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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Golan Levin & Paul D. Miller Dialogue

Golan Levin and Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) in conversation with Rosanne Bersten.
Interview on 12 September 2003, Ars Electronica Festival, Linz, Austria. If you wish to purchase this transcript for publication, please e-mail Rosanne Bersten.
All rights © Rosanne Bersten 2004.

PDM: (talking about a Greg Egan story) This one party where you realise that people are committing suicide at this party, his stuff always has a really dark edge to it, it's like neo gothic horror, near-futuristic.

RB: ...and half the time it's quantum physics and half the time it's bio-genetics, he's really sharp and he's a mathematician, his web site's unbelievable because it's hard core maths and quantum physics. He's a total recluse.

RB: So, Golan, would you call what you're doing music?

GL: No.

RB: What would you call it?

GL: Well, what you saw the other night [Messa di Voce], I'd call it new media performance or audiovisual performance.

RB: How do you feel that this new media performance fits in with the parallel development of digital musics at the moment?

GL: Well, actually — Paul will probably disagree with this vociferously but — in many ways, music's at a dead-end right now, and the ways that it's not at a dead end are branching out from the last twenty years of albums that are released by record companies and toured by bands. I would say that there will still always be a market for that and people will still always need music that involves recognisable tunes and that they can move their ass to, and I have no contempt for that at all; in fact, I'm actually jealous of dance music, I think it can effect people in profound ways. But in terms of the development of musical idioms as opposed to people's need for popular music, the development of art music and avant-garde music, people will probably grill me for saying this but I don't find anything particularly interesting happening, for example, in the digital musics category of Ars Electronica. The winning selection this year is a bunch of people who basically dork around in the studio and make interesting sounds and then release them on a CD, you know, music concrète or that expanse of painful or unpainful industrial sounds and so forth, and this has been done now for twenty or thirty years, coming out of Varese and Eno and all that. When I tried to think of the future of music, I made the concert two years ago which was the choreographed ringing of people's mobile phones. You know, this is not an album I've produced in a studio where I've tried to make the most painful possible sounds.

I think that that kind of music is at a dead end, and I think that the new territory in musics as far as the avant garde is concerned involves branching out into different domains and that's why for example, in my own work, to the extent that it is music, I'm trying to do things outside of what you can hear or what is even listenable on an album.

PDM: Well, the whole idea of creating an environment is something that's really important right now, I think so much of what's going on in music culture is a reflection of this whole peer-to-peer issue, the networks, MP3 file exchanges, and just making some annoying squeaky sounds isn't necessarily so avant-garde, it was something that was done thirty years ago, you look at Stockhausen, at Perez, even Stravinsky —

GL: Sure.

PDM: All sorts of stuff.

GL: Or in terms of the idea of using the studio as an instrument, I mean there's an article by Eno from 1974 about doing this.

PDM: Yeah, people have been doing this the whole last century.

RB: What's your response to the whole sine wave thing?

PDM: I just think that the whole idea of what people think about as art music...

GL: I think it hurts.

PDM: ...I think right now, you're right, a lot of that is a perceptual dead end, where people are not necessarily taking the medium outside of just making some squeaky sounds. I'm interested much more in an idea of social engineering and that entails the idea of hybridity, openness to all sorts of globalised issues, stuff that takes you out of your local little scene. You know, I travel a lot but I also do a lot of collaborations with people from all walks of life, precisely because that keeps things interesting.

GL: If I had to be a juror [at ars electronica] and I was restricted to looking at things that could be recorded on albums, I don't even know what I would do, I think I would find very little of interest. I think the making of environments is an example of that, the mobile phone symphony or performance or intervention, this to me is an environment that doesn't reproduce well on CD at all because the whole thing is happening on a hundred cell phones.

RB: Talking about collaboration, one of the things that interested me here were the Audio Pad and Block Jam stuff and the different ways of making the dance music you were talking about before but with the visual interface becoming a part of the performance in a way that someone just standing in front of a laptop is not.

PDM: I can literally compare between a dance music environment and a soundart environment, because I did two different events. I was also going to do this [Iannis] Xenakis thing but I did a collaboration with him a couple of years ago but I didn't want to do a squeaky noise thing, it just would have been a different vibe, my style would have been more of an ambient take on his work and then format wise I just didn't think it would fit. No disrespect to anyone doing that kind of stuff. I think it's a big world and if somebody doesn't like something or has an issue then check out something else, it's aesthetics and difference.

RB: What do you think about the performative aspect of someone standing in front of a laptop as music?

PDM: That's fine. If that's what they get their kicks out of. I think it's about pleasure and people need to do what makes them feel happy. If they get a kick out of it then more power to them.

GL: That's a very tolerant attitude and I do basically agree with you in that if people want to go see a performance and there's a guy playing a laptop then that's all good. Personally, I find it manifestly and completely uninteresting. I mean, again, suppose you say, hey friends, let's go out and dance, and there's a guy in front of a laptop, great, but in terms of what's interesting, in terms of where we are today, I've seen laptop performances and they're manifestly uninteresting, and for a number of reasons...

PDM: But you're watching the person as if it's a performance, whereas you should be watching and/or listening and/or watching the screen or projection, you don't need to watch the person.

GL: Well, sure, but as far as performance goes then this is not the future of performance, this is what I'm saying. The future of performance is not some guy standing behind a laptop doing something completely opaque with probably nothing contingent and nothing at stake in the situation.

RB: Which is why I'm interested in AudioPad. James Patten and Ben Recht have a table with light sensors and little perspex markers. One is drum, one is bass, one is pitch, one of them is a star shaped thing that's the microphone and another is a starshaped thing that's the 'allow alteration to start here'. This is their interface. To make the music they move the markers around, it becomes a visual representation of the sliders so the audience can see what is being done, in an artistic way.

GL: It puts something back into what's at stake in an live performance, which is that the performer might mess up and not only that, you could see possibly how they might mess up or that there's something different from occasion to occasion because you can see that the performer is actually doing something.

RB: I also wonder about the ability to visualise collaboration through that.

PDM: Let's put it this way. Because I move through so many different scenes, I mean I check out reggae, I check out hip hop, I check out noise rock, I check  out downtown avantgarde free jazz, I check out digital media scene...

GL: You can have an anything goes attitude...

PDM: Right, because I move between a lot of scenes, I really have to be open and chilled out about things. What I find interesting is when people critique my performance, each person brings a whole lot of perceptual baggage about what a DJ should be or what an artist should be or what a writer should be, so my issues normally with the sorts of perceptual apparatus that's applied to me rather than what I would apply to other people so that's why I'm just like hanging... I really do try to invoke that sense of tolerance and openness in my own views of other people in the hopes that... you know, like last night, when I did the Duchamp piece, I think people were watching me as a DJ and not as an artist, and because of that the expectation and the perceptual baggage that came with that, they were expecting beats, they wanted to get some sort of dance thing doing and I was doing some ambient sort of  weird art/noise mixed with... I don't think it was like the Xenakis thing where it was like disturbing and annoying sounds, it was much more like atmospheric, I was timestretching and sampling Duchamp's vocal piece where he's talking about the art of selection and editing and I was editing him saying stuff and timestretching and pulling snippets out of his discussion, kind of as a fun thing about the artist as shareware so to speak, but the perception and the perceptual baggage that people brought with them didn't allow them to critique the performance as an art piece, it had them critiquing it as a DJ piece, where it's not dance, what's going on...

GL: You can't keep a beat, what's wrong with you?

PDM: Right.

RB: So talking about DJing for a second and the whole pastiche of sampling and how that functions, is that at a dead end too? Where next from that?

PDM: I think it's going to go a lot more to multimedia, to full scale environments where people set a situation up and people move into it and see what's going on. Right now, the whole peer-to-peer culture thing, the way that people are getting into mixing and downloading, file sharing and fileswapping, all that is just about dissolution of the normal compositional process. I mean the term's "genius moves to senius" with people making collaborative situations and events. I think everyone's going to be a DJ, and already is, moving to that direction, when you're selecting and picking files, and figuring out what's going on, that's mixing you know. That's now the archetypal underlying architecture for 21st century creativity, so I'd say within the next 10 years it's just going to become more and more expansionary and I'm curious to see that. I definitely think right now it's got to be about visual stuff, it's got to be about expanding your archive, always having intriguing sounds going on and as it gets digital, that's absorbing the same evolutionary dynamic that was going on with turntables but just again because it's digital it'll be about networks, it'll be about dispersion. I did a show a couple of years ago called absolute DJ where we had people in different continents, one in Australia, one in South Africa, one in Greece, one in I think Greenland and one person in Canada, and I presented the work at the Monterey Jazz festival as a new kind of jazz where everybody was giving me elements over the Internet and I was mixing them and sampling them and splicing and dicing but also presenting the work as a seamless musical experience for the audience in Montreal. Each DJ had a different screen so I was DJing the mixes of seven other DJs, sending the signals from all those different continental locations. You know, that's a fun thing, but it's also conceptual and it's also rhythmically accessible as a normal DJ thing. If I did something like that at Ars Electronica I would figure out a different angle.

GL: What did it mean to you to mix things like that, that are live coming in from all those people? What do you think the process means or what do you think the product means?

PDM: I think of it much more about... If you look back at the origin of the root of the word jazz, it comes from a french verb jazzer which means to have a conversation and it's about just having an enriched dialogue with other fellow artists, and really exchanging and really seeing what's going on.

GL: Across great distances, for example.

PDM: Yeah. And I like the idea of this whole McLuhanesque global village situation but I also think we need to move past that to the idea of real sense of community requires interaction and implies respect for different compositional strategies and styles, you know.

GL: These folks in these other locations, what kind of materials they sending to you? Are they sending you the traditional folk songs of their country or are they sending you McDonald's jingles?

PDM: No, they were sending electronica, they were sending house music. Some people were sending weird electro-acoustic squiggly sounds. The palette was very open.

GL: Don't you think that as globalisation progresses, though, the sounds are sounding the same everywhere you go?

PDM: Sure. I can usually tell what software people are using by the edits in the tracks, by the various frequencies that the tracks highlight, stuff like that.

GL: What do you think about that?

RB: Do you see that as a problem?

PDM: It's an intense flatlining and people need to be a lot more creative to stand out.

GL: But creative how? With the same software? With their own software?

PDM: All aspects.

GL: Is it about materials and tools that's levelling them out or is it about culture and ambition?

PDM: Both. I mean, the culture's flatlined and the software's flatline and the next wave that we were talking about about where you think it's going it's going to be about this idea of personalisation and specialisation but at the same time being able to exapnd your vocabulary and continuously absorb different things. That's the DJ situation is constant constant transformation but right now it's a strange world, because this is the famous William Gibson phrase, "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed", which is a nice little way of thinking about many futures and many presents and many pasts going at the same time. Three days ago I was in Canada on a panel with a German woman who had gone to Afghanistan to record Afghani Taliban holy songs, and she was playing all these examples of this... you know the thing is they banned music, in a certain way, you could only play specific hymns and you know holy chants, and her as a German woman going there was pretty wild, so they recorded material from there, they just wanted to document it, almost as an ethnological statement and so for her to have that as a statement was fascinating, but at the same time I was like "can I borrow that CD for a second?" so I started noodling around with it and seeing what I could come up with, you know, it was funny, because the audience was like, well, if I was in Afghanistan I guess I'd be stoned to death at this point, but hey we're in Canada in the middle of the jazz festival so let's see what we can do. Does that imply disrespect? Does that imply...

GL: Here's the thing. I was reading an interesting interview with Michael Brook who worked a few years ago with Ali Akbar Khan before he passed away. And you know, Michael Brook is coming out of this whole Brian Eno tradition and worked with Eno and so forth and has a great reputation as an ambient musician, and so naturally through Real World or whatever he gets this deal with Ali Akhbar Khan and they do an album together, and he takes Ali's vocals and cuts them up and puts them together over a beat or whatever and then two months later Ali Akbar Khan goes back and listens to it and says, you know, "What went wrong? What did you do, why'd this happen?" and Michael Brook said "What do you mean? What's wrong with it?" and apparently these are holy songs, and to cut them up is tremendously [LAUGH] and you're not supposed to interrupt the vocal, that's like the one rule of this kind of music, and here is you know, Ali Akbar Khan, this amazing virtuoso saying to Michael Brook "How dare you?" and Michael Brook felt really chastised.

PDM: He should have called. [ALL LAUGH] And asked over the phone or something.

GL: Yeah.

PDM: It depends on who you work with. I mean if it's a file and I'm just noodling around, it's a whole different ball game. If it's a specific collaboration and you're working with somebody, you need to respect what they're doing then it seems pretty obvious, but I'm talking about kids growing up downloading files and just running with it and seeing what they're doing.

GL: And it's all equal.

PDM: Yeah, it's all equal.

GL: It's all equal.

RB: Is this the natural evolution from something like Res Rocket Surfer?

PDM: Sure, it's expanded by a quantum leap because it's millions of people.

GL: But this point's been made ten years ago by folks like John Oswald.

RB: Which is kind of why I was asking about Res Rocket...

PDM: They were doing it as an esoteric sound art statement, like Christian Marclay too and I think that they didn't have the vocabulary that they could expand outside of that.

GL: You mean a vocabulary that can't address teenagers?

PDM: Well expand out to anybody else outside of that very specific vernacular. They were limited to me by that style of their dialect by that artsy...

RB: Which is now a question about elitism and music, and whether the avant garde must be elite in order to be the avant garde.

GL: But I mean if it's contemporary with John Oswald and Christian Marclay and so on, and the work of Public Enemy for example with their cut-up and the same anything-goes attitude...

PDM: And John Zorn and all those guys. I like elements of it. John Zorn I'm not so big a fan of, Christian I feel coolly neutral about, John Oswald I like his work.

RB: You're talking about the audience as DJ. What happens then, when it's collaborative with the audience? What's the role of the artist then?

GL: For me the issue is not about music at that point it's about interaction and interactivity and what that term means when you have a 100 people or 1000 people collaborating on something, this is a mess and it's a very challenging situation and managing group scenarios like that is a really interesting interaction design problem and my own personal work, I'm open to whatever it ends up sounding like. Like with the mobile phone concert I had no preconceptions about what it was going to end up sounding like and the act of doing it was actually a research question, which is to say, what happens when you have this kind of sound? What's the result? The kind of interactivities that emerge from a situation like that really vary very widely. First of all your phone itself is something you have a very deep personal connection to. Your phone rings: even in the concert scenario you feel, "Whoa, my phone's ringing, that's me that they're trying to reach," even though there's no one at the other end but my dialling system.

PDM: That's pure social engineering. I don't have a relationship with my cellphone, I have a deep relationship with the company. The phone will change every year and a half.

GL: I heard contrary reports from some people in the audience, where for example...

PDM: That's sad.

GL: Well, it's also a fashion item that people get really attached to. But one person described it like this: if you're ever in a car accident where someone rear-ends you, you don't say to yourself, "Hey, that person hit my car", you say, "Hey, that person hit me". and one of the reports I got from the mobile phone concert was somebody saying, you know, even though they knew intellectually there was no one at the other end of the phone when their phone rang, that they were like "Oh, there's a call for me" and this was a real psychological event that was iterated thousands of times over this audience of several hundred people of someone saying "Oh, there's a phone call for me. Oh, it's just this concert."

PDM: Okay, so let's apply this idea to when you hear a familiar sound or familiar voices, we're looking at the idea of the uncanny. The human body and the human voice have been disincarnate for most of the last century and these are free-floating variables of representation of self and then how we deal with that psychologically, I mean that's kind of what the core issues are, if we're looking at code equals life and you're playing with the voices of people... the whole Spooky motif was meant to be kind of a pun on the uncanny, if you look at what Freud was talking about with unheimlich for example, there's just so many different layers of how human context is what's important right now. It's such an important thing for artists to kind of engage that and think about and try and create new ways of understanding this kind of stuff and art should be about expanding consciousness and your understanding of what's going on in your environment.

[Pause as mobile phone rings!]

RB: We've seen a lot of discussion this week about generative art, and the whole question about whether that's art...

GL: The way generative art is being discussed at Ars Electronica this year, is like it's just been discovered! I've made plenty of generative art myself, and so my friends will kill me for saying this, but the whole generative thing, man, it's sooo 1970s.

PDM: I'm pretty tired of it.

GL: I mean, it's totally like back to computer art in the 1970s with like this generative thing, it's like William Latham and Roman Verostko and Manfred Mohr. I mean, I totally respect Manfred and Roman for keeping at it because they're artists and they're still programming computers in their 60s and 70s, and I hope that I'm so lucky when I'm in my mid-70s and I'm maybe still programming, but in context of the current dialogue I'm amazed to see so much generative art and young people saying "Look, when you hit a button, you get another variation!" I think the young people currently working in generative art have a real lack of historical awareness, and a crippling faith that every random variation is as interesting as every other.

RB: So what happens when you combine that with the collaborative audience, an unknown variable put into the generative algorithm?

GL: Well, that's interactivity, once they're involved in some way. When you think about how generative art is valued, it's usually all about the algorithm.

RB: Right, so this isn't purely generative. Is that then more interesting?

PDM: I tend to think of it as much more of a social entropy that kicks in because there's too many voices and it turns to cacophony rather than euphony and I'm fascinated with the idea of polyphony: many, many rhythms and styles being able to operate simultaneously and interact with one another and again that's a Deleuzian issue of multiple timeframes operating within the same context. But the voice and the body are very specific markers of humanity but all of that is now post-human, whenever I hear James Earl Jones's voice, you know saying "This is AT&T", I have flashes of Darth Vader, he was also one of the main characters in Kunta Kinte...

GL: His voice has become a brand. And you can apply it to whatever you want.

PDM: Right, so what does that mean for him as a human being? He's a signifier that's really specifically become attached to various economic, social and advertising issues just as a branding of himself. Warhol was an artist that really dealt with these motifs in a fascinating way and if you look at people like Jeff Koons and his celebration of celebrity by becoming one or Matthew Barney's idea of biological surrealism, with his whole idea of himself as a kind of expanded theatre. He's got all these mutation and DNA issues going and like sexual motifs...

GL: ...and castration...

PDM: Yeah, castration issues, or you know, but it's still about permutations of the self and that's what most of the nineties high art that's been celebrated in the conventional art world's all about. But in the digital art world and in the sound art scene, we're doing that on almost a daily basis, that most of these conventional art world types, they can't hang with that because it's too fast, our whole scene changes really quickly.

RB: So if the nineties has all been about obsession with self, what is the subject, what is the issue that is being explored in the musics of the naughties?

PDM: I can't think of an overriding motif. What do you think?

GL: I think it's too fragmented. Everything's fragmented. In fact maybe that's it.

RB: Fragmentation?

PDM: Too much of everything, all the time, everywhere.

GL: Yeah, anything goes in the software world. Anything fair.

RB: Baudrillardian exstasis?

PDM: Some days I just wake up and look at a wall of records and then realise that's all so obsolete because I have a 30GB iPod now, I don't need to carry the bulky records around, I don't even need to think about them, they're just files, and different ways of organising the files. And that's a nice feeling but there's also a strange sense of loss, the nostalgia of the record cover sleeve, of the graphic design...

GL: Or even the nostalgia of when you could look forward to an artist releasing an album.

PDM: I just don't feel it any more. I don't know what entices me about pop culture except for like the seduction of like watching a racehorse, like who's number one, who's five, who's four, who's three?

GL: And you care about that?

PDM: Not any more.

GL: But at the music store earlier, you were like, "Ooh look, my friends are number one".

PDM: Sure, I was happy to see that, I was happy for them as people. That means they're making money and having a good time. And getting a lot of hot girls at their shows. And that's a good thing! [laughs] If it was people I didn't know, I wouldn't care about it.

GL: It seems very ephemeral to me. I mean, like, they're number one today and tomorrow someone else will be number one.

PDM: Sure, that's the racehorse thing.

GL: And who decides? Does the popular vote decide?

PDM: You decide.

RB: And music as commodity, what does that mean to you?

GL: It's going to take a little while for artists to find a new way of making money but the record companies have to go down.

PDM: You're going to see a lot more live shows. Bands just touring constantly, like forever. Like the eternal Grateful Dead tour.

RB: Music as a service rather than a good.

GL: No, I think you'll find a good, but they'll be alternative kinds of goods.

PDM: Limited edition DVDs. Weird multimedia stuff that gives a special environment. Stuff that takes you out of the normal mix scene.

GL: Products, knick knacks, instruments. I mean, look at Maywa Denki. These are the Japanese guys who did a whole series of mechatronic instruments to perform with and among other things they're basically very good hardware and software designers so they make these products and they make one-of-a -kinds and they also work with toy companies in Japan to produce multiples that they then sell. And frankly they have some really cool products.

RB: What really interests me is that the Maywa Denki package as a performance with the incredible Japanese irony added in that is not apparent or not emergent from the products.

GL: I think they represent a really important mode of artistic practice right now. They design their own instruments, they perform on them and they also make those little plastic knickknacks, they're making a fine income and they're rock stars in Japan. Their schtick is that they pretend to be a company. What they bill as a concert — what ultimately is a concert, in their narrative is a product demonstration. They dress up in these kinds of worker costumes and then they perform on these instruments and say, this is the following product.

PDM: This is slamming!

RB: It's fantastic.

GL: It's incredible. You should see the video tapes because they are of product demonstrations that almost look like infomercials, you know.

RB: He has a very sophisticated understanding of kitsch.

GL: One of the products is basically a vibrator that you hold firmly to your neck, and it gives you a vibrato voice, and so the product demonstration is him singing...

PDM: [looking at book] This is amazingly good and smart.

GL: These guys are ten times more hardcore than Christian.

PDM: [laughs] The conventional artworld has probably never heard of these people.

RB: They are rockstars in Japan.

GL: They are huge in Japan.

RB: He's got syndicated television performances. He's a national comedian.

PDM: Did you check out Albert-László Barabási's book, what's it called, Think Networks?

GL: No, and you're going to have to say that name slower.

RB: And you're going to have to spell it for me.

GL: Lazlo Blahdeblahdy?

PDM: Albert-László Barabási. It's a book getting a lot of hype because it's about social networks and we have an interview with him on 21C at www.21cmagazine.com.

RB: We've talked a lot about the technical dimensions of this, let's talk a little about the cultural dimensions. Paul, you've just had an encounter with someone accusing you of being inauthentic because you're referencing Wagner...

GL: And that person was an Austrian doing reggae...

RB: Absolutely. Could you talk a little about the resurgence of reggae in popular music and how the sorts of cultural integrations and samplings and layerings feel to you and where you think that's going? Sorry, that's not a very coherent question.

PDM: Well, reggae is sort of a global... at least for pop culture right now, it's the global rhythm architecture, it's set up a structure that everything from hip hop to dub to dance hall to house music, everything reflects that notion of polyphony, you know, multiple layers of rhythm interacting...

GL: That goes back further than reggae...

PDM: Yeah, but I'm talking about global issues and each... each region might have had different types of polyphony, but if you go to India, you go to Brazil, you go to Iceland, you go to Greece, you go to whatever, everybody has that kind of beat going.

GL: Who's more influential, James Brown or Bob Marley?

RB: Right now, I'd say Bob Marley. That's what I'm saying, I've just been to 13 different countries in Europe and in every country they're playing reggae. Reggae seems to have become the lingua franca of the pop culture scene. There's also a lot of hip hop...

PDM: But hip hop comes out of reggae...

RB: Sure. And it's dub and older reggae resurging...

PDM: If you look at the Indian diaspora they also had a lot to do with that because they brought in the different Bangla styles, there's a large Indian community in Jamaica and also a large Chinese community. I like this idea that it's a lingua franca, I mean, rhythm is a universal code, again when I think of code, I think of structures, I think of ideas of implicit structure and how that unfolds, you know, you can think about DNA as an expressionary kind of structure that's not activated until it gets into certain situations, and it's the same thing, when you're looking at genetics or sound, to make a long story short, reggae somehow is the same equivalent, that expression of DNA in a global context right now, because it's got so many other rhythm structures of other sounds and the way that it's been able to absorb a lot of what was going on in America and transform it, because I think that Jamaica primarily had this kind of Caribbean diaspora in a way that was different from the African-American diaspora in the sense that they had a much more consolidated culture whereas the African-American was much more fragmented, they were able to have the island itself be a very accelerated laboratory for research and rhythm and style and sound, I'm just fasicnated with it as how the post-colonial context allowed the style to develop and change and transform and spread, again it's a kind of viral modelling because the rhythm structure of reggae just works, it just literally falls into place in terms of polyphony and the idea of being able to absorb any other style, again that's a dub issue, those are structural issues, but reggae really has an omnivorous quality, because of that I think that's why local populouses respond to it. Hip hop is a similar thing but I think it's an offshoot of reggae.

©2004 Rosanne Bersten