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Trygve Seim: Innovative Vanguard of a New Wave


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I see myself on a mission. I have a large band with a lot of musicians, and it’s acoustic music. I want to be in this tradition of making acoustic music survive, because I think it’s so important.
—Trygve Seim
When saxophonist/composer Trygve Seim emerged on the international scene in 2000 with his critically acclaimed ECM Records debut, Different Rivers, it was clear that yet another fresh voice had emerged from the infinitely deep wellspring of Norwegian talent from which label owner/producer Manfred Eicher has been drawing for over 30 years. But whereas so much of the music coming from that part of the world revolves around a rich improvising tradition that fits tongue-in-groove with Eicher's "music of the moment" aesthetic, Seim seems to come equally from a more through-composed approach that owes as much to contemporary classical composers like Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt as it does to saxophonist Jan Garbarek and, in particular, deceased Finnish drummer/composer Edward Vesala.

That's not to say that there isn't spontaneity in Seim's long-form compositions, only that it is so well integrated with the structured form of his writing that it is sometimes a challenge to determine where composition ends and improvisation begins. And, truth be told, that's not really the correct way to look at Seim's music either.

Take Seim's latest disk, Sangam (2005), which takes the premise of Different Rivers a step further, paradoxically, in terms of both complexity and apparent simplicity.

"When I wrote the music of Sangam, says Seim, "the layer underneath the solos was still heavily written, so the soloist was forced to do the things I want him to do; he was forced to follow the music so that it becomes more integrated. At the same time, with [trumpeter] Arve Henriksen and [clarinetist] Håvard Lund, they're kind of specialists at doing this kind of thing. Throughout the entire title track, Håvard alternates between improvising and playing written material. He may improvise for 10 seconds and then play a five-second scored passage; it's a real challenge. But the thing is, that Håvard makes the whole thing sound composed."

Seim may have been involved in the Norwegian music scene for the past 15 years, but he seems to have emerged almost overnight on the international stage. How has he managed to buck the more accepted trend towards jazz composition, where the writing acts as a vehicle for improvisation and loose interplay, instead creating a uniquely integrated sound for a larger ensemble that, while being more rigid in form, is still highly evocative, distinctly compelling and filled with life?

Early Years

Seim, a child of the '70s, didn't come from a particularly musical family; although his father played piano and his step-father guitar, neither pursued professional careers in music. "I had an older brother who played bass for a while when he was a teenager," explains Seim, "playing in punk groups and listening to bands like the Sex Pistols. Naturally, as he was my big brother, I was listening to a lot of the same music, as well as The Police and Bob Marley, who were my favorite artists around that time."

Then, at the age of 14, Seim heard an album that was, as also occurred with his contemporary, guitarist Jacob Young, to have a profound influence on the young, aspiring musician. "I heard Jan Garbarek's Eventyr (ECM, 1981)," Seim says, "and that kind of made my decision to play saxophone. It was just a coincidence really, that my step-father played me Eventyr. We were on a trip in the mountains when I first heard it. And it was not so much an intellectual thing; the melodies on the album just touched my heart directly. Anyway, my father had a saxophone that he wasn't using, so he said I could have it and that was the beginning.

"At the same time," continues Seim, "I remember the first jazz record I ever got was Miles Davis' Decoy (Columbia, 1984), and that was also very important to me, as was much of Miles' music from that period. I think one of the things that appealed to me about both Miles and Garbarek was that, in the American tradition, the music always seems to be more about showing how well you can play— impressing the musicians on stage with you, or the people in the audience. But Garbarek and Miles were more about playing in service of the music, rather than simply showing off their abilities as improvisers."

And, of course, it would be hard to imagine that the whole ECM aesthetic didn't have a direct impact on Seim. "I find the ECM aesthetic," Seim explains, "which seems more about the music and less about demonstrating chops, to be more interesting in the end. ECM albums like Old and New Dreams (1979) were especially influential. There's a song on that album, I can't remember the title, but it starts off with a [trumpeter] Don Cherry solo, and that tune still pops up in my head from time to time."

That's not to say that American improvisers didn't have some impact on the developing Seim. "I had a long period where I listened to a lot of Dexter Gordon," says Seim, "and I went to a lot of jam sessions and played standards. People often told me that I sounded like Dexter Gordon, which I think was quite obvious because I was working so hard to sound like him, transcribing his improvisations. I lived in Denmark for a year and, while he wasn't living there at the time, Dexter was still very important to the Danish jazz community, everyone was still talking about him and he retained a lot of status.

Early Groups and Trondheim

While Seim was living in Denmark he started his own group. "We only played one concert," Seim says, "and the funny thing was that I had Carsten Dahl on piano. At that time he wasn't a pianist, he was a drummer. He was studying jazz drums at the conservatory in Copenhagen, but in his private time he was playing a lot of piano and I heard him, so we started to play together in this quartet. I don't know how good I was at the time, but I remember he played fantastically."

Seim then returned to Norway and studied at the renowned Trondheim conservatory, concentrating on performance. "I had a teacher called Terje Bjerklund," explains Seim, "and he was educated as a classical composer but had started as a jazz pianist. Coincidentally, he even did some concerts with Dexter Gordon in Oslo in the '60s. Anyway, I did some compositional studies, but not much, it was more just a touch of it, and the emphasis was on performance. Still, I often came to Terje, as he had written some very nice compositions for string orchestra. So if I came to his office when I was writing small compositions and didn't know what to do with them, he was always very helpful with ideas and ways to solve problems. So I learned more from these private conversations with him than I did in the classes."

Seim was to meet another artist familiar to ECM fans while studying at Trondheim. "I met pianist Christian Wallumrød," Seim says, "and we started a quartet called Airamero. We actually met at the auditions for Trondheim, found each other in a similar musical landscape and we were both very eager to get out and play, so we booked some concerts and played a lot with that group. Of course when I listen to it now there is some influence from the Jarrett/Garbarek group, but also Tore Brunborg. Tore is a great saxophonist who was also a strong influence. I first heard him when he was playing with Masqualero, and he still is, to me, one of the most interesting and overlooked Norwegian saxophone players. When I hear him still, it really touches me."

Airamero developed enough of a reputation that when they contacted trumpeter expat Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler [living in the U.K. since the '50s], sent him a CD, and asked if he'd like to play some concerts with them, he readily agreed. "We played one tour with Kenny Wheeler," Seim explains, "seven concerts that had a great impact on my musical development. It was a terrific experience playing his music and our music with him. While Airamero was playing mainly compositions by Christian and myself, Kenny was one of the people to whom we had listened a lot, and we actually played some of his songs before we did the tour, so it was a great experience to play those songs with him. He's such a gentle man, and I learned a great deal about playing this kind of music from him. That week was an education for all of us."

Airamero recorded one CD for the Norwegian Odin label, which was significant in that it was also the beginning of Seim's relationship with drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, with whom Seim continues to collaborate to this day.

Edward Vesala

But as influential as artists including Wheeler, Brunborg, Garbarek and Gordon were, the two most important influences on Seim's ultimate direction were Finnish drummer/composer Edward Vesala and Norwegian pianist/composer Jon Balke. Seim's two ECM records can, in fact, be described as the gentler side of Vesala taken to the next level.

"It's funny you should say that," says Seim. "Edward's albums could be somewhat schizophrenic. My history with Edward began with a concert I saw in '91 or '92 at the Molde Jazz Festival. He played with his group Sound and Fury, and I didn't know anything about him but went to this concert and didn't understand a thing about what they were doing! It was kind of frightening to see them live. I remember Jon Balke, also a very meaningful person to me, saying it was so fantastic. And so, because I didn't understand a thing, I had to go and buy a record of his. So I bought Invisible Storm (ECM, 1992), listened to it over and over again, and it just became more and more fantastic. I have all his ECM records as well as some others, but Invisible Storm is, I think, the pearl, an absolutely incredible record.

"Later on I was playing in Finland, not far from where he lived in the countryside," Seim continues, "so we just called him, went to his house and he was very welcoming. We ate lunch with him and spent the day talking music with him. And then, a couple of years later, in '96, I was together with Hasse Poulson, a Danish guitarist, and some other Swedish people, and we were arranging a music festival in Sweden, which we did for three years. This festival was to be about different styles of music, including classical and jazz. It was supposed to be about music without any boundaries. So we invited Edward to play with his own group Sound and Fury, but he couldn't do it with them and so it was he who suggested we play together. So we did a show with his wife, Iro Haarla, on piano and harp, and that was a fantastic experience.

"Edward said that we had to continue," concludes Seim, "and nothing could have made me happier. While we played together until '99, there was a period where we didn't work because I was thinking of quitting playing. I had moved out to the countryside by myself, thinking about everything, but then in '99 we put together a quartet with Iro, but we only managed to do one concert and then Edward died a month later."

While Vesala never received the broader international credit that was his due, he did gain some level of notoriety. But there was a darker side that Seim saw. "When you listen to his records," says Seim, "you hear a very sudden development in orchestration and instrumentation. That is very much because of his association with Iro, who is educated as a classical composer. When they married, they started to write all the music together, but that's really the dark side of Edward. He didn't credit Iro for any of these collaborations, he took all the credit, and as a result there were two very bad consequences. First, when Iro records today she is accused of being a copy of Edward when, in fact, it was collaborative. And if you listen to his recordings you can hear, 'now he's married to Iro,' because the music changes significantly. The other thing is that, because he had children from a previous marriage, Iro doesn't receive any of the copyright/royalty money that is her due.

"Iro wanted us to continue our collaboration after Edward passed away," concludes Seim, "so she did a couple of tours of Finland where I came and played with different drummers. Edward actually has a daughter who played on one of the tours. She's a fantastic free drummer, plays exactly like Edward, but she doesn't want to do that, she wants to play in punk bands, and gets so angry when her mother convinces her to play with her.

"Anyway, we did these couple of tours and I talked to Manfred Eicher about them, that I really think Iro should do her own record. And so we have recorded a new record for ECM that will be released under her own name, with drummer Jon Christensen, trumpeter, Mathias Eick and bassist Uffe Krokfors. The music is all hers, she's really written some fantastic stuff and it's so great to be able to play with her because she has a special way of writing that comes out of her collaboration with Edward. The album will have a stronger improvisational element than some of Edward's later albums—Invisible Storm, for example, was almost all composition. Anyway, the record is finished and mixed, and will hopefully be out by the fall of 2005."

Jon Balke, Oslo 13 and Trondheim Kunst Orchestra

The other experience which directly led to Seim's broader compositional focus in the context of larger ensembles was time spent as part of Oslo 13, first a vehicle for Jon Balke but later, after Balke left the ensemble, an opportunity for Seim to flex his own compositional muscle.

"I started to play with Oslo 13 in '92," Seim says, "and it was, for me, an important experience. We had a one month tour with Jon Christensen and Audun Kleive on drums and they both played fantastically. Balke's music was great, I really still admire his writing, and so this was, for me, a lucky star of sorts. It was, in fact, my experience with Oslo 13 and Edward Vesala that prompted me to write music for larger ensembles, and so in '93 I started a group called Trondheim Kunst Orchestra. That was a group with Arve Henriksen, Håvard Lund and Per Oddvar Johansen. Both Per Oddvar and Jarle Vespestad played drums, and the idea of two drummers was, of course, from Oslo 13. At the time I also had two bass players, which came from a Roscoe Mitchell concert I saw in New York in '92. There was a lot of energy and improvisation, and so I wrote a lot of small sketches that were used as an entrance to improvisation."

The Trondheim Kunst Orchestra was to be the beginning of what would ultimately evolve into the ensembles that recorded Different Rivers and Sangam.

"In the beginning, it was much more improvisation than composition," Seim says, "but that's mainly because I didn't have much experience writing for such a large group. It was funny because with two drummers, two acoustic bass players, guitar and four wind instruments, we actually did a couple of tours with the group in '93-95, but all the time I wanted to write more, to control more of the final music."

At the same time Seim was working with this larger ensemble to develop his own compositions, he was involved in a collaborative quartet called The Source which, along with two Norwegian releases, issued the 2002 ECM album The Source and Different Cikadas, augmenting the core quartet of Seim, Per Oddvar Johansen, trombonist Øyvind Brække and double bassist Finn Guttormsen with the Cikada String Quartet, as well as Arve Henriksen, Christian Wallumrød and accordionist Frode Haltli. "The Source is another story in a way," explains Seim. "It's lived its own life, because Øyvind also studied at the conservatory the same time as I did, and we started this quartet with Øyvind, myself, Per Oddvar and Finn.

"Per Oddvar was an important musician for me," continues Seim, "not only to play with but with whom to listen to music. He's an amazing drummer, I think. Every time I hear him, he's one of the only drummers I know who, all the time, really, really plays together with the musicians. Very often drummers are either playing very boringly or playing too much. He doesn't do that. Everything he does is connected to what everyone else does, right down to very smallest details. And I remember, at the time when we studied together, he played in Airamero, he played in the Source, and in my group.

"But he also showed me a lot of music. He showed me Ornette Coleman's music, as I was not so much into that when I started to study. He opened my ears to a lot of free music. But the story of the Source is that it has always been a collective group; we all write music for it, although Øyvind has written most of it. When someone comes in with a new piece we break it down and say, 'ok, we can use this part and take away that part'; we work like that, in a collective fashion."

In fact, one of the more remarkable things about The Source and Different Cikadas is how the writing styles from the different members seem to meet on common ground. The plaintive "Mmball" may have been written by Johansen, but would sound equally at home as a Seim composition.

Different Rivers and the Compositional Process

While Seim's two projects under his own name are clearly the product of his own musical imagination, he is as democratic with his ensemble as The Source is. Despite the material being written with specific instruments in mind, it is also written with specific players in mind. "Arve Henriksen is the kind of musician," Seim explains, "that when you choose to work with him it's not like, 'I need a trumpeter.' It's for his specific style and sound. He's a great person to work with. He has a lot of ideas about how to make the compositions better, and he often says, 'maybe you should try this or that,' and I go home, work with it and come back and it becomes more interesting. And the same with Håvard and Per Oddvar.

"So when the material is rehearsed," continues Seim, "there is often input from others in the group that will ultimately change the way the music is played. And that's one of the great things about having this ensemble. If we do a concert and I come in with new material to rehearse before the show, I can try things out, hear what I think and what others might say to me, and then go home and work on it some more. The next time I might be happy...although usually I'm not happy because when we're on stage I always think of how I could have made the compositions even better. But that's also one of the hard things about playing your own music yourself. If you write music for someone else, like classical composers do, they don't have to meet the music so much, maybe they hear the premiere and then they don't hear it again, whereas I have to live with it each and every time we play it. I also have to live with compositions I wrote many years ago that we play now, and it's like the knowledge I now have makes me wonder, 'did I really write like that?' And you're always learning new things all the time.

"Speaking about instrumentation," Seim concludes, "it can sometimes be a balance of what I want to have versus who I want to have. At one time I wanted to have two bassists and drummers, it was about a musical idea rather than the specific musicians. I wanted this heavy thing in the bottom end. Of course it started as an odd combination at the beginning, with two drummers, two bassists, tuba, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and guitar. But I see it as an evolution, because I started the group in '93 and with Different Rivers and Sangam the ensemble is more or less the same as the beginning, I've just changed some of the musicians. After a period with the two bass players I wanted to have no bass players, then I wanted only one drummer, and I brought in the cello because I was fascinated by the sound of that instrument and wanted to see how it could blend into the group. It's not the easiest thing to have only one cello amidst all these wind instruments."

As for writing, Seim uses whatever tools are available at his disposal. "My ideas often come to me when I'm sitting at my piano. I'm not a good pianist, so it takes a lot of time, so that is one thing that I've decided I'm going to work on a little bit, to try and become a better pianist. Not a pianist per se, but to be able to play the music I write, because when I write sketches on piano, I can then go to the computer and write it in a notation program, and I can hear it, not with good sounds but I can still hear how the lines interact. And that's a great tool actually because, with piano, it's very different from how it's ultimately going to sound. And when I work with the notation program and hear how the lines work together it often gives me new ideas that are even more advanced."

Current Sources and Bending Conventions

While press releases talk about Seim's developing occupation with contemporary classical composers, he takes inspiration from other sources as well. "Breathe," on Different Rivers, has a remarkably tranquil, calming effect, much like Brian Eno's Ambient Music. "It's funny that you should say Brian Eno," Seim says, "because I remember, before I wrote "Breathe," that I was listening to Eno's Music for Airports (E.G., 1978) almost every day, and "Breathe" clearly comes from a similar space."

But for Sangam, Seim sees an evolution of the concepts that began with the Trondheim Kunst Orchestra that were first recorded on Different Rivers.

"I feel I have come much farther as a composer," explains Seim, "that I'm learning how to write more complex things and to use the ensemble better, individually and collectively. I'm learning how to use Arve, for example, not as a trumpeter but as he is, and also the sound of the ensemble, because we did a lot of touring after Different Rivers. I learned a lot from touring, because I heard what would work and what wouldn't."

Meanwhile, Seim is always looking for unorthodox ways to bring new colors to the ensemble. On Different Rivers , Henriksen uses an instrument called a trumpophone, while on The Source and Different Cikadas Seim himself is heard using a strange hybrid called a clarophone.

"Well, to make a trumpophone," Seim explains, "Arve got a soprano mouthpiece from me and used it instead of his trumpet mouthpiece, which made his instrument react very strangely. The intonation was all wrong, everything became wrong, but he made a very tough sound with it. The clarophone uses a tenor saxophone body with a bass clarinet neck and bass clarinet mouthpiece. I had to make some adjustments to make it fit into the top of the sax body (a sax repairman made that for me). It has a similar function to the trumpophone. The saxophone doesn't react the way it normally does; a D doesn't come out a D, for example. I don't want to study how it works, I like this idea that I don't know what I'm playing, and so when I use the clarophone it's for a strange sound, a strange effect."

Working With Manfred Eicher

Different Rivers was funded completely by Seim, with assistance from the Norwegian government. It was also produced mainly by Seim, with assistance from Christian Wallumrød and Øyvind Brække. "Christian was up for two days in the studio," says Seim, "and Øyvind was there for another two days, but it was mainly self-produced, because I worked on that record for many months, mixing, and re-recording things. [Rainbow Studio Engineer] Jan Erik Kongshaug gave a copy of the CD to Manfred Eicher, as did Nils Petter Molvaer, but I didn't think anything would happen. It took a year before I heard from ECM and I had almost put it out on a Norwegian label. Then, by accident, I met Manfred and he told me that he had listened to the record and that he really wanted to release it. It was worth waiting for, as so many more people got to hear it because it's on ECM."

Sangam, on the other hand, was produced by Eicher, and there are some noticeable differences.

"The sound of the two records is quite different," says Seim. "Different Rivers was a drier record, and Manfred has a strength in blending the ensemble in the mix. Also, when he is in the studio he comes to you with a very small, sometimes abstract muse that makes people play differently. He often hears music more like a film; he talks about it like that, very visually. It's a nice way of looking at things, because movies are so obviously narrative-based, but in music it's not always so.

"Also, on Sangam, some of the music is more classical in nature," continues Seim, "and I'm so happy that Manfred was in the studio for the pieces where Christian Eggen conducts and had total control over it. There are so many things to think about. How to place everyone in the studio to get a good sound, for example, or when you need to do another take. Manfred's instincts are very, very good.

"Manfred always wants to have this more intuitive way of working," Seim continues, "this 'in the moment' way of working. He has made a lot of fantastic records doing it that way. It's the same way he works when he records classical music. He doesn't want to edit. When you hear typical classical productions that are not on ECM, normally there are many, many different cuts inside a piece, sometimes hundreds. That's the way they work now, when they work with a symphonic orchestra they record maybe two or three tracks and then they have a Tonmeister who sits and listens to every bar and picks and chooses the best takes and edits them together.

"Manfred hates that," continues Seim. "He wants you to hear the life, the nerve in the music, and I think he's often right about that. Even though I can hear mistakes and pitch problems on some of the classical CDs he has recorded, they are still so strong. They may be flawed but they are human, and that's a very important issue.

"It's really kind of his trademark," Seim concludes. "He really feels that the music has to be made before the microphones, and he is able to do this because he uses really good musicians. You think of Keith Jarrett's Belonging Quartet; they play so well, why should you cut anything? But also, I think, maybe that's one of the reasons why he has won Grammies as a classical producer; that he makes recordings with live music because, in the end, I think it is much better. I see myself on a similar mission. I have a large band with a lot of musicians, and it's acoustic music. I want to be in this tradition of making acoustic music survive, because I think it's so important. It's a very strange thing to me that people talk about DJs as musicians. I want to work for the acoustic music.

As is normally the case with ECM recordings, Eicher is also intimately involved with the sequencing of the material to create the final running order. "Different Rivers is mainly my order," Seim explains, "but Manfred made one quite significant change, so in a way it's his order anyway. I wanted to start the record with 'Ulrikas Dance,' which is now the second piece, but I think it really made it a lot stronger when he changed it to open with 'Sorrows.' There, again, I think his interest in film comes in. He always sees a record as one long story. Many people have said to me that Sangam sounds like one suite, and that is Manfred's work, because after I experienced his order I decided, when it comes to the order, I would just sit down on a sofa and listen to what he has to say. I watch how he works, and it's so fascinating, because every time I think he comes up with a great order that makes the record sound like a whole, like on Sangam, The Source and Different Cikadas and the new one with Iro. I didn't say anything, I just sat down and listened to him because I'm so impressed with how he does that."

On Playing

With the emphasis so strongly on Seim the composer, it becomes easy to overlook that he's a strong improviser, with a style that combines the best of his influences, from Garbarek, Brunborg and Gordon, to be sure, but also with some of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler blended into the mix. And yet, as impressive a player as he is, he considers the concept of soloing as the sole raison d'être to be less than appealing.

"When I went through that period I mentioned where I wanted to quit playing," Seim says, "one of the things that really made me doubt playing was this solo thing so prevalent in jazz music. When you go to a festival, it almost feels like you are going to a shopping centre where people are marketing their wares, standing there and playing solos because they want to impress the other musicians on stage, the audience (especially if there are musicians in the audience) and promoters, so they'll be able to get better work. To me that is not at all what music is about. For a long period I was anti-solo, I didn't want to play any solos, although these days I do every now and then. But I don't find soloing in the traditional manner particularly interesting. So often it's more about showing off, and there are so many jazz musicians who are more like salesmen.

"While one might consider my avoidance of overt soloing to reflect a certain lack of ego," concludes Seim, "in the end it may be just the opposite because I rebel against the traditional form of jazz playing."

Touring and the Future

With an ensemble that currently stands as a nine-piece, there are certain obstacles against which Seim must fight to get his music heard in live venues. "Lately, I've become a little irritated," Seim explains, "because I'm not charging a lot of money for my group. It's more the airline tickets and hotels that get expensive. But when Pat Metheny plays in Europe, it will cost 20 times what my group costs, and that's no problem, so the situation is strange, I think. And that's why it becomes more and more a society where if you're in the top echelon you can ask for whatever you want. If you're not, you can't get anything at all. Sometimes it seems like robbery. Still, this year we have a tour in Germany and Austria, then we'll play some single festival concerts, because there are some festivals that want us and can afford to bring us."

Meanwhile, with Sangam out in Europe since November '04 but just seeing release in North America, time will tell as to what degree of acceptance Seim's musical vision will receive Stateside. The reception in Europe has been extremely positive. But along with continuing to keep his own ensemble and The Source going concerns along with his project with Iro Haarla, Seim has been spreading himself even further.

"I am playing in a duo with Frode Haltli, the accordion player," Seim says, "and we're going to make a record for ECM. But there are some promoters who ask if I can cut my group down to a quintet or something, but it simply doesn't work that way.

"I'm also beginning to write a lot now for a classical opera singer," concludes Seim. "She has commissioned music from me, so I have written four pieces for her so far: three for church organ and piano; and one for a trio of piano, violin and cello. The music is based on texts by the Persian writer Rumi, translated into English by Coleman Barks. This is something I've found very interesting, and I hope to do more."

Despite his distinctly non-mainstream approach, and influences that come from farther afield, Seim's music may be difficult to categorize but still fits most neatly within a broader jazz umbrella. Still, he clearly challenges accepted definitions by making improvisation an integrated part of the overall compositional process. And with critical acclaim coming from far and wide, the future looks promising for Seim, still in his mid-30s and already creating music of remarkable depth and maturity. Along with artists including Jacob Young, Christian Wallumrød, Tord Gustavsen and Arve Henriksen, Seim is truly on the vanguard of a new wave of Norwegian music that is as exciting and refreshingly new as the first wave that emerged in the early '70s.

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