Coming Up – Sousa’s El Capitan

Lyric Theatre Presents John Philip Sousa's El CapitanMy next performances will be very special events. Lyric Theatre of San José is presenting the first performances of John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan in California since the original production’s nationwide tour 120 years ago. I will be playing the role of Señor Amabile Pozzo, Chamberlain of Peru.

This semi-staged concert production is directed by Paul Zawilski and conducted by Jeff Yaeger, with vocal direction by Neil Midkiff. Performances will be on Saturday, July 30 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, July 31 at 2:00 pm at Fremont High School’s Shannon Theatre in Sunnyvale, California. Tickets are only $26 for adults, $10 for children, and available online or by phone.

Wait a minute, you say. Wasn’t Sousa just a composer of marches? Really good marches, yes, but can an expert at 3-minute marches who railed against padding of musical material actually compose a really good 2-hour operetta? And are the tunes in the El Capitan march actually in the operetta?

The answer is yes, Sousa could compose a really good operetta. This was by far his biggest stage hit, running for 4 years in a row in New York and on national tours. The famous El Capitan march contains some of the best tunes from the show, of course, but there’s lots more top-notch music where that came from.

What about the book, you ask? Some of these late 19th-century shows have very musty books full of topical references that you need a bunch of footnotes to understand. Or they have a very sentimental quality that isn’t in tune with contemporary tastes. Or both.

I actually had no idea how good a show El Capitan was when I agreed to do it. I just knew it was a rare chance to perform a Sousa show, and given how much Sousa was a part of my youth as a band kid it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. I was delighted to see how contemporary and funny the show actually is.

The basic plot is that Don Errico Medigua, career politician, has been appointed to be the new Viceroy of Peru by King Philip of Spain. However, this new appointment means that the prior Viceroy, Don Luiz Cazarro, is being pushed out of office prematurely. Cazarro is understandably unhappy about this and leads an insurrection to force Don Medigua out of office. He has hired the noted mercenary El Capitan to lead his forces.

Don Medigua is well aware of this when he ships off to Peru. When he finds that El Capitan died in a brawl on the same ship, he decides to assume El Capitan’s identity and become an insurgent against himself. In the meantime he manipulates El Capitan’s reputation in Peru into something enormous. Medigua figures that if the requested Spanish reinforcements arrive in time, he will return as Viceroy. If they don’t, and the insurgents win, he will be on the right side there as well. Of course once he assumes the role of El Capitan, some people figure out pretty quickly that he’s more of a politician than a warrior.

So yes, politicians were manipulating the media for their own ends way before contemporary times and movies like Wag the Dog. It is a very silly and funny plot setup that leads to a lot of comedy.

This is a show that lives and dies on who is cast as Don Medigua / El Capitan. You need an excellent, charismatic comic actor who is also a fine singer. We are fortunate to have Google’s own Dan Galpin as the star of our show. I enjoyed performing with Dan in Lyric Theatre’s Utopia, Limited, but El Capitan is a far greater showcase for his prodigious talents.

My role is Pozzo, Don Medigua’s loyal chamberlain. Pozzo is a comic tenor, and the first role I’ve had that combines dialog and solo singing – in this case, much more dialog than singing. It was created in New York by another short actor, Alfred Klein, brother of Charles Klein who wrote the El Capitan book. I am grateful to Paul, Jeff, and Neil for giving me this opportunity. Pozzo has some very funny lines which I hope the audience will enjoy as much as the cast has in rehearsals.

So don’t miss your chance to see and hear a whole different side of John Philip Sousa! We will have a full orchestra, a cast full of experienced and delightful Lyric Theatre performers, and fine artistic leadership. The last weekend in July will be Sousa time in Sunnyvale. In times like these we need comic opera more than ever.

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John Cage’s Renga at San Francisco Symphony

MTT conducts American Maverick John CageSaturday night was another example of the great golden age we are enjoying in San Francisco with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. For this one night only, there was an amazing all John Cage concert that was absolutely stunning.

The concert started with Cage’s early ballet The Seasons from 1947. This is a very pleasant piece, completely notated without chance procedures. But if this were the summit of Cage’s invention, he wouldn’t be remembered like he is today. MTT introduced it with an apt analogy – listening to The Seasons is like going to an art museum and seeing the early, more realistic, less abstract paintings by artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian.

After intermission came the main event: Cage’s Renga from 1976. In this piece the musicians are invited to interpret snippets of Henry David Thoreau line drawings musically, using whatever means they like, according to predetermined register, dynamics, and timeline. What comes from this tends to be what MTT described as a “rainforest” of sound.

By itself that might not be so interesting for an extended time. But Renga can be performed simultaneously with other works. As a US bicentennial commission, it was originally performed together with Apartment House 1776, a work for four vocalists performing in four different American musical traditions as part of a “musicircus.” It was MTT’s genius idea to instead pair Renga with a wide variety of Cage compositions from throughout his career, in addition to videos designed by Clyde Scott drawn from popular culture throughout Cage’s lifetime. The additional works were:

  • Lecture on Nothing (1950) performed by actor Tim Robbins
  • Sonata for Clarinet (1933) performed by Carey Bell
  • A Room (1943) performed by Marc Shapiro on prepared piano
  • Suite for Toy Piano (1948) performed by Peter Grunberg
  • In a Landscape (1948) performed by Douglas Rioth on harp
  • Cheap Imitation (1969) performed by Edwin Outwater on piano
  • Child of Tree (1975) performed by Tom Hemphill on amplified cactus (!)
  • Litany for the Whale (1980) performed by baritones Patrick Dupré Quigley and Christopher Dylan Herbert
  • Ryoanji (1983) performed by Tim Day, flute; John Engelkes, contrabass trombone; Stephen Tramontozzi, double bass; and Jacob Nissly, percussion
  • Hymnkus (1986) performed by Mariko Smiley, violin; Amos Yang, cello; and Stephen Paulson, bassoon
  • And a last-minute addition, Haiku, performed by Michael Tilson Thomas on piano from a manuscript left to him by Lou Harrison.

The contrasts and overlaps between these sources and the delightful musical and sonic material of both the parts and whole made for an exquisite performance. I couldn’t really distinguish the ensemble pieces so much from the overall Renga since the performers were seated together with the rest of the orchestra. The other soloists were distributed around the periphery of the orchestra and in the tier above the stage where the chorus sings, providing better spatial separation for both ear and eye. Screens above either side of the stage showed different videos. It was quite the musicircus indeed!

What really lifted it into genius was to perform Renga together with excerpts from the Lecture on Nothing, a key writing of John Cage’s musical philosophy included in his classic collection Silence. I read this book as a student and the Lecture contains some of my favorite Cage-isms:

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.

Noises, too, had been discriminated against; and being American, having been trained to be sentimental, I fought for noises.

Slowly, as the talk goes on, slowly, we have the feeling we are getting nowhere. That is a pleasure which will continue. If we are irritated it is not a pleasure. Nothing is not a pleasure if one is irritated, but suddenly it is a pleasure, and then more and more it is not irritating.

If anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep.

Apparently, performances that include Lecture on Nothing often use John Cage’s taped voice. I’m sure that’s fine, but I really enjoyed hearing Tim Robbins read it. His actorly skills captured Cage’s wit and much of the vocal cadence without simple mimicry. It was a wonder to behold.

Whatever you want to call it – static, nonlinear, meditative, living in the moment – there is a whole range of Western music that doesn’t “go anywhere” but invites you to listen in the moment. This can be art music with Asian influences like that by Cage, Hovhaness, or Harrison; pop music like the long jams on songs by Stevie Wonder and Prince, or Van Morrison meditative songs like “In the Garden”; minimalist music; and whole swaths of jazz and new age music. Cage is a great celebrator and philosopher of this style of music. I very much like music with narrative and direction (I better, since I perform a lot of symphonic and opera music), but I like this music too.

I also like being able to listen to anything as music, like the typing of the keys as I write this post, accompanied by the quieter hums and sounds within the house, such as the refrigerator running in the kitchen next to the study. Cage really helped open my ears to that type of listening.

My introduction to John Cage was pretty unusual. Our local underground rock station, WABX in Detroit, played some excerpts from Indeterminacy one night, and I had to learn more. I found Silence in a library (at Interlochen? at MIT? I can’t remember) and things were never the same after reading it.

So thank you, thank you, thank you to Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, Tim Robbins, and all the other great soloists for a wonderful celebration of John Cage’s work in a most memorable concert. The concert was so good it got me blogging again for the first time in eight months!

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Three Utopias

Poster for Utopia, Limited at Lyric Theatre of San Jose. Next month I will be joining a rare class of musician: someone who has performed in three different productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s late masterwork Utopia, Limited. I will be performing the speaking role of Calynx, the Utopian Vice-Chamberlain. Our production at Lyric Theatre of San José has 6 performances on October 4 – 12, 2014. Tickets are available online.

Utopia, Limited is not often done – this is Lyric Theatre’s first performance in 18 years. It had a successful opening run at D’Oyly Carte but wasn’t revived for more than 80 years.

If it’s so good, why is it done so rarely? In part it’s because it is an expensive show to do. There’s a big cast with 18 roles and lots of exotic costumes. The plot lacks the topsy-turvy aspects of earlier shows, something that I rather like but that may not meet some audience expectations. The lack of D’Oyly Carte performance history also fed on itself, something that only started to really turn around after the show was first recorded in the 1970s.

Perhaps the greatest issue was that Gilbert’s satirical targets may have been ahead of his time. He had taken aim at British government before, though perhaps not so broadly. In Utopia though his most notable targets were capitalism – specifically limited liability companies – and imperialism.

The name Utopia, Ltd. reflects how a South Pacific monarchy becomes a corporation, and then extends the concept of limited liability to individuals. That may have seemed an obscure satirical target to a British 1890s audience, but in the present-day USA where legal decisions break down the divide between corporations and people, and we go through surges of dot-com booms and busts, it has more resonance. There is also the satire of cultural imperialism, where a South Pacific culture decides to embrace English culture to such an extant that they race to outdo the English. I think this type of satire has had great resonance for American audiences since the 1960s.

What once were liabilities are now boons. I think that the satire in Utopia has remained more timely and on point for contemporary audiences than that of any other G&S show. And the music is glorious! My favorite moments come in Act II, with the a cappella chorus “Eagle High” and Lady Sophy’s beautiful aria “When But a Maid of Fifteen Year”, accompanied by some of the most wistful bassoon music you’ll ever hear.

I didn’t know any of this when I agreed to perform my first Utopia back with Lyric Theatre’s predecessor, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of San Jose, in their debut production of the opera in the summer of 1979. I was a summer intern at Hewlett-Packard, working in the Cupertino building that has recently been demolished to make way for Apple’s new headquarters. This was during my trumpet-playing days, and a college friend and I were playing in the Peninsula Symphonic Band. Carl Cobb played trumpet in both that band and in the G&S pit orchestra and recruited me to join him in the trumpet section. I was eager for another gig so I leapt right in. That was my first time playing in the pit for a G&S show and what an experience: 10 performances over 4 weekends. It was a fine show, directed by Laurie Feldman and conducted by James Campbell. I especially recall the great Doris Vander Putten as an amazing Lady Sophy. Here’s the cast photo:

Utopia Limited cast photo, Gilbert and Sullivan Society of San Jose, 1979

My second Utopia marked my first time singing in a stage production. By 1987 I was in my third year playing trumpet in the pit orchestra for the Sudbury Savoyards in suburban Boston. That year’s production was Iolanthe and the director M.J.J. Cashman decided to put the trumpets and trombones on stage for the elaborate Entrance of the Peers. I really liked that! With the costumes and lights this was sure better than a pit. I decided to learn to sing and started taking voice lessons soon afterwards. One year later in 1988 I made my stage debut in Utopia as a First Life Guard in a production directed by M.J.J. Cashman and conducted by Barry Singer. Here’s a picture of me from when the Utopian ladies are acting “particularly English” around the First Life Guards:

Photo of Michael Good as a First Life Guard in Utopia, Limited, Sudbury Savoyards, 1988

So after a 26-year break, here I am performing Utopia for a third time. This time I am cast as Calynx, a speaking role that appears in the first scene of the opera. His is the first male voice you hear in the show, just as Francesco was in The Gondoliers when I sang that role with Sudbury in 1991. Like Francesco, during the rest of the show I sing with the chorus. Phil Lowery is directing this show and I love his production ideas, including how we’re handling the drawing room scene. Jeff Yaeger is conducting; I played with his father Robert in the Utopia orchestra in San Jose back in 1979.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area during the first 2 weekends of October, do yourself a favor and come see this production of a wonderful, rarely-done Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Performances are October 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, and 12. The Sunday performances are 2:00 pm matinees and the rest are 8:00 pm evening performances. All performances are at the Montgomery Theater in downtown San José, an intimate theater similar in size to the Lucie Stern Theatre where I usually perform with West Bay Opera. More ticket information is available online. This will be my first time performing at the Montgomery after seeing many productions there and I’m really looking forward to it. I hope to see you there!

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The Magic Flute at West Bay Opera

As my summer break from music rehearsals comes to an end, I wanted to be sure to look back at our production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at West Bay Opera. This was my first time singing a fully-staged Mozart opera at West Bay and we had a wonderful cast for it. In the picture you can see Kirk Eichelberger as Sarastro while the men’s chorus sings backup to his aria.

Sarastro and Priests in Magic Flute Act II

This aria came just after I had my line in my speaking role debut at West Bay Opera. Granted, the Third Priest has just two words – “Ist wohltätig?” – but that’s two more words than I’ve had in my previous dozen West Bay Opera productions put together. There weren’t any auditions for this. As you can see, I’m in the front of the triangle of priests, so with this blocking I was the natural choice to speak these words from the chorus. Sometimes being the shortest guy does pay off!

The most amazing experience for me was to work again with Eugene Brancoveanu as Papageno, who took over the role when Krassen Karagiozov had to bow out of the production. In his rave review in San Francisco Classical Voice, Jason Victor Serinus described how Eugene’s “every look and movement is energized with intention.” This was so true. As Third Priest, I got to have a couple of entrance bits with him. It was a master class in comedy acting to see how he would add one little thing to another, never forcing a laugh, but having the laughs come from the actions of a fully realized character. I had performed with Eugene once before in Fremont Opera’s semi-staged Barber of Seville, but this was more up-close-and-personal and so much fun. Here we are recreating one of the entrance bits backstage. Onstage Papageno was blindfolded, flailing his arms in my face while trying to figure out where he was once we stopped walking.

Papageno and Third Priest backstage

Next week I start rehearsals for a real, credited speaking role. I have been cast as Calynx in Lyric Theatre of San Jose‘s upcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited. Calynx’s lines are all in one scene at the start of the show, but he does have one of the funniest lines. And there are lots more words than the Third Priest! This will be my first time performing with Lyric Theatre since I played trumpet for one of their prior Utopia productions 35 years ago.

Utopia is infrequently done in part because it has a huge cast (16 roles), and because it became unpopular when D’Oyly Carte didn’t revive it after its debut run. That was largely for cost reasons at first, but then the lack of production history fed on itself. I’ve always loved the show: its twin targets of imperialism and capitalism are topics that have always been ripe for satire. Performances will be October 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, and 12 at the Montgomery Theater in downtown San Jose. Lyric Theatre has done very well by the show over the years, but it still comes around only about once a decade. Don’t miss this chance to see it.

Production photo by Otak Jump. Backstage photo by Mark Baushke.

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MakeMusic Universal File Format Comes to SmartMusic

SmartMusicLogo Last November, Finale 2014 was introduced with a new file format that is both forward and backward compatible. Finale 2014 will be able to open files created in future versions of Finale. The same technology was used to allow Finale 2014 to save files in the older Finale 2012 format. The new file format has been one of the most popular features of the critically acclaimed Finale 2014 release.

One of Finale’s features is its ability to create custom SmartMusic accompaniment files. In Finale 2014, the format for these accompaniment files changed to match the same MakeMusic universal file format used for Finale files. However, SmartMusic had not yet been updated to use these new files, requiring Finale 2014 users to save back to Finale 2012 and create their accompaniment files there.

Today, MakeMusic updated the SmartMusic applications for Windows, Mac, and iPad to open SmartMusic accompaniments in both the new file format (.smpx) and the old file format (.smp). Because the new file format is both forward and backward compatible, we will no longer have these incompatibilities between Finale and SmartMusic versions. The current version of SmartMusic will be able to read accompaniments created in future versions of Finale. Just as before, the current version of Finale will be able to create accompaniments for later versions of SmartMusic.

This new file format is a key part of the modernization of MakeMusic products that my colleagues and I have been working on over the past two years. It paves the way for further improvements over the coming years. We are delighted to introduce it to our SmartMusic customers as well as our Finale customers.

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L’elisir d’amore at West Bay Opera

West By Opera’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) opened on Valentine’s Day and closed last Sunday. Four sold-out houses and many local critics enjoyed themselves immensely, but perhaps not quite as much as the cast and crew of this production.

Photo of Krassen Karagiozov and Michael Good in L'elisir d'amore

That’s me in black at the center of the photo during my big moment in the opera. During the Act I Finale, sergeant Belcore gets very irritated at his rival Nemorino’s reaction to his plans to marry Adina. Belcore is coming over to pulverize Nemorino into dust, but the village priest intervenes, breaking up the fight and then counseling Belcore. Sometimes I told Belcore about how love and military discipline will let him take the higher path when confronted with the crazy Nemorino. Other times I just reminded him that you can’t kill the tenor at the end of Act I when we have all of Act II – including Una furtiva lagrima – left to go.

Of course there’s nothing in the L’elisir d’amore libretto about a village priest. But L’elisir takes place in a rural Italian community, and director David Cox populated it with all sorts of specific people: priests, bakers, butchers, winemakers, farmworkers, rich folks, and more. West Bay Opera hires a lot of directors who aim for detailed work out of the chorus, and having seen many productions from the audience I know that it really pays off. The stage is so much more alive in chorus scenes that way.

It was an easy choice to join the L’elisir d’amore chorus with such a production dream team. David Cox is a brilliant comic actor, opera singer, and opera director. He directed our Turandot 3 years ago and I’d obviously learn a lot and have a lot of fun working with him. Chorus director Bruce Olstad has been instrumental in raising the vocal standards of the West Bay Opera chorus to a new level of beauty. Maestro José Luis Moscovich does double duty as music director and general director, ensuring continuity with a consistent opera aesthetic that I find very congenial: focusing on the intimate stories of these characters, even in huge operas like Turandot and Aida. This is the type of thing that a small house like West Bay can do with much greater intimacy than any large house. And I knew I could count on costume designer Callie Floor to make the whole cast look great even with the restrictions of a small budget.

When you have all these great people you attract a lot of talent, in the principals, the chorus, the orchestra, and the crew. My wife JoAnn and I have sung in many West Bay Opera productions over the years. We both agreed that, top to bottom, this was the finest chorus we have sung with here. Our cast was headed by Maria Brea as Adina, Igor Vieira as Dulcamara, and Chester Pidduck as Nemorino. We’re making art with lots of friends; people we’ve sung and performed with for years, as well as many new friends we sang with for the first time. To make such fine music and drama with a great group of friends is a total delight.

Next up at West Bay Opera is Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Our Belcore and Giannetta will be back, as Krassen Karagiozov sings Papageno and Molly Mahoney sings the Second Lady. Kirk Eichelberger, bass superstar of many West Bay Opera productions, will return as Sarastro. Michael Desnoyers, our Pang in Turandot, will be back as Monostasos. They will be joined by many other new and old friends in both the principals and chorus. I can’t wait!

Photo by Otak Jump, cropped by Michael Good.

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Leland C. Smith: 1925 – 2013

Photo of Leland C. Smith The world of music notation software has lost one of our pioneers. Leland C. Smith, creator of the SCORE music printing system, died on December 17, 2013 at his home in Palo Alto, California.

Leland had many roles in his life, including composer, Stanford professor, CCRMA researcher, bassoonist, software developer and publisher, husband, father, friend, and colleague. SCORE was his primary claim to fame in the larger musical world. First released for MS-DOS systems in 1986 after years of development, it became the first computer application that established music publishers used to produce high quality musical scores. Two of its main competitors in the 1980s and 1990s, Finale and Music Printer Plus, followed two years later.

SCORE’s parametric approach to music notation was directly modeled on the Music V family of languages, developed for computer music synthesis by Max Mathews. The first music notation software that I wrote, the Scot score translator for Music 11 and Csound, was also a direct descendant of the Music V language. So Leland and I, like so many others, are both indebted to Max for our beginnings in the music software application world. I met Leland for the first and only time nine years ago. It was at a Computer History Museum event on “Music Meets the Computer” that featured Max Mathews, John Chowning, and Curtis Roads on the panel.

SCORE both pioneered the graphical model of music notation software in a commercial application and pushed it as far as it would go. SCORE was originally designed solely for music printing and typography, and uses a graphical, page-oriented model of music notation similar in organization to PostScript. In contrast, Finale and Sibelius use a semantic model of music notation rather than a graphical model. This allows both programs to handle composition, arrangement, music preparation for both print and digital, and integrated playback in a way that SCORE could never achieve.

Leland’s pioneering spirit and achievements will be greatly missed. While SCORE itself was largely a one-person development project, several independent developers such as Jan de Kloe and Thomas Brodhead have developed important SCORE utility programs over the years. In particular, Jan de Kloe’s programs to convert back and forth between SCORE and MusicXML files help to keep Leland’s legacy alive for the digital sheet music age.

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Finale 2014 File Format

Finale 2014 Box ShotOn November 4, MakeMusic released Finale 2014, the latest update to our flagship music notation software. The first version of Finale was released 25 years ago, and you can now see a promotional video for Finale 1.0 on YouTube. Many notation software products have come and gone over the past 25 years, but Finale and MakeMusic are still here, delivering top-notch professional music notation to our customers.

One of the most prominent features of Finale 2014 is its brand new file format which is now forward and backward compatible. In the past, Finale could read files created in older versions, but not files created by newer versions. A Finale 2011 user, for instance, could read files created by people using Finale 2010, but could not read files created by people using Finale 2012. The best way to move backward to an old version was to export the file to MusicXML from the new version of Finale, then import the MusicXML file into the older version of Finale.

MusicXML works very well as an interchange format, but it is software-agnostic. Any program that uses music notation has its own ways of representing music that is optimized for how that application works. So while MusicXML transfers could give high fidelity for how the music looks and sounds, it could not transfer exactly how this was done in Finale. MusicXML export from Finale also includes more formatting than what is supported in MusicXML import into Finale, so formatting details would also be lost.

Finale’s old file format dated from the days when disk space and CPU time were scarce commodities. It was optimized for space and time efficiency at the expense of not being able to read files from newer versions. Times have changed, and full forward and backward compatibility has long been one of the most frequent Finale feature requests. Finale 2014 now delivers this to our customers.

Of course, if we just claimed that our format was now forward and backward compatible in Finale 2014, how would customers know? Would they have to wait until the next version of Finale is released? We knew we had to demonstrate this technology in action and give customers the benefits of compatibility now, not later. So we used the same extensible file format technology to offer an option to export back to Finale 2012. The export feature uses the same techniques we will use to read files from newer versions into Finale 2014. It just needed to add the extra step of converting the file back into the old Finale 2012 format.

Theoretically we could have done the same thing to export to even older versions of Finale. Practically, though, this would have been a much larger effort because of the changes between Finale 2011 and 2012 to add Unicode support. Rather than take away development time from other new features in Finale 2014, we decided to restrict the export to older versions to Finale 2012.

Since I joined MakeMusic two years ago as part of the Recordare asset acquisition, most of my time has been spent architecting and co-implementing the new file format. It is most gratifying to finally get this out to our customers and see the positive reactions to our efforts.

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