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January 10, 2012

ePublishing Reading Session set for NWACDA Conference

by Reginald Unterseher, R & S Chair for Male Choirs, NWACDA

Iunterseher am happy to announce that the upcoming NWACDA Conference in Seattle will include an ePublishing Reading Session, comprised of pieces only available directly from composers.

The way that music gets from the composer into conductors’ and singers’ hands is in a significant transitional phase. I first wrote about some of the potential of ePublishing on this site two years ago, just before the first iPad was released.

While most choirs still work from paper scores and will still do so for some time to come, more and more composers are making their works available directly from their web sites or from composer co-ops.

Generally, they are distributed electronically as PDF files that butterfliewchoirs can print themselves. These pieces have not had the opportunity to be featured in reading sessions. Traditionally, the cost of ACDA reading sessions have been carried by music retailers and publishers, who print the booklets or collect packets of octavos to be distributed at conferences. It has been their policy to exclude pieces that are not available on their sites. They typically ask the session presenter for a list that is up to twice as long as the number of pieces that can be presented in the session, and the retailer makes the final selections from that list. Often, those choices are heavily influenced by economic considerations.

The music presented at this ePublishing reading session will focus on:

  1. Scores that are not available through traditional print publishers or the on-line print-on-demand resources of retailers. Those pieces are represented already in other sessions.
  2. Pieces from composers or groups of composers who make scores easily available through their own or the group’s web site or the ChoralNet Composer’s Marketplace currently under development.
  3. Scores for a wide variety of choirs, not for just one type.
  4. Scores that may have voicing, instrumentation, range, difficulty, or other characteristics that traditional publishers have felt make them commercially unprofitable, regardless of artistic merit.
  5. New music rather than public domain versions of older or classic works, though those scores also have a hard time making it into reading sessions.

The session will be presented without paper, which is the only way it can work financially. The session will be held in a room with WiFi internet. Scores will be made available to read on participants’ laptops, iPads, or tablet devices that can read PDF files and download them from a web site. The materials will also be available on the NWACDA web site following the conference.

This session will be the first of it’s kind, as far as we know, and we expect it to be an evolving format. I welcome all suggested improvements before and after the session on any aspect of the reading session, technical or artistic.

For titles in traditional reading sessions, R&S leaders present their lists in late summer to the folks at the retailers who prepare the booklets to give them time to put them together. One advantage of the paper-free aspect of the session is our ability to continue to gather our materials closer to the time of the conference. Some of that repertoire has been chosen, but I can still review more pieces and web sites for the next few weeks. I need to have all the pieces chosen by the end of February in order to have things prepared for the session.

If any of you, conductors and composers alike, know of pieces that should be considered, please send the information to right away.

Reginald Unterseher  is Music Director and Composer-in-Residence at Shalom United Church of Christ, Richland, Washington. His works are published by Oxford University Press and Walton Music. He co-founded Washington East Opera and served as Chorus Master for nine years. From 1996 until 2004, he was Artistic Director of Consort Columbia Vocal Ensemble where he conducted ensembles of children and adults. He currently serves as Repertoire & Standards Chair for Men's Choirs for the Northwest Division of the American Choral Director's Association.



January 21, 2011

Your piece “Peace on earth…(and a lot of little crickets)” (published by Walton) is a big hit with choirs and audiences all over. You have some great advice for people preparing and performing it on your web site,  How did this piece come into existence?

This piece was commissioned by a singer friend named Nikkola Carmichael. It was a gift for her great aunt, and Nikkola advised me that this aunt, who lives in New Zealand, has a rather wacky sense of humor. So I made sure to come up with a text and style which I envisioned she would enjoy.

I never expected anyone to publish this piece, thinking that all the little percussion parts in the score would scare directors away, yet Walton accepted it right away, sensing that the text not only fit the winter holiday season but also has a great general message about sharing and caring for any time of the year.

What happened was that the JW Pepper review board and the distribution folks at Hal Leonard told Walton that the piece would never sell and that it was a mistake to publish it! When Gunilla Luboff told me this and as Walton neared release (as they did not go back on their decision to publish), all I could say was that maybe the so-called experts could be wrong! And wrong they were. We have been through a number of reprints and I believe the piece  is Walton's #1 selling octavo for the last three years.

Of course I would also like people to know that I write serious music for advanced mixed choirs, not just silly kid's choir pieces! And by the way, JW Pepper has, off and on,  placed it on their website as a Pepper recommended piece- go figure.
One of the hallmarks of your pieces is the high quality of poetry you set.  Tell us a bit about your process of finding those poems, many of which are by living poets.

Personally I favor modern texts- I have never been a lover of archaic and/or flowery poetic styles. I have never set any Shakespeare and very little Romantic poetry. What I wind up doing is spending ridiculous numbers of hours in libraries and bookstores searching for quality texts that might suggest a musical setting.

This usually means I might read/skim one hundred poems just to find one strong candidate. At times it can be very frustrating and actually 2008 and 2009 were not highly productive years in terms of the quantity of pieces completed- I was having a rough time finding poems then that really spoke to me. I think lately I have been having better luck in this regard.

The other thing that is great fun is actually connecting with living poets and being able to ask them about the poem of theirs that I want to set. Of course I usually have to have direct contact with them or their agents in order to secure permission to use their texts, and that's a whole other realm of weird things that composers or their publishers have to go through- the securing of text permissions.

I think the best modern poetry I find to set speaks very naturally, very directly about the human experience and contains high amounts of visual imagery. For some reason well written visual imagery really gets my imagination going. I would also say that as composers, all we can do when we do our best work, is enhance or heighten an already great poem. We can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, as the saying goes!

How did your recent commission for the Incheon City Chorale and trip to Korea for the premiere come about?

That is a pretty interesting story and I wonder if was totally by chance or meant to happen. On the final day of the Oklahoma City ACDA national conference in 2009 when we heard Maria Guinand's women's folk music choir from Venezuela, I actually started crying because her groups' music-making was so joyous. I was trying to quell my tears (hey, big boys aren't suppose to cry) but I finally gave up and just let them stream down.

carey-w-YoonThe next choir up was Incheon City and I was just blown away even further. I had never heard a choir with so much power and expression and never seen a conductor with such amazing skills in shaping sound. Hak-won Yoon, their director, looked like a magician to most of us and was a major topic of discussion all day.

In the OKC airport leaving town, I literally bumped into the members of the Chorale and Hak-won. He and I both wound up in line for coffee and I introduced myself and gushed about his choir, probably coming across like an eight year old upon meeting a professional baseball player. He smiled and then asked what I do and I replied that I was a composer. He lit up and wanted to know more about me and asked me to mail him some of my scores (I did not know at the time how interested he is in discovering new composers).

I did just that a few weeks later and although it wasn't cheap to mail a bunch of my best scores to South Korea, it turned out to be worth it. Hak-won e-mailed me with compliments on my music and asked me to write a Missa Brevis for the chorale's  Fall concert.

I, of course, jumped at the opportunity and wrote most of the piece in June and July 2009 while I was teaching at the N. Carolina Governor's School.

Hak-won's biggest directive to me was to write something truly challenging for the choir- they were growing tired of new works that were too easy for them. So I wrote them a piece which is often quite  bravura as far as the need for vocal agility, extended tessitura, dynamic range, etc. I also, however, wanted to make sure that there was plenty of lyricism in the piece as well, and you certainly hear that in the Agnus Dei and most of the Kyrie.

The Chorale flew me over in October 2009 for the premiere in Seoul and they and the South Korean people were wonderful hosts. They sang the heck out of my “Missa Brevis Incheon”, plus two more pieces of mine on that program- “My Friend Elijah” and an arrangement of “Go Down, Moses”.
What changes have you seen in the publishing industry in the last 10 years? Where do you see it going next?

Sadly, the changes I have seen going on with the major publishers in the last ten years are not at all good. I see them shamelessly asking composers to submit more and more dumbed down music and I see their desire to only publish what they think will be a big hit right away.

Most of the major publishers have allowed themselves to be infected by the throw-away consumer mentality that is part of our society. You see some of them putting pieces permanently out of print quickly if they do not sell well in their first year of release, and really almost no major company wants to even be bothered with composer submissions  that are over five minutes, are challenging, contain divisi, etc.

I have also seen the company that first published my music, Oxford, just give up on printing octavos to any degree and give up on even having any active choral department based in the United States. I think that Oxford was a leader for good music here in the US but a few years ago they just pulled the plug on the US operation- a terrible shame. And now what we have is a terrible divide- virtually none  of the best choral work being written today is being published at all by the leading conventional publishers.

This conservatism of the major publisher has made it necessary for aspiring composers to publish their own music. Thankfully, the attitude that “self-published” music is unworthy of consideration is disappearing very quickly. So I think what we are already seeing is more and more composers (especially those with computer/internet skills) self-publishing their music, which also gives them far more control and income for their efforts.

The drawback some directors see is that this fragments the market and makes it more difficult to find music since it is not all explorable at a brick and mortar store or in a browser bin at a convention. But I think composers now have no choice but to do this. I currently publish conventionally with Roger Dean and they have always been great to me, but my more adventurous music and the extended length pieces will still mostly be found as self-published on my website.

The next hurdle for self-published composers involves reading sessions and honors choirs- it is often difficult to get a “self-published” piece included or even considered due to old habits of those organizing these events and the self interests of sheet music retailers. I am hoping that ACDA and other large organizations can start addressing that issue.

Finally, I'd like to thank you, Reg, for wanting to do this interview, and I'd also like to recognize a growing list of Pacific Northwest directors who have discovered oddball pieces by me like “Play with your Food”, "My Friend Elijah," and “Peace on Earth...and lots of little crickets”-- thanks, folks!

Paul Carey
choral music blog:

Reginald Unterseher
 is Music Director and Composer-in-Residence at Shalom United Church of Christ, Richland, Washington. His works are published by Oxford University Press and Walton Music. He co-founded Washington East Opera and served as Chorus Master for nine years. From 1996 until 2004, he was Artistic Director of Consort Columbia Vocal Ensemble where he conducted ensembles of children and adults. He currently serves as Repertoire & Standards Chair for Men's Choirs for the Northwest Division of the American Choral Director's Association.

Published January 14, 2010

Enhanced Music Scores: more than notes on paper could ever be
…looking back on the ‘00’s from the near future

by Reginald Unterseher, R&S Chair for Male Choruses

(Editor's note: Sci-Fi? We don't think so.)

Iunterseherf you would have asked me back in the first decade of the millennium, I would have been surprised to hear how easy the transition to digital scores was going to be. These days, there are so many aspects of using these scores that I find indispensible that I have not used a paper score in several years.

My singers use digital displays rather than paper. The displays are very light, lighter than some of the paper scores they used to hold when we did large works with orchestra, surprisingly thin, and easy to hold for a whole concert.

Displays replace more than sheet music
These displays have replaced laptop computers, and serve as our connecting point to the cyber world. They have not only replaced our use of printed music, but books, magazines, and newspapers as well. My grandson even has one at his middle school, and can’t believe the stories that his dad tells about the heavy backpack full of books he used to carry around with him when he was that age.

Easy planninguniversity-music-ad
My planning process was more effective and more interesting this year than it ever has been before. I visited online music retailers, publisher web sites, ACDA R&S lists, and some composer’s web sites that were suggested to me by musicians I have contact with on social networking sites. One piece, particularly, I found at the last minute, and it fits perfectly for a performing opportunity that came up at the last minute. Fortunately, as with nearly all my music these days, I simply purchased a license for the number of singers I have, and it was downloaded to me instantly. It was much like the process on the iTunes music store.

Making it work in rehearsal
The singers arrive at the first rehearsal, log in, and all their music appears. The first piece is in the new, ever-evolving “Enhanced Music Score” format that takes advantage of the capabilities of the touchscreen display and it’s connection to the Internet.

The software we use is closely related to the notation software I have used for years. Singers can choose to see the notes scroll by or to turn pages with a touch. The notes can easily be bigger or smaller. As saving paper and page turns is no longer a concern, each voice part gets its own staff, all the way through the score. Using my finger, I can make markings on my score, in color, that show up on everyone’s scores or just mine. It looks like I wrote them with a pencil or pen. Singers can make marks on their scores that are just for themselves and are saved with their score.

When another singer uses this licensed copy in another year, they will be able to erase the markings or modify them and keep them in various versions, using procedures that are familiar from word processing. Typos and mistakes in the scores are almost unheard of anymore, and when they do happen, even scores that have already been distributed are all corrected with a downloaded update.

I tell the singers “let’s start here,” touch the spot where I want us to begin, and all their scores go to that place. It flashes a couple of times so they can see exactly where it is. I touched the 2nd soprano and baritone lines and the starting and end points, so they all know exactly which section we are doing.  We work through that passage a few times, and it is still shaky, so I assign that spot to their personal rehearsal list. It will stay on that list until they check it off . I have an automatic record of what I assigned, and when they check it off, it appears that way on my list.

What about the still-existing paper library?
Next, we turn to an old standard from our still-existing but shrinking paper library. I had gone to the publisher’s web site and purchased a very inexpensive license to digitize my existing number of copies of that piece, plus a slightly higher per-copy cost for a few more to cover my current number of singers. In all, that cost is close to what it would have to purchase the extra paper copies, once you figure in the high cost of shipping.

The publisher has not created an Enhanced Score of this piece yet, as they have with their perennial best-sellers, or I might have just purchased all new copies in the new format. For this piece, I scanned the score and used some filters to sharpen and clarify the image. It is now just an image of my existing paper score, but I can still write on it on the display, as can my singers, and I can manually add some of the resource links I have.

I have not digitized my entire library, and I am sure I won’t, but I expect to see the paper storage shrink year by year. One publisher has invested in scanning nearly all the pieces in their catalog, and sell the Basic Score version for a very reasonable cost. It is often worth it to me to just buy that rather than go through the time and expense to digitize my own. I now tend to purchase new Enhanced Score editions of classic pieces even if I had them in my paper library. The research and rehearsal resources and great editorial practices make it worth the money.

A little help for singers who had to miss the rehearsal
For this rehearsal, I was missing a couple singers due to illness and one due to a business trip. The sick ones were able to watch and listen to the rehearsal on the live webcast, log in to their scores via the internet, and partially participate in the rehearsal without infecting other singers. We missed their voices, and it was not as good as people actually singing together in the same physical space (which I think that nothing will ever replace), but they did not miss out nearly as much as they would have otherwise. The singer out on the business trip logged in later and got to see the podcast version of the rehearsal.

Practice and review between rehearsals
This choir only rehearses once a week, so practice and review between rehearsals is very important. My orchestra has always had that expectation, but these new Enhanced Scores created an opportunity to make review and practice outside of rehearsal a standard part of my singer’s routine.

With one of my academic choirs, part of their grade is linked to practice reports that are automatically generated when they log in to their scores.

More personal rehearsal help
With the Enhanced Scores, singers can listen to mechanically accurate playback of their notes and rhythms. I prefer this to a recording of a singer on their part, as it does not impose a musical interpretation or vocal approach so much, but some conductors purchase that option. The singers can play their part alone, with selected other parts or just the other parts and accompaniment (even the full orchestra), with control of the volume of each part. They can also adjust the tempo. As they sing along, the microphone in their displays tells them how accurate the pitches and rhythms were. There were recorded pronunciation guides to listen to, and they also had easy access to several recordings, a couple from our library, some from the ACDA/ChoralNet web site, and some for purchase online.

With these resources right at their fingertips, we spend more of our group rehearsal time on artistic detail, rather than just learning notes and rhythms. In fact, my community chorus, which has always been reluctant to sing from memory, has found that these rehearsal resources make the memorization process much easier, and now we do at least one set per concert from memory.

Advantages during performance
In performance, my singers find that the displays have many advantages over paper.

The devices don’t have to be as big as their old black folders were, given the way the music scrolls or turns pages with a touch, so there is more room on the risers.

The music appears in the right order automatically, and they don’t have to turn it in at the end of the concert—it is checked in and out electronically.

The devices don’t depend on the light in the room for the singers to read them, so they can always see their scores. It took some experimenting for the device manufacturers to figure out how to make the screens have the right amount of light without casting a weird colored glow on my singer’s faces, but they did it.

The audience does not miss noisy page turns at all.

I have a larger, stand-mounted display to conduct from. Especially with orchestral scores, this allows me to see much more at a time. The bigger display works well with my color-coded highlighting and marking system, too.

Yes, it was a challenge for publishers...and music retailers
The transition from paper to digital scores was challenging for publishers and music retailers. It required a new way of thinking about their role and what it is that they sell.

They had to come together on formatting standards, a process that required work with the various display manufacturers and the notation software companies.

They had to come up with a way to deal with copyright security.

During the time when they were launching the new formats, they had to still deal with existing paper inventory and customers that had not yet made the transition.

The size, weight, and cost of the displays had to get to a certain point to be practical and affordable for enough singers to have them to so that there was a customer base. That would never happen with dedicated music displays alone. Now, though, they have a more reliable income stream than they did with paper.

It is much harder to pirate a digital copy of an Enhanced Score than it was to illegally photocopy paper music, and the instant availability of scores for reasonable cost has meant that fewer people have the impulse to make illegal copies. I don’t even have a photocopier or printer any more, or any of their associated costs. I spend that money on new Enhanced Editions instead.

Some serendipities
Now that the transition is past the tipping point and the majority of choruses have gone paper-free, there are many more players in the game, and the variety and quality of available music has improved from the paper days.

Some smaller publishers were able to take a much bigger role without the capital outlay that it would have previously taken. They built their business on the quality of the music that they put out rather than the pressure they were able to put on distribution networks because of their size. They don’t feel as much driven by the lowest common musical denominator, so they could be more adventurous.

As it turns out, the new learning aids that the Enhanced Scores include have made it possible for singers to perform works they previously thought not possible or practical.

Music does not go out of print anymore. New, enhanced editions of classic music has proved to be an important part of publisher’s revenue, because it has given choruses a good reason to buy new versions of pieces they already had.

Composers and editors get paid more, as the Composer and Editor Union negotiated a new formula when the distribution model changed [note: don’t forget, this article is a type of science fiction…].

Customers more than ever rely on the editorial function of publishers and choral organizations like ACDA to choose and distribute the best music, because few teachers and conductors have the time and inclination to dig through all that is out there.

Retailers organize, present, and promote materials in ways that still make them the first stop for purchasing.

This transition has not been without a few hiccups. It seemed like a huge change going in, and change can be daunting. Not all publishers and retailers survived, but that was happening anyway, before the transition.

Some singers were afraid they would miss the feel of paper and would have to change so many of their long-standing habits. For most of them, though, the clarity and note size flexibility of the new format was a foot in the door, and the additional features that the Enhanced Scores offer won them over.

We don’t want to go back.

13 January 2010
Reginald Unterseher

Reginald Unterseher  is Music Director and Composer-in-Residence at Shalom United Church of Christ, Richland, Washington. His works are published by Oxford University Press and Walton Music. He co-founded Washington East Opera and served as Chorus Master for nine years. From 1996 until 2004, he was Artistic Director of Consort Columbia Vocal Ensemble where he conducted ensembles of children and adults. He currently serves as Repertoire & Standards Chair for Men's Choirs for the Northwest Division of the American Choral Director's Association.


Looking Out, Looking In

by Reginald Unterseher, R&S Chair for Male Choruses

Iuntersehern the last several years, I have taken the opportunity to turn my choral experience by 180 degrees.
Instead of just looking at the chorus from the conductor’s vantage point, I have physically turned myself towards the audience to sing in two choral groups. First, I began singing with Male Ensemble Northwest, singing concerts and presenting workshops around the Northwest. This year, I have been singing with Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, a community chorus in the Tri-Cities, Washington. Both experiences have left me with important benefits to my life as a conductor, teacher, and composer, as well as to my life in general.

Joining Male Ensemble Northwest allowed me to connect with colleagues from around the region and make music on a level that was simply not available to me any other way. Especially for those, like me, who live outside of urban areas, this can be a real lifeline. The four to six weekends a year that MEN gets together allows us the opportunity to explore great music, experience the perspective of the singer, as well as do our best to lift up the next generation of singers, some of whom will become the next generation of conductors.
We have more than a little fun along the way, as well.

I took the further step this year of singing with the select community chorus in my area, for several reasons. First of all, they asked me. This reminded me how important it is for any conductor who wants to build an enduring choral culture to identify the singers you want, and ask. Second, the repertoire seemed to be music worth spending my time with. Third, I have connections to the group going back a long time, and I want it to be a strong force in the community. The group has undergone an expansion and re-imagining, changed their name, and has a new, young conductor, Justin Raffa.

Conductors need the support of other conductors, and it is not enough for me to just say that.  Being part of the choir was an opportunity pass on the support I had been given in some situations, and to give the support I wish I had been given in other situations.

As a conductor and voice teacher, and in a different way, as a composer, I tell singers what to do all the time. It is quite instructive and illuminating to try to do, myself, what it is that I tell others to do. It was an opportunity to consciously explore, from the inside, the person that I want to have in my choruses. The singer who pays attention, uses their best vocal technique all the time, learns their music, knows when it is OK to share a few quiet words with their neighbor and when it is not, who shows up on time, helps out with the everyday busy work that every chorus has to do, and does whatever they can to help those around them succeed without being bossy or trying to take over from the conductor. The musician who serves art ahead of ego.

My experience of the physical demands of choral singing held several surprises for me. I discover that I am much more physically comfortable conducting. The seemingly simple act of holding a weight out in front of me for an entire concert rather than getting to move my arms in a larger range of motion proved quite a challenge. Twenty-five to thirty-five years ago, when I was last regularly singing in choruses, my knees and back were, well, twenty-five to thirty-five years younger. My height to weight ratio has suffered as well, I am afraid, and looking around, I can see I have company. I have always sympathized with my singers about these issues, but it takes your understanding to a deeper level to feel what it is like to do your regular job, then help with the physical set-up of the space, then stand on narrow risers while singing for a couple of hours night after night, all the while trying not to be distracted by the imperfections around you while still listening intently. Add that to the normal Christmas and New Year’s holiday stress, and my level of physical tiredness after the holiday concert series was a real lessbeautifulstaron to me.

Learning to listen in new ways is always a good thing. Up in the choir, I am in a different physical relationship to sections and individuals than I have gotten used to with my back to the audience. If there is a singer nearby who for whatever reason struggles with vocal technique or musical issues, it is doubly distracting to those of us whose regular job it is to diagnose and help solve those problems. The harder the music, the more likely it is to have many singers in trouble, and the greater the consequences of them throwing you off. Those issues are real for our non-teacher/conductor singers, too.

One of the great steps forward I have seen Mastersingers take is the increased participation of music teachers in the group. The organization has reached out more than ever before to participation, both musically and socially, by school music teachers at all grade levels and by voice teachers. I love the supportive environment that these teachers are helping create. Many of them are young teachers or new to the area, and their attitude says good things about the atmosphere of the schools they are coming from. The quality of the music making has benefitted greatly from their participation, and it feeds their artistic growth, as well.

Maybe the best thing for my soul, though, has been being reminded of the things I love about singers and about being a choral singer. Singing with other people is just flat out great fun, and an amazing facet of what it is to be human. Our singers are generous with their time and their spirits, they strive to engage each other and their audiences on a deep level, and they have a wide range of life experience and accomplishment. They sing as an expression of love. Time entering into art with them is time well spent.

Time, of course, is a real issue.  I now appreciate more than ever conductors who do not waste my time, time that I have chosen to carve out of my schedule, time that has several other competing pressures. I have a renewed sense of the importance of being a conductor who respects the singers I serve enough to be prepared, to choose repertoire with an appropriate work to reward ratio, to be direct without abuse, and accurately gauge the effect that I have on my singers. I have a new understanding of how the conductor’s mood, which may or may not have anything to do with the chorus in front of them, and which they may believe they are disguising, permeates the group. I feel more acutely than ever the singer’s direct, visceral response to the conductor’s gestures, tone of voice, facial expression, and overall physical manner.

I recommend this kind of experience to all teachers and conductors as a way to reconnect with your art and gain a fresh perspective. Don’t wait for them to ask you, seek out a choral singing experience, and act like the singer you want to have in your choruses. You will help build the choral life of your community, support your colleagues, and have the opportunity to experience and appreciate the great joy of singing in a chorus.

Reginald Unterseher
  is Music Director and Composer-in-Residence at Shalom United Church of Christ, Richland, Washington. His works are published by Oxford University Press and Walton Music. He co-founded Washington East Opera and served as Chorus Master for nine years. From 1996 until 2004, he was Artistic Director of Consort Columbia Vocal Ensemble where he conducted ensembles of children and adults. He currently serves as Repertoire & Standards Chair for Men's Choirs for the Northwest Division of the American Choral Director's Association.


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