Remake/Remodel: Karl Bartos Interviewed

Matt Lindsay talks to the former robot about his new album Off The Record. Photographs by Al Overdrive

All photographs courtesy of Al Overdrive

An affable gentleman in a duffle coat is photographed against an imposing modern building just a few blocks from his hotel in the plush environs of London’s Hyde Park. As one quarter of Kraftwerk’s ‘classic’ line-up, Karl Bartos will forever be associated with all that is severe, futuristic and industrial. In person, he is warm and conversant, often breaking out into smiles. It’s a million miles away from the automated mien that his former band cultivated with such machine-tooled precision & Constructivist rigour.

He joined the ‘Dusseldorf electro combo’ on their Autobahn tour in 1975 and left in 1990 as the band’s work rate slowed down. He joined them at a pivotal moment. Autobahn had just broken into the US charts, and an appearance on Tomorrow’s World heralded them as the sound of a brave new world.

Enlisted initially, along with multi-pad architect Wolfgang Flür, as an electronic percussionist, by 1978’s The Man-Machine, Bartos was a compositional cog too. When Florian contacted a professor at Robert Schumann Conservatory about potential musicians, the academic’s only response, according to David Buckley’s Publikation, was "It can only be Karl Bartos… He is the best percussionist." (It hardly hurt that Wolfgang and Karl bolstered the group’s photogenic potential either).

After leaving the band, he released several albums as Elektric Music, and Communication under his own name in 2003. There have been collaborations, with Kraftwerk superfans OMD and the Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner summit, Electronic (1994’s ‘Raise The Pressure’). But the man’s pursuits go way beyond the parameters of mere pop music. In the last decade, the alumnus of the Robert Schumann Conservatory returned to academia, as a visiting lecturer at Berlin’s University of Arts in Auditory Media Design and the co-author of an MA course titled ‘Sound Studies – Acoustic Communication’.

The main focus of discussion today is Off The Record, his latest album. As his former band (with only Ralf Hütter representing the ‘imperial’ line-up) have recently performed their back catalogue at the Tate Modern, Bartos’ latest looks back in a more regenerative vein. Prising open his vaults, he unearthed countless musical sketches, the flotsam and jetsam of his time with Kraftwerk, demos that became subsequently embellished for collaborative work. From these old ideas, new forms were moulded. So a rogue sound-check doodle from Kraftwerk’s Hammersmith Odeon ’81 show becomes ‘International Velvet’, a shimmering ode to the Warhol superstar that only needs a vocoderised utterance of its title to carry the hypnotic melody. The bare bones of what Electronic made into ‘Imitation Of Life’ mutates back into ‘Musica Ex Machina’: stomping, Edison-referencing robo-tronica.

Throughout, fealty is paid equally to melody and rhythm, infectious hooks and intellectual curiosity. ‘Vox Humana’ welds formant synthesis and voices generated by MS-DOS computers to a variety of presets on a Maestro Rhythm King, an early beat-box. It’s drenched in a dub-like reverb, the ‘snap, crackle & hiss’ of a recording session that sounds hauntological. Off The Record veers from vintage synth-pop to more beat-heavy excursions, a secret history of electronic music. Occasionally the constituent parts show their age, the Poly/Mini-Moogs of ‘Nachtfarht’, the Farfisa professional piano of ‘Hausmusik’, their touching effervescence reminding us that projections of the future are often more romantic than its actuality.

Of all the groups that emerged in Germany during the late 60s/70s, it was Kraftwerk that had the most complex relationship with their country’s past. Where others operated on a post-WWII clean slate, Kraftwerk, exemplars of modernity, were unafraid to address the country’s pre-war culture. Similarly, Off The Record, and Bartos’ accompanying essay, shows an artist in a constant state of flux: looking back to move forwards. Not only does much of the music date from his time with Kraftwerk – ‘Without A Trace Of Emotion’ directly addresses his former ‘showroom dummy’ doppelganger.

The album’s accompanying booklet reads as part autobiography and part manifesto, revealing the hidden depths of his influences. The album’s first single ‘Atomium’, for instance, subsumes Stravinsky-style metric disorder and Bernard Herrmann-style tricksy time signatures under the brutal economy of pulverising beats; neo-classical fanfares meet a svelte Kraftwerk update (and some ‘calculated noise’, courtesy of an ARP Odyssey). Underneath the synthetic sheen of ‘Without A Trace Of Emotion’, ‘Instant Bayreuth’ and ‘Hausmusik’ lies the DNA of ‘questing’ German Bavarian folk & Wagner; wrenching Germany’s heritage back from any unpleasant context and imbuing machine-made music with a depth that its detractors have always failed to glimpse beneath the surface.

These tracks will be accompanied by films, and the booklet shows how the visual interpretation was germane to the music’s conception. ‘Nachtfarht’s rhythm & nocturnal electro suggested metronomic windscreen wipers. With his audio-visual shows for the LiveCinema programme (coming soon to London), Bartos remains "fascinated by the interplay between image and sound". In his notes he refers to music in filmic vocabulary; he likens ‘Hausmusik’s Farfisa to 8MM colour film, ‘Musica Ex Machina’s synaesthetic blurs of sound and vision, and ‘Rhthymus’ name-checks the abstract film genre of the 1920s. As Bartos talks of his formative years in the cultural crucible of Dusseldorf, eclectic musical influences rub shoulders with cinema’s most feted auteurs. During our conversation, Karl is most animated by the potential of cinema and sound; pop music, he feels, doesn’t carry the message that it did in his youth. As Bowie expresses similar misgivings about modern pop (via Visconti), one wonders if the genre is actually in terminal decline or if even the most innovative thinkers ultimately become susceptible to golden-age thinking (his continued zeal for cinema suggests otherwise).

From Bowie to Bambaataa’s hip hop building blocks, 80s synth pop to the roots of techno, Kraftwerk’s effects on pop music were instant and enduring. A recent Jude Rogers article in The Guardian claimed that they were the most influential of all bands. They are perhaps The Beatles for a digital age; a four-man academy of vanguard ideas and pop nous. This erstwhile member remains a huge fan of the Fab Four (he resides now in Hamburg, where The Beatles served their apprenticeship a lifetime ago). He expresses a surprising ambivalence towards technology and an abiding love of Anglo-American pop. It’s just, as he points out, "we had to invent some new things".

Bureau B approached you about early recordings, which mutated into Off The Record.

Karl Bartos: Exactly. I never would have thought about doing it but Gunther, the label chief, approached me and said: "Hey Karl, do you have any old tapes in the attic? I am happy to put them out." First of all I turned the offer down and he repeated it three or four times. And finally I was running through my archive and I opened all the boxes and most of [the material] was recorded on cassettes. It took me weeks to do it. I ended up conceiving it by seeing the data entry as a diary. It started somewhere in ’77 and went by the month and year, up to my first solo album [as Elektric Music] Esperanto in 1993. So I took this time-frame to produce this concept. I didn’t say at the time it was a ‘secret acoustic diary’, but it was not my intention at the time to do anything with it. It was just ‘off the record’ and that’s how the title came, it just led to itself.

The data was collated from a wide range of sources: DAT, Akai sampler floppy discs, even Betamax videos. That must have been quite a daunting task.

KB: Boring work! I had the TV on all the time! I had to watch the TV and see the news while doing it. It felt like being an accountant. I transferred it from analogue to binary code. Once it’s in the computer, it is so easy to manipulate the data, but I was too lazy before Gunther asked me to do it. Just passing by this shelf with loads of years of work on it, I just thought "oh, come on!"

It’s part archive, part new record.

KB: Well it is pieces, jottings and ideas. At the time, you had to record your ideas on to a tape recorder to evaluate them. There was no other way, no computer, no laptop. I had one drum machine and a sequencer. The way we were composing in the 70s, this machine kept on running and you did what I called the steady hand or slow hand, pressing the chord and playing a melody. But at the time you played for half an hour until the tape had run all the way through. I had so many ideas just running for half an hour through all the tape. Changing slightly, transferring to another tonality by hitting another note on the Mini-Moog. And the sequence got transferred to another key, but the next key change was about 50 minutes ahead, so it was just improvising tapes.

But the lyrics are all new, aren’t they?

KB: I have written all the lyrics recently. They all came to my mind during the production. They are still asking me to reissue the original tape. At a recent screening in Hamburg there was one place, one screen with the original recordings. And on headphones you hear the original concept of the song. I shortened them, of course. You just hear 1 minute and 30 seconds. It is so boring to hear one melody and someone who cannot really play. I played them all by hand, of course. I left some mistakes in because it gives an impression of the time, there’s no error-correct. I am not a keyboard player, [although] I play quite decently.

‘Without A Trace Of Emotion”s initial musical idea was recorded in 1980 and was interrupted by news of John Lennon’s murder. Do you think that manifested itself in the song you eventually wrote? There seems to be a certain amount of anxiety about how a performer interacts with their public.

KB: I was inspired by The Beatles and John Lennon, I became a musician because of them. My sister married an Englishman. He brought me my first English records when I was a kid. And in our house, that is when my life changed. I was hypnotised by Beatles and Rolling Stones records. I just thought: "that’s it, I am going to be a musician". It’s that simple really.

What specific Beatles and Stones records were you into?

KB: It was ‘She Loves You’ and two Rolling Stones records, Out Of Our Heads and Aftermath. I just grabbed the guitar that was on the wall. It was gathering dust, I got rid of the dust and learnt how to tune it. I don’t see a connection though between the biography of John Lennon and this track. Although you are right, it is about living your life in public. He [Lennon] is certainly a legend but this is about being somebody well-known and how this [influences] your personality. Most of the time it doesn’t do you any good, to be honest. You shouldn’t believe in the press idea of yourself.

It also gently counteracts the ‘showroom dummies’ image that Kraftwerk had. But at the same time, I guess it was almost easier to have a robot perform your role for you.

KB: Exactly. That is why I wrote this song. It was an invention of the press after the concert. That is where this idea came from. They [the press] didn’t take the piss, it was a good observation: "Oh, they are not moving." Well, The Beatles didn’t move. They were like showroom dummies as well! Except we were looking stiff and German as well, of course. But that is the way we were and we didn’t feel that they were taking the piss out of us. It was just an observation. It was us. And it was like looking in a mirror. And Ralf came up with this lyric: "We are showroom dummies." And I thought it was quite a good idea, which later got transformed into real robots. And then the image got digitalised into the Music Non-Stop 3D wire frame people, who became computer binary code.

But the surface image is misleading. Behind the robot imagery & synthetics, you’re tapping here and elsewhere into history, classical and folk…

KB: I like the term ‘sound biography’. We are what we hear, and we are what we hear throughout our life. What we have heard from the time of our adolescence will follow us all our life. That is my theory. Everybody hears sound in a different way. The same sound. And one song, say ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, has a different meaning for you or for me. I am aware that there are some people around who really dislike the track. And feel uncomfortable hearing it. It is so much about the British identity. This is what I try to point out in my writing [in the album notes], to show where my influences/ideas come from & how they transfer into music.

The influences are wide-reaching. You mention Stockhausen to Monteverdi, then Chuck Berry to Madonna…

KB: It is all in our sound biography. The most rich experience we can have on this planet is the music culture of these different eras, of these different ethnological eras. Chuck Berry invented it. And then it goes to Liverpool and then Germany. We bounced it back, giving it a little electronic ingredient. It came back to Liverpool and London and then back to Berlin. I am really interested in the different ways music culture is evolving, not developing.

You are renowned for your rhythms, the ‘Numbers’ pattern which Bambaataa emulated for ‘Planet Rock’ for example. But there’s a strong sense of melody here, often sitting alongside more beat-heavy tracks, ‘The Tuning Of The World’, for instance. Do you feel overlooked as a melody maker?

KB: Well, I have got the copyright for it. I am not overlooked. You cannot protect your copyright for a beat, it’s impossible. I just wanted to make it clear writing it down. One single day in the beginning of the 80s, I drummed this beat. I never did this before, I never claimed this was my invention. But maybe I wanted to write it because I needed to, um, reconceive it? For me it needed to be reconceived.

‘Atomium’, Off The Record‘s first single, has been described as ‘iron crystal music’. It is an homage to the Brussels Expo’ 58 structure which represents an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times.

KB: When you look at the top of [the crystal structure] you feel like you are at the centre of the universe. It is such a 3D event to see through it. It is super huge. The song is in an odd meter, 7/4…

Like Bernard Herrmann’s Fahrenheit 451?

KB: Like Bernard Herrmann. And always since those days I had wanted to incorporate an odd meter into a song. If you do it the right way, it is seven fours but you don’t recognise it. It feels so natural but it gives a certain twist to the music. Because it’s something you haven’t heard before. [Hums the intro to ‘All You Need is Love’]. You have different downbeats than you would have in a regular 4/4. It is missing that motorik feel, but not really. I was always fond of Igor Stravinsky. How he atomised the metric consistency of the music, changing the meter every single bar. Especially in his famous work, Le Sacre Du Printemps. So I took this famous tutti beats and I wanted to bring it to my music. So this was one idea I kept and found, along with this strange melody. So there’s this sort of melodic movement and the perfect fourths in the strings. This melodic movement you hear a lot by Stravinsky.

‘Atomium’ was written around film footage. The relationship between the music and film on this project is a very strong one, isn’t it?

KB: Always. When I was professor of the University of the Arts in Berlin, my course of study was called Sound Studies. And my subject was Auditory Media Design. I was the only musician and I thought: "What should I talk about?" I didn’t want to work at this place of study and talk about pop music. But I ended up having seminars about George Martin, The Beatles and Abbey Road! Because nobody knew, so I had to do it. And I went to the Berlin Symphonic Orchestra and attended rehearsal with the conductor Sir Simon Rattle. And here I made the conjunction with what this man was doing in front of the orchestra, waving in the air. What is it all about? I ended up comparing what he does with the strokes with the timeline of a computer. I wanted to talk about the convergence of image & sound. Because I thought there had been a lot of intelligence going into film-making since the 70s. Especially involving Walter Murch, who invented the term ‘Sound Design’. Music is just one part of film making. We have sound design which is the environmental sound, the dialogue and the music. There’s so much [more] to tell a student about than just pop music. I’m not sure about the latest Lady Gaga record anyway.

Now that music is not so much defined by the record as a physical artefact, do you think this relationship between music and film or architecture will become stronger? Almost in the sense that they will be new environments for it to inhabit?

KB: It’s obvious. I think we were really lucky when I was 16, we had 1968. Music itself had such an important message. Politically revolutionary. Don’t trust the authorities. Coming from America, I guess with the Vietnam War. And it was happening over in England as well. It was really important for us in Germany to be tied to this united youth movement. And suddenly the youngsters of the world could speak to each other. This message inherent in the music was like an avalanche to me. It affected my life. And this isn’t there anymore. But pop is still going in film. I have got to see the new Tarantino movie Django Unchained. There you find it. It is still there.

Do you feel like cinema is developing in a way you are more comfortable with than music?

KB: Cinema is still relevant. You can put a message across in cinema whereas in pop music [you can’t]. It’s called pop music. But the message is missing.

Do you think pop is so stagnant because there are no vanguard ideas being smuggled into the mainstream charts the way they once were? The mainstream is aping itself rather than incorporating something ‘oppositional’ into it?

KB: We are recycling. And the cycles are getting smaller and smaller. And nowadays if you’re in a new group, the best thing the media can say about the new group is they sound like The Doors, The Smash [a portmanteau of The Smiths/The Clash], or The Who. They need an attribute. If I was a youngster now, I wouldn’t be turned on by music the way I was in the 60s. I would be turned on maybe by film-making. Maybe by sound in films. Yes because it involves sound, music, technique, nature, environment. Music plays just a small role in the movie itself.

A lot of the music on Off The Record was part of a collaborative process. ‘Musica Ex Machina’ evolved from work with Electronic, for example.

KB: I had to ask them [Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner]. I had to call them and say I wanted to use my early demo tracks: "I want to get on with my tracks but to start from the point before I gave them to you." And they said, "Yes of course Karl, we don’t want to be mentioned." But I wanted them to be part of this record. Once you share a copyright, it is like with kids, you don’t have to divide it. It’s together forever and it is good like it is. The beat was ‘Bombast’, which I did while the big beat movement was happening but I did it without really hearing any songs from this genre. Everybody did it at the same time.

And it was a Laurie Anderson live performance that gave you the inspiration to add lyrics to your sketch ‘Neon Piano’ – itself a nod to Krafwerk’s ‘Neon Lights’ – to transform it into ‘The Turning Of The World’.

KB: I attended her performance. I think she is a beautiful artist. There’s this little person on stage for two hours all alone, showing some movies. And she plays the violin so beautifully, so slow. She puts all her personality into three or four tones. And the texture, even though it is an electronic violin, it comes across really good. She’s moving barefoot on the stage, sits in the corner and reads a book. She’s so cool. And very polite. It was about the death of her mother and about growing old. I thought to myself, death comes as a friend. You see him coming and you had better make friends with him. There’s no way around it.

Anyone you want to work with still?

KB: [Laughs] Claude Debussy. I’ll send him an email. Hopefully we will do some more with Johnny [Marr] and Bernard [Sumner] one day. It is super cool working with them. I work all the time alone. It’s good but you need more time to evaluate your ideas. You compose, you throw it to one side and you listen back weeks later to get a distance from your own work. And you improve and then you throw it away again. Then you pick it up out of the trash can again. It’s a process, the only way you can work with yourself. But with Johnny and Bernard, they are such accomplished writers, they can provide so much material that it can be too much actually. You can end up with the problem of choice.

Do you think technology gives us too many choices? Whereas before limitation was the mother of invention?

KB: Like being in front of a cyclone. There’s too much information at our fingertips. At the time this music led to what I call a pictographic music style. You had just a 16-step sequencer and you couldn’t change much, it was monophonic. You had to compose it very clearly. It had to be good content. Otherwise it would have been boring after listening to it after one or two minutes.

Do you see a link between ‘Atomium’ and ‘Radioactivity’?

KB: Well only in the theme. I got the main influence for this song during the Fukushima reactor disaster. Then I had all the ingredients… Oh yes! That was it! Because this building was built in praise of progress and atomic energy. It was supposed to be the solution but it turned out to be an illusion. And by the time of the disaster, our chancellor Angela Merkel decided we had to cut atomic energy. This was very erratic because shortly before[hand] they had agreed to expand the program. Then the disaster happened and they decided to cut it. This was the point where I thought the ‘Atomium’ could be reconceived as a symbol for the rise and fall of atomic energy. It’s a symbol of this time frame from analogue to Fukushima. I am in conversation with the director of the Atomium and they see it the same way. They think it’s over now and we have to go different ways.

Renewable energy?

KB: Of course, but we will still have the nuclear garbage for generations to come. And this is ridiculous isn’t it? But I jumped on it as a symbol of atomic energy’s rise and fall.

But there’s a persistence of this utopian ideal, isn’t there? The idea that this edifice represents something about post-war technological progress that transcends the shortcomings of atomic energy?

KB: Yes, but it is also a symbol that progress is so often considered the solution. Like with the material plastic. It’s cheap and you can throw it away. But now we find it’s a complete nightmare because our ocean gets full of waste. When ‘Radioactivity’ was first performed it started off as part of that [utopian ideal] and then changed to stop radioactivity. In the beginning when the song was written in 1975, we were in America playing on the Autobahn tour. It was a play on words also, using radioactivity as a form of energy and the waves – the radio waves of communication and energy. I don’t think my ‘Atomium’ song has anything to do with it though.

In the accompanying notes to the album you write about Dusseldorf as an exciting place to work, live and play.

KB: It was. We had Joseph Beuys [Fluxus sculptor & performance artist with whom Bartos studied] teaching at the academy and we were all painters there. I went to eat at the canteen there because of the cheap food. I was studying close-by at the Robert Schumann Institute. I was working at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein every night playing snare drum, timpani and percussion. In the end, towards ’76 when I had my examination there, my advanced performance degree, I was playing in Kraftwerk. It all fell together, in this place. It was a vibrant place in Germany.

You talk about the love of Chuck Berry and The Beatles. But the music Kraftwerk made in many ways signalled a break from that…

KB: Of course we all got inspired by American pop: Beach Boys, Motown and The Doors. Then The Beatles in England at that special time. But we couldn’t play guitar music, it wouldn’t have been authentic, although I do play guitar – I have learned how to play it since. But being an artist you have to find your own language. Then when I met Ralf and Florian [Schneider] they were aware of our German heritage, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert. And also before the Second World War we had a really good music culture. We had people like Fritz Lang also coming up with ideas for films such as Metropolis. So the culture before this idiot [Hitler] came was really good. I would have lived there. [laughs]

It was an incredibly rich time with the Institute of Human Sexuality and German Expressionism.

KB: Yeah. And after the war, we were very influenced by Anglo-American pop music, which was good. There was a message in the music and it was telling us about really good things. It led to the Green Party, there’s a connection between the Vietnam War, The Beatles and the Green Party, which I have always voted for in the past. But we also considered ourselves part of this German-European heritage and we couldn’t get away with playing rock & roll music by Chuck Berry. We had to invent some other things. What we took maybe was the beat of James Brown and the melodic richness of the German orchestral music, the composers. We took things like futurism from Italy, and then from Paris, Pierre Schaeffer, musique concrete and then from Cologne, Stockhausen. We took all that and melted it all together and it became Kraftwerk.

On ‘Rhythmus’, you mention the abstract film genre of the 20s and Oscar Fischinger (German-American abstract film innovator).

KB: My influences also came from Kandinsky, the Russian painter [art theorist and first credited abstract painter]. He was always jealous of musicians because he felt that they could convey emotions whereas painting would only reach people through intellect. So he tried to incorporate music into his paintings, so he would call them Movement in Blue or Composition in Yellow and Red. Then he wrote his manifesto, Der Blaue Reiter, he said it is not so important that you see the right perspective of a cathedral or whatever but that you get the feeling, what the painter wants to bring across instead. That’s when painting went into the abstract, and the world changed. ‘Abstrakte Wunderwelt’. Into Abstraction. And at the same time, during the beginning of the 20th century, we had this style of film coming up. In the media of film, we had the silent movie and the first sound movie. They had just started to paint on film itself. Then finally it was possible to put abstractions onto a timeline, you saw circles and rectangles moving. In that way, from that perspective, painting was treated like music.

Cycling was a favourite of Kraftwerk’s. Where did that come from?

KB: Florian. He knew somebody who had a really snobby expensive bike and he fell in love with the design. He brought it into the studio. I was the second one who bought one. Because it was so cool. But it was so dangerous through the traffic. But we went through the countryside. I think the last one was Ralf, actually. Then he got addicted.

Then there was his accident in ’83? Did that change the band?

KB: It would sound really spooky for me to say yes but maybe it was actually a coincidence. I don’t believe in astrology or some hidden master somewhere. But at that point things went wrong. I would treat it as a coincidence. We had this title, the record was supposed to be Techno Pop but someone’s friend suggested calling it Electric Café, and unfortunately that’s what we did.

How did it feel when Kraftwerk became such a cause celebre in the late 70’s?

KB: It wasn’t something I was really interested in. You know, Michael Jackson actually called. Our A&R at the record company in Germany (EMI Electrola) got a telephone call late at night from Michael Jackson. He wanted to get in touch with the band Kraftwerk, he said. There was another attempt to get in touch through our lawyer in NYC but [Florian] Schneider never replied to Mr. Jackson. Maybe it would have worked for other groups, but not for Kraftwerk.

What was the Trans-Europe Express conference like?

KB: The idea came from a friend of ours who worked at the time for Capitol in Paris. Why not introduce the record on a train going from Paris to the north, to this famous champagne place. So he managed to get all the important journalists into some coaches and they got really drunk when we arrived. On the speakers of the train, you could hear Trans-Europe Express. It was a really good idea. But the press got very loose. It was just a happening, very unpredictable. But it was good.

Bowie was a huge early Kraftwerk supporter. What do you think of the Bowie single?

KB: Oh it’s good! He’s locked into that time frame of his Berlin time. It sounds like Kurt Weil. You know, when he plays the piano, he is in love with strange chords. I like the track. I am looking forward to listening to the record. I’m glad he’s back. We need him badly. He’s the last one. And he still looks good. I’m really happy.

Did you meet a lot of the acts that were coming through that synth-pop boom so obviously indebted to Kraftwerk?

KB: Not very many. Johnny and Bernard. That’s enough!

Are you proud of the influence?

KB: I hear this question from time to time. If you interviewed Chuck Berry, would you ask him if he felt responsible for death metal? It’s the evolution of music culture. I have nothing to do with ‘Planet Rock’ really to be honest. Somebody took it, but not me.

How do you feel about the Tate Modern shows Kraftwerk did recently?

KB: [Leans forward, smiles a wry smile and zips his lip].

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