Opening Unexpected Perspectives: An Interview with Leonid Hrabovsky Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Леонід Грабовський

Leonid Hrabovsky’s music style evolution shows a constant development and exploration of new and unknown elements. He began with a neo-folkloristic opus in the late 1950s and was among the first to master the latest dodecaphonic technique and sonorous concept of music in the 1960s.

In the late 1970s, Leonid Hrabovsky developed a unique system of algorithmic composition and, in the 1980s and 1990s, implemented complex mathematical calculations in music by hand. Due to the lack of technological support for his method, the musician took a forced break from music writing in the 1990s and 2000s. Having completed the process of computerizing his algorithmic system, Leonid Hrabosky is actively composing music again, entirely original in its technique and aesthetics.

The name of Leonid Hrabovsky has already become a symbol for the modern history of Ukrainian music, but most of his works have not yet been published. The aura of the Sixties and avant-garde, which emphasizes the composer’s importance in the formation of modern Ukrainian music, makes him, in the minds of many, “hostage to one role,” and his newest works are still waiting for their premieres.

— Your career spans about 65 years. Since you started in the 1960s, with your colleagues being the first in Ukraine to master the latest compositional techniques and then working on developing your style, you have never taken the mainstream way.  You have been recognized as an avant-garde composer. However, you have repeatedly emphasized the inappropriateness of such a recognition. How do you identify the style of your music works now?

Leonid Hrabovsky: In contemporary discussions, almost no one specifically addresses the question of what is avant-garde and what is modern style. Yet a line of distinction can and should be drawn between them. Philosopher and linguist Vadim Rudnev did this in his book The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Culture. His criteria for distinction are very logical. According to his vision, I consider myself a moderate modernist-centrist, especially when I try to position myself in today’s world context with its extreme “whirlwinds.”

On the one hand, I was undoubtedly on the front line. On the other hand, I didn’t do anything so revolutionary that it was completely unknown in the past. I just developed some ideas and gave them my own vision.

For example, there was a time when the mainstream way led to dodecaphony. Even then, this path was criticized by Györgi Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. I thought that maybe they were right.

Having mastered the serial technique, I immediately became fascinated by the idea of sonority, which Tadeusz Zieliński expressed in his article in one of the issues of the Ruch Muzyczny (Musical movement) in the fall of 1963 [the article “Genealogy of New Music” – T.N.]. Later, I got my hands on a volume of the Polish anthology Res Facta Nova, which contained various articles and materials related to contemporary art and especially contemporary music.

A translation of Olivier Messiaen’s famous treatise, “The Technique of My Musical Language”, was published in this first issue. There was also an article by Iannis Xenakis, which said that the pitch structures in his most recent works (late 1960s) were based on diatonic scales. I thought that perhaps I should’ve entered the modern musical sphere from this side. From that moment, I started building my own system.

Iannis Xenakis used scales consisting of intervals of one to four semitones. In his scales, certain sequences of these intervals become periodic: a combination was taken and repeated, going from bottom to top, although not always 100% accurate. Why should there be only this group – 1-2-3-4? I made up a variety of chaotic combinations without the use of repetition, such as 1-2, 2-3, 1-2-3, 2-3-4, 1-3-5, 2-3-5, 2-4-5, etc. They give a wide range of, metaphorically, “interval atmospheres.”

This is an example of how I viewed an existing idea from a different angle. Therefore, I am not the inventor of something fundamentally new, like, for example, the most significant revolutionary in the philosophy of music and its practice, John Cage. However, I found some fruitful ideas that can open certain perspectives in unexpected directions.

Leonid Hrabovsky with Sed Contra Ensemble. “Kyiv Music Fest”. 2019
Leonid Hrabovsky with Sed Contra Ensemble. “Kyiv Music Fest”. 2019

— Perhaps, it’s worth emphasizing that you didn’t just assimilate existing musical ideas but offered a new vision of these ideas.  

Leonid Hrabovsky: Yes, it was a different way of looking at existing ideas. In the same first issue of Res Facta Nova, I read an article about using random numbers in commercial design to create images and posters. Using random numbers was not my idea, but I started applying them to the rhythms and scales I made. One can say that I developed my own methodology for working with random numbers.

— Let’s talk about the nodal points of your composer’s career. The first official “adult work,” still relatively moderate in style, is Four Ukrainian Songs for choir and orchestra (1959). This was your graduation work from the Kyiv Conservatory. It is believed that the Ukrainian neo-folkloristic trend began with this work. So, even at the beginning of your career, without the tools to radically renew the musical language, you were already striving for innovation? 

Leonid Hrabovsky: Yes. However, speaking of Four Ukrainian Songs, one cannot underestimate the significant influence that my teacher in the first year of the conservatory, Levko Revutsky, had on me with his arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs, the principles of which I followed. There were also influences from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s instrumentation, early Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Zoltan Kodály.

Four Ukrainian Songs contain all the impressions I received on the fly from the music of different composers available at the time, and I tried to combine them into one piece. This is a typical embodiment of the late Romanticism style with a transition to the so-called (incorrectly!) impressionism.

The piece was incredibly successful, although I hadn’t expected such a degree of success at all. I realized that in the field of orchestration, I would have to work on my skills for a very long time. I was fortunate that I was involved in cinema a little later, where you write music and hear the performance in two or three weeks. Working in movies helped many of my peers to develop their orchestration techniques.

— Did you hear the Four Ukrainian Songs at your graduation exam, or were they performed later?

Leonid Hrabovsky: Unfortunately, there was no performance on the exam. I don’t remember for what reason. Most likely, no money was allocated for it. The work was performed a year and a half later, at the end of December 1961, at the qualifying auditions for the first all-Union [Soviet Union – L. B.] review of young composers. A performance was organized with the opera studio orchestra, and Ihor Blazhkov asked that he conduct it. Eventually, it happened.

— After graduating from the Conservatory, you immediately began active music research and became one of the leading members of the Kyiv Avant-Garde, mastering the latest compositional techniques forbidden in Soviet music. How did you master dodecaphony?

Leonid Hrabovsky: Thanks to Ihor Blazhkov, I got my hands on a German-language textbook on dodecaphony by Hanns Jelinek (as it turned out recently, the same one that Igor Stravinsky used to study it!). I was the only one on our team who knew a little German then, so I dropped everything and translated it for two weeks, day and night.

It was for a common cause, and we all immediately rushed to learn the new technique. Valentyn Silvestrov was at the head of this process. He was the first to master dodecaphony and began to produce exciting works very quickly. Also, Vitaliy Hodziatsky with his Rupture of Planes [for piano, 1963 – T.N.]. At that time, I composed Four Two-Part Inventions and Five Character Pieces for piano [1962 – T.N.].

— Are these your only dodecaphonic works?

Leonid Hrabovsky: Later, dodecaphony remained in some compositions, but it was no longer the only method, just one of them. Following Boguslaw Schaeffer, I call such works polytechnic.

— Were your first dodecaphonic pieces performed on stage right away, or did you write them to master the technique “for yourself”?

Leonid Hrabovsky: Yes and no. Five Character Pieces were played by Mykhailo Lehotsky, a pianist from Odesa who was studying for a postgraduate degree in Kyiv. It was sometime in January or February 1967 at a conservatory concert. I can’t remember precisely, when Borys Demenko first performed the Inventions.

— That is, they were performed much later. Have you ever had a work performed the same year it was written?

Leonid Hrabovsky: This has seldom happened in my life, with a few exceptions. For example, Anton Sharoyev (founded the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra in 1963), commissioned pieces from me and performed them immediately. For him, I transcribed for strings two of my Five Character Pieces, “Romance” and “Scherzino,” and then wrote for him Little Chamber Music No. 1 [for 15 string solos, 1966 – T.N.], which he performed immediately. Later, he commissioned Meditation and Pathetic Recitative [for strings, 1972 – T.N.] from me and performed them right away. Anton Sharoyev was one of the few people who actively supported my work.

For the most part, none of my other works were performed immediately, and some of them waited for half a century. This happened with my The Homeomorphia-IV for orchestra, composed in 1970 and performed in Kyiv only in May 2016 under Vitaliy Protasov’s conduction.

— Nevertheless, the 1960s were the most fruitful period in your career. In 1964, you began a new stage, the sonorous one. Even during this year, one after another, you composed works for various performing groups with completely different themes.

Leonid Hrabovsky: They were all written in small forms, and it was quite easy to finish them. These works appeared as my direct reaction to new images I found. I came across Japanese haiku [From Japanese Haiku for tenor, piccolo flute, bassoon, and xylophone – T.N.], or I decided to musicalize “Pastels” [the vocal cycle of the same name for soprano and four strings based on the poems of Pavlo Tychyna – T.N.].

— What attracted you to sonority? 

Leonid Hrabovsky: I felt that there was a massive army of composers working in the field of dodecaphony. After the Second World War, thanks to Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, imitation of Anton Webern became popular, and many composers imitated him to some degree. However, some unexpectedly found their unique individuality from the beginning, such as Luigi Dallapiccola.

I thought if I went in the same direction, I could dissolve in that sea, so maybe I should look for other ways. Then, this article about sonorities came out. I realized that it was very interesting! You don’t need to work on so many small details. You write music like an artist; example-wise, here is a green spot, a yellow spot, and a brown spot. I felt that it would free my imagination, and those narrow limits would not constrain it.

The same fall when Zielinski’s article appeared, a very good friend of mine, the artist Vilen Barskij, who later became a Russian-language avant-garde poet, brought me a copy of the Polish magazine Poetry (he subscribed to a lot of newspapers and magazines from Poland to keep up with what was happening in art. Under his influence, I immediately started subscribing to all these sources). In that magazine, there were five excerpts from Saint John Perse’s poem Amers. And Barsky told me: “If I were a composer, I would certainly write music for this text!”

This poetry was unusual and peculiar, and there was simply no other like it! At that time, we had no contact with modern poetry at all. Surrealism? Of course not! That’s why Saint John Perse initially surprised me but didn’t evoke any direct musical response. Only two months later, I suddenly woke up at night with a clear thought that I knew how I would write for Saint John-Perse’s poem!

— In 1970, your work La Mer/The Sea appeared. In conversations with Oleksandr Shchetynsky, you called La Mer/The Sea a stylistic breakthrough into modernity.

Leonid Hrabovsky: Indeed, it was, to some extent, a landmark work for me, a large form for a reader, choir, orchestra with an organ, two pianos, and two harps.

On the one hand, this piece is a serial work. I used a specific series of perfect fifths. Oddly enough, if you take every fifth note of this series, you get a chromatic scale. The separation of every fifth note is a principle that Alban Berg first applied in some episodes of his opera Lulu. I continued his idea. The chromatic scale became a logical legal basis for introducing halftone clusters.

On the other hand, by its concept, La Mer/The Sea is a sonorous work. It involves a system of aleatoric squares, repetitions of motifs, and groups in various combinations, the order of which must be determined by the performers themselves. It embodies many ideas that seemed very promising to me at the time.

— Nowadays, your sonorous compositions, with their picturesqueness and mosaic of timbres and textures, are a metaphor for the bright outbreak of new and fresh art in the 60s in Ukrainian music. How noticeable was this outbreak, then? Were these works performed in the 60s? 

Leonid Hrabovsky: In fact, apart from the Trio [for violin, double bass, and piano, 1964-T.N.], which was performed in 1966, other works from the 60s were waiting to be performed much longer. For example, Epitaph to the Memory of Rilke [for soprano, celeste, harp, guitar, and handbells, 1965 – T.N.] appeared on the program of some Ukrainian festivals in the 1990s.

I conducted Marginalia on Heissenbuettel [for the reader, two trumpets, trombone, and percussion, 1967 – T.N.] at the Moscow Autumn Festival in 1984. In 1995, there was a festival of post-Soviet music in Germany, and I represented Ukraine. Marginalia and Microstructures for oboe solo were performed there.

All these works were performed much later than they were written. It is worth emphasizing that from 1970 (the centenary of Lenin’s birth) until 1975, there were anniversaries after anniversaries, like the anniversary of the founding of the USSR and so on. During these five years, not a single plenary session of the Composers’ Union was devoted to music as such. There were only oratorios and cantatas about the Party, the Soviet people, and Lenin.

By the end of the 70s, I realized that I was already 45 years old. I was still an unknown composer whose works were performed every few years. My peers, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Henryk Gorecki were already famous. They have traveled all over Europe, they were commissioned and performed their works, and I was sitting there in that stone sack! I thought that I had to get out of this damned Soviet Union at any cost. That’s why I moved to Moscow (it was impossible to emigrate from Kyiv). I knew that 90% of those who managed to escape left through Moscow.

Many people probably thought I went to Moscow because I wanted to make it there. Not at all. I just had to hide my goal from everyone. The KGB kept a very close eye on me, especially in Ukraine. Once, I was close to being arrested. I was saved by the fact that on the day of the mass arrests, I was in Moscow, where a choreographer wanted to choreograph a number to the music of my Trio.

When I returned, I learned that that night, there were searches and arrests everywhere. Then, all of us, starting with Ivan Drach, were periodically summoned for interrogation to special rooms in the Ukraina Hotel from January to April 1972. Therefore, given this “wonderful” experience, the desire to leave the hopeless prison of the people wasn’t surprising to anyone.

— Perhaps another reason for such infrequent performances was that it wasn’t very safe for musicians, even enthusiasts of new music who were really interested in it, to play such works.

Leonid Hrabovsky: There were virtually no enthusiasts. Basically, the performers of those years were pragmatists. They were ready to play what was acceptable for Soviet music. It was in the 1960s that Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich experienced a renaissance after the lifting of the bans, and all attention was directed to them.

The levels of acceptability were different. For example, in Moscow in the 1960s, there were already phenomena such as Rodion Shchedrin’s Second Piano Concerto, in which dodecaphony was used very widely. At the plenary session of the Composers’ Union, it was proclaimed that dodecaphony was suitable for depicting negative phenomena and emotions. In Ukraine, it was more difficult. At that time, Andriy Nikodemovych was working in Lviv. He was also a dodecaphonist, writing modern works. No one could perform his compositions in Lviv. We were absolute loners.

There were only a few people who were not guided by what the Politburo [of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – L. B.] had to say about it but simply had an interest in new music. For example, my Trio was first performed by violinist Bohodar Kotorovych, double bassist Viktor Filipochkin, and pianist Mykhailo Stepanenko.

The same was true for Vasyl Pylypchak, for whom I wrote Concorsuono for French horn solo [1977 – T. N.]. In this work, I used several specially made horns, ceramic, glass, cardboard, and aluminum, each producing a completely unique sound that has nothing to do with the French horn.

— Were your works performed abroad at that time?

Leonid Hrabovsky: Back in the ’60s, I started some correspondence with Witold Lutosławski and sent him the score of my Microstructures. It was played on Polskie Radio [Polish Radio]. Then, in a strange way, my sheet music found its way to Heinz Holliger himself, the greatest oboist of all time. He performed Microstructures in one of the programs on West German radio.

Also, the performance of La Mer/The Sea took place in the Netherlands at the Gaudeamus festival. They hold a competition, and the selected works were then performed at the festival. I applied for this competition and had to write the parts very quickly. I used a low-quality gray marker since, at that time, there were no black markers in Ukraine! It was incredibly difficult, or just impossible, to write quickly with ballpoint pens.

I sent the score by regular mail. This was an unacceptable oversight by the Ukrainian [Communist – L.B.] party authorities as normally it was impossible to send sheet music from Moscow this way. Several times, someone tried to bring me a recording of the concert on tape, but each time, some mechanism demagnetized the tape when I was exiting this or that institution. Only in 2013 did I receive a digitized recording via the Internet (!).

— Did you submit this score on your own and not from the Union of Composers?

Yes, I did.

— What was the reaction of the authorities?

Leonid Hrabovsky: It was very sharp. Khrennikov [Tikhon Khrennikov, General Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers – T. N.] threatened us that if anyone else sent the score without permission, they would be immediately expelled from the Union. I realized that I could not send it any further. At that time, I was completely dependent on the opportunity to work in the cinema, and it was my only income.

I left my job at the conservatory for a year-long sabbatical (I never returned to the conservatory after that) immediately after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I knew that on September 1 [the first day of a new school semester – L. B.], everyone would be gathered in the assembly hall, and there would be a vote to support the “right” thing the Party had done. I told myself, “No, you can’t do that”.

In that situation, I stopped sending my music sheets abroad. However, there was one more attempt to perform my Concerto Misterioso [for nine instruments, 1977 – T.N.]. The Budapest Chamber Ensemble commissioned me to write this piece. The ensemble was known in the Eastern Bloc and came to Kyiv on tour, I think, in 1975. I met their director, András Mihály, and he, knowing my work, gave me an offer to write something for the ensemble. That’s how the idea to write Concerto Misterioso came about.

When the piece was ready, I was unable to send the score. My contacts with the Budapest Chamber Ensemble were interrupted. The first performance took place at the Berliner Festwoche [International Music Festival – L.B.] in 1986 in Berlin. Of course, I did not hear about this performance, as travel permits began to be granted around February 1987, when perestroika gained momentum, and Soviet obstacles were removed.

— Concerto Misterioso represents the move to the algorithmic method of composition following the sonorous stage in your composer’s career. Is this the first work you’ve composed in that manner?

Leonid Hrabovsky: Not really. It’s just that by the time I composed Concerto Misterioso, this system was finally fully formed. It was partially developed in the Homeomorphies [1968-1970 – T.N.]. I built the Homeomorphies based on certain numerical proportions, but at that time, I hadn’t developed a rhythmic system yet. There was no richness of texture and rhythms that I found later in the Concerto Misterioso.

In addition, the Concerto Misterioso used a new method of working with folklore. Its melodic micro motifs (in work, their source is the songs of Jawdoha Zuikha) were detached from their original rhythmic structure and applied on very sophisticated, separately composed rhythms, creating a whimsical sound mosaic.

In my presence, the piece was performed for the first time in Las Vegas, where Virko Baley organized a small micro-festival of my works. I was trembling when I went to the first rehearsal because I didn’t know what I was going to hear. There was a nine-voice polytonal counterpoint in some places! I consoled myself with Igor Stravinsky’s dictum that “The composer always hears, at least by calculation.” I really hoped that my calculation would produce an artistic result and not something dead. Fortunately, there was no failure. Now that we have the Sibelius and the Finale, we can hear at once what comes out of these complex polyrhythmic and polymelodic combinations.

— Obviously, the Concerto Misterioso embodies the principle of constant “vocabulary expansion” that you have spoken about many times. After all, the ideas of timbre and texture music writing inherent in sonorous music are partially preserved here, but now, in the context of new technology, isn’t it?

Leonid Hrabovsky: Timbre and texture music writing is now on a solid logical basis, but it can only be done quickly and reliably with a computer. I still composed Concerto Misterioso manually, based on operations with numbers, writing them down in cells on ordinary checkered paper. It was incredibly time-consuming, and I felt like I was working beyond my human strength.

After a substantial break, I composed only a few more works in this way, and I had to wait until I had the opportunity to computerize my method. I wanted to write in such a way that I wouldn’t sacrifice anything and wouldn’t reject any important ideas. I got to computers only in America. In the USSR, I had never even seen a computer.

In the conditions in which I found myself in Moscow, I had no desire to compose. Fortunately, I received an offer from Virko Baley to write a piece for the New York-based ensemble Continuum. It was a vocal cycle called “When” based on poems by Velimir Khlebnikov [1987 – T.N.]. Later, I composed several pieces where the algorithmic method is still embodied manually, Für Elise for piano (for the wife of Virko Baley) [1988 – T.N.], and later a cantata Temnere Mortem based on texts by Hryhoriy Skovoroda, [for mixed chamber choir a capella, 1991 – T.N.] for a recital organized for me by the Ukrainian community in New York.

When I came to America, I wanted to computerize my method. This process began with a great delay (through no fault of my own) and was completed only in 2015. Then, I could write music without regard to who ordered me what. The first piece was 12 Two-Part Inventions (2016) for harpsichord, followed by Tetragon for guitar quartet and string orchestra (2017), ARRY for string orchestra (2018), EQVIN for violin and piano (2019), and Str-O(r)gan for organ (2020). The title of this last one encrypts the name of the programmer, Oleg Strogan, who did a great job in terms of computerizing my method.

— Between Temnere Mortem, where the algorithmic method is implemented manually, and 12 Inventions, where the method is computerized, more than 20 years of almost complete silence passed in your composer’s career. Did you ever think about the possibility of taking a different and more accessible path during this time?

Leonid Hrabovsky: No, for me, it remained a matter of principle to realize this idea because it was my own method of working in textless autonomous instrumental music of large forms.

— There is a stereotype that music based on computer technology is too “made” and that it lacks the presence of the “author’s hand” and inspiration. How do you perceive such a creative process?

Leonid Hrabovsky: It all depends on how my algorithmically composed works are perceived by the public. For example, my Homeomorphia-IV is an abstract work where there are only sound blocks of different thicknesses and different numbers of voices and sounds, from 1 to 49 in all possible sizes and different durations. And yet, after the concert, the audience came up to me and said that they felt something very tragic there.

I cannot help but recall one of the postulates of Bohusław Schaeffer. He said that a new image and a new configuration, at the moment of its emergence, may not have any specifically defined expressive connotation. This connotation is acquired in practice. In his work Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky says that we now perceive ancient Greek sculpture or ancient Egyptian papyri in a completely different way than people did at the time of their creation. Over these millennia, they have acquired a spectrum of different interpretations, ideas, meanings, and associations.

At first, there is no association. It emerges later. I think this is especially true of music and abstract non-figurative painting. It doesn’t show what exists in the visible world. On the contrary, it creates a new, different, imaginary space that doesn’t exist in real life in our three-plus-one dimensions.

— How do you usually interact with the performers of your music? 

Leonid Hrabovsky: I wait for the performers to contact me. Of course, I keep in touch with some of them. There are musicians who expect pieces from me and commission me to create a piece of music. However, these requests do not always coincide with my preferences.

The organ is a very interesting instrument for me these days. The very idea of such an orchestra with many timbres has been attractive to me for a long time. In general, I think that combinations of wind instruments, flute, oboe, French horn, etc., with the piano are not very natural and that they don’t integrate. The piano is a stringed instrument, and it is in harmony with the violin and the cello. Wind instruments, in my opinion, are simply created to sound with the organ! It can be an incredibly rich combination of textures, timbres, and contrasts.

Nowadays, I try not to take the initiative in communicating with performers because I have had bitter experiences in the past. Iannis Xenakis, for example, when he wrote his organ piece, approached the organist himself with a proposal to premiere his work. At that time, Xenakis was already a widely known composer. I was in a paradoxical situation since, in some media, I was even called a “legendary composer,” but no one knew my music!

One day, Oksana Zabuzhko invited me to a literary evening where I was to talk about some events of the 1970s. They announced my name, and the audience stood up! I was shocked. I asked if anyone in the audience knew my music, and someone timidly mentioned only Four Ukrainian Songs. This is an attitude similar to that of a historical figure who should be put on a shelf.

— It seems that the trial of a Sixty artist, a Soviet nonconformist, and an avant-garde composer does not always have a positive effect.

Leonid Hrabovsky: A prominent Canadian cultural figure, Marko Robert Stech, made a lot of television programs about representatives of Ukrainian art, from Levytsky and Borovykovsky to Petrytsky and Bohomazov, from Lysenko to Sylvestrov and Hrabovsky. The program about me was called Avant-garde Composer Leonid Hrabovsky [laughs]. It’s already a stamp and a kind of brand.

— Perhaps the problem is that this stamp is usually tied to the 1960s, the time of the Kyiv Avant-Garde, reducing all ideas about the composer to this period only.

Leonid Hrabovsky: Yes! “Composer of the Sixties” is as if your achievements ended in the 1960s, and everything else you created later was no longer interesting. Now, you are just a historical figure. Yet you are still alive and still writing music!

— Looking back at your entire career, how would you define what your music is about?

Leonid Hrabovsky: Obviously, I’m inclined to something epic, fundamental, and to tell not so much about myself as about the world, even the just invented one, as another reality. This is better seen not by me but by those who listen to my music. Although in some parts, I express my own emotions, like in pieces dedicated to the memory of my parents, or I try to give the mystical worldview of Skovoroda in Temnere Mortem.

All performers and researchers interested in Leonid Hrabovsky’s works are welcome to contact the composer for sheet music at

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