December 2006 Archives

Happy Christmas 2006

251206.jpgHappy Christmas. That's the end of the 2006 Advent Calendar. I'm delighted to say that my aim in starting it last year has been achieved - if you search on Google for many of the names on here that are precious to me, but were only sketchy web presences last year, the Advent calendar entries are now frequently the first results that Google returns for the person in question.

There's another side to it this year, though. As all the blog entries are necessarily but uncharacteristically (for blogs) anachronistic, I decided to do a parallel blog-without-words (as Mendelssohn might have put it), keeping a miniature photo diary of whatever caught my eye or occupied my heart or mind each day. I also intended to do the same with music - since blogs are often off-the-cuff thought pieces, sometimes improvisatory and unfinished but timely, I also started musiblogging, throwing together tiny mood pieces which reflected exactly how I felt at the moment I did them. This was an antidote to the self-enforced rubric of the advent calendar.

advent2b_small.jpgI kept up the photoblogging every day with the exception of 13th & 14th December, when I was just too tired & pre-occupied to get round to a photo before midnight, so I recycled two from 10th December. The pictures are the ones you see to the left of each entry, and if you hover over them, you'll get a small clue as to what they're about.

The musiblogging lasted about a week before my time ran out. I'd love to have carried on, but if you want to hear some hurriedly sketched bloggy musical ramblings, click on the question marks (?) at the bottom of the extended entries for 1st - 8th December 2006. They generally go with the pictures as a kind of scratch-and-sniff effect - in other words, the music tells me (and perhaps you) what I was feeling when I took the picture, or on the day generally. Alternatively, you could (if you've got 8'26" to spare) listen to those first 8 days compiled into a single file (MP3, 6.1MB)

All this may seem an odd thing to do, but I'm as fascinated by the 21st century blog-form as others are by the nineteenth century novel; fascinated by its apparent simplicity, directness and immediacy, but aware as a writer of the technical and writerly hoops that one has to go through to achieve the effect, and of the discipline it takes to do what you say you will do. I'm intrigued by the fact that we effortlessly and involuntarily perceive structure, form, unity and meaning into collections of disparate things which were assembled using routine, piecemeal operations, even when it was we who assembled them.

Lastly, I like the number 24. 24 days from Advent to Christmas Eve, 24 hours in a day, 24 Preludes and Fugues, 24 semiquavers in a 24/16 bar, and of course, 24 pictures on an old reel of 35mm film (plus that extra one you usually get at the end if you're lucky). It's the curious and satisfying paradox of blogging, enormous literary freedom within the most rigorous of forms.

Happy Christmas!

This is day 24 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

241206_small.jpgIn March 2002, Wayne Sleep organised a gala evening for Dame Beryl Grey's 75th birthday , known, at least to Wayne, as 'DBE' - Dame Beryl's Evening. (As chance would have it, it's only two days ago that I was playing for a rehearsal of Giselle taken by Dame Beryl, who at 80 is in fantastic form, flitting around the studio demonstrating steps and giving advice with the sassy sense of fun and lithe grace of someone 60 years younger).

Wayne would of course be doing a special number for the evening, and so there we were again, sitting at his kitchen table throwing around ideas. Whatever we did had to be put together almost overnight as a backing track on CD, so when he said he wanted to do something that would involve There is nothing like a dame, I knew I was going to have to find a chorus of record-ready sailors somewhere in Tooting at the drop of a hat.

Fortunately, Daniel Jones was only a phone call away.

This is day 23 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

stylus.jpgHarald Lander's ballet Etudes and Knudåge Riisager's music for it based on piano etudes by Carl Czerny ought to be in this Advent Calendar somewhere, because as much as this year's calendar is a tribute to all the people in it, it's also a guided tour through the mysteries of class and the things that go on in musicians' heads when they play for it. In my view, Etudes has so many examples of the way certain music works perfectly for particular types of exercise, that it acts as a mirror, a benchmark, a litmus test, a role model and an education in music and dance all rolled into one for the dance accompanist.

I associate all kinds of music with Ivan Nagy, especially Stravinsky's Apollo for reasons I've already gone into. But since I want to get Etudes in here, I've got no choice but to give a funny reason for associating Ivan with this tarantella, which is the music for the jeté crossings towards the end of the ballet. It goes back to a story Ivan told me, almost crying with laughter, about a performance he was in where he and a ballerina crashed into each other at full speed centre stage, and then - to add insult to injury - her tiara got caught in his crotch and they had to struggle to disentangle themselves before they could get up and escape to the safety and anonymity of the wings. Warmth and laughter are great things to bring to allegro music, and there's nothing like one of Ivan's stories to do the job.

This is day 22 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

ship_small.jpgThere's a huge advantage to working for someone as demanding, professional and uncompromising on quality as Wayne Sleep - it forces your brain to engage with musical problems until you find a solution; and unless you find a solution that they're completely satisfied with, your brain is still engaged with the search even years after the initial task. This is a very healthy mode to live in for a dance accompanist, and it means that everyone else gets the benefit of your curiosity and perseverance.

After just over 20 years of playing for classes, I've come to the conclusion that Riccardo Drigo is often the answer to some of the most difficult questions presented by class -

Q: how can I play something painfully slow, but maintain the interest and fun?
A: the female solo (the one with the tambourine) from Esmeralda
Q: what's the butchest music you can play for a male grand allegro without breaking the piano?
A: The male solo from Le Corsaire

In terms of the problems it solves, the coda to Diane & Acteon (the history of this pas de deux is complex - see under Esmeralda) is a little masterpiece. Wayne once asked me to suggest some music for the end of a gala performance. He said something like "I want a coda that's not just your typical ballet coda like Don Q. It could be a waltz, but it can't be too slow - it's got to move; it's got to be entertaining because I've got a lot of people to bring on and it's the end of the show, so they've got to go out with a bang. It's got to give a chance to everyone to show off, but it mustn't dip, it must be fun..." and so it went on.

I'm always secretly very proud when I get it right first time with Wayne, so I was delighted when he said that this piece was just what he wanted. The more I play it in other contexts, the more convinced I am that along with the finale of Etudes, it's probably one of the most perfect pieces of grand allegro music I know. It was the experience of working with Wayne that taught me how to recognise a good bit of allegro when I saw it, and I'm grateful for that almost every time I walk into a studio.

This is day 21 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

bauble_small.jpgIf there's one nationality Beethoven simply couldn't be, it's Australian. Nothing and no-one could be further than him from the warm, down-to earth, tell-it-like-it is nature of the Australians. So I was really shocked to find that one of my favourite Australians Gilly Cornish was just mad about Beethoven. (Australians are my favourite people, though Gilly pointed out that I shouldn't draw too many conclusions from that - since all the ones I liked had left Australia).

Although there are a few bits of his music that I quite like, 95% of it annoys me. Maybe it's the baggage it comes with: it's 'Beethoven' rather than Beethoven that I don't like, as Richard Taruskin would put it. Even when I was a teenager in the 1970s, you couldn't escape the overwhelming, overbearing presence of Beethoven in musicology and music training: popular music was crap because it didn't have Beethoven's grammatical and discursive surface, and every composer after him was considered as an aberration or poor relation of this thundering, nitpicking, teutonic pedant. There was only one approach to studying Beethoven's music, and that was mindless, uncritical adulation. He was God, and you weren't allowed to ask why he made you suffer.

Allegro John O'Brien - Zwei dunkle Augen

This is day 20 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

201206_small.jpgThe three years that I spent working with John O'Brien were some of most eventful and magical that I can remember. One summer in particular, the whole world seemed to speed up like a fairground ride, an emotional Spaghetti Junction of people, places, love, meetings, partings, music, song, dance and balmy weather (many of the people mentioned in this Advent Calendar met each other in that summer at one of Gilly's barbecues, and there was something decidedly spooky about how everyone else somehow interconnected too). I made friends, I lost friends, fell in and out of love, felt unpredictably desolate and ecstatic in equal measure, all of it accompanied by & interwoven with the songs I learned while I was working for the first time with Gertrude Thoma and Nicolas Mead their show, From Brecht to Brel; and that's how I fell in love with German cabaret music once and for all.

This is day 19 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

blue_door_small.jpgSome tunes I collect because I hope someone will recognise them one day, and others are just things which I like, and don't expect anyone to know in a million years. But people and their musical experiences are unpredictable, and so I was amazed when Susie Cooper laughed and said to me one day "You've got some pretty weird pieces in your repertoire. I mean you play We'll all go riding on a rainbow " and The flat foot floogie with the floy, floy !".

Flat Foot Floogie is yet another song from And the bands played on (see earlier entry, and I like it for many of the reasons that I like If I only had wings - it's too fast, it's a bit silly, and it's fun to play.

You have to negotiate the last bit of the middle eight like taking a corner too quickly in 3rd gear, which is one of the things that lends the tune it's zaniness. It's also a reason why I prefer real tunes to improvisation in class - you can't sound fast if you're making it up as you go along because you have to play safe, and you can't compose your way out of complex melodic or harmonic corners at speed.

Even though Flat Foot Floogie is about as far removed from Susie's preferred musical diet as you could get, there's something very Susie about it, something excitable, zany and overclocked. Like me she relishes verbal humour and silly words, and you can't get much sillier than the words to Flat Foot Floogie (although according to some sources, it means 'the prostitute with venereal disease' which doesn't have quite the same ring to it).

This is day 18 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

181206.jpgIf I only had wings is another song from And the bands played on (see earlier entry). Apparently it was written in 1939, with words by Sid Colin, and music by Ronnie Aldrich. It was once a bit of a hit, but evidently not for long, so I can't find the lyrics or details of recordings anywhere on the net now. From the moment I heard it, I loved the madcap happiness of the song, and especially its middle eight, which manages to pack so many punches in eight bars, you feel like you've been away for the weekend by the time the tune comes back in. It's great fun to play, and works well for jumps.

I know that my taste in music is a bit odd - not surprising, considering how much it owes to the junk shops, jumble sales and bargain bins that I've trawled in every country I've visited. But I have private and very good reasons for liking the things I like, so I was really chuffed when Harald Krytinar said that this song was one of his favourites for class, for mostly the same reasons that I like it. That's the reason it went on to the class album we produced together, and that's why he gets it for this Advent calendar class.

This is day 17 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

tooting_illuminations_small.jpgMost dancers seem to hate adage. And if they don't hate it, they need such 'support' from the music that playing for the exercise is like administering CPR to a cow, or blowing up a tyre with a puncture. You hardly dare let the music breathe in case they fall over or lose the will to développé.

I was surprised, then, to hear Victor Alvarez say, during a quiet moan about the drudgery of daily class when you're not feeling like it, "Actually, I don't mind adage. Wafting around a studio to Chopin, I like that bit. That's fun." It's worth knowing that not everyone needs adage music to be an iron-pumping piano frenzy, and that for some people - even men, it's an opportunity to let the spirit free and be poetic.

I don't know which piece of Chopin he may have had in mind, but I adore the 'Raindrop' prelude, and I'd give anything to see Victor waft around a studio to it.

This is day 16 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

geranium.jpgAmazing how some things stick in your mind for ever. I'll always associate this song with Pussy (Diana Payne Myers), because of a pirouette exercise in Craig Phillips' open class at the Urdang Studios in Shelton Street 20 years ago (Craig's now Course Director at the Urdang Academy). I'd been playing for dance classes for about a year, and was on the point of hating it and giving up, when Craig asked me if I'd play for his evening class. He set a pirouette from the corner on a waltz that went on forever, and I pulled out every last waltz that I could think of to avoid boring the class, or myself, including Wunderbar!. Pussy was the dancer up next when it was time for this tune, and the minute she heard it, she was away, her whole body expressing 'wunderbar!', and she was probably singing along as well.

This is day 15 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

151206.jpgOne of the jobs I've hated most as a company pianist is having to be the errand boy for the ballet staff during stage calls with orchestra. You're asked (no, told) to sit in the front row of the stalls behind the conductor, and wait for one of the ballet staff to shout down to you "Can you tell him it's too fast?" or '"Tell him we want to go back to where Jane comes on". Now, you're not supposed to talk to bus drivers while they're driving, so how do you think conductors (excuse the confusion of terms) feel about having some lowly pianist tapping them on the shoulder while they're commanding an entire orchestra, telling them they're doing it wrong?

This is day 14 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

ann_hogben.jpgOne day I was walking through the Fonteyn Centre at the RAD, and as I passed the Ashton studio, I became transfixed by the most haunting melody being played on the piano. I stopped to listen, curious to know who was playing so beautifully, and what this extraordinary piece was that they were playing. You have to know that I'm not often transfixed by the music that comes out of ballet studios to understand why this was unusual.

It turned out it was Ann Hogben, playing Geoffrey Toye's waltz from The Haunted Ballroom, from the 1934 ballet by Ninette de Valois. I'd seen pictures of this ballet in some old Sadlers Wells annual, but never heard the music - and it did exactly what it said on the tin, it was truly haunting. But it also took someone of Annie's calibre to play it with such integrity that you could be haunted from outside the studio.

This is day 13 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

mark_morris.jpgAs I've noted many times, music in class can be part of a wonderful conversation between pianist and teacher, and this is especially true of a class with Mark Morris. In one class, Take back your mink was the perfect riposte (played unexpectedly, suddenly, for the second side of an exercise that went straight from one side to the other) for something that Mark was doing cheekily to the music on the first side, and it made us all laugh. It's a sign of the heightened, intense musical awareness and focus that goes on in Mark's classes that anyone found this funny or noticed it at all.

As they say about jokes, 'I guess you had to be there...'. Well, that's the point, I was there, and that's why it counts as one of the moments that has made being a dance musician most worthwhile for me - I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
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This is day 12 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

feschelola.jpgWoytek Lowski often used to look quite severe during class, probably due to a combination of his angular features, an intense focus on the job at hand, and the aloofness of a visionary. He was also a terrifically hard worker, and expected others to be no different. By the time class started, he had probably been awake for hours, writing down and memorizing exercises in longhand in reporters pads.

But the look could crack suddenly into rapture or helpless laughter, and all it took was a piece of music. I knew Friedrich Hollaender's wonderful comic song Ich bin die fesche Lola from working with Gertrude Thoma, but what I knew was only the notes and the words - the song didn't have a context or history for me. Woytek, as I discovered, knew the film it came from, Der blaue Engel, with Marlene Dietrich as the eponymous Lola of the song, and so the minute I started playing it for a class full of male dancers at 10.15 in the morning, he found it outrageously funny. (Incidentally, another luminary of this calendar, Christopher Hampson, knows the whole chorus in German, and always sings along if I'm playing it. It's a funny old world.) It was not the first time, by a long shot, that a dancer ended up teaching me about the music I was playing - and my gratitude for that is the point of these Advent calendars.
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This is day 11 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

ambal_2.jpgOne of the hardest things for pianists to understand about ballet classes is what exercises are about. As a musician, you're usually trying to express something, tell a story, create a mood, show-off, entertain or explore an emotion with music, so the idea of movement for movement's sake is odd.

The idea that a teacher might ask you for 'some music' for an exercise without being specific about what kind of music, or without explaining (or caring about) the motivation behind the exercise or the music seems even odder. What kind of movement is a tendu - angry? sensuous? sly? lyrical? determined? quirky? And if you don't have a view on that, then what kind of music do you need? And (frankly), if you don't have a view on that, why have music at all?

Now a tendu may just be a tendu, but you can still have an attitude of mind or spirit while you do it, and that's what the best teachers get across. Betty Anderton, though, went one further. Her repertoire of tunes, sung with terrific abandon, contained everything you needed to know about the aim, character, tempo, articulation, spirit, dynamics and humour of the exercise without any need for explanation. The 'ha ha ha' in this Fledermaus aria says more to both the dancers and pianist about the quality of the music and the quality of the ronds de jambe than words or counts ever could. When my colleagues and I at the RAD were compiling A Dance Class Anthology, one of our aims was to create a kind of catalogue of musical paradigms like this, and whatever contributions I made owe a lot to the education I received by playing for Betty.
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This is day 10 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)
lotsroad_small.jpg I used to love forcing a smile out of Klaus Beelitz for class by finding ever more obscure or oddball German songs to play when he least expected it. You can't get more oddball than the songs, and the way they performed them, of the Comedian Harmonists; and of all their repertoire, Ich wollt' ich wär' ein Huhn ('I wish I were a hen') surely wins a few prizes for lunacy. Even the title is funny, with its crescendo of nitpicking umlauts, elisions and subjunctives leading only to the word 'hen'.

In terms of rhythm, tempo, articulation and dynamics, it's got everything you want for frappé music, with the added bonus that it's got ridiculous lyrics sung by nutty Germans, and the strangely uncomfortable knowledge that they were singing them at one of the darkest moments in the history of the world. You need context like this if you're going to do that many frappés in your life.

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This is day 9 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)
091206.jpg I think the male solo from Les Sylphides is one of the hardest thing for a dancer to pull off, starting with the bizarre cravat in the costume, and continuing through the wafty poetry of the steps and the unlikely premise of a grown man in a woman's world getting up to dance in front of a load of sylphs, asserting his masculinity but not being so masculine that he jars with their fluffy white lala-land. He's got to look noble and strong, but bend to every nuance of the music, a man enchanted by another man's romantic musical outpourings, brought to life by (mostly) more men in an orchestra pit, but not a bit gay. He's got to be a dreamer who remembers to put the rubbish out.

This is day 8 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

081206.jpgNe vredi plakati is an 'old city song' (starogradska pjesma) that I learnt as a 22 year old student in Zagreb. Three and a half thousand of us from all over Yugoslavia (as it still was then), Central & South America, Africa & the Middle East lived in a kind of Olympic village of 9 'pavilions' built next to a lake at the end of a tram line called Studentski Dom 'Stjepan Radić (see earlier entry & gallery). They were very different times - no mobiles, no PCs, no internet, no credit. You'd hang out in your room, people would visit each other, and there were parties every night somewhere. Within weeks of being there, I'd learned about a dozen of these songs by heart, because after a couple of glasses of wine (the one thing we never went without, even if there was sometimes no hot water), that's what you did - you started singing. There's absolutely nothing to compare it with in English culture, we just don't have a repertoire of songs that people know, we don't socialize in the same way, and we don't break into song on social occasions.

This is day 7 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)
During a really ghastly period in my personal and professional life a few years ago, only one thing put a genuine smile on my face. Tania Fairbairn's National Dance classes at Central School of Ballet were just a half-hour class once a week, last thing in the day at about 7.00pm, but I remember them as if it were yesterday, because she and they helped to keep me sane.

Apart from the fact that she's delightful to work with, exudes calm and has a fabulously dry sense of humour, the children loved doing the dances she taught them so much, they would beg her to be allowed to do them again. When you play music for people who enjoy dancing, it's fun and rewarding, and their energy feeds yours, and the whole experience is exhilarating.

Turkey in the Straw was the music for the Virginia Reel, and I remember Tania warning me kindly that I was going to know the music extremely well after a while, because you have to play it so many times for one dance. It's such a simple tune, and yes, I did have to play it many, many times, but I couldn't get bored watching those children have such a good time, or working with Tania. As soon as I hear the tune, I can see that studio at the top of the school, remember the bright lights inside and the dark November nights outside, and as awful as everything else was at the time, it brings back happy memories.

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This is day 6 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

It's a wonderful feeling when you play something for class that you think is a bit obscure or only you would like, and it meets with instant recognition and approval, because dancers know it better than you do, or from a different context. I especially love it when teachers momentarily go off at a tangent because they like the music for an exercise too much to ignore it. David Wall does this every time I play a bit of Les Biches for class at ENB, even to the point of stopping to ask the dancers where the music comes from and who it's by. It never ceases to amaze me that this kind of on-the-fly music appreciation and education goes on a lot more in companies than it does in 'dance education' but that's another story.

I have Michael Ho to thank for introducing me to Poulenc's wonderful score: my first job in dance was at the RAD in 1986, and that's where I met a lot of people on the PDTC (as it was then) course that I still know today. One of them was Michael, who was moving and wanted to sell a lot of his record collection.

This is day 5 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

I've been working with the unerringly, brilliantly musical Christopher Hampson as a dancer, friend, colleague, drinking partner, teacher, inspiration, mentor, you-name-it and all of the above in any order or no order at all, all at once, for so long now that we've built up a whole library of music that could go in this slot of the Advent Calendar. But there's one in particular which I've grown to associate with him to the extent that I might request it for my funeral, just to make sure he laughs (a favourite pastime that, thinking of music or other things to request that will corpse your best mate at your own funeral).

Juliette Gréco's song Non monsieur, je n'ai pas vingt ans was one of the chansons I covered with Nicolas Mead and Gertrude Thoma in a show called From Brecht to Brel, and which soon went into my class repertoire. In rehearsal, I put a little piano riff in at the end of the song which is really no more than a rhythmic vamp on the harmony, but we liked it so it stayed.

Slow tendus Malcolm Williamson - Blue Moon

This is day 4 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

Why Blue Moon and Malcolm Williamson? It's simple. When I first met and worked with Malcolm in Angoulême in 1982, I was enthusing to him one day about the popular music of the 30s and 40s, which I said I thought was a golden age in music. 'Really?' he asked, in an astonished voice. I thought I'd made the most awful faux pas. Here I was with the Master of the Queen's Musick saying that I thought The Girl in the Upstairs Flat and the Flat Foot Floogie were symbols of a golden age in music. What was I thinking of?

This is day 3 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

Some of the greatest dancers and teachers I've met have one thing in common at least: their mind is always 'on' as far as music is concerned, like someone who never puts the phone down in case the other person still has something to say. There's usually one dancer in a studio who'll give you the most fleeting of smiles because they heard the way you phrased something differently today than yesterday, or because there's an extra hint of happiness or sadness in the way you played a familiar song, or because the piece has (if you but recognised it or thought about it) special connotations. Great teachers feel moved by the music with, if not before the dancers, and sweep the class along with them.

The first time I played for Pat Neary's class was one cold winter morning at 10 am at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin (which feels like 7.00am in most people's days), and instantly I realised she was one of those people who felt everything in the music.

This is day 2 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

The more I think about the Minuet in B Minor from Bach's suite BWV 1067, the less I think I should ever play it for pliés. This was the first dance that I had to play for one of Belinda Quirey's historical dance classes at the RAD, and it was a revelation.

This is day 1 in my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (II)

I'd only have to play a couple of chords of Georgia on my mind for warm-up and Jackie Barratt would melt. What a great way to start a class. It makes me melt too, and here's why.

During my student days over 25 years ago, I bought a double LP from the Army & Navy stores in Victoria called And the Bands Played On, released by the BBC, which had a selection of songs from World War II on it. I think I bought it because I didn't have any records with me in London at the time, and I picked up the first one I saw.

Welcome to Advent Calendar II

During Advent of last year, I wrote tributes to the people of the dance world who'd been an inspiration to me as a musician, and called it my Dance Inspirations Advent Calendar (you have to scroll down to the bottom and read it backwards, of course). On Christmas day, I invented a 'menu' of music to go with each person. "Each piece of music reminds me in a special way of the person they are associated with below, for reasons which I'd go into if I didn't have to put a turkey in the oven myself", I said.

Well, I don't have to put a turkey in the oven for another 24 days, so welcome to my Advent 2006 calendar where I reveal some of the thoughts that go through my head while I'm playing.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

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