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With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners, helping to effect arguably one of the most substantial changes in popular music's sound since musicians began using amplifiers. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners, helping to effect arguably one of the most substantial changes in popular music's sound since musicians began using amplifiers. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music for decades but is also the story of a person who intersected in many ways with American popular culture, medicine, and social trends during the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st. There is much to tell about her life and about the ways in which her life reflects many dimensions of American culture. Carlos's identity as a transgender woman has shaped many aspects of her life, her career, how she relates to the public, and how the public has received her and her music. Cultural factors surrounding the treatment of transgender people affected many of the decisions that Carlos has made over the decades. Additionally, cultural reception and perception of transgender people has colored how journalists, scholars, and fans have written about Carlos and her music for decades.


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With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners, helping to effect arguably one of the most substantial changes in popular music's sound since musicians began using amplifiers. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners, helping to effect arguably one of the most substantial changes in popular music's sound since musicians began using amplifiers. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music for decades but is also the story of a person who intersected in many ways with American popular culture, medicine, and social trends during the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st. There is much to tell about her life and about the ways in which her life reflects many dimensions of American culture. Carlos's identity as a transgender woman has shaped many aspects of her life, her career, how she relates to the public, and how the public has received her and her music. Cultural factors surrounding the treatment of transgender people affected many of the decisions that Carlos has made over the decades. Additionally, cultural reception and perception of transgender people has colored how journalists, scholars, and fans have written about Carlos and her music for decades.

47 review for Wendy Carlos: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kerry Pickens

    Wendy Carlos is electronic music composer who specialized in the use of synthesizers, and wrote movie soundtracks including a long collaboration with Stanley Kubrick. When I was in high school, I listened to the music of Walter Carlos, and Walter transitioned to Wendy Carlos. This was in mid 1970s, and most people just commented "oh you can do that?" Noone really cared except for some repressive people who thought it was some kind of disease. Nowadays everyone makes a fuss over Kaitlyn Jenner, a Wendy Carlos is electronic music composer who specialized in the use of synthesizers, and wrote movie soundtracks including a long collaboration with Stanley Kubrick. When I was in high school, I listened to the music of Walter Carlos, and Walter transitioned to Wendy Carlos. This was in mid 1970s, and most people just commented "oh you can do that?" Noone really cared except for some repressive people who thought it was some kind of disease. Nowadays everyone makes a fuss over Kaitlyn Jenner, and you really wonder why its anyone's business. Wendy Carlos wanted to be remembered for music, not for her gender identity. I have a lot of respect for her, not just for her talent, but for her self assurance in the face of narrow minded people.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lillian Crawford

    Half of this book is well-researched. The opening chapters are spellbinding - the attention to detail of Carlos’s work and the technology she developed is excellent. But it seems irrevocably ironic that the book’s second half loses interest in her music and becomes entangled in her gender identity. One very much gets the impression that Sewell wanted to focus solely on the music but a money-grabbing publisher pushed her towards uncovering the story of Carlos’s transition. One based purely in gue Half of this book is well-researched. The opening chapters are spellbinding - the attention to detail of Carlos’s work and the technology she developed is excellent. But it seems irrevocably ironic that the book’s second half loses interest in her music and becomes entangled in her gender identity. One very much gets the impression that Sewell wanted to focus solely on the music but a money-grabbing publisher pushed her towards uncovering the story of Carlos’s transition. One based purely in guesswork and not academic research. That half is lazily written, smattered with typos and errors, and with entire paragraphs inexplicably repeated later on. Indeed, the last two chapters seem to record every case on online misgendering and deadnaming in the previous two decades of Carlos’s life. It’s as if no real person’s life took place in this period. Of course this is the major issue - Carlos has not consented to this biography, she has not participated in any way, so it becomes overly speculative and reads as intrusive rather than interested. Having checked Carlos’s website, she makes her views quite clear, and it should be dismissed if only for that reason. When it’s a book of musicology, this is a fascinating. The rest should be torn out and obliterated.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brandon

    4.0 for the subject matter. 2.0 for the composition style and editing.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Geeta Dayal’s review: http://4columns.org/dayal-geeta/wendy... Geeta Dayal’s review: http://4columns.org/dayal-geeta/wendy...

  5. 5 out of 5

    Niklas Pivic

    This review is abbreviated because Goodread doesn't allow more characters; the full review is found here on my blog. I’m not surprised that Wendy Carlos would say something. I’m just sad that she’s not communicated publicly since 2009. I stumbled across this on her site: Bogus “Bio” Alert Please be aware there’s a purported “Biography” on me just released. It belongs on the fiction shelf. No one ever interviewed me, nor anyone I know. There’s zero fact-checking. Don’t recognize myself anywhere in th This review is abbreviated because Goodread doesn't allow more characters; the full review is found here on my blog. I’m not surprised that Wendy Carlos would say something. I’m just sad that she’s not communicated publicly since 2009. I stumbled across this on her site: Bogus “Bio” Alert Please be aware there’s a purported “Biography” on me just released. It belongs on the fiction shelf. No one ever interviewed me, nor anyone I know. There’s zero fact-checking. Don’t recognize myself anywhere in there—weird. Sloppy, dull and dubious, it’s hardly an objective academic study as it pretends to be. This slim, mean-sprited volume is based on several false premises. All of it is speculation taken out of context. The key sources are other people’s write-ups of interviews done for magazine articles. There’s simply no way to know what’s true or not—nothing is first-hand. The book is presumptuous. Pathetically, it accepts as “factual” a grab-bag of online urban legends, including anonymous axes to grind. The author imputes things she doesn’t understand, misses the real reasons for what was done or not done. She’s in way over her head, outside any areas of expertise, and even defames my dear deceased parents—shame! ==== Well, now you know, and have the victim’s honest reactions. Wish there were more one could do about needless personal attacks, but we have to understand how essential freedom of speech is, even when it permits such abuse. Have dealt with stereotyping most of my life, a pretty tough hide by now. But aren’t there new, more interesting targets?Unless you consider “academic” books a form of contact sport, you really might want to reconsider your time and money. —Wendy Carlos, August 2020. I’m not surprised at Carlos’s attack against the author. Carlos called her First Law this: ‘For every parameter that you can control, you must control.’ I’ve read the book that Carlos refers to, which is Amanda Sewell’s Wendy Carlos. People should say a lot about Carlos, which is, sadly, not the case. Not only did she popularise the synthesizer but she designed a lot of it and built parts for it from scratch. She learned musical theory and quickly tired of regular tunings. Her original compositions are about as breathtaking as her phenomenally put-together Switched-On Bach. Without Carlos, no Daft Punk. No Kanye West. No Kraftwerk. No EDM. At least not as we know a lot of electronic-based music nor musical genres today. The book comes at a special time, when music is throwaway and artists are forced to fight for their lives to make their music, no thanks to companies like Spotify. I first discovered Carlos when I was fifteen years old and saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The film took me over completely but its soundtrack was something completely different: I bought it on CD and listened it to pieces, again and again. I didn’t—and still don’t—appreciate Beethoven very much, but Carlos’s craft and how she’d made every small piece of the old music come alive was nuts. This book is carefully constructed using a lot of sources, but not anything in communication with Carlos herself. As such, Sewell is presenting her biography for what it is: a quilt of sorts, constructed from old interviews that others have done with Carlos, Carlos’s writings from her own site, interviews that others have done with Carlos’s collaborators—perhaps most notably Rachel Elkind—and writings by Carlos and other people. Still, it’s not for me to feel that Sewell both admires and reveres Carlos. I think she’s done fantastically with piecing together this, a biography that shows Carlos’s extremely enjoyable and valuable artistic work, along with the good, the bad, and everything in-between. Of course Carlos doesn’t agree with this book; She chose not to take any active part in constructing it, and she’s vehemently against it. I think Carlos is wrong in saying there’s ‘zero fact-checking’ because references to quotes are everywhere in the book; I’ve not checked their veracity, but I’ve a hard time to think Sewell has sewn together a falsehood just to hurt Carlos. Believe me when I say Sewell instead paints quite a beautiful and multi-faceted portrait of Carlos rather than a vulgar picture or a hagiography. I don’t think claiming Carlos to be one of the most important electronic-musical artists of the 20th century is hyperbole. She paved her own way in quite a few different areas. From the time she was a child, Carlos was very resourceful. She has attributed her work ethic and creativity to the fact that her family was very poor in the early years of life: if she wanted something, she had to find a way to get it on a shoestring budget. Much like her father had hand-drawn a piano keyboard for her to practice on until the family could afford a real piano, Carlos built things from scratch or otherwise improvised when her family couldn’t afford them. For example, the hi-fi system that her family listened to music on was something Carlos had put together herself. She cut the wood to make the loudspeaker enclosure and used a soldering iron to wire a kit. She also designed some components herself when she wasn’t able to get a kit. When word of her aptitude got around, she began helping older people repair their older equipment or install newer equipment. She has said she was a “smart-ass” and a “nerdy” child who learned skills quickly and enjoyed applying what she had learned. She was similarly scrappy with music, checking out academic books from the library so that she could teach herself about harmony, counterpoint, and tuning and temperament. At age 14, Carlos built a computer and won a Westinghouse Science competition for it. At the same time, she was struggling with her sexuality. She also preferred the company of girls to boys, which resulted in taunts from boys—and worse. Carlos recalled older boys taunting her as early as elementary school with homophobic epithets such as “fairy,” “pansy,” and “sissy.” Although she said didn’t know exactly what those words meant when she was a child, she knew what they implied: freak. She tried to change her behavior to protect herself, such as carrying her books on her hip (like boys were supposed to do) instead of cradling them in her arms (like girls did). As a child, Carlos wasn’t just called names: other kids threw rocks at her, punched her, and sexually assaulted her. She regularly endured this kind of cruelty and abuse until she graduated from high school; she would continue to fear for her safety for many years. Carlos started composing music on her computer and met Robert Moog in 1964. Moog and others have said Carlos was extremely demanding of him and his synthesizer modules. Indeed, nearly everything Moog manufactured for Carlos during that period was custom and was built to much higher specifications than any of the standard Moog modules being manufactured at the time. Raynold Weidenaar, a former employee at Moog’s Trumansburg factory and the editor of the Moog-sponsored magazine Electronic Music Review, recalled that Carlos “was really holding Moog’s feet to the fire in terms of the way things had to be, and the quality that [she] needed. [She] was a very demanding musician who’s also very knowledgeable technically.” Carlos had so many synth modules that she required two power supplies to run them. She not only required Moog and his team to build her customised modules, but a customised system. She made money by making music for TV commercials and, in 1968, her home studio is where she made Switched-On Bach, a milestone in electronic music. Carlos seems to have been very lonely; again, her own words, via interviews (other than to Sewell): Some nights, she would ride the subway to Fifth Avenue and simply walk up and down the streets in order to feel surrounded by people. Daily, she considered committing suicide by cutting her wrists with the same razor blade that she used to splice magnetic tape in the studio. One easily understands Carlos’s loneliness and empathises with her. It’s horrific to hear about her state at the time, knowing she was female but that her body wasn’t in sync with reality. She was helped by Harry Benjamin, ‘a German-American endocrinologist and sexologist who was one of the most respected experts on medical treatments of transgender individuals in the world’. At that time, Carlos met Rachel Elkind. They formed a strong friendship and professional-working relationship. To say Switched-On Bach was time-consuming to create is a severe understatement: Each piece of music on the album took weeks to create. Carlos recalled that she spent eight hours a day, seven days a week for five months creating this new album—all in addition to her forty-hour a week job at Gotham. Each sound that Carlos produced on her Moog synthesizer required a unique combination of patch cord routings, knob settings, and switch settings. She selected one of four available wave shapes: pulse wave, sawtooth, sine, or triangle. She could add or decrease envelopes to adjust attack time, decay, sustain, and release for each sound. For example, a harpsichord sound would decay almost immediately, while the sound of an organ would be sustained for much longer, just as would happen by playing the physical instruments themselves. Oscillators were adjusted for octaves, and filters could adjust the high and low ends of the sounds. The process was tedious. […] If Carlos was lucky, she has said, she could produce a measure or two of music before the synthesizer went out of tune. She claimed that she sometimes needed to bang on the instrument with a hammer to get it back in tune. I remember members of Kraftwerk talking about going on tour in the 1970s. They played in India where the heat and humidity made synthesizers go out of tune in a very short while. And here’s Carlos, basically helping to invent—and herself creating modules and computers from scratch—Moog’s synthesizer while splicing magnetic tape together to record an album of Bach’s at-times complex music. Imagine EDM kids having to work under those circumstances. I wonder what music would be produced today if it were. I was happy to read that Carlos and Elkind got nice royalties for the album: Accounts differ on how much money was offered for the Bach album. Elkind recalled that they were offered $1,000 for the finished master of the album, and Carlos told an interviewer that they were given approximately $2,500 for the master (around $17,000 in 2018). The saving financial grace would come with the royalties. Elkind negotiated what she called “a very nice royalty” because Columbia didn’t appear to take the album seriously enough to expect that it would sell very many copies. At the time, her record company flaunted her as ‘Walter Carlos’, the name she had been given at birth. She did not want this, but the alternative was far more harrowing. What happens when you’re the artist behind the most popular classical album in the history of recorded music but you can’t appear in public without fear of being the object of ridicule or the victim of physical violence? I can’t even fathom that. Lord. For a few months, Carlos tried to appear publicly as “Walter” in order to promote her music, but this approach turned out to be unsustainable. Maintaining the illusion of “Walter” after she had transitioned nearly drove Carlos to attempt suicide. In the very few photos of Carlos from this era, she looks as if she’s wearing some sort of ill-fitting costume and appears anywhere from uncomfortable to miserable. And the album? The cultural impact that Switched-On Bach had in the late 1960s and early 1970s cannot be overstated. It brought an entirely new perspective for how music could be created and heard. The album and Carlos won three Grammy Awards in 1969: Best Engineered Recording, Classical; Best Classical Performance—Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (With or Without Orchestra); and Album of the Year, Classical. The album’s enormous commercial success inspired dozens of copycat albums. Other musicians were fascinated with the sounds of the synthesizer and wanted to learn how to incorporate those sounds into their studio albums. Some of these artists tried to consult with Carlos, but she refused to meet with them. She recalled hiding in her own home when Stevie Wonder came over to check out her synthesizer and setup; she was afraid to even speak to him because she knew that her voice would give away the fact that she was a woman. Carlos then started working with Stanley Kubrick, a relationship that would last for two films, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The Carlos soundtrack on Columbia included the uncut, fourteen-minute version of Timesteps as well as extended versions of realizations of music of Beethoven and Rossini that had appeared only in short excerpts on Warner Brothers’ soundtrack album. Columbia’s soundtrack album of A Clockwork Orange also included “Country Lane,” another original piece Carlos had written for the film that Kubrick chose not to include; “Country Lane” had been written for the scene in which Alex’s former droogs, now corrupt police officers, attempt to drown him. A quarter of a century later, Carlos would reissue her music from A Clockwork Orange with even more original compositions for the film that Kubrick had not used, including “Orange Minuet” and “Biblical Daydreams.” To hear Carlos’s uncut versions of those songs is a wonderful experience. In 1972, Carlos had gender-confirmation surgery. She never minced words, sometimes with vexing effects: Carlos didn’t spare anyone from critique in her Whole Earth Catalog letter. She stated outright that no synthesizers on the market were sufficient. The Moog was workable but crude, and it was a nightmare to keep in tune. The Tonus, the Buchla, and mini versions of any other synthesizer brands were “cash-in-on-ignorance rip-offs.” Others were “clatter machines,” “contrived,” “wonder toys,” “dull,” “awful,” “flimsy,” and “imbecilic.” She railed against the trendiness that popped up surrounding the Moog synthesizer as a result of her Switched-On Bach album, complaining about everything from the “bullshit artists” that tried to cash in on the synthesizer’s appeal to the ignorance of those who pronounced “Moog” as if it were a sound a cow was making. See my blog (link at the top of this review) for a full review.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Harold Head

    Disappointed. Although it’s obvious how much care and hard work went into this biography, it feels hasty and incomplete, like the editor was asleep at the keyboard. Each chapter feels isolated from the others, as if they’re all separate, standalone graduate student research papers. Tremendous time and attention goes into explanation (often repeated in subsequent chapters, which is an annoyance) of certain details, while other details are left completely undefined. Large swaths of her life are om Disappointed. Although it’s obvious how much care and hard work went into this biography, it feels hasty and incomplete, like the editor was asleep at the keyboard. Each chapter feels isolated from the others, as if they’re all separate, standalone graduate student research papers. Tremendous time and attention goes into explanation (often repeated in subsequent chapters, which is an annoyance) of certain details, while other details are left completely undefined. Large swaths of her life are omitted, and the very topics Ms Carlos appears to explicitly desire be de-emphasized from conversations about her life and work end up being the indirect focus of this work, despite what I’m sure are the best intentions by the author. At the end, what could’ve been the portrait of a tremendously gifted and multifaceted artist is diminished to that of a contentious and difficult recluse. If I’d never heard Ms Calos’ music or seen her photography, I strongly doubt, after having read this, that I’d be inclined to even attempt to seek it out. Fortunately, I know better and this biography, despite what I believe is a good and honest attempt to uphold Ms Carlos’ vision and integrity, ultimately paints an ugly picture of an artist who has painfully struggled to present her music and herself with the greatest fidelity possible.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Smith

    Straightforward biography, well organized. Page 187 references a racist comment by Carlos, which is still publicly available on her website. Here I quote directly from Carlos' writing on her website. "No one claims there was a SYSTEMATIC attempt to force all composition majors into atonal practices. Of course not! No meetings were held, nor secret handshakes created, to allow a Serialist Elite to disenfranchise the (tonal) non conformist. None had to be. It was "a mere case of prejudice", as unsp Straightforward biography, well organized. Page 187 references a racist comment by Carlos, which is still publicly available on her website. Here I quote directly from Carlos' writing on her website. "No one claims there was a SYSTEMATIC attempt to force all composition majors into atonal practices. Of course not! No meetings were held, nor secret handshakes created, to allow a Serialist Elite to disenfranchise the (tonal) non conformist. None had to be. It was "a mere case of prejudice", as unspoken, even unconscious, as what white neighbors did to keep out black residents during this era, or the corporate heads who somehow always sidestepped women, non-whites, and known gays for major appointments in their companies and corporate board rooms. (Bless the exceptions, like Babbitt.)" source: To the Editor http://www.wendycarlos.com/resources/... Sewell does not address the racism in the text, and neither does Carlos in her "Bogus Bio Alert" section on the main page of her website, so I assume neither of them consider it an issue.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Stuart

    A well researched and written biography on the electronic pioneer. This is the first biography on Wendy Carlos and has been disavowed by Carlos herself. Neither Carlos nor any of the other key collaborators or acquaintances would submit to interviews for the book so it was written based on published interviews and articles. I was only familiar with her albums from the 70’s and 80’s and knew almost nothing about her life, so the book was very informative to me. But Carlos probably dislikes the bo A well researched and written biography on the electronic pioneer. This is the first biography on Wendy Carlos and has been disavowed by Carlos herself. Neither Carlos nor any of the other key collaborators or acquaintances would submit to interviews for the book so it was written based on published interviews and articles. I was only familiar with her albums from the 70’s and 80’s and knew almost nothing about her life, so the book was very informative to me. But Carlos probably dislikes the book because she only wants to talk about the music and is very private about her life and a biography of course has to discuss her gender. Amanda Sewell writes very respectfully of her subject and made me re-listen to such classics as Sonic Seasonings, Beauty In The Beast and her soundtracks for Clockwork Orange and Tron.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Bradley

    Sewell’s book is the first full-length biography on Carlos and chronicles her career as a pioneering electronic musician and composer. After studying physics and music composition during the 1950s, often experimenting with alternate tunings and microtonality, Carlos would achieve world renown for her Moog synthesizer renditions of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Notoriously reclusive and a workaholic, Carlos would continue to push the boundaries of electronic music with her own original composit Sewell’s book is the first full-length biography on Carlos and chronicles her career as a pioneering electronic musician and composer. After studying physics and music composition during the 1950s, often experimenting with alternate tunings and microtonality, Carlos would achieve world renown for her Moog synthesizer renditions of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Notoriously reclusive and a workaholic, Carlos would continue to push the boundaries of electronic music with her own original compositions, film scores, and ongoing re-imaginings of classical pieces on the latest and greatest digital synthesis technology. Though Sewell took amazingly delicate care with this academic profile, Carlos has considered this book a work of fiction. Sewell’s introduction notes that numerous attempts were made to contact Carlos. Sewell’s book is deeply researched and properly cited, relying heavily on what little published information there is on Carlos. While the book suffers from a lot of editing errors, it still is the most complete and just look into a truly legendary 20th century music pioneer.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    A brief and rather dry biography taken solely from secondary sources (the author didn't interview Carlos or anyone who has worked with her), this book provides most of the factual information (and an occasional speculation) about the musician's career but gives very little sense of the real person behind "Switched-On Bach" and other landmark albums. Unless Carlos' writes an autobiography or authorizes a biography, this may be the only account of her life we'll ever see. A brief and rather dry biography taken solely from secondary sources (the author didn't interview Carlos or anyone who has worked with her), this book provides most of the factual information (and an occasional speculation) about the musician's career but gives very little sense of the real person behind "Switched-On Bach" and other landmark albums. Unless Carlos' writes an autobiography or authorizes a biography, this may be the only account of her life we'll ever see.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Dale Boyer

    See my forthcoming review in the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Chris Meloche

    A very well researched biography of a pioneer of electronic music. A review can be found on my blog at: http://www.chrismeloche.com/?p=594 A very well researched biography of a pioneer of electronic music. A review can be found on my blog at: http://www.chrismeloche.com/?p=594

  13. 4 out of 5

    David

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chris Ingalls

  15. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ianna Matney

  17. 4 out of 5

    Naotaro Kato

  18. 5 out of 5

    Taylor Nelson

  19. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Clarke-willson

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dylan Flesch

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jack Bussert

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ingrid

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lindsay

  24. 5 out of 5

    Joe

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  26. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  27. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lyndon Goodacre

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ann

  30. 5 out of 5

    Maurice

  31. 4 out of 5

    Francesco

  32. 5 out of 5

    Kentucky Frager

  33. 4 out of 5

    Coloslab

  34. 5 out of 5

    Tosh

  35. 5 out of 5

    James

  36. 4 out of 5

    Steve

  37. 5 out of 5

    Mckenzie Ragan

  38. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  39. 5 out of 5

    Lane_

  40. 5 out of 5

    Ian Deleon

  41. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  42. 4 out of 5

    Jacob

  43. 4 out of 5

    Sam

  44. 4 out of 5

    Chatu

  45. 5 out of 5

    Aujury

  46. 4 out of 5

    Dog

  47. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

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