Concerts

An acousmatic revelation: BEAST – Pioneers of Sound, Birmingham

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Last weekend Birmingham was treated to what will surely be regarded as one of the highlights of the 2014 electronic music calendar. Presented by Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), Pioneers of Sound was a 3-day festival primarily exploring works by three of the central figures of acousmatic music, François Bayle, Francis Dhomont and Bernard Parmegiani. What made the weekend so special and so poignant was that only two of that triumvirate could be there to present their music; the absence of Parmegiani (who died last November at the age of 86) was conspicuous and keenly felt throughout the weekend. Read more

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HCMF 2013: John Zorn day

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How do you solve a problem like John Zorn? How do you reconcile the disparate works of a composer equally at home in the worlds of (among others) free jazz, avant garde experimentalism, choral, noise rock, easy listening and hardcore, and whose music moves freely, even wilfully, between these worlds at whim? That, i imagine, is the question that many have found themselves asking when confronted (and it often is a confrontation) with Zorn’s music. But, surely, the question ought to be: why are not more composers interested in drawing on such a multiplicity of styles and manners in their work? why are so many content to be so safely consistent? It’s easy, and i say this both as a composer and as a listener—hell, and simply as a human being—to be daunted and intimated by the work of John Zorn. It’s not just the variety that’s impressive, it’s the fecundity: Zorn spills out new works out a rate that’s difficult to keep up with. Personally, i always have suspicions with composers who produce at this kind of rate; “Milhaud syndrome” we could call it, and it isn’t hard to find contemporary examples, where the emphasis in their work is entirely tilted towards activity rather than achievement.

On the one hand, i don’t believe at all that Zorn is someone in whom that syndrome manifests itself; i’m familiar with a lot of his work, and some of it—particularly Femina, Rimbaud, Cerberus and the string quartets Memento Mori and The Dead Man—ranks among my favourite examples of chamber music. On the other hand, there were numerous occasions throughout the entire day devoted to him yesterday at HCMF (in celebration of his 60th birthday) when i found myself once again being challenged at making sense of the apparent incongruities, volte-faces, non sequiturs, leftfield asides and possibly even red herrings that continually rear up. Not so with The Book of Heads, a compendium of 35 etudes for solo guitar, which are so wonderfully unconventional that a regularly strummed chord would have seemed like the most ludicrous gesture imaginable. James Moore—congenial and light-hearted, entirely the right kind of personality to take on these pieces—performed 26 of them, his collection of guitars expanded by an assortment of small balloons, nail files, bowls, a rug, some bottles and a doll, plus a cluster of pedals and devices. All of which was brought to bear on Zorn’s material—comprising minimal specifications, both written and graphic instructions—which is simultaneously highly specific while also allowing the performer a considerable amount of latitude. All relatively short, they nonetheless encapsulate Zorn’s multifaceted soundworld: madcap gestures, allusions, evocations and quotations, fastidious detail, moments of intense introspection, all taking place within a highly collaborative framework. Read more

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HCMF 2013: n s m b l

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All good noise reduction filters have an option to invert their output, effectively delivering only the removed audio information, mainly hiss and microscopic blurps, along with thin slivers of the primary audio material, little more than the most anaemic of glimpses, hinting at what lies on the other side. These kind of residua bear a strong resemblance to the music of Jakob Ullmann, whose Son Imaginaire III received its world première in St Paul’s Hall last night. The concert wasn’t just a highlight of my HCMF 2013, it was a highlight of my entire concert-going life. However, my enthusiasm for Ullmann’s work (previously manifested here and here) clearly continues to put me in a minority. The pre-concert talk, which i had fully expected to see packed to the point of standing room only, found half of the seats empty, and the concert itself, although better attended, had many seats to spare. Even in Huddersfield, it seems, audiences still have a thing or two to learn. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Quatuor Diotima / edges ensemble

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St Paul’s Hall saw the UK première of no less than two major works last night: one, a large-scale cycle, the other, a full-blown epic. i want to discuss them together, not because they are in any way connected, but because hearing them one after the other brought about interesting contradictions and correlations, which fed into one’s appreciation of both works.

First was Alberto Posadas‘ 70-minute Sombras (Shadows), completed in 2012, which comprises five works, three for ensemble plus a pair of shorter ‘Transitions’ for duos. Before getting into the music, something about the concert presentation. Since the inspiration and recurring theme of Posadas’ cycle is shadows, it would have helped considerably if the strange current policy of keeping the house lights on throughout the concert had not been adhered to; as it was, our imaginations had to work that bit harder to buy into the dark allusions of the music. Giving us the sung texts would also have been nice, but you can’t ask for everything. For this UK première, Quatuor Diotima were joined by soprano Sarah Maria Sun and clarinettist Carl Rosman. Initially, though, just the quartet was involved, performing Elogio de las sombras (Praise of the shadows). This is easily one of the very best string quartets i’ve heard in recent years, incredibly demanding on the players but packed with more than the usual amount of imaginative bandwidth. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Séverine Ballon

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Today’s first concert was given by French cellist Séverine Ballon. Her recital comprised UK premières by Hèctor Parra and Mauro Lanza and a world première by Rebecca Saunders, together with a classic of the repertoire, James Dillon‘s Parjanya-Vata, composed in 1981. It was especially good to hear this again; it’s a long time since i have, and Ballon’s spectacularly fiery commitment to the work’s whirlwind climax left me wondering why i’d left it so long. Hèctor Parra’s electroacoustic tentatives de réalité is an exercise in frenetic action. Parra’s programme notes always go to great lengths to inform as to the extra-musical points of origin, but on this occasion intention and result seemed insufficiently interconnected. In short, one never felt as involved as Ballon clearly was. The material establishes a kind of monotony that wasn’t especially helped either by the nature of the electroacoustic interaction—cause and effect a-go-go—or by its sonic fingerprint, which in many ways felt like an amalgam or catalogue of a multitude of all too familiar tried and tested (and tired) ideas. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Shorts

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There’s a curious phenomenon that seems to strike people the longer they spend at HCMF: a cross between regret and guilt at the events they’re not attending. i periodically suffer from it myself, and never more so than on their annual ‘Shorts’ day, which took place yesterday. Fifteen small- and mid-scale concerts, containing 38 pieces, in total lasting around 13 hours—it would take a certain kind of person to go to everything, and i have to confess i’m not that kind, so i experienced what we might call “the HCMF qualm”, my conscience nagging me at the music i didn’t hear and which may well have turned out to be brilliant.

However, i did get to nine concerts, and a thoroughly mixed bag they were. The first thing to say is that it’s an incredible treat to be able to hear such a diverse selection of music as this, and the performance standard throughout the day ranged from highly competent to downright dazzling. The compositional standard was rather more variable, and almost every concert had its share of flops (the worst that i experienced being Jonathan Cole’s butt-clenchingly tedious saxophone quartet Menhir, which the otherwise talented Fukio Ensemble could do nothing to save). There were plenty of moments of magic, however: the wonderfully delicious conclusion to Kerry Andrew‘s anthem O lux beata Trinitas, the disorienting division between fragrance and grind in Rose Dodd‘s electroacoustic Aandacht, some sensitively-judged interaction between organ and electronics in Huw Morgan‘s The Unseeing Eye at the Lung’s Heart and a fascinating sonic network of relationships between clarinet and string trio in Dai Fujikura‘s Halcyon. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Quatuor Diotima

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This morning saw Brian Ferneyhough back at St Paul’s Hall, his music this time being performed by the outstanding Quatuor Diotima, alongside works by Gérard Pesson, Miroslav Smka and György Ligeti.

Ligeti’s 1968 String Quartet No. 2 came last in the concert, but i mention it first because—as Ligeti’s music always tends to do—it forced a complete reappraisal of the three pieces heard before it. One very basic issue it highlighted was of the current predilection for larger-scale forms—or, conversely, composers’ (perhaps passive) reluctance to articulate works through relatively short movements. Sections and episodes don’t count in this respect; they’re an entirely different kind of demarcation and don’t induce the same sort of ‘soft reset’ brought about by the separation of movements. Let me just clarify that i don’t think one approach is better than the other; it’s just interesting to reflect that—with the obvious exception of James Dillon’s New York Triptych—everything i’ve heard both in this concert and the entire previous day consisted of substantial single spans. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Ensemble Linea + Irvine Arditti

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The final concert yesterday took place, once again, in St Paul’s Hall, featuring Ensemble Linea, conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz. It featured three new works, by Brian Ferneyhough, Raphaël Cendo and James Clarke.

Ferneyhough and Clarke appear at first to come from different points of origin; Ferneyhough states that he cannot begin work without a title, whereas Clarke has avoided descriptive or allusory titles for many years in order not to “interfere with or assist” the listener. However, Ferneyhough’s employment of titles is, to some extent at least, a conceit (on his own admission), providing a context of sorts but not really determining what takes place in any kind of meaningful way. Indeed, his work Liber Scintillarum (“book of sparks”), here being given its UK première, continues a strain of compositional thought that Ferneyhough terms ‘involuntary scherzi’, the material deriving from elements of unpredictability and (one assumes) spontaneity, rather than according to an intricate, pre-organised scheme. Read more

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HCMF 2013: London Sinfonietta

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Truth be told, it isn’t often i find myself lost for words. About 40 minutes ago, the London Sinfonietta finished their performance of the UK première of Georg Friedrich Haasin vain, and i’m still trying to force some coherence about the experience. A few weeks back, i procured a recording of the piece, but ultimately decided not to listen in advance, and approach the work cold. What i haven’t been able to avoid, and retrospectively i think it’s unfortunate, is some of the discussions that have been circulating in recent times about this performance. It certainly seems to have put the hype in hyperbole.

For those unfamiliar with the piece, and until tonight i was just such a person, in vain was written in response to a resurgence in the far right in Haas’ homeland of Austria. In that respect, it’s interesting to be confronted by it after having heard Cecilie Ore’s Come to the Edge a few hours before. Like Ore’s piece, i don’t think in vain can be described as a political work, rather an attempt to frame the reality of Haas’ perception of the situation. Unlike Ore’s piece, there is an overwhelming engagement with futility in in vain; there’s encouragement to be found, but of a different kind and arrived at from very different means. Read more

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HCMF 2013: BBC Singers

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Today’s second concert was back in St Paul’s Hall, featuring the BBC Singers conducted by Nicholas Kok, performing works by Charlotte Seither, Bent Sørensen and Cecilie Ore. Surprisingly, it’s an entire decade since the BBC Singers last appeared at HCMF; on the strength of this concert, one hopes they’ll be back more regularly from now on.

Seither’s Haut Terrain, receiving its UK première today, at first gave me misgivings. The piece is occupied throughout by drawn out drones, clashes and suspensions, and i suspect (confession time) it was impatience on my part that made it seem to bode poorly. But as it continued, shifting more than was initially obvious, one became aware of a music that seemed to have made portable the tropes and mannerisms of religious chant. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Red Note Ensemble

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This year’s pilgrimage to HCMF began, as it always seems to, at St Paul’s Hall, for a concert given this afternoon by Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble, directed by Garry Walker. They performed three works, something old(-ish), something new(-ish) and something entirely new. It was the entirely new piece, David Fennessy‘s Hauptstimme for viola and ensemble, that proved itself the weakest. Britons have long ascribed drab efficiency to being a key attribute of German engineering, yet it seems to be increasingly the preserve of Irish contemporary music. In Fennessy’s case, the music was dynamically neutered, harmonically static, texturally bland—a deliberate conspiracy on behalf of the ensemble in order to present to the solo viola a wall of sound with which it could contend. i’m guessing Fennessy’s intention was to obtain aggression in such an unyielding onslaught, but in practice, it didn’t so much bare fangs as dentures, becoming monotonous, even blank, in its blunt consistency. Ultimately the texture parts and dissipates, leaving the viola alone and heralding the work’s final gambit—now that the viola can be heard, “what to say?”. The answer was endless arpeggios and oscillations, perpetuated to the point that soloist Garth Knox began to resemble a folk fiddler who had entirely forgotten the tune. Read more

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Ny lydkunst i Bergen

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My recent travels in Norway – focused in and around the environs of second city Bergen – yielded plenty of jaw-droppingly splendorous landscape, but nothing in the way of contemporary music. Neither of the city’s CD stores betray any knowledge of the existence of Arne Nordheim, Maja Ratke and the like, while the concert repertoire essentially revolves around the (not unsurprising) omnipresence of Edvard Grieg. However, disappointment was turned on its head during my final morning in the city last Friday, when wandering through the network of backstreets i came upon Østre. An otherwise anonymous building, the billboard outside proclaims it to be a ‘Hus for Lydkunst og Elektronisk Musikk’ (House for Sound Art and Electronic Music); inside, the custodian explained that Østre (formerly the Lydgalleriet) is the only space dedicated to sound art in all of Scandinavia. The collection of books and CDs for sale certainly backed up its avant-garde credentials, and anyone in the Bergen area would do well to check it out, especially within the next couple of weeks. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Cikada Ensemble

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The last concert i attended in my weekend at HCMF 2012 took place back in Bates Mill, in the company of Norway’s remarkable Cikada Ensemble, whom i’ve been fortunate to hear on a number of occasions. More than most, Cikada tend to give off an air of almost aggressive fearlessness, and while that quality permeated this concert in abundance, the three exceptionally diverse works they explored nonetheless each delivered varying amounts of frustration. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Arditti Quartet

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Two months may have passed, but memories of the all-too-brief weekend i spent at HCMF 2012 are alive and well; so let’s pick up where i left off.

The second day of my HCMF experience began once again in St Paul’s Hall, confronted by the understated marvel that is the Arditti Quartet. Despite the palpable excitement that pervaded the previous day’s concerts, the atmosphere in the hall on this occasion was that unique kind of highly-charged tension that only a few performers and ensembles can engender. The quartet had brought with them four works that initially seemed strikingly different from each other, but three of them ultimately proved to be united by a common line of enquiry, making the most of out of, materially speaking, very little. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Ensemble Resonanz

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The first day of my weekend at HCMF ended back where it had begun, in St Paul’s Hall, for a late-night concert by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Peter Rundel. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and comprised just three pieces, all focusing on strings, two of which featured solo cello, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras.

It began with the UK première of Rolf Wallin‘s Ground, the title of which alludes to the cyclic Baroque form of divisions, whereby a repeating bassline (the ground) is gradually overlaid with layers of faster material. That description probably suggests a certain amount of mayhem, but Ground is a decidedly pensive piece—Wallin describes it as “about finding rest”—in which the solo cello is closely surrounded by the rest of the strings, together forming a close collaboration. Furthermore, while the work has no repeating bassline (seven chords are the indiscernible equivalent here), it is highly episodic, exploring an extensive cycle of moods and atmospheres. A collaboration it may be, but it’s an intrepid one, bringing to mind a gradual descent into the earth (a connotation of the title?), passing through increasingly dark and ambiguous layers of strata. What makes the piece particularly interesting is its central melodic identity; Wallin allows tension to manifest itself in diffident, unstable music, but it never comes off the rails, preserving the sense of a pre-planned mission, rather than a mystery tour. At the work’s conclusion it enters its most cryptic episode; bordering on a stasis, both soloist and strings arrange themselves into a dense web of gently wafting notes. It begs the question: is this the ‘rest’ Wallin was striving for? or is the mission not yet completed? Read more

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HCMF 2012: Oslo Sinfonietta

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Following a collection of strangers down a bleak back street to a gloomy factory and then passing through a makeshift entrance labelled ‘The Blending Shed’ might sound like the makings of a nightmare, but this was the way in which i found myself at Bates Mill, for yesterday evening’s concert given by the Oslo Sinfonietta. What constitutes a sign? What do words and gestures really signify? How do we interpret them, and when we have, how might others respond? These questions occupied both of the works featured in the concert, which were each receiving their UK première.

Ignas KrunglevičiusGradients is founded on a bizarre exchange initiated by two Cornell PhD students: a conversation between two online chatbots, their addled, artificially intelligent dialogue forming Krunglevičius’ libretto. The piece didn’t feel promising at first, comprising a series of sliding overlapping lines on and around the same pitch, dripping with dissonance, while four singers (members of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) uttered a related sequence of open-mouthed ululations. So far, so meh. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Heather Roche

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Yesterday the evening began with clarinettist Heather Roche, of whom multiple friends have spoken warmly but i had never heard play. The recital took place deep in the bowels of the University’s temple-like Creative Arts building, and comprised a selection of pieces incorporating electronics. Quite a few of them—Aaron Einbond’s Resistance, Chikako Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) and Sylvain Pohu’s l’identité—left me cold, revisiting tropes and methods that have become overused and hackneyed. i’ve written in the past about the endless parade of works where electronics pick up and play with material given off by the soloist, and while, of course, there’s scope to do genuinely interesting things with this, it’s some time since i’ve encountered any. Einbond’s Resistance felt especially moribund, assuming that the sounds of Occupy Wall Street would somehow embody his material with electrical charge, yet the result sounded merely exploitative. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Nicolas Hodges

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My HCMF 2012 experience began at midday today in St Paul’s Hall, with Nicolas Hodges’ lunchtime recital featuring piano music by Jean Barraqué. It’s rare, but marvellous, when a concert can be genuinely eye-opening, and everything about this recital was just that. Before the concert, i knew very little of Barraqué’s music, and as Hodges progressed through the first few pieces—Intermezzo, Pièce pour piano, Thème et variations (Retour was sadly omitted from the programme)—a distinct first impression began to take shape: enigmatic, mysterious, aloof, music realised through a sequence of loosely but unmistakably inter-connected melodic intentions that, despite being diffused through wide intervallic displacement, somehow hold together. They brought a very different composer to mind: Morton Feldman, due both to the meticulous way notes were placed after each other, as well as the striking way Barraqué grabs hold of one’s perception of time; despite the brevity of these pieces, their ability to make time malleable was impressive. Read more

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Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Jonathan Harvey – Weltethos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir and orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy and reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers—the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner and Michael Seal) and a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West—in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives and hyperbole had started to fly before even a note had been sounded. Expectations could hardly have been greater, nor hopes higher. To my amazement, they were all emphatically quashed.

Weltethos certainly doesn’t fail in terms of scope or ambition, setting a lengthy text by theologian Hans Küng that seeks to draw on common values from six of the world’s great faiths and philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Speaking of these values, Küng says that “[they] need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” Yet the problems with Weltethos begin right here. The six values—1) humanity, 2) the so-called ‘golden rule’, that we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want done to us, 3) non-violence, 4) justice, 5) truth and 6) love—are all deeply significant and important aspects of our interactions one with another, but Küng frames them in such a pallid, dry way that they feel entirely theoretical, one step removed from anything approaching genuine emotion and feeling. Brief paragraphs from each religion’s sacred texts are used to allude to the six values, but in a flat, narrative fashion that seems entirely self-defeating; surely Küng was aiming at a kind of moral/ethical rally cry, but what he’s produced is as motivating as a party political broadcast. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Šu

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As as addendum to my coverage of last year’s Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin (part 1, part 2), here is one of the few remaining pieces from that day, which was only broadcast a few weeks ago. Šu is a concerto for sheng and orchestra, the sheng being one of the most ancient traditional Chinese instruments, dating back over 3,000 years. Comprising a series of pipes played via a mouthpiece, its sound is something like a cross between a harmonica and an accordion; its appearance is like nothing else at all. Alongside the traditional instrument is a keyed version that enables fully chromatic tempered pitches, and it’s for this instrument that Chin composed Šu.

Šu is one of Chin’s most stubbornly enigmatic works; in both structural and material terms, it doesn’t so much develop as flex, passages of great delicacy repeatedly answered by more brutal outbursts. Wisely, Chin assigns the orchestra to a secondary role, allowing the sheng—an instrument that can barely muster a mezzo-forte—to act as both instigator and guide for proceedings. The ‘flexing’ i spoke of results in an episodic music, although Chin takes an audibly different approach in the two halves of the piece. Read more

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