Posts Tagged jazz

The Undercover Soundtrack – Alice Degan

for logo‘Music is a ritual of invocation’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is medieval literature scholar and metaphysical fantasy writer Alice Degan @ajdegan

Soundtrack by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maddy Prior, Adele, Sarah Slean, Loreena McKennitt, Squirrel Nut Zippers

14805487315_d629b6cefb_kBefore iTunes, making a mix of music to write to used to be this whole ritual. For me it was one of those great para-writing procrastination activities, like buying notebooks or clearing off your desk. I’d want to carefully select a track to go at the beginning of the CD, which served as a kind of invocation to set the mood as I sat down to write. Often this one would be a song that wasn’t musically appropriate to the setting, but had some apposite lyrics, or related thematically somehow. With From All False Doctrine, which I began after I had started migrating my music library onto my computer, things were a bit different. It was easier to create a soundtrack, which deprived the ritual of some of its distracting power, and it wasn’t necessary to select just one track to open with. Several different songs ended up playing that role of invocation.

Adding to the choir

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was the track that most often functioned as an entry point. It’s an exquisite piece that embroiders on the melody of one of my favourite hymns. It builds slowly and quietly, but reaches a dramatic climax. Listening to Vaughan Williams’s version calls to mind not so much the exact words of the hymn but its general theme and mood: a feeling of inadequacy in the face of greater powers, and a plea to God for the strength to add my own voice to a great choir. That spoke to me as I approached my writing, and it evoked the concerns of my main characters in their different pursuits.

If it’s the life you feel called to, it’s what you should live. If you’ll pardon the expression.’

‘What expression?’

‘ “Called. “’ He grinned up at her apologetically. “It implies there’s Someone to do the calling.’

‘It’s just a turn of phrase,’ she said sternly.

From All False Doctrine is set in the 1920s, but jazz music isn’t a major feature of the plot, and didn’t help in its creation either. Of course that’s partly due to my own musical tastes. But it’s also partly because the book is set in Toronto, which was still a fairly conservative city in the ’20s, not a hotbed of the kind of social and artistic innovation that we associate with the decade. A jazz soundtrack wouldn’t quite capture the mood of 1925 Toronto as I understand it. My story centres on the worlds of the university and the Anglican Church. My hero, Kit Underhill, is a young Anglo-Catholic priest in the working-class neighbourhood of Earlscourt, an area populated at the time mostly by English immigrants. Elsa Nordqvist, my heroine, is a classics student who has lost her faith in God but believes passionately in her academic calling.

Spirituality

The words to a number of hymns feature in the story, but I didn’t listen to most of these while writing: they’re songs I know from years in the pews, not from recordings. Jesu, lover of my soul, in Maddy Prior’s atypical rendition, was one I did play while writing, though it doesn’t get a mention in the story. Privately, though, I know that my characters like it: I think of it as expressing something of Kit’s spirituality while at the same time evoking Elsa’s Protestant upbringing.

Then there are songs that evoke just the right mood even though the style and lyrics may have no obvious connection to the story. One of those for this book was Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, which spoke perfectly of the unhappiness of a secondary character, Harriet Spencer, a charismatic young woman who is abandoned by her fiancé. (Come to think of it, she looks a little bit like Adele, especially in that video!) Sarah Slean’s Society Song evokes something of Elsa’s relationship to propriety: it’s a defiant, upbeat song that made a nice contrast to the more contemplative tracks on my list.

False Doctrine Front CoverStar of the County Down is the shiftless fiancé’s theme. A classic folk song about a determined suitor, it’s also very close in its tune to another hymn, I heard the voice of Jesus say, so it evokes two aspects of this character for me. I have several recordings, but the one I had on the False Doctrine soundtrack was Loreena McKennitt’s rendition from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Finally, because of the turn that the story takes towards the end, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hell made it onto the soundtrack.

He reached for her hands and then stopped. ‘At midnight my soul—whatever that may be—is forfeit to that thing and its Master. Do you think I would hesitate to throw you to him, to save myself?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are hesitating right now.’

I’m working on a sequel now, and the song I use to get in the mood (this is a slight spoiler) is Sarah Slean’s Angel.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist who lives in Toronto. She studies and teaches medieval literature, and writes fantasy and something she likes to call metaphysical romance. From All False Doctrine, a supernatural mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners, is her first published novel. She also has a series of urban fantasy stories involving a collection of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery. You can find her on Twitter as @ajdegan, or on her website.

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‘Music is a ritual of invocation’ – Alice Degan

for logoI find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles.  My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you’ll be entering the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – and her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Kathleen Jones

for logo‘The music of exile’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is biographer, poet and award-winning short story writer Kathleen Jones @KathyFerber

Soundtrack by Istrian folk songs, Tuscan folk songs, Kathleen Jones, Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band, Ben Webster

I don’t use music in the way many writers do. I have to write in silence because the rhythm affects the rhythm of the words. But music is very important to me and I listen to a lot of it while I’m researching a book and beginning to develop the story. I use music in my novels to establish atmosphere and also character. The music that they either like or hate expresses their personalities and sheds light on their backgrounds.

KathJonHRIn exile

In my new novel The Centauress, virtually all my characters are exiles – Zenobia, the central character, is an internationally famous artist, born in the Italian town of Trieste in 1924 when it was part of Istria, a region that once belonged to the Venetian Republic. After the second world war, Istria was split up, part of it going into Yugoslavia as Croatia and Slovenia, but the city of Trieste remained in Italy – the border is only minutes from Trieste city centre. Zenobia chose to live in Istria rather than Italy, buying a ruined hamlet in the hills to create an artistic community. At the Kaštela Visoko she has collected a group of people around her who have nothing in common but their loyalty to her. ‘We’re her family,’ one of the characters says, ‘her protection from a hostile world.’ Because Zenobia has been born ‘between genders’ at a time when such things were poorly understood, the world has been very hostile indeed and Zenobia’s life story is controversial. She has lived her life in a kind of exile, neither male nor female, neither Italian nor Croatian.

Lenka, who looks after guests at the Kaštela, is a Roma, and Martin, the handyman, is a refugee from his family in Canada. Toby, Zenobia’s assistant, is from Australia where his parents had cut him off when he revealed that he was gay. Freddi, Zenobia’s partner, is English – running away from the British upper class system. Ludo, an ageing sculptor and friend of Zenobia, is the only one truly at home in Istria, being a Croat and a communist – very anti the west, complaining that Britain, Russia and the USA divided Europe ‘like slicing a cake’ after the war.

Music

Music was always going to be a strong part of The Centauress. Zenobia’s mother had been an opera singer in Vienna just after the first world war and Puccini had been a visitor to her home. One of the male characters, the delectable Gianfranco, is a professional jazz musician, and Ludo, as well as being an artist, also plays Croatian folk music on the accordion. Martin is an enthusiastic amateur guitarist and Lenka sings in the Eastern European gypsy tradition. Folk and Jazz are two worlds I’m familiar with. Years ago I used to do a bit of folk singing, mainly Celtic, and I live with a jazz fanatic, who used to run a big jazz festival, so many of our friends are jazz musicians.

Although the action moves between Croatia, Venice and New York the novel is set in Istria, near the Adriatic fishing village of Rovinj, and I used the Istrian hill town of Groznjan as one of the models for the Kaštela Visoko. Both Rovinj and Groznjan have thriving folk music scenes and Groznjan also hosts a big jazz music festival there every year. I listened to a lot of European folk music when I was developing the story, including Bosnian and Albanian, as well as Italian because Istria has an Italian-based musical tradition. In the novel, Gianfranco, Ludo and Martin play together at Christmas and Ludo has been teaching them some local folk songs.

This is a typical evening in a café in Rovinj, local musicians playing Istrian folk songs, and it helped me to create the scene.

I had to write a folk song for the novel (to avoid copyright problems) and I based it in old Tuscan atonal melodies and rhythms. It begins

The maid in the olive groves so fine, the olives grew black and green, and I wished that she was mine.

I was fascinated by La Pastorella Mia – an old 14th century Tuscan folk melody which is the kind of elegiac thing that Lenka would sing, so I created a similar rhythm and simple, colloquial phrases.

Oh maiden fair, let down your hair, and let us pick the fruit together, for soon enough comes winter weather.

Like Oh maiden fair, La Pastorella is sung unaccompanied, though in this version, there’s a lute for the refrain. It expresses the yearning of a traveller for homeland and lover.

Homeland War

Lenka is what is called ‘Roma’ locally, a term used for ethnic Romanians or Albanians, one of the groups most persecuted in the ‘Homeland War’ that divided Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Lenka’s parents died in the conflict and she sings the music of exile – songs of lamentation – with great passion. When she sings at the Kaštela and again at Zenobia’s funeral, ‘all her heart is in her throat’. When I was developing Lenka’s character I listened to a lot of music beloved by exiled communities, and particularly the music of the Palestinian diaspora. There is a lament, Dal’ouna (On the Return) sung by Rheem Khalani, that always wrings my emotions. It is just how I imagine Lenka singing, an expression of her anger. I defy anyone to listen to it and not be moved. The CD is called Exile and it’s made by Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House band (a wonderfully inclusive fusion of Israeli and Palestinian music).

My other main character, the biographer Alex, who goes to the Kaštela to interview Zenobia, knows very little about music, though she enjoys listening to it. She falls reluctantly in love with Gianfranco, who uses music to woo her. I had to choose something that would convey the moment – he’s telling her he loves her, but without words. At the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York he plays a ballad composed by the great Billy Strayhorn, who wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.

coverThe piano rippled, the drummer hushed on the cymbals and the warm clear notes of the ballad floated out across the room, stilling the audience, who put down their glasses and sat without speaking or moving. Alex was holding her breath, watching the concentration on Gianfranco’s face as phrase after perfect phrase breathed from the clarinet and melted away into the shadows at the back of the room. It felt personal, as though he was speaking directly to her.

When the last note died into silence, the audience erupted – stamping, clapping, shouting for more. Even the band were clapping. Gianfranco just bowed, keeping his head down towards the floor for a long time, acknowledging the applause. And as he straightened up and turned to put the clarinet away in its case, he looked directly at Alex and held her eyes just for a moment.

Gianfranco chooses to play it on the clarinet, but here, Chelsea Bridge is played by the great saxophonist Ben Webster.

Music has played a much bigger part in the writing of The Centauress than in any of my other books. I’m hoping that it helps to create a solid historical background to the story, as well as contributing to the mood of the prose and an understanding of the characters.

Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet whose short stories have won several awards including a Cosmopolitan fiction prize and a Fay Weldon award. Kathleen’s biography of Catherine Cookson was in the top 10 bestseller racks in WH Smith for eight weeks.  The Centauress is her second novel.  Find her on Twitter @kathyferber

GIVEAWAY Kathleen is giving away three copies of the ebook (Mobi, PDF or epub). To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you!  The Centauress will be out in paperback at the end of August

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‘The music of exile’ – Kathleen Jones

for logoMy guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Wayne Clark

for logo‘Music to first escape life then reconnect’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Wayne Clark @Wayne_Clark_1

Soundtrack by Johnny Hodges, Sly and The Family Stone, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie), Frank Sinatra, Lambert Hendriks and Ross, Curtis Mayfield, Freddie Hubbard, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin

As an adolescent with dysfunctional parents, Kit, the protagonist in he & She, had already found an escape in jazz, especially ballads, the cathedral where the hymnal is full of lonely, sad songs from the Great American Song Book (Where Do You Go by Frank Sinatra, Skylark by Aretha Franklin, Body and Soul by Freddie Hubbard). Before he has had any experience in life, Kit equates adult life with these emotions. Experiencing them while listening makes him a grown man, liberated from parents and adolescence.

wayne clarkAs Kit ages, he is alone most of the time in his small New York apartment. He is an alcoholic who watches life from the outside. He works at home as a translator and practises alto sax when he thinks no one is listening. As he did as a youth, he spends more time daydreaming about life than living it.

Cold, grey backdrop

I am a music lover and profoundly amateur musician, but I’ve long known that I must treat music with kid gloves because it tends to take over my mood instantly. The right-wrong piece of background music at the dinner table can take me right out of the conversation. For that reason, I never start a writing session with music on. However, early on while writing he & She I chanced upon a YouTube video of a piece I knew well, a Billy Strayhorn composition called Day Dream, played by Johnny Hodges of the Duke Ellington orchestra. It’s not really a video but a succession of black and white photographs of New York streets, strangely devoid for the most part of people. Against that grey, cold backdrop, the wistfulness of Hodges’s playing absolutely nailed for me the way Kit looked at his world.

Realising that, I used Day Dream on several occasions while writing – not so much to help me describe periods when he felt particularly lonely or empty but to apply a patina of disconnect to his experiencing of external situations. He could be telling himself everything was all right, be it about work or a girlfriend, but something was always missing.

Coming alive

Because I found Day Dream useful, I ended up breaking my no-music rule when writing the early sections involving Kit’s best and only friend, his neighbor, LeBron, a professional bass player. LeBron agrees to pass on some of his skills to Kit, and to do that he teaches him to play sax riffs from classic R&B pieces. The possibility of becoming a real musician is exciting to Kit, a dream come true, and I dug up several recordings that Kit would have been thrilled to have taken part in as a sax player. I used these several times while writing to capture his excitement. LeBron the bass player would have chosen these because of the powerful precision of the horn and rhythm sections. These recordings included ones by Sly and The Family Stone (You Can Make It If You Try), Curtis Mayfield (You Cant Say Nothing) and The Temptations (Papa Was a RollinStone).

wayne clark coverAs Kit turns 50, he is running on empty and desperate about his life. He tells himself all he wants is to feel truly alive one more time. By chance, he spots an image on the Internet, a beautiful young woman who turns out to be dominatrix. He becomes determined to meet her, and when he does he becomes obsessed. From their first encounter on, he feels joy he’s never felt. Can a man that age feel in love the way a young man, even a teenager, would? That’s what I wanted Kit to feel. I found this tricky to write because I didn’t want him to appear a complete fool. He knows it’s an impossible situation, her being half his age, and him being no longer even capable of having sex, but it feels too good to run away from. This will sound terribly obvious, but I used a song by Wilson Picket to convince me Kit could indeed feel love that way. It’s a Bobby Womack song called Im In Love. Picket sings that being in love makes him feel like a boy with a brand new toy on Christmas morning. There’s nothing schmaltzy whatsoever about this recording. I was convinced.

There were other pieces that I didn’t listen to while actually writing but, because we never stop writing in our minds, a couple of pieces by Charlie Parker (Parkers Mood) and Parker with Dizzy Gillespie performing Ko-Ko ended up suggesting dialogue between Kit and LeBron, as did the lyrics by Lambert, Hendriks and Ross for Nothins the Same As It Used to Be.

I have to say that using music to help create words is a two-sided coin. The music can take over your writer’s metronome for the good, for a while, but it can also take your writing on a perhaps unwanted side trip. Like anything fragile, handle with care.

Wayne Clark is the author of he & She. Find him at http://www.wayne-clark.com, the Alliance of Independent Authors, Facebook, Twitter as @Wayne_Clark_1, Goodreads, The Independent Author Network, and LinkedIn 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Anne R Allen

”He hummed Cole Porter – so anachronistic in those days of psychedelic rock’n’roll’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by comic mystery author Anne R Allen.

Soundtrack by Ella Fitzgerald and Cole Porter

I don’t write with background music, although I do occasionally use a CD of rain or ocean sounds to block neighbourhood noise.

When I was writing Sherwood Ltd. which is set in the soggy English Midlands—I often put on a CD of rainstorm sounds to conjure my memories of living in a 200-year-old warehouse in rainy Lincolnshire. An epic flood figures strongly in the plot. I don’t know if that CD is to blame, but I’m sure it gave some inspiration.

His own jazz age

But when I was brainstorming ideas for my Hollywood mystery, The Gatsby Game, I often listened to big band jazz, especially Cole Porter tunes. The anti-hero, Alistair, is a charming, self-destructive loser who tries to live as if he’s a character in a Fitzgerald novel. Although the story is set in the 1970s, Alistair inhabits his own private, imaginary Jazz Age.

The character was inspired by David Whiting, a man I knew in college—who died mysteriously on the set of a Burt Reynolds movie. The mystery of David’s death has never been solved, but I’ve always had a theory of how it might have happened.

I was finally inspired to write about it last year, when I was going through some old college papers and found an ancient note David had left in my dorm room one night, hidden under my pillow. It said, ‘While you were out, you had a visitor…wearing spats, and a straw boater, perhaps, and humming a Cole Porter tune…maybe the ghost of Jay Gatsby?’

It brought a vivid memory of David. He was always humming those tunes—so completely anachronistic in the days of psychedelic rock and roll. David’s image came to me in perfect clarity—with all his theatrical charm, narcissism, and the tragic pain that always showed just under the surface.

That was when I knew I had to write his story—and listening to Cole Porter helped me keep in touch with the memories.

De- lovely

I think the greatest recording of the Cole Porter songbook is Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic Verve recording from 1956. I played it a lot while I was writing The Gatsby Game.

The music itself appears in several scenes. When the narrator, Nicky Conway (yeah, a little homage to Fitzgerald’s Nick Carroway there) first meets Alistair, she finds him charming but evasive. He’s constantly bursting into song to avoid conversation. As he drives her away from her Bryn Mawr dorm to who-knows-where, he responds to each of her questions by singing another line from You’re the Top—appearing to compliment her while he’s bullying her into silence.

Later, when she introduces him to her über-wealthy relatives, she finds Alistair romancing her (very married) aunt to the tune of Begin the Beguine. Throughout the story, Nicky is never quite sure how much Beguining Alistair got up to with her aunt—and/or if some Beguining went on with her uncle as well.

Alistair often retreats into silliness, making clever puns and wordplay to avoid real communication. I imagine him as one of the ‘silly gigolos’ Cole Porter talks about in Anything Goes. I could also imagine Alistair responding to Nicky’s pleas for more intimacy with the line from It’s Too Darn Hot:  ‘Mr. Pants, for romance, with his cutie pie, is not.’

As I played that 1950s recording, I realized it might have been a favorite of Alistair’s mother, whom I imagined as a kind of high-class hooker. Alistair’s primary relationship is always his love/hate enmeshment with his mother—whom he calls ‘the Gorgon’.

It’s delectable, it’s delerious, it’s de-limit

She made him into her surrogate partner whenever she was between ’employers’, which is why he dresses and behaves like a member of her generation instead of his own. The rest of the time, she abandoned him in expensive boarding schools where he rubbed elbows with the children of the glittering ultra-rich Fitzgerald and Cole Porter wrote about—perhaps triggering Alistair’s compulsive social climbing.

In the end, the Gorgon doesn’t even pay for Alistair’s funeral, so he becomes a tragic figure in spite of the shallow Cole Porter-character persona he invented for himself. The honest, direct perfection of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice combined with the brilliant silliness of Porter’s lyrics conveys to me that same tragicomic reality.

Anne R. Allen is the author of five comic mysteries debuting in 2011 with two publishers: Popcorn Press and Mark Williams international Digital Publishing.Food of Love (September 2011) The Gatsby Game (October 2011 – and now available on Nook as well as Kindle) Ghostwriters in the Sky (October 2011) Sherwood Ltd (December 2011) and The Best Revenge (December 2011) She is also working on a self-help guide for writers with Pay It Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde. Anne has a blog for writers at http://annerallen.blogspot.com, where she blogs with NYT bestselling author, Ruth Harris. She can be found on Twitter as @annerallen


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The Undercover Soundtrack – Erika Marks

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary fiction author Erika Marks

Soundtrack by Billie Holiday

There’s no question music plays a big part in my writing process, and since my novel Little Gale Gumbo featured a woman from New Orleans who loves jazz, I knew I would have a grand time building a soundtrack for the manuscript.

There was one scene in particular where the element of music was especially crucial.

Upon leaving New Orleans with her two teenage daughters, determined to start over, Camille arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine and rents an in-law apartment above the attached barn of a divorced islander, Ben, and his teenage son. Shortly after, Ben learns the first snow of the season is forecast and comes to Camille’s apartment bearing extra blankets. She invites him in.

The scene that follows is an unabashedly romantic one. It’s late in the evening. Ben and Camille’s kids are asleep, and now they are alone together. In thanks for the blankets, Camille trims Ben’s hair while one of her jazz records plays in the background. There’s no question it’s a seduction scene. But Ben is being seduced by Camille through the senses, and it needed to be clear to the reader from the moment Ben steps into her apartment that he’s stepped into another world.

It had to be you

To make this transition convincing, I knew I had to reveal who Camille was to Ben—the reader already has a strong sense at this point in the story, but for Ben, this is really the first opportunity for him to see Camille truly in her element, alone with her passions, which are jazz music and her love of cooking. So as I wrote the scene, I wanted to have the same experience that Ben would have. The same slow appreciation for a piece of music in the background, not too loud, but so distinctive, so rich and full-bodied, and such a contrast to the stark, reserved landscape he knows, that I—and the reader—couldn’t help but be swept into Camille’s world in that moment too.

In the scene I mention how the record plays “the smoky wail of a trumpet, the pluck and purr of a standing bass” so I knew I wanted the soundtrack to be soft, moody, lulling. I also knew that Camille loved Billie Holiday best of all, so while I wrote the scene, I played only Billie, in particular It Had To Be You and I’ll Be Seeing You, which elicited every bit of the smoldering attraction that had been building between Ben and Camille from the moment she arrived on his doorstep.

So, did the music work its magic on my characters as well as it did on me as a writer?

Come now. It’s Billie Holiday. What do you think?

Erika Marks is a native New Englander who was raised in Maine and has worked as an illustrator, cake decorator, and carpenter. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, a native New Orleanian, their two daughters, and their dog. Find her on Twitter as @ErikaMarksAuthr

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