• Bang on a Can: Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer
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Streaming Premiere – Thursday, May 6, 2021, 7pm

Program Notes
Steel Hammer

Music and Text by Julia Wolfe


Bang on a Can All-Stars
Robert Black, bass
Vicky Chow, piano and melodica
David Cossin, percussion
Arlen Hlusko, cello
Mark Stewart, electric guitar, banjo, mountain dulcimer, harmonica
Ken Thomson, clarinets and harmonica


Rebecca L. Hargrove, voice
Sonya Headlam, voice
Molly Netter, voice

Filmed exclusively for Cal Performances at the Kreeger Museum, Washington, DC, on March 16, 2021.

Steel Hammer

Music and Text by Julia Wolfe

Some Say
The States
Polly Ann
The Race
Lord Lord

Steel Hammer was commissioned by Bang on a Can with generous support from Maria and Robert A. Skirnick and Carnegie Hall.

Steel Hammer Film Credits
Jeremy Robins, director, editor, and animator
Kharon Benson, camera operator
Hugo Faraco, camera operator
Clements Wronski, camera operator (Berlin)
Ras Dia, set operators coordinator
Emily Hart, archival researcher
Márion Talán Del Rosa, costume design
Theo Kogan, stylist

Steel Hammer Film Soundtrack Credits (2021)
Produced by David Cossin
David Bloom, music director
Recorded at the Bunker Studio, Brooklyn, NY and David’s Studio, New York, NY, March – April 2021
Engineered by Alex Conroy and David Cossin
Edited, mixed, and mastered by David Cossin
The Steel Hammer film soundtrack also includes previously recorded audio recorded at the James L. Dolan Music Recording Studio at New York University, November 2011 & February 2012.
Produced, edited, mixed, and mastered by Damian leGassick
Engineered by Paul Geluso
Assisted by Brian A Bourque and Eric Xu

Kenny Savelson, executive director for Bang on a Can

Ricordi New York/Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP)

Special Thanks
Karl Larson, Sruly Lazaros, Tim McEvoy/MASS MoCA, Allen Moon/David Lieberman Artist’s Representatives, Vince Peterson, Andy Plovnick/The Bunker Studio, Zachary Ritter, Tim Thomas, Philippa Thompson

For More Information

Steel Hammer is a meditation on over 200 versions of the “John Henry” ballad. The various versions, based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales, reveal both the evolution of the story, as well as the timeless tale of human versus machine. Many of the facts are unclear: some say that Henry was from West Virginia; some say he was from South Carolina. Some have said that his fate was set before he picked up a hammer, that his woman’s name was Liza Jane or Polly Ann—that Polly drove steel just like a man. But regardless of the details, John Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faced the onslaught of the industrial age as his super-human strength is challenged in a contest to out-dig an engine.

I drew upon the extreme variations of the story, fragmenting and weaving the contradictory versions of the ballad that have circulated since the late 1800s into a new whole—at times meditating on single words or phrases—in order to tell “the story of the story” and to embody the simultaneous diverse paths it traveled. To tell the tale, the Bang on a Can All-Stars have added a slew of instruments—mountain dulcimer, wooden bones, banjo, harmonicas, and body percussion—to their usual line up, as well as a dynamic trio of three female voices.

Julia Wolfe


Some say he’s from
some say he
some say he’s from
some say
some say he
say he

Columbus, Ohio
New Jersey
Yew Pine Mountains
West Virginia
South Carolina

John Henry
was a little boy
sitting on his papa’s knee
John Henry
was a little man
sitting on his mama’s knee
a baby boy
sitting on his daddy’s knee
John Henry
he said, “I‘m gonna be a steel drivin’ man.”
He picked up his hammer and a little piece of steel
He said, “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me.”

The mountain was so tall
John Henry was so small

He was small
He was tall
He was black
He was white
He was true
He was false
He was two hundred pounds
He was two twenty-five
He’s a worker
Thirty-five years
Cotton picker
Steel Driver (hammer, hammer, steel, steel)
He was true
He was false
He was six feet tall
He was five foot one
He was tall
He was small
He was small
He was tall

John Henry had a little woman
And her name was
Polly Ann, Mary Ann, Julie Ann, Sary Ann, Sally Ann,
Martha Ann, Liza Ann, Lucy Ann,
Mary Magdelena, Magdelena
John Henry had a little woman
and she was all dressed in blue,
dressed in red,
red, blue, black
John Henry’s woman said to him,
“My darling Johnny, I’ve been true.”
true to you, true to you
John Henry had a little woman
and her name was Ida Red,
and her name was Liza Jane,
and her name was Maggadee,
Polly Ann, Mary Ann, Julie Ann, Sary Ann, Sally Ann,
Martha Ann, Liza Ann, Lucy Ann,
Mary Magdelena, Magdelena
Ida Red, Maggadee, Liza Jane,
When John Henry he took sick to bed,
then Polly drove steel just like a man.

The captain told John Henry
“gonna bring that steam drill ‘round”
John Henry told the captain
“a man ain’t nothin’ but a man”
nothin’, nothin’, nothin’
but a man, but a man
John Henry on the right side
the steam drill’s on the left
right, left, right, left
“Before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’ll hammer my fool self to death.”
nine pound hammer
ten pound hammer
twelve pound hammer
twenty pound hammer
two nine pound hammers
two twenty pound hammers
sixteen pound hammer
hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer

The man who invented the steam drill,
he thought he was mighty fine.
John Henry sunk the steel fourteen feet,
while the steam drill only made nine,
Lord Lord,

Lord Lord
This old hammer rings like silver
This old hammer shines like gold

About the Artists

Julia Wolfe, composer
Julia Wolfe’s music is distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience. She draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock genres, bringing a modern sensibility to each while simultaneously tearing down the walls between them.

The 2019 world premiere of Fire in my mouth, a large-scale work for orchestra and women’s chorus, by the New York Philharmonic with The Crossing and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, received extensive acclaim—one reviewer called the work “a monumental achievement in high musical drama, among the most commandingly imaginative and emotively potent works of any kind that I’ve ever experienced” (The Nation Magazine). The work is the third in a series of compositions about the American worker: 2009’s Steel Hammer examines the folk-hero John Henry, and the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning work Anthracite Fields, a concert-length oratorio for chorus and instruments, draws on oral histories, interviews, speeches, and more to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region. Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Anthracite Fields “captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost… but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost. The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work.”

Upcoming and recent work includes Flower Power, a concerto for the Bang on a Can All-Stars co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Danish National Sym­phony; Oxygen for 12 flutes, commissioned by the National Flute Association and premiered by 12 flute choirs (144 flutes); and a new large-scale work, Her Story, for orchestra with the women’s chamber choir Lorelei, which will receive multiple performances in the 2022–23 season with a consortium of five orchestras: the Nashville Symphony, Boston Sym­phony, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Sym­phony, and National Symphony Orchestra.

Wolfe has collaborated with theater artist Anna Deavere Smith; projection/scenic designer Jeff Sugg; filmmaker Bill Morrison; visual artist Laurie Olinder; and directors François Girard, Anne Bogart, and Anne Kauffman, among others. Her music has been heard at venues throughout the world, including Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, Muziekgebouw (Neth­er­lands), the Southbank and Barbican centers (UK), Settembre Musica (Italy), and Théâtre de la Ville (France.) Wolfe’s music has been recorded on Decca Gold, Naxos, Cantaloupe Music, Teldec, Sony Classical, and Universal.

In addition to receiving the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music, Wolfe was a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. She received the 2015 Herb Alpert Award in Music, and was named Musical America’s 2019 Composer of the Year. Julia Wolfe is co-founder/co-artistic director of New York’s Bang on a Can, and artistic director of NYU Stein­hardt Music Composition. Her music is published by Ricordi New York (ASCAP).

Rebecca L. Hargrove, voice
Rebecca L. Hargrove is an actress and singer. She is a recent Grammy Award winner (Best Opera Album) for her participation in the ensemble of the Metropolitan Opera’s Porgy and Bess. She has also been featured in the companies of Evita and Cabin in the Sky at New York City Center. During the 2019–20 season, Har­grove starred (title role) in the New York Times’ “Critic’s Pick” performances of Acquanetta at Bard Summerscape; The Grey Land mono-opera as The Mother at Roulette Intermedium (album available on all streaming platforms); and as Yum-Yum in The Mikado with New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players. Previous engagements include Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration with Jason Moran and Alicia Hall-Moran at Carnegie Hall; In the Parlour as Nellie Quander at the National Black Theater; and a series of new plays at the Lucille Lortel Foundation. Follow her updates at www.RebeccaLHargrove.com and on Insta­gram @Rhargrov.

Sonya Headlam, voice
Soprano Sonya Headlam is a soloist, chamber, and ensemble singer who performs a diverse range of repertoire that ranges from the Baroque period to the 21st century. She is a member of the Grammy-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and performs regularly with the Vocalis Consort, a group of musicians devoted to sharing their passion for art song, and with the Raritan Players, an ensemble that “explores lost performance practices and repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries through engagement with period instruments and new research in musicology.” She joins the Raritan Players on the recently released recording In the Salon of Madame Brillon. Recent opera roles include le Feu in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and the title role in Delibes’ Lakmé. Other recent soloist performances include Beethoven’s Mass in C with Downtown Voices, Ellen Reid’s dreams of the new world at the 2018 Prototype Festival, and Orff’s Carmina Burana with the West Village Chorale. Music-making during the Covid-19 pandemic has included several virtual recitals, and the premiere of a short opera film, How They Broke Away, music and film direction by Andy Teirstein. Headlam received her doctorate in music arts from Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts, where she has also worked as a part-time lecturer in the music department.

Molly Netter, voice
A versatile and joyous musician, Canadian-American soprano Molly Netter enlivens complex and beautiful music, both old and new, with “a natural warmth” (Los Angeles Times) and “clear, beautiful tone and vivacious personality” (New York Times). She can be heard on five Grammy-nominated albums since 2017 and has performed as a soloist with ensembles such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New World Symphony, the Boston Early Music Festival, Apollo’s Fire, the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, Juilliard415, and Heartbeat Opera. Netter has been a full-time member of the Choir at Trinity Wall Street since 2015 and is an active performer, curator, educator, and advocate of new music, regularly commissioning new works by living composers. Recent collaborators include David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Amy Beth Kirsten, Doug Balliett, Katherine Balch, Molly Joyce, and Jessica Meyer. Notable chamber performance highlights include inaugural casts of Pulitzer-winning operas Angels Bone (Du Yun, 2015) and PRISM (Ellen Reid, 2017). Netter was a featured curator/performer on Trinity Wall Street’s 2018 acclaimed Time’s Arrow Festival, programming an eclectic evening of Barbara Strozzi paired with newly commissioned contemporary works. In 2020, she began commissioning an entirely new repertoire for self-accompanied singer and clavicytherium, emphasizing the florid voice, early music vocal techniques, and improvisation as a bridge between style and genre. Netter holds a bachelor’s degree in composition and contemporary voice from Oberlin Conservatory and an master’s in early music voice from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. She is currently on voice faculty at the Oberlin Baroque Per­for­mance Institute. www.mollynettervoice.com.


Robert Black, bass
Robert Black, a founding and current member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, tours the world creating unheard-of music for the double bass, collaborating with the most adventurous composers, musicians, dancers, artists, actors, and technophiles from all walks of life. Current projects include First Fridays with Robert Black—a monthly series of streamed solo bass recitals; a 10-channel audio/video double bass installation reflecting on the Anthropocene with sound artists Brian House and Sue Huang, filmed at the Freshkills landfill in NYC; an outdoor environmental work for 24 basses with composer Eve Beglarian, and commissions from Carman Moore, Joan Tower, Nick Dun­ston, Žibuolkė Martinaitytė, Krists Auznieks, Jakhongir Shukurov, and Daniel Sabzghabaei. Solo recordings include Possessed (Cantaloupe Records), Modern American Bass (New World Records), The Bass Music of Christian Wolff and Giacinto Scelsi (Mode Records), and State of the Bass (O.O. Discs). Black teaches at the Hartt School/University of Hartford, the Manhattan School of Music, and the New Music on the Point Festival.

Vicky Chow, piano
Chinese-Canadian pianist Vicky Chow has been described as “brilliant” (The New York Times) and “one of our era’s most brilliant pianists” (Pitchfork). She is currently the pianist for Bang on a Can All-Stars. The New Yorker described her recording of Michael Gordon’s Sonatra as “a milestone of composition, and Vicky Chow’s recording of it is a milestone of pianism.” Her album Surface Image, composed by Tristan Perich, was among the top ranked avant albums in the Rolling Stone magazine. As an artist frequently broadcasted on WNYC radio, her recorded work can be found on the Nonesuch, New Amsterdam, Tzadik, and Can­ta­loupe Music labels. Interviews and articles featuring Chow have been published in the Huffington Post, Gramophone, the New York Times,  and elsewhere. As an educator, she has given master classes, seminars, and workshops at the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, New York University, Beijing Conservatory, Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Bard College, and Syd­ney Conservatorium of Music. Chow is on faculty at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams (MA) and has also been on faculty at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She is also on the board of advisors for Composers Now, and is a mentor for the Juilliard School mentoring program. Chow is a Yamaha Artist. www.vickychow.com.

David Cossin, percussion
David Cossin was born and raised in Queens (NY) and studied classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music. His interest in classical percussion, drum set, non-western hand drumming, composition, and improvisation has led to performances across a broad spectrum of musical and artistic forms. Cossin has recorded and performed internationally with Steve Reich and Musicians, Philip Glass, Yo-Yo Ma, Meredith Monk, Tan Dun, Cecil Taylor, Talujon Percussion Quartet, and the trio Real Quiet, as well as with Sting on his Symphonicity world tour. Theater work includes Blue Man Group, Mabou Mines, and projects with the director Peter Sellars. Cossin was featured as the solo percussionist in Tan Dun’s award-winning score to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As a soloist, he has performed with orchestras throughout the world including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Orchestra Radio France. His sonic installations have been presented in New York, Italy, and Germany, and he is also an active producer, composer, and instrument inventor, expanding the limits of traditional percussion. Cossin teaches percussion at the Aaron Copland School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music’s Contemporary Performance Program.

Arlen Hlusko, cello
Internationally acclaimed Canadian cellist Arlen Hlusko is a dynamic, versatile young artist who has performed extensively as a soloist and cham­ber musician across North America, Asia, and Europe. A laureate of numerous competitions, a Grammy Award winner for her collaboration with The Crossing, and a recent graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Hlusko is currently a member of Ensemble Connect (the resident ensemble of Carnegie Hall) and regularly performs with several ensembles based on the East Coast, including the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Dolce Suono Ensemble. She has recently been featured performer with groups including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, BBC Concert Orchestra, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Hlusko has also been on the roster of preeminent summer festivals including Music from Angel Fire, Tippet Rise, Spoleto USA, and Bay Chamber Concerts. As a teacher, she has served on faculty of Curtis Summerfest, the New York Philhar­monic, and Philadelphia Orchestra Teaching Artists, and given master classes in the USA, Canada, and Germany. Committed to using her music to serve her community, Hlusko founded her own interactive chamber music concert series, Philadelphia Performances for Autism, and is involved with several communities in Phila­delphia and New York City, including Carnegie Hall’s “Musical Connections” at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. arlenhlusko.com.

Mark Stewart, electric guitar, banjo, mountain dulcimer, harmonica
Multi-instrumentalist, singer, song leader, composer, and instrument designer Mark Stewart has been heard around the world, performing old and new music. As the music director for Paul Simon’s band, Stewart has recorded and toured with Simon since 1998. A founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the duo Polygraph Lounge with keyboard and theremin wizard Rob Schwim­mer, Mark has also worked with Steve Reich, Sting, Anthony Braxton, Bob Dylan, Wynton Marsalis, Mere­dith Monk, Stevie Wonder, Phillip Glass, Bruce Springsteen, Terry Riley, Ornette Coleman, Edie Brickell, Don Byron, Joan Baez, Hugh Masakela, Paul McCart­ney, Cecil Taylor, Bill Frisell, Jimmy Cliff, Charles Wourinen, the Everly Brothers, Steve Gadd, Fred Frith, Alison Krauss, David Krakauer & Klezmer Madness, Bobby McFer­rin, David Byrne, James Taylor, The Roches, Aaron Neville, Bette Midler, and Marc Ribot. He is the inventor of the Whirly­Copter, a bicycle-powered Pythagorean choir of singing tubes and the Big Boing, a 24-foot sonic banquet table mbira that seats 30 children playing 490 found objects, and he is a visiting lecturer in musical instrument design and performance practice at MIT. Stewart is also a curator at MASS MoCA of the immersive Gunnar Schonbeck exhibit of musical instruments and co-founder of SoundstewArt, a company that designs immersive sound environments and community music-making experiences. He lives in Brooklyn and North Adams, MA, playing, singing, and writing popular music, semi-popular music, and unpopular music, while designing instruments that everyone can play.

Ken Thomson, clarinets and harmonica
A staple of New York City’s contemporary music and jazz communities, Ken Thomson is widely respected for his ability to blend a rich variety of influences and styles into his own musical language while maintaining a voice unmistakably his own. Thomson has a growing catalog of music written for ensembles of differing sizes, and has toured with and released a number of albums with groups that he has created. His latest project combining the sounds of jazz and contemporary music, Sextet, has toured across the US and Europe and selected one of the top recordings of 2018 by websites Second Inversion and AnEarful. Thomson released two albums with his previous project, a five-piece group called Slow/Fast, that were praised by the New York Times for their “intricate long-form compositions” and earned a five-star review in All About Jazz. He has two full-length CDs available of his chamber music compositions: 2013’s Thaw with the JACK Quartet and 2016’s Restless with cellist Ashley Bathgate and pianist Karl Larson. Thomson is also active as a freelance clarinetist and saxophonist, performing with groups including the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Ensemble Signal, International Con­temporary Ensemble, and Novus. He is also on faculty on the Bang on a Can Summer Institute at MASS MoCA. Thomson is a D’Addario Woodwinds artist. www.ktonline.net.

Bang on a Can
Founded in 1987 by composers Michael Gor­don, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, Bang on a Can has been creating an international community dedicated to innovative music, wherever it is found, and has grown from a one-day New York-based marathon concert to a multi-faceted performing arts organization with a broad range of year-round international activities. In addition to its festivals LOUD Weekend at MASS MoCA and LONG PLAY, current projects include live.bangonacan.org, a digital streaming platform launched during the pandemic with an ongoing schedule of live­streamed concerts and world-premiere per­formances of new commissions; The People’s Commissioning Fund, a membership program to commission emerging composers; the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who tour to major festivals and concert venues around the world every year; recording projects; the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA, a professional development program for young composers and performers led by today’s pioneers of experimental music; Asphalt Orches­tra, Bang on a Can’s extreme street band that offers mobile performances re-contextualizing unusual music; Found Sound Nation, a new technology-based musical outreach program now partnering with the US State Department to create OneBeat, a revolutionary, post-political residency program that uses music to bridge the gulf between young American musicians and young musicians from developing countries; cross-disciplinary collaborations and projects with DJs, visual artists, choreographers, filmmakers, and more. Each new program has evolved to answer specific challenges faced by today’s musicians, composers, and audiences, in order to make innovative music widely accessible and wildly received. Bang on a Can’s inventive and aggressive approach to programming and presentation has created a large and vibrant international audience made up of people of all ages who are rediscovering the value of contemporary music. Bang on a Can has also recently launched its new digital archive, CANLAND, an extensive archive of its recordings, videos, posters, program books, and more. Thirty-three years of collected music and associated ephemera have been digitized and archived online and is publicly accessible in its entirety at www.canland.org.

For more information about Bang on a Can, please visit www.bangonacan.org.

Bang on a Can Board of Directors
Betto Arcos, Daniel Baldini, Jeffrey Bishop, Stephen Block, Jeffrey Calman, Michael Gor­don, Lynette Jaffe, Alan Kifferstein, Michael Kushner, David Lang, Lesley Lassiter, George Lewis, Raulee Marcus, Elizabeth Murrell, Robert A. Skirnick, Jane Stewart, Sandra Tait, Julia Wolfe, Adam Wolfensohn.

Bang on a Can Staff
Michael Gordon, artistic director
David Lang, artistic director
Julia Wolfe, artistic director
Kenny Savelson, executive director
Tim Thomas, development director
Philippa Thompson, project manager and summer festival manager
Sruly Lazaros, producer
Brian Petuch, accounts manager
Adam Cuthbert, licensing and store manager
Jensen Artists,  publicity

Bang on a Can’s 2021 programs are made possible with generous lead support from: Amphion Foundation, ASCAP and ASCAP Foundation, Atlantic Records, Daniel Baldini, Stephen A. Block, Bishop Fund, Jeffrey Calman, Charina Endowment Fund, City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, Exploring the Arts, Howard Gilman Foundation, Jaffe Family Foundation,, Alan Kifferstein & Joan Finkelstein, Michael Kushner, Leslie Lassiter, Herb Leventer, MAP Fund, Raulee Marcus, MASS MoCA, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, Jeremy Mindich & Amy Smith, Elizabeth Murrell & Gary Haney, National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, New York Community Trust, New York State Council on the Arts (with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature), Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Scopia Capital Management, Mat­thew Sirovich & Meredith Elson, Maria & Robert A. Skirnick, Jane & Dick Stewart, Sandra Tait and Hal Foster, Trust for Mutual Under­standing, Williamson Foundation for Music, Adam Wolfensohn & Jennifer Small, and Wolfensohn Family Foundation.


For Cal Performances at Home
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Charles Clear, Senior Scene Technician
David Ambrose, Senior Scene Technician
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Mark Sumner, Director, UC Choral Ensembles
Bill Ganz, Associate Director, UC Choral Ensembles
Matthew Sadowski, Director of Bands/Interim Department Manager
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Opening fanfare used by permission from Jordi Savall from his 2015 recording of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo on Alia Vox.

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May 6, 2021, 7pm
Add to Calendar 05/06/2021 07:00 pm 05/06/2021 08:30 pm America/Los_Angeles Steel Hammer https://calperformances.org/events/2020-21/new-music/bang-on-a-can-all-stars-julia-wolfe-steel-hammer/
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