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by Gustavo Costantini
For Michel Chion
Music and Sound were there
Sound was always present in film projections. Through piano accompaniment, a gramophone record, someone talking to the audience... the early films were surrounded by sounds. But in the early days music was the main source of film sound. The musicians were there to enhance action, create an atmosphere, reinforce drama. Duplicating the presence of the image through sound was a common practice. Film music of the silent days was highly coded: one motif representing water, another trains, yet another explosions and so on. Editors published little scores with these motifs along with melodic lines for different situations: chases, battles, duels, and so on[i]. Thus music was mostly there to make audiences hear the absent sound effects and help them understand the dramatic situations involved. Theatre music and opera did much the same thing. Richard Wagner found a very sophisticated way of organising musical material to fit action and mood.
Practical or philosophical reasons
The pioneer Kurt London (one of the first theoreticians to write a book on film music[ii]) wrote that music was included in film to cover the noise of the projector. The projections were indeed noisy, but his explanation reduces the problem to a minor detail. Theodor W. Adorno and Hans Eisler[iii] refuted London with a philosophical explanation: cinema shows the human being as an artefact of industrial society, yet another object placed among industrial machinery. Following the path of György Lukacs¶ developments of Marx¶s ideas on the ³fetishism of commodities´[iv], Adorno and Eisler tell us that romantic music has the effect of calming us, that in some way it denies or conceals the terrible fact of seeing ourselves as mere objects of the mercantile world. Whether or not one agrees with this powerful statement, or the simpler idea of Kurt London, music was there from the beginning as an integrating element, while, at the same time, guaranteeing the absence of noises from the outside word, because being conscious of the presence of the projector takes us away from the alternative world the screen is offering us. Romantic music was not only a
The simple. repetitive and effective rhythmic theme is immediately retained in auditory memory. Firstly..despite its simplicity .and he whistles the leitmotif to indicate (us) the identity of the killer. The term was coined by F.it introduces the idea of identifying or labelling a character by means of sound. Secondly. W. leitmotif (leading motif) is ³a theme. The blind man is telling us ³you don¶t have to try to see the face. Wagner leitmotifs were both a complex form of codification and a way of producing subtle sensations and associations in the listener.the next victim . which is a sort of inheritance of Gesamkunstwerk. Romantic music entered the film sound field associated with all these technical. What is a leitmotif? First things. But it was Wagner who gave leitmotif a new status as a determining element of musical form. And there. M buys a balloon for Elsie .. helping narrative film to aim higher. we find an application of leitmotif that opens new possibilities..whose face is not seen . state of mind. One of the first uses of leitmotif was in Fritz Lang¶s M (1931). you have to listen to what I am able to . And because cinema was not as demanding as opera . or other coherent idea. While we see a large ³M´ covering the screen. idea. Listen. making it very easy to associate with the mysterious murderer. supernatural force or any other ingredient in a dramatic work. finally. it was the dominant model. According to Grove¶s Dictionary of Music[v]. and whose purpose is to represent or symbolise a person. clearly defined so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances. Leitmotif is presented at the very beginning in the title sequence.at least at those days the musician¶s task was simplified by the use of leitmotif. People were aware of the musical code. But it is not the same music which establishes the link: it¶s the murderer¶s whistling which tells us that this man . His flexible way of using musical themes enabled musicians to resolve a lot of problems when films began to include sound. and the associations with characters and situations allowed directors to delineate and complete plot ideas through sound. Jähns in his Carl Maria Von Weber in seinen Werken (1871). It was not mere chance that film music opted so strongly for the Wagnerian approach. And. to link characters and situations by means of music. to find a structure for organising musical material.choice of style. Lang was aware of it and it was not by chance that he decided to include a blind balloon-seller. psychological and formal aspects. to avoid duplication (image / sound / musical onomatopoeia. object. place. Don¶t look now. we listen to a fragment of Edward Grieg¶s Peer Gynt. And Wagner operas were the closest art forms to cinema.is M.. choral or instrumental´. having sound and music do the same thing). first. This example is interesting because . usually operatic but also vocal.
the image of the clock. bright sounds for positive elements. Solving crimes through leitmotif From the beginning of the sound era. or to put it better. a title.. such as diatonic scales for hero-themes (Indiana Jones. or pays attention to something unrelated to her. the cinema has included leitmotifs other than musical ones.. But if we listen carefully. it is probably Otto Preminger¶ s Laura. This time.recognise´. we will discover it¶s the same theme. If we have to mention one film of the classic period that condenses a lot of characteristics of musical leitmotifs. every time he sees her portrait. The blind man will be the key to catching M. Every time he goes to another part of the house. we hear Laura¶s leitmotif. Is it necessary to say the clock is the element that helps to solve the crime? In another sequence we see the most obsessive use of leitmotif in history: when the detective is alone at Laura¶s apartment. the composer who most clearly represents the leitmotif tradition is John Williams. Waldo¶s leitmotif derives from the transformation of Laura¶s. there are lots of indications of his culpability. and Waldo¶s words mentioning the clock (³the detective was seeing my clock. But musical leitmotifs were (and still are) the most used. theEmpire leitmotif). Superman). Where Laura¶s is consonant and cantabile. he touches her belongings.. Use the Force In recent decades. with the title Laura superimposed and the leitmotif sounding in all its splendour. chromatic scales or themes for objects. Laura begins with the big portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura. when the detective (Dana Andrews) interrogates Waldo. a link between the actress / name / song. his ears listening to the leitmotif will. things or negative elements (Jaws. A beautiful Hollywood star.. a portrait. The hyper-codification of romantic music in alliance with leitmotif associations allows composer and director to explain without words the nature of the particular liaison between the detective and the supposedly dead lady[vi]. with obscure timbres and a sinister character.. he smells her perfume or even when he thinks about her. The sound of the big clock. Waldo¶s is dissonant and intricate. obscure timbres (and located in the extremes of the register) for . the music immediately abandons Laura and becomes a transition.. a musical theme played by an orchestra. darker. and there was an identical one at Laura¶s apartment that I bought for her as a gift´). he uses a lot of Wagnerian stuff. Stars Wars. Do we need more? After the title sequence. In the same sequence.´ What music do we listen to meanwhile? A sort of negative version of Laura¶s leitmotif. we see Waldo¶s apartment and we hear his voice-over: ³I¶ll never forget the weekend Laura died. The result is a message that lets us understand in what way (fetishism) the detective is evoking Laura. And his leitmotif preserves the reference to Laura as a negative because Waldo (supposedly) killed Laura. In ³his´ films.
Later we¶ll come to the heartbeat sounds in Alan Parker¶s Angel Heart. It is possible to think of these leitmotifs as replacing a visual sign or signal (a mysterious character wearing a ring or a funny hat). His extraordinary capacity to reach the audience like a classical composer makes him the perfect choice for films dealing with mythical subject matter. schematic. The symphonic sounds of Williams do not connect with sound design. But it is possible to use leitmotif sounds from beyond the film¶s frame. we will try to recognise other possibilities and establish a classification of types. links and functions of leitmotifs. but simple repetition is on the verge of being just a case of mere redundancy[ix]. beyond classic scoring. and no one in the theatre will fail to recognise any link between the themes and the characters associated to them. Although John Williams is one of the most successful scoring composers. This is not exactly a bad thing. or for a kind of cinema that wants to resemble that of the classical era[vii]. music from the screen and sound effects in the wonderful first minutes of The Talented Mr. His approach is very direct and strong.more involved with Howard Shore¶s music than the scenes it accompanies. thus dissolving the frontiers between diegetic and non-diegetic status[x].) Most sound leitmotifs are a kind of mark intended to give a clue to the viewers. Ripley). very close to After Hours¶ clock. but it was impossible for Carpenter to show the character during daylight scenes wearing the mask. The mask he wears could have been the only evidence of his presence. (This is the case in the sound of the clock in Scorsese¶s After Hours. in some ways. The intense breathing of the killer Michael Myers in John Carpenter¶s Halloween belongs to this category. and one of the most respected. ambiguously used as the sound of a clock or an off sound .negative ones. In most cases. And this procedure allows the director . these are sounds from within the scene. it has to be said that his use of the Wagnerian leitmotif is.in Chion¶s terms . Mychael Danna (the flute and electric guitar sounds overlapped when Ian Holm discovers the destroyed bus in Atom Egoyan¶s The Sweet Hereafter[viii]). for example). at least in the way composers like Howard Shore (in the car washer sequence in Crash. The problem with these is that on most occasions they are only a single sound repeated throughout the film. Despite the fact that musical leitmotifs intended to describe characters or situations are the most used. we can add sound leitmotifs. Gabriel Yared / Walter Murch (deliberate confusion between music from the score. Not only music Following the path opened by M.
fans Everyone who saw Angel Heart remembers the fans and the suggestive effect they produce. When we see Harold Angel. a singular version of Faust. a path to link the cane to Cypher (instead of simply seeing the cane in Cypher¶s hands: this procedure. This leitmotif has to be done through a link between a visual sign + sound sign.. But this metonym is more interesting since Harold Angel looks up and sees one of the ventilators slowly starting to turn. The same path again and similar noises.. thanks to songs As regards complex and not schematic uses of musical leitmotifs. we did not know that we are receiving a signal. Besides this interesting resource.. the first shot of Louis Cypher (when they meet for the first time) is a close shot of his hand holding the cane. This obliges us to ask what it is.to create a sort of subjective sound: we see an objective shot but listen through the ears of the killer (instead of his eyes). we see the fans again. the mask or another distinctive element could replace the sound of breathing. In the title sequence we listen the leitmotif. the Louis Cypher¶ s (=Lucifer). mixed with a sort of recollection of past events. we see a ventilator starting to revolve (and of course hear the sound). Faust revisited Finally. These leitmotifs are the most complex and hard to find. pulling the strings. What do we see in between? We see a strange dream-like scene that shows Harold Angel somehow lost or disturbed. there are three leitmotifs (or at least two. Angel Heart also provides an interesting example. The visual signs are the images of fans spread throughout the film. Why do people feel this? Because they saw the scenes where the fan appears as a logical sequence of events: before each killing. The sound signs are the metallic noises of the fan starting to revolve.. In most of these scenes. Both elements are related to Cypher through a metonym: these ventilators reproduce the circular movement of Cypher¶s cane/trident and make (almost) the same noise as the contact between the metallic tip of the cane and the wooden floor. The Harold Angel / Johnny Favourite leitmotif is a song. Later we will see a scene where Angel discovers the dead body. This honest development of the script is telling us what is happening in Angel¶s mind while he is not aware of being possessed. both related to a character or thing. we can talk of the most interesting kind of leitmotif: the audio / visual one. But we will know this close to the end. We see Angel talking to someone in a place that has a ventilator. we are forced to see the cane randomly entering the frame. we only see his face after seeing his cane. in which Lucifer has a different cane. In Alan Parker¶s Angel Heart. and are connected in a very subtle way. I¶m afraid of American. I know who I am. a trident that suggests his power and status. But first. When we recognise that it¶s Cypher¶s cane. with a third element having a different function). Trevor Jones - . Both elements are present in the first interview of Cypher and the private investigator Harold Angel/Faust. And primarily. It is interesting to see the final encounter between Angel and Lucifer. Cypher is playing with his cane making it turn in circles again and again. metonym of Louis Cypher. Harold Angel doesn¶t know he is in the verge of losing his mind in order to commit a crime. we will focus on the audio / visual. this emphasis guarantees the link). Fans suggest the ghostly presence of Lucifer in the scene. but are surely the most fascinating ones. And this movement and noise recall the cane. but perhaps it is so transformed as to be imperceptible for some people.
´ At last. He is seeking for his lost identity. Over this ground. or someone else sings it. Harold Angel does not know he is Mephistopheles and Faust at the same time. allows us to introduce a related form to leitmotif: the idée fixe. plays it on a piano. It was Berlioz who invented this predecessor of the leitmotif. variation 3/ variation 2/ variation 1/ original theme (the logic is n = more different. he himself plays the leitmotif on a piano. He asks her: ³what is this tune?´ She answers: ³It¶s a Johnny Favourite¶s song.. the parameters are gradually changed and each new appearance is closer to the original source. Lucifer puts the record on the old gramophone. Close to the ending. The important thing here is the parallel between detective investigation and musical revelation.. he faces the fact that melody in this head is a song: when he returns to his room.introduces what appears to be a typical musical ground. and now with a jazzy rhythm (the slow chromatic scale becomes just ornament). He . Later he will be at a bar and we will listen to a piano (whose source is offscreen) that let us clearly hear the melody line.. we listen to this tune: he whistles it. the leitmotif is transformed in tempo. he is a private investigator who has to find the lost singer Johnny Favourite (he does not know he is searching for himself). orchestration. a clear indication to pay attention to the tune). If in Hollywood classics leitmotifs are clearly recognised at the beginning. Courtney Pine plays on tenor sax a chromatic slow line...composer of the wonderful score . The important thing about this is that it¶s the opposite of the typical construction of leitmotif. ends as a typical song of the late 30s that helps to solve the mystery. Johnny¶s song is gradually ³revealed´ as the mystery of the plot. Angel whistles it in his car (while in the background we hear the same music from the non-diegetic score. As Angel. the obsessive heartbeat. Not all is leitmotif: Idée fixe The third repeated sound.. When he interviews Margaret (Charlotte Rampling). a low note on the synthesiser. What begins as typical 80s film music. so it¶s barely distinguishable. harmony. Logic: the classics and beyond We can trace the formula of the classical leitmotif in Hollywood classics as this: Original theme / variation 1/ variation 2/ variation 3. the musical version of the ³I´.. he finds the girl (Lisa Bonet) taking a bath and singing. Throughout the film. And beyond the originality and the skills involved in the process. character. and we hear the distant voice of Harold¶s past life as Johnny. He asks himself to fulfil the contract with the devil. when Harold / Johnny reencounters his mentor. we will listen to the song for the last time. My mother was always singing it to me. In the title sequence. the selfleitmotif. In this postmodern and distorted version of Faust. variation 1 = more similar to the song source).. here it is only recognised at the end. which is the melodic line of Johnny Favourite¶s song. Louis Cypher. the crooner. The treatment in Angel Heart is the exact opposite: Variation N. After this early appearance. ³The´ song. variation n (the variations are not necessarily more complex during their successive appearances). it is interesting to think in the symbolic dimension: a song that identifies someone.
etc. The ending shows a theatre . Wrong! Idée fixe is telling us ³because he is thinking of the disturbing beauty of the sister´. an independent source.wrote a theme that is repeated a few times throughout his Symphonie Fantastique. but they are not. metaphorically present in the inside of the ³new´ Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke). But it is impossible to think of this metonym while seeing the film. theatre stage devices. through the rite of eating the heart of a sacrificial lamb. but is disturbed (idée fixe again. To re-evaluate our perception of the things involved in the scene.performing a play about Death. Later. will be somehow connected by this invisible string. attitudes. In the French film Dr Pétiot (Christian de Chalonge. and even when we learn whom the Angel referred to is or was. While leitmotif is always ³the leitmotif of someone or something´. scratches. If we think again about the After Hours clock. and to link different moments and elements in the story: facts. Even though the film is called Angel Heart. the heart of the sacrificed victim. but is a part of the score. knives. 1990). The heartbeat of Angel Heart could be described as the leitmotif of the ³real´ and dead Harold Angel. persons. At last. the famous motif written by Michel Legrand (a perfect fifth followed by a minor sixth like C-G / C-Ab) is transformed throughout the film (mostly in the style of the baroque sequence). we have to guess. idée fixe is a kind of ³presence´ in itself. there is a group of metallic sounds that invades all locations: sounds of bicycle wheels.Julie Christie . situations. denying what seems so faithful and logical.and the impact of the music forces us to think again about what we are seeing. seen at different moments and not having a clear link between them. This ³recurrent idea´ is re-interpreted each time.we hear the idée fixe. but we don¶t know what it is. The idea is to connect all spaces in the film with the terrible final destination: Death. faces. because in between. information. Its tension and strength forces us to ask: what is happening? Why are these beautiful images accompanied by this macabre theme? When the boy discovers the belladonna plant and when he stares at his friend¶s elder sister . but is always easy to recognise. we know another Harold Angel and another heart. the boy is trying to sleep.all seem to be innocent . All the metallic noises were related to the blade of the symbolic figure of Death (Dr Pétiot was making people die in order to let them escape from Nazi . there is a lot of information that develops the musical narration. The contrast between the character of most scenes . In soundtracks. the idée fixe is not as specific as in Berlioz¶ music. As the music tell us ³its story´ (or at least as Berlioz intended it to). etc. A sound created about what the title suggests. louder this time). But we can use this notion because of its difference from leitmotif. So. in fact. That¶s the way Johnny became Harold. Idée fixe is resource that makes us notice key elements of the plot. pointing out and connecting things. It is more appropriate to think of this heartbeat as the obsessive sound that forces us to rethink the plot: the heartbeat is pointing something out. that is. The sounds seem to be the same. details. the interpretation of the theme changes.in which Dr Pétiot is hidden . and progressively. Its function is to awaken our attention. Why? Common sense probably makes us say ³because he is not at home and he misses his mother´. clock / hours. we begin to separate what seems so literally connected: the heartbeat of Angel in Angel Heart. In Joseph Losey¶s The Go-between. Things. The clock sound not only is not related to the clocks we see. We perceive them as the same because sound design cleverly uses the same kinds of object or objects having metallic parts. we discover a parallel: heartbeat / heart. we guess the heartbeat is the detective¶s.
in the mud of the garden. But besides its literal reference to the absurd teen-like organisation. Whether the aliens are angels or simply an excuse is irrelevant. Every time James Cole (Bruce Willis) finds a clue to discover the army¶s operations. y Finally.. Leitmotif or Idée fixe: types. the ³peak-less´ mountain form that is seen in the shaving cream. But this false information gives as a path to think of the other idée fixe of the film: the obsessive dreaming of airports and killing. the well-known motif played by toys. In Spielberg¶s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. aborigines. presented as ³the greater specialist in the field´ (filmmaking? human emotions?) is leading people . we notice they have no chance of being so terrible. François Truffaut. Idées fixes enhance the capacity of the listener to recognise the nature of this special connection. and we rethink the sequence and the whole plot (including the monkeys) in order to understand the actual cause of world and personal apocalypse. we have to say something about the functions performed by leitmotifs. on the other. If we think about the use of leitmotif. Finally.. functions A repeated motif is an idée fixe only when it is not clearly linked to a person. The idée fixe marks precisely the opposite: The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is not responsible for the biohazard disaster. etc . This is one of the most interesting idées fixes since the sound mark is not fixed to one object alone. The strength of Piazzolla¶s motif becomes the sadness of Paul Buckmeister¶s adagio (that includes a tango-like violin-sound litany). y Description: What happens to him or her? Is he or she to be regarded in a positive or negative light? Indication (or mark): this is the killer / the monster is coming.to meet and to share a destiny. we will find three general possibilities. the elements point towards different things.horrors. The presence of the noise in different spaces and situations becomes a sort of a subtle premonition of tragic events. in Terry Gilliam¶s Twelve Monkeys. We are tempted to think of Piazzolla¶s theme (from Suite Punta del Este) and the monkeys¶ icon as the leitmotif of The Army of the Twelve Monkeys(Brad Pitt¶s gang).).who do not necessarily know each other . This dream is almost an equivalent to the original idea of Berlioz. What James is dreaming of is his horrible destiny: he is condemned to escape to his own death. etc. object or situation. These related elements allow us to understand what the film is really about. it is possible to guess which is more appropriate to each particular case. we can find two more examples of audio / visual idée fixe. at the same time. this motif must reveal an invisible link between apparently unconnected things. links. If we ask what are idées fixes intended for. it is possible that leitmotif does a . there is an audio / visual version of idée fixe: on the one hand. Not all plots or narrative structures are able to include leitmotifs or idées fixes. Thinking about the functions or the uses provided by each one.
animals. the couple has its love song (for example. for example. the Everly Brothers µ song in Ghost). if widely used. sound/ character/ indication (Halloween¶s breathing). By combining the different terms. monsters. musical /object / indication (Jaws. LEITMOTIF IN CINEMA Type Musical Sound Audio/visual Link Character Object Situation Function Description Replacement Indication IDÉE FIXE IN CINEMA Type Description Function Reveals an instance of new signification of the sources or Sound Repetitive and disturbing sound not connected to the same character or . when she happens to be alive. Harold Angel). all chases have a chase theme. These leitmotifs replace the elements they are linked to. In action films. eating and making baby sharks´. it is no longer heard. etc. Regarding the links. in a melodrama. There could even be a modest approach to establish compositional criteria regarding plot and character. Object: relates to things. we have . This classification is intended to provide a resource for leitmotif analysis or to give a starting point to further development. that is to say the element that they are associated with: y Character: refers to all the persons or animated protagonists presenting a psychological development. is heard only while ³she is dead´. in Richard Dreyfuss¶ words). we see all the aspects of a leitmotif (regarding recognition). However. without psychological qualities (the shark in Jaws could be important from a symbolic perspective but has no other function besides ³hunting. Situation: includes all genre-related elements. etc. These leitmotifs.perhaps . y y In the chart.all the possible cases: musical/character/description (Star Wars. Superman and most characters¶ leitmotifs in Hollywood classics). some combinations may be impossible.y Replacement: Laura¶s theme. are less interesting to analyse because of their schematic nature and their subordination to genre or code.
orchestration or character somehow differs from the emotion of the scene the associated elements Reveals hidden or invisible connections (even antagonism) between characters or different elements in the plot Reveals places (sacred.thing every time it appears A theme whose style. cursed. special. person. divinity. etc . enchanted) or hidden aspects of a character Musical Audio/ Visual Two metonyms (a sound or musical theme / an image) related to a place.
1994. Other Raskin¶s soundtracks are analysed in Prendergast. New York: Oxford University Press. La música de John Williams para el cine. [ii] London. by Rodney Livingstone. [ix] In discussion this type of leitmotif. It¶s a theme on (ney?) flute that also refers to Robert Browining¶s Pied Piper of Hamelin. edition). Lukács. A nd Neglected Art. But it is possible to find some fine developments. Commodity fetishism is later developed by György Lukács into the concept of reification (Lukács¶s History and Class Consciousness. University of California Press. rather than deriving from its labour-value. Roberto: Over theMoon. 1947 [iv] The fetishism of commodities: Marx's term for the practice of seeing the exchange value of a commodity as inherent in the object. which we think is always rationalised (i. 1923). [viii] It¶s interesting to see how he uses leitmotif in this film. M. or (regarding sound) sound off. Interlink Publishers Group. Lack. see Burt. see Aschieri.. [iii] Adorno. So. the more interesting the sound design. 169. Russell: Twenty Four Frames Under. See Chion. Paris. However. Columbia University Press. A commodity represents a given amount of labour-value. T.: Audiovision (translated by Claudia Gorbman / foreword by Walter Murch). Roy: Film Music. or hors-champ ± main categories ± and sound on the air. The more diverse positions of the sound sources. . But this reference is very subtle because the flute is not clearly recognised as a flute. An interview with David Raskin is included in Brown. Royal: Overtones and Undertones. 1999. maybe meaning the tragic destiny of the boy and girls inside. trans.: Composing for the Films.e.[i] Russell Lack wrote a deep study on the history of Film Music. Boston. Universidad Diego Portales Press. W. Norton. London. 1970. making us rethink the meaning of both elements. The music of the flute condenses the leitmotif of the bus and the piper. and Chion. Merlin Press: London.: History and Class Consciousness. He wrote a leitmotif for the school bus. In fiction film they are restrain to a certain amount and types. Northeastern University Press. and Eisler H. which use sounds in the way musique concrète does. George: The Art of Film Music. [vii] For further reading and deeper approach on John Williams. The bus is climbing up the hills and is seen from the air. it¶s important to recognise when they are used in the same way music leitmotifs are. Los Angeles. Michel: La musique au Cinéma. Kurt (1936): Film Music. 1999 (in Spanish). [vi] For further reading on David Raskin and the soundtrack of Laura and about this sequence in particular. and therefore see themselves in commodities. [x] This distinction could be seen in Michel Chion¶s terms as (regarding music) musique de fosse / musique d¶écran. in. a thing is worth some determinate proportion of what it cost to produce). 1994. Chile. Fayard. internal (objective and subjective) and ambience. Michel Chion observed cinema was always involved with repetitive things. New York: Arno Press. Lots of camera movements and character displacements are not infinite. they lack the kind of variations that music is able to do with themes. Reading Film Music. 1990. 1994. 1992 (2 . [v] 1980 edition. 1995. G. In short: the proletariat see the commodity as representing labour-power (an abstract representation of their own labour). p.
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