed off or build upon. It was purely his improvisational skills being put into practice. In my opinion this was a reflection on his knowledge and abilities on the instrument. I believe that Olaf Rupp has contributed much time and effort into learning his instrument before moving on to try and improvise with it. The main improvisational factor in the performance seemed to be the distinct variety of techniques used by Rupp to play his guitar.

The second piece that I will be rewieving is Atau Tanaka’s contrasting performance which moved away from the use of traditional instruments as we know them and moved towards the direction of the digital domain.Before we could actually see this device in working action, there was a presentation with a description of how the device worked and the history behind it. The equipment that Tanaka was using consisted of two straps, to be fitted onto his forearms. These straps were fitted with sensors which would read the movement of his muscles as he tensed/relaxed his arms. The sensors would detect these movements and they would be sent to a laptop via a transmitter. The laptop was running a piece of software which would interpret the data recorded by the sensors and convert it into audio content. This content was then output through speakers so it would be percievable by the audience. With Tanaka’s equipment I felt that the actual software program on the laptop was the instrument. The sensors were merely a means of implementing this instrument.

Once the explanation had finished Tanaka set up the equipment, known as the BioMuse, and the performance began. He used a variety of different arm movements to manipulate the sound that was being produced. The first sound that was being produced resembled the characteristics of air. This is quite a vague description but it is had to describe exactly how it sounded. It sounded like he was manipulating the frequency and volume of an oscillator/several oscillators that had be programmed into the laptop. By certain movements he was also able to control the speed at which the sound seemed to be moving at. The audio content then progressed to a much deeper prolonged sound, almost like a constant droning tone. Again he was able to improvise the sound by the motion of his arms while tensing and relaxing the muscles in his arm. The instrument didn’t seem to require a great deal of musical ability to play, as there were no apparent ‘playing techniques’ that can be found with traditional instruments.

The performance was set out in two main sections, the first section being the ambient/droning sounds that I have just talked about. The second section was much more structured and included constant beats and melodies. When I first heard these beats and melodies being played I struggled to understand how he was implementing use of improvisation within his performance. But as I thought about it more, the motions of his arms conveyed a stong sense of improvisation. Since the audio samples were being controlled by his muscle reflexes it was completely improvised. It would be impossible for him to exactly replicate the exact movements again. This means that each time he performs with the BioMuse it will be a different performance.

Both of these concerts were brilliant and clearly involved use of improvisation. It was interesting to see Atau Tanaka’s new technology being implemented and learn about how it has been developed but I preferred Olaf Rupp’s performance. He demonstrated a high level of musical ability and was able to perform a captivating improvisation piece.

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The last concert that I attended involving improvisation was believe or not, the Kanye West concert in Belfast. Of course this was a concert with a planned set-list and during most of the night most of the artists involved were playing their set piece on their respective instruments. But there were a number of factors that were quite interesting in the way of improvisation.

The most obvious account for improvisation was during a song called ‘Good Life’. After hearing the piece basically as you would have on the track itself, each artist was allowed to express him or herself individually for around a minute each. The band was made up of: singer/showman/rapper (Kanye West), two backing singers, two rappers, string quartet, bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, and a DJ.

When the original version of the song was played each performer kept playing his or her own parts as for a normal verse whilst each musician took over for a solo part. Although each performer may have had a set amount of bars to express within, and each played separately, there was a definite sense that each performer was playing from the heart and had not planned their piece.

Another presence of improvisation during this concert was the performance of a rapper called GLC. After being introduced by the main performer as being a ‘freestyle’ artist, he began to rap over the next song being played. Basically this artist began to rap in time with the song but without any planning of what he was going to do or say. He did so throughout the whole song apart from the chorus, where he was given a break.

Occasionally throughout the concert itself he would throw in his own elements to the song, which are not present in recording. This would have been in the form of short phrases, full lines or even a verse completely improvised on the spot.

Another occurrence of improvisation during the concert was the scratch DJ playing. During all the songs that were performed he would add ‘scratching’ to each. This is pulling a record back and forth over a ‘cut’ of a song to produce a scratch-like sound. It is clear that this was improvisational as scratching is not something which is normally planned.

The final, less significant aspect of the concert that involved improvisation, was the main performer’s crowd interaction. This may have been in the form of an instruction given to the audience, such as ‘put your hands up’ or an action to signify the same thing. Although it is clear that improvisation was not the strongest focus of the event it certainly had a great presence and added something special to the night.

Another event, which I attended was Olaf Rupp’s performance in the SARC building in Queen’s. This was one of the most interesting and odd musical events I have ever been to see. The performer only need one mode through which to express himself and that was through his guitar (which was a nylon string guitar producing a beautiful sound).

During this piece it seems that Olaf was really trying to explore how unusual a sound can be produced from a single guitar. It seemed that everything that he was doing was centred on being different from anyone or anything else. From the sudden change of moods to the variety of playing techniques used, this piece was certainly original.

Most of the piece was quite frantic with quick plucking of notes and extremely quick vibratos. But there was great contrast between these types of sections with slower, sparser sections, which made the piece feel a lot more improvised as some of these changes did not sound very smooth.

His technical ability was nothing but fantastic, which he portrayed trough his wide range of playing techniques, such as: tremolo, bending, sliding along the fret board and most interestingly, his use of the guitar as a percussive instrument. He tapped the body of the guitar and also tapped strings to create different sounds from them.

The piece did not seem to have a specific structure, nor a very good one in my own opinion. It simply moved from moods as such using some ideas that he would go back to in order to keep interest. He had a few scales or tones that he would return to (maybe in order to give him time to think what to do next!), again showing how improvised the piece was.

The feeling he would put into everything he played as beautiful and this, I feel, is an important aspect of improvising while playing music. How the performer feels at the moment of performance has a great impact on how notes, chords or musically ornaments sound to the audience. This is what makes the piece truly different from anything else.

There is clearly a great contrast in the two events I witnessed. But the reason I chose to talk about each was because although they are completely different, both pieces involve improvisation. Olaf Rupp’s performance was a completely improvised piece where as Kanye West’s concert had a planned set of events. This shows us that in every musical event we go to see there is some degree of improvisation, be it structure, melody or even the feeling expressed through a certain instrument, which differentiates it from any other playing of the same piece.

Improvisation does not have a threshold so no performance will ever be the same as any other!

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Over the past 3 months, I have attended a number of concerts in Belfast by a variety of different artists. Although this may not seem strange, and in fact is common within many of my fellow Music Technology students, there has been one noticeable difference in the way that I have appreciated each show. I attribute this largely to the study we have been carrying out with regard to improvisation and its use within the performance of music. I have learned that improvisation is a tool which allows a musician to connect with their audience, in a way that simply isn’t possible otherwise. It is this newfound appreciation of improvisation that has inspired me to review the following two concerts.

Towards the start of the semester, I attended a concert in Belfast at which the Rab McCullough Blues Band played. Coming from a rock and blues background, this was something that I was quite familiar with. A lot of blues artists share the same repertoire of classic tunes, which have been performed as a staple of live gigs for many years. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting anything different from this gig, despite hearing and reading reports to say that this band was something special (even Eric Clapton has favourably commented upon the playing on Rab McCullough). Although many of the expected tunes were played, the way in which improvisation played a part was a standout factor which attracted and subsequently kept my attention. One of the more obvious uses of improvisation was in the guitar solos, where, given the standard blues backdrop of a I-IV-V chord progression, Rab would take the lead and play a completely improvised solo. As well as staying in the key of the song, some unfamiliar chromatic notes were also added tastefully for effect, as Rab instantaneously communicated his musical thoughts to the audience using his guitar and amplifier. As well as his improvised solo style, the standard I-IV-V chord structures were augmented with a superb manipulation of dynamic range by the whole band. On the guitarist’s nod, the drummer and bass player together were able to alter the overall volume, tempo, structure and feel of the music to the desired level. As a listener, I could tell that both were experimenting as much as was possible within the set boundaries of blues music. What is normally viewed as quite a limited style of music was being flogged before my very eyes, with many of the classic songs taking on a whole new character.

Another concert I attended was the performance at SARC by German guitarist Olaf Rupp. I think this concert will stick out in the minds of all who attended it, an assumption well supported by the sheer volume of discussion about his performance by myself and others. Olaf is a virtuoso improviser, who plays his music with an acoustic guitar in a manner which I had never before witnessed. One of the ways in which Olaf’s improvisations differed entirely from Rab McCullough’s is that the latter contained some structure, while the former had next to none. A flurry of notes, both natural and muted, harmonics and various other percussive and rhythmic effects constituted the nature of Olaf’s performance. His astounding technical prowess was complemented with the ability to flawlessly take his music wherever he wanted. In his performance, which lasted over 20 minutes, hardly a single phrase was repeated in a similar manner to the last. Even the way in which he played was improvised, in that the positions of both of his hands changed frequently, as did the way in which he combined the playing of the strings with the percussive elements of his guitar body. There were absolutely no boundaries in his music, and I dare say that the next time I see him, the concert will be a completely different entity to the one he played at SARC, perhaps even unrecognisably so. His music is improvisation in its purest form.

Although his playing consisted mostly of a tirade of notes as outlined above, Olaf did however show a large degree of control in his playing. This was something which I could relate to the first concert I reviewed, where the players in the Rab McCullough Blues Band were able to employ control in a similarly effortless manner. Olaf’s performance was improv-based, whereas Rab’s employed it to expand a common style of music and bring it to a new level. Both Olaf and Rab were able to keep the audience on a knife edge, attentions fixed on the way in which their music was played with such feeling and emotion. Something which became clear to me about the two artists is that without improvisation, both would struggle to achieve recognition as musicians in the same way that they have. In fact, I’d more than likely be reviewing two different concerts; such is the contribution of improvisation to their reputation. Out of the two, I preferred the first, as I found Olaf’s performance to be lacking in convention to the extent that it was uncomfortable to listen to at times. Rab’s performance not only contained a high standard of improvisation, but the way in which he used it as part of the traditional blues theme and in a musically pleasing manner was something that, as a listener, I very much enjoyed.

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In the following review I will be comparing the improvisational performances of Olaf Rupp and Atau Tanaka from their performances in the SARC building at Queens. The reason I chose these performances was due to the fact they were widely different from each other, Olaf Rupp playing an acoustic guitar and Atau Tanaka using computer equipment. The only factor relating them both was their improvisatory style.

Olaf Rupps’ instrument of choice is a Nylon strung Classical guitar. This sound was altered in no way by effects or digital enhancements, the only technological device being the sound system the sound was amplified through. The first observation I made was that his playing style seemed to be heavily influenced by flamenco, as many of his rhythms and playing techniques were flamenco in nature. He showed a total mastery of his instrument, which could be seen from his technical accuracy, speed and knowledge of the fretboard. The majority of his improvisation was made up of highly technical passages played at high speed, this was occasionally interconnected with slower passages, which had a much sparser texture and simplicity. Some common chord shapes were repeatedly used throughout the performance in different positions of the fretboard, these short sections gave the piece some unity. The performance was made up of one single piece, which I believed was too intense for the average listeners attention span. Even I, an enthusiastic guitar player, found it hard to maintain concentration after 20 minutes of this display of technical wizardry. The tempo was too constant and lacked enough variation for general interest. Also due to the long duration of the piece I noticed many recurring passages and ideas, such as common chord shapes and arpeggios, this itself got repetitive and uninteresting after a while, although, as I said before, it gave the piece some unity. On the other hand there were many positive aspects to the performance, such as the wide array of sounds Rupp was able to get from his guitar, his impressive tremolo finger picking style and his inclusion of various techniques such as string bending, slides, vibrato (by shaking the strings and also by shaking the guitar itself) pedal point and chromatic passages and his percussive use of the guitar. This itself was an interesting aspect of the performance as he played many passages percussively through beating muted strings and striking the body/neck of the guitar itself. Another interesting aspect of his performance was the way in which he moved his guitar through the space around him, in order to alter the natural guitar sound, creating a pan/vibrato effect.

Atau Tanaka is the next performance I am going took at. He could be labelled as being from the new school of music as he uses computers and technology to create improvisational music. I have seen various different performances using the latest technology to create music, but this was the first time I had ever experienced the body being used as a technological musical device. Music is created via a Neural Interface Development Platform, called the biomuse. This device consists of wires connected to sensors on the body which acquire and analyse any human bioelectric signals which are created. Code created from this is then sent onwards to control other processor-based devices, such as a laptop computer. This is a highly innovative and interesting instrument to be used for improvisation. This instrument involves very little mastery due to the fact it is impossible to accurately recreate the same sound intentionally due to differences in performer and nerve control. The performance consisted of Tanaka playing various samples through his computer and manipulating them through movement in his hands and forearms. He had slight control over the tempo and pitch of the music, the tempo being controlled by the speed at which he moved his muscles and the pitch being controlled by the amount of pressure he exerted upon the muscles. His performance was more or less one complete piece but made-up of distinct sections, these sections were determined by his use of different samples. The first three sections were more of an introduction to biomuse rather than an improvisation in my opinion, although they were still improvisational in nature. The final section had a set beat and chord progression complete with melody, this first lead me to believe it wasn’t in coherence with true improvisation but seeing as it is was merely being used as a “backing track” and the fact that it is extremely difficult to replicate any sort of musical phrases with such unpredictable equipment, the music created by Tanaka would be completely improvised. The performance was completely unpredictable which added to the level of interest but this didn’t prevent the performance from being tiresome in parts.

In conclusion both performances opened my eyes to new areas of improvisational music. I believe it was much easier for Tanaka to create truly unprepared music due to the equipment which he was using but I personally found Rupps’ performance to be the more impressive of the two. Maybe this was due to his impressive skill on the instrument or the fact I could relate more to his instrument of choice, but personal preferences aside both performers showed unique talent in their field. They were highly interesting to watch and listen to, both in their performance and in improvisational technique. This itself made attending both performances a worthwhile experience.

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The two concerts I have chosen to review represent the two most contrasting improvisatory performances I have witnessed recently, having only two things in common; both where unrehearsed and without a score, and both were in the SARC centre. Guitarist Olaf Rupp’s performance was one continuous flowing piece, without any real protracted stops or extended silences. He experimented quite heavily with different and unusual playing techniques; one he used frequently involved moving his right hand in a way that resembled some sort of mechanic spider to me. He produced overtones and harmonics using this picking style that sounded nearly synthetic, managing to expand the sound of one guitar into something almost choral in presence. He also moved his guitar against his body as he played, altering the way in which sound reaches the audience at different parts of his performance – even sweeping it in arcs from side to side to create panning and frequency filtering effects. It was clear to me that Olaf has spent a lot of time devising and practicing the alternative techniques and ideas he uses on stage, to make the most of the acoustic guitar he plays. Where a lot of musicians might use some sort of artificial sound enhancement, he has found physical and technical ways to achieve his ends. It is my guess that he had achieved true mastery of his instrument before he ever attempted to improvise with it like this. It occurred to me at the time that he may possibly have avoided anything melodic, placing emphasis on rhythm primarily. There were some tuneful passages that were actually quite delicate in stark contrast to the intense and dark nature of his ‘mechanical spider’ playing. I would hazard a guess that his improvisations are strongly influenced by his mood and state of mind at the time he begins to play, and that he makes little or no decisions before he sits down as to how he will structure the performance, maybe except for a timescale.

Atau applied some predetermined factors to his performance. He used sensors attached to his forearms, two on each, which would pick up nervous electrical impulses sent to his muscles using electrodes. He had chosen a bank of samples and synthesizers to be fed data from his movements, and sectioned his performance based on each new sound. The movements in his arms contributed a certain parameter value each, for example volume, pitch, speed (for samples) etc. With this set in place, he simply moved his arms in whatever way he pleased to shape and control the sounds he had programmed. It could be said that Atau’s sensor based ‘instrument’ cannot be mastered, or at least resists it heavily – to my mind it would be astronomically difficult to use his system in a classically defined musical setting. However, there is no real skill one needs to learn to operate the sensors; the use of your forearms will suffice. In terms of his improvisation, I’m sure he already had some ideas of movements which made the most of each sound he chose, but there is always experimentation and the fact that he may not have been able to replicate any movement exactly. Also, his heart rate affects the sound of his machine, as it will make his nerve impulses different. His heart rate is unlikely to be exactly the same as the last time he performed with this equipment, or when he may have practiced or experimented privately with the numerous samples and synthesizers he used. The final section of his piece had something that Olaf’s performance didn’t: a melody and basic time signature! Atau had numerous percussion samples, along with bass guitar grooves and horn sections from what sounded like Soul songs to me, which he controlled and altered by way of “dancing” to the pre-recorded music. His movements accentuated different parts of the sound he played with and triggered other samples to play in place of the original ones, creating interesting breaks that he could never repeat if he tried. His body was truly contorted in this section as he really began to come out of his shell and search for the sounds he wanted to hear.

In conclusion, both artists are definitely fall into the improvisational category, as neither one knows exactly what they are going to play until they begin, and neither could hope to accurately repeat any performance they might do. However, both set themselves certain limits and allow themselves certain familiarities (for example Olaf uses his guitar, and Atau his sensor rig), as without these they may find it simply impossible to produce something on par with their current repertoire.

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During this semester, Andrew Bird and Olaf Rupp performed separately at Queen’s University. The Andrew Bird concert had distinct times when improvisation was a driving force, while the whole of Olaf Rupp’s performance was improvised. The amount and type of improvisation utilized by each performer can be generalized as a set of boundaries, which were chosen by their respective performers, but were also possibly affected by the setting of the concert.

Andrew Bird’s band was composed of a second guitarist/bassist, a drummer/keyboardist, and Bird himself playing mainly guitar and violin. All members were armed with multiple effects units, sequencers, and most importantly delay pedals. Most songs the band performed were tightly structured with verse/chorus sections, but also a long jam either placed in the beginning of the song – to build up to the first verse – or the end of the song – building to a grand finale.

In the jam sections, Bird and his bandmates would layer numerous loops to continue the chord progression or hook and free themselves to improvise with the plethora of secondary instruments around the stage. Bird would often pick up a handheld xylophone and play a jagged melody while whistling in unison or harmony. At one time, he turned to a microphone in the back of the stage to clap and chant “bah bah’s” into the loop, subtly adding to the lush repetition. Sometimes he took a more conventional route and played a violin solo filled with jittery flourishes. The drummer sometimes turned to a drum machine/sequencer to add off-tempo, synthetic beats.

Olaf Rupp’s performance consisted solely of him playing the acoustic guitar. Rupp used a unique style of playing, which consists of a nearly constant flow of short staccato notes, with the strings often not pressed completely onto the fretboard, causing an inharmonic sound. With this basis of playing, Rupp experimented constantly with different movements of his hands and fingers, placement of the guitar, and other variables.

As a solo performer, Rupp was able to improvise everything about his piece. He set nearly no bounds to the type of music he would create, and seemed to use the present mood and sound he produced in order to decide what he would lead himself to play next. This sometimes caused abrupt change of plucking speed, slowing the pace drastically to a more sparse sound. Other times, his fretting hand would gradually make its way up the neck to stay there for a while and experiment with higher pitched sounds. The only limit was his choice of instrument.

In contrast, Andrew Bird set many restrictions on his band’s improvisation including key, tempo, and sections of improvisation. This type of boundary allowed for a slower progression of ideas since it prevents large variance between consecutive concerts. The band members did not watch each other very intently other than to start and stop a song, which made their improvisations quite separate, and the musicians rarely played off each other’s ad-libbed ideas. This caused the jam sections to stay in a predictable direction and prevented any divergent experimentation. However, the jams seemed to have a predetermined way of evolving and changing course to avoid monotony, which left most improvisation quarantined to instrument choice, syncopation, tone, and secondary melody.

The set of constraints each performer chose for his improvisation may have been affected by his respective audience. Olaf Rupp’s concert was free to all, and set in a proper performance space in the middle of the day. This atmosphere attracted an audience that studies music and looks for new experiences (also the lack of admission charge allows one to risk going to an unsatisfactory performance more easily). With this type of audience, Rupp had little pressure to conform to any style or structure. At the Speakeasy where Andrew Bird performed, the admission charge was £10, which may have weeded out casual concertgoers, leaving specific fans or friends of fans. In this setting, Bird was received with the expectation to play his popular songs and give a generally accessible performance.

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Olaf Rupp

The Thursday afternoon concert this week at SARC brought guitarist Olaf Rupp to Queen’s for about an hour of what seemed like complete improvisation. I feel like his performance was very relevant to what we have been doing lately in class. He produced some brilliant sounds with a simple classical guitar that I would never have thought possible from a single acoustic instrument.

His style, however, pushed (or should I say shoved) the envelope of what I consider music. For the first few minutes I enjoyed the atonal stream of sounds coming from his fluttering fingers on both hands, but as it became apparent that the noises were in no way preluding towards some melodic release, my mood changed from enjoyment, to discomfort, to boredom, to annoyance, and on. I could tell from the uncomfortable shifting and whispers around me that I wasn’t alone.

During the hour-long improvised song, I reflected on what my ideas of “good” improvisation are. Back home, a group of my closest friends have a band that started out as a jam band, but grew into a solid, mostly scripted indie instrumental outfit. In the beginning, I would jam with them and feel completely helpless with my guitar background ending at punk power chords and a bit of the pentatonic scale. I always admired their ability to meld together new melodies and rhythms and work off each other’s ideas. Their style was very melodic, so that’s the direction I turned towards learning to improvise.

Olaf, on the other hand has a background mainly in electronics, and that was absolutely clear in his performance. The sounds he played were almost instantly forgettable; I couldn’t tell if there was a repeating phrase, since I have no ability to categorize the different tones. He was also improvising just by himself, which I’ve never considered worth listening to, or attempting, since the boundaries are too wide for my comfort.

Back to the performances in class this week, I most enjoyed the groups who combined these two types of improvising: melodic and rhythmic vs. atonal/percussive and spastic (I don’t mean these qualities as bad). I guess it’s always some sort of balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar to keep us comfortable yet interested in music.

If you’d like to check out Olaf, here’s his website, you can hear a stream of his music on the upper-right: http://www.audiosemantics.de/index.html

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