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Madame Lotte Lehmann discusses teaching

BROADCAST: Nov. 6, 1964 | DURATION: 00:28:12


Now retired from singing opera, when Madame Lotte Lehmann is not traveling around Europe, she teaches, what she says, are the best students she has encountered, at Northwestern University. Lehmann explains her hope is to not only teach but to inspire singers to be larger than life and to bring out their own personalities in a song.


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Mel Zelmann And now, Jewel Food Stores, home of miracle prices, welcomes you to the Studs Terkel Program, heard on WFMT each weekday from 10 a.m. to 11. Here's Studs.

Studs Terkel Well, thank you, Mel. This morning the program with Madame Lotte Lehmann, that had been delayed for a couple of days. Madame Lehmann, you know, for several years in a row now, has been teaching the master courses for young singers at Northwestern University, a part of Northwestern University's School of Music. And my third visit with her. But, again, each time you visit an artist of her stature it seems there's always something new to be discovered. We thought, before we hear Mel Zelmann, that is, after we hear Mel Zelmann, we will, perhaps, listen in to one of her classes as she's directing one of the students. Not directing--that's not the point either--but offering her own insights into a lied he's about to sing. But first we hear from Mel and then we'll enter the master class and then we'll hear the conversation with Madame Lehmann.

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Studs Terkel Madame Lotte Lehmann, as many critics would swear [in other words?], is the greatest lieder singer of our century. You know, retired suddenly one day on the stage after a concert, she announced her farewell much to the dismay of the audience. In fact, a record of this is available, a recording where the audience crowd cried, "No, no, no," and her accompanist for many years, Paul Ulanowsky, was also taken aback, was startled by it. But she said, "No, the time has come." She reached a certain moment in her life and her art and, much like the Marschallin in the role that she made so overwhelming, the Marschallin of "Der Rosenkavalier," a certain moment comes when she recognizes a step must be taken; in this instance retirement. Since then Lotte Lehmann's far from retired, has become a magnificent teacher, and she says teacher's not the word. Suppose we tune in one of her classes. A young student is singing a lied. It's, I think it's a Wolf lied dealing with das Jesuskind [German] and the pianist is about to play, in fact, does begin and we hear the voice of Lehmann. [content removed, see catalog record] I believe she let him finish the song and then had further comments. And a couple of days later I visited Madame Lehmann in her apartment at the Orrington Hotel. This was in Evanston. And somewhere during the conversation the subject of this particular student, and this particular song, and her approach came into play. But I began, I remember asking her about, oh, what are her plans now, does she plan to go back to Santa Barbara, and we cut in just as I was asking that question. [not necessary because Studs announces the tape change] On back to Santa Barbara, I think, again?

Lotte Lehmann Oh, no, no.

Studs Terkel No?

Lotte Lehmann On the contrary, I will be back in Santa Barbara at the end of the summer. I have very many ideas for the summer. I go, first I fly to Zurich, where I want to visit Klemperer, who lives there. The daughter of Thomas Mann, Erika Mann.

Studs Terkel You know Erika Mann?

Lotte Lehmann Oh, yes. An old friend of mine. And also there is, there lives a former accompanist of my classes at Santa Barbara and his wife was a student of mine. So I will stay there some days and then I go for some weeks to Bad Gastein in Austria. And from there I fly to Hamburg where an old, very old colleague of mine who started with me in Hamburg, when we were very young, he has his 80th birthday and I want to celebrate that with him. And then I do a cruise with Stella Polaris, through the Norwegian fjords, and look forward very much, one has always told me it is so beautiful. And I have never been there.

Studs Terkel Well, of course, this is quite incredible, isn't it? I [had?] really said Madame Lotte Lehmann was going back to Santa Barbara, little realizing; I should have known, of course, the vitality and the [interests in life?] of Madame Lehmann. She has named about six different projects: her friend's 80th birthday in Hamburg. Where, incidentally, I was about three weeks ago.

Lotte Lehmann Oh, yes?

Studs Terkel Hamburg. But your interests, and then the fjords, and then seeing Erika Mann, and visiting, and no doubt you'll probably be seeing some opera and hearing singers--

Lotte Lehmann I doubt that. I doubt that. I think I will be with my friends and will use this few short days to be as long with them together as possible.

Studs Terkel You know, Madame Lehmann, I think what you just said now, the activities which you are involved, both personal as well as in a broader sense, singing, gives us a tip off on why the students, and why audiences, sit in your master class and become so excited. Because it's involv--you're really telling these students, whether it's interpreting a Hugo Wolf lied, or a Schumann lied, or--involvement with life. Isn't this basically what you're telling [us?]?

Lotte Lehmann Yes, yes. I always, at first, always my goal to bring the drama to life which is, which lives in every, in every song, and every aria, and every role. Of course. That is, that is, I mean, the voice, in itself, is an instrument. But what one does with the voice, what when one gives one's own personality to the voice and to the whole conception of the song, that is the main thing.

Studs Terkel The understanding?

Lotte Lehmann The understanding. The understanding makes the artist.

Studs Terkel In hearing this, we were tuning in on your class that was taped at Northwestern, there was six of them, six different sessions here at Northwestern that Madame Lehmann visits each year. "Schlafendes Jesuskind" was the song that a young student, Ronald Combs, was singing, one of the Mörike poems that--

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel Wolf put to music. Yet, you were telling him something. You were telling him, not just the voice; there's far more than this involved.

Lotte Lehmann I told him that he shall imagine in the introduction that he is in a gallery, and has looked at pictures and paintings. And the painting of an old master catches his special attention and he is very moved in seeing this Jesus child. And it's a whole story which this picture tells him, comes out, in this poem which Mörike has written and which Wolf has set to music.

Studs Terkel I remember this phrase you were using, I don't know if you caught this here or not, you were saying, "Imagine the mind of this child to the visions, the fantasies he has.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. Yes, but that is in the poem, that is in the translation of the poem. That's his chi--that, if only one would know which fantasies, which pictures live behind these brows, these blessed eyes.

Studs Terkel But not to do it as a dutiful [song?], I remember you were saying.

Lotte Lehmann Oh, but no. Oh, but no. But that's so often--but, you know, these classes are really very well prepared and very good. I must really say it, these are the best classes I have ever had anywhere. And this Music Department really develops beautifully at Evanston.

Studs Terkel Well, since you mentioned this, the classes developed a young student, singers. I suppose more and more you sense this among young American singers--do you find more and more--of course, Grace Bumbry, naturally, is your disciple. In fact, you encouraged her. I recall when I first met you, you said, "Watch this singer, Grace Bumbry."

Lotte Lehmann I did!

Studs Terkel Yes. But do you sense more and more of this now? Of the young American [singers?]?

Lotte Lehmann Oh, yes. I think here are quite wonderful voices and really wonderful talents. The only hitch is where can they perform? That is the eternal question which one has to [say? seek?], ask in America.

Studs Terkel Now we come to the old question again, don't we?

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel In, take Hamburg, or take any German large city, or for that matter, any middle European city: civically subsidized company--every city subsidizes [its company?].

Lotte Lehmann Yes. Yes. And this rich America cannot do that and cannot give money? I cannot--and for instance, that these national, from the metropolitans, that these young singers, at last there was a possibility, at last and on occasion that one heard them in a really big framework and now it goes to pieces because there was not enough interest. I think it's a shame.

Studs Terkel Here was another example of the [end?]--Chicago this year will not have an [opera season?]

Lotte Lehmann Yes, now that I cannot believe.

Studs Terkel What [is amusing?] about this, Madame Lehmann, is there was a debate here whether to have 10 or 20 weeks, a battle going on, yet in Hamburg, a city of half the size--less than half the size--a 10-and-a-half month season employing a thousand people.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel Traveling 350 people.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. It's fantastic. I started in Hamburg. I know [unintelligible]--

Studs Terkel Was it in Hamburg? What's a memory? I say Hamburg to you, Madame Lotte Lehmann, first memory? What comes to your mind when I say Hamburg?

Lotte Lehmann The first year of my starting it was 1910. You were sitting in a cloud yet.

Studs Terkel [laughing] One or two years away.

Lotte Lehmann And I remember that all my relatives said--warned me and had said, "How terrible," and said, "Oh, it's so immoral," and that, "You have to be very careful. The director and there is a conductor, everybody wants to seduce you." So I was really, I was armed to the teeth when I came there. And I visited our general manager, [name of manager] was his name. He was a tiny man, and very old, and badly--in a bad humor. And I came in and I thought, if that man now is fresh to me, I hit him. And he said, "What do you want?" I said, "I want to say hello." "You said hello. Get out." So my virtue was safe.

Studs Terkel Well, this is interesting you say this, Madame Lehmann, because American actors and actresses, say, in the early days of America, you know, a half century earlier, the same principle--acting. I didn't realize that parents felt this way in general, but opera singers, too. I wasn't aware they were worried about the--

Lotte Lehmann Absolutely. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. They--all my relatives, they all found it terrible that I want to--I remember then I studied in Berlin at the Hochschule, that Professor [Schultz?], who looked like Santa Claus with a long white beard, I remember that he said to my father, "I hope you will never allow your daughter that she becomes an opera singer. She's much too good girl."

Studs Terkel This is [unintelligible] earlier, so Hamburg evoked this memory?

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel Since you mentioned that, obviously your whole life and thoughts and memories as an artist, and a girl, and a woman are involved in your teaching the students. There's one song about love, I remember, this was also part of the tape that was recorded. What was that? "Nimmersatte Liebe."

Lotte Lehmann "Nimmersatte Liebe," yes.

Studs Terkel And you were telling the girl to be more passionate about it, if I remember right.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. Well, you cannot talk about never, never satisfied love and do that in an abstract way. I mean that's not possible.

Studs Terkel You were telling her somewhere about, oh, and there was a reference made to Solomon; someone you could not envision Solomon biting his sweetheart.

Lotte Lehmann No, no. I remember that I said, and they may argue to me that, also King Solomon has been young, and I refuse to think that. I think he was born with a long, white beard.

Studs Terkel But you're not afraid then, all continuously, by the way, I noticed the reactions of the audience and the auditors as well as the students there. There is laughter. I mean the idea of, I guess, humor, the sense of humor.

Lotte Lehmann Oh, I think that is something terribly important. I remember in Hamburg where once a paper had these questionnaires, you know, what is the most important part--the most important thing in a character. And my answer was humor because humor does--humor overcomes everything. If one has a sense of humor I think that it--oh, I would go--I couldn't do that and teach and be just a teacher with a very strict way. I couldn't do that. I'm much too much an artist, I think to--I, you know, what's the word? I'm in a certain sense I'm a little bit of a ham.

Studs Terkel This matter of the artist and humor. I suppose--I know you've talked about the Marschallin so often. I guess the Marschallin's--one of her chief attributes, aside from her wisdom--was her sense of humor, wasn't it?

Lotte Lehmann Oh, absolutely. The lightness, the possibilities that she set; one has to say goodbye in life with a smile. And she really kept her promise because she was hurt, but she overcame being hurt with the humor of the recognition. Of course, this is as I have always seen it and now I have to be the great lady and have to bring the whole [thing?] and all that.

Studs Terkel I suppose the fact that life itself, the little sadness, of course, the irony--she was still a beautiful woman.

Lotte Lehmann Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel Yeah. But the so young girl and the such a young Rosenkavalier that it was sad, ironic, but she had lived her life; that is, there's still life ahead but of another scale. Therefore, if she didn't have humor I guess she'd fight to the bitter end, wouldn't she?

Lotte Lehmann Oh, she would have been cross if she wouldn't have humor. And it is the only moments that she really is cross with Octavian is when she sees in the last act that he has not the courage to--that he stands around, therefore she says, [German] "He is a fine man. Now go and follow your heart." She thinks he should be now a man, not only a boy. That makes her cross but that's only moment.

Studs Terkel Well, again, I suppose we have to think of Lehmann and the Marschallin, and the way you said goodbye on the stage when Ulanowsky, your own accompanist, he didn't know this. He told me. I remember [him telling me?] he didn't know.

Lotte Lehmann What?

Studs Terkel When you were saying farewell on the stage.

Lotte Lehmann Uh-huh.

Studs Terkel And you used the Marschallin as your--

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel He was wholly, of course, he was shattered, you know.

Lotte Lehmann Oh, absolutely. I was shattered, too. It was--and yet, you know, it was the wisest step which I ever have done in my life. Because I said goodbye at the moment when my audience yet wanted me to continue. But I, myself, felt it's not anymore as I have been and I have always been an artist who gave fully what I had to give. And to be careful when I made my programs: this is too high, this is too low, this is too dramatic. I couldn't do that. That was not, to me, anymore art. It was, to me, it started to fake, and you had to fake, and that is something which I couldn't do.

Studs Terkel Because of your own standards. I've got to ask you this, Madame Lehmann, this--when you made this decision, of course, and as you say you were shattered; how difficult it is. How few recognize this. I mean, you did it. You knew there was a certain moment, you--everything, as you, the artist that you are. That you are, I say, because as a teacher now, too, if you had to fake or use some sort of artifact you couldn't. And therefore you knew a moment would come when it would be less, and less, and less and you could not.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. Yes. That was the reason. And it was difficult and at the same time it was easy because I knew that my life would always be a rich one. All my friends have said to me, "Oh my god, what will you do? If you retire what will you do?" I said, what will I not do? There are so many things with which one can fill one's life. I paint, and I do anything which, when I see a new craft [unintelligible] I immediately, I try it.

Studs Terkel Yes. A new craft. A new [something?]--

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel This is interesting. When, just the very beginning when I said you were going back to Santa Barbara, you named about six different things you planned to do in Europe.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel And, thus, always new interests. A flow, in a sense, is there.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. That makes life worthwhile. I cannot sit there in a rocking chair and let life pass by. That's not my way.

Studs Terkel And I have a little note here just as you're talking; obviously the direct connection between Lotte Lehmann's life and her art, how they're connected. You were advising one of the students, I think it was a girl, "Sing on the wings of emotion." You used this phrase.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel I forget which student it was and which song but again the flow. It's on the wings of emotion.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. What I mean is, if your emotion is the right one, if you feel, really, a song, or an aria, or a part, it sends your character away into the better world of art; into a world which is above the worries of everyday life. And therefore I said "the wings of emotion."

Studs Terkel And so on that evening, or that afternoon, that concert when you announced to the audience and this--the record--someone has the record and they're hollering, "No! No! No!" They don't want you--

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel You ought--till that moment you felt, and even--you probably could have gone on for another year or two, [you know?]

Lotte Lehmann Oh, I could have gone. I know that.

Studs Terkel Or three on the wings of emotion--

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel On the wings of opera--

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel You knew at this moment, you will do it.

Lotte Lehmann Oh, I have never regretted it. My friend said to me, "You will be sorry that you did that." I was never sorry. I know it was right. It was the right thing.

Studs Terkel Just as you, the Marschallin, told Octavian, you must make--you're no longer a boy now.

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel You must make that move to be a man.

Lotte Lehmann That's it.

Studs Terkel And you were saying you will no longer be the concert artist but go on to another--

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel Step.

Lotte Lehmann Now, I even didn't think that, you know. I thought, now I will start a new life. I have done enough for music. I want to be now a lady of leisure. I was it for two weeks at the most.

Studs Terkel A lady of leisure for two weeks?

Lotte Lehmann No, no. I couldn't. I couldn't. And then, really, this Music Academy of the West that was offered to me on a silver platter and I really didn't think I would be able to teach a class. I had never done anything like that in my life. But I very soon grew into it and it gives me great pleasure.

Studs Terkel Of course, what you've done now is, it seems to me, Madame Lehmann, the class that you teach, and teach in--more than teaching--here, again, this master class that you have is an experience. Friends of mine, who are not singers, who visit and, of course, I'm sure, the young singers feel this, it's an experience. You're more than, it's more than a teacher. You tell the, I think you told one of them not to be pedantic, to one of the students, a pedestrian. You're not a pedant in that sense. You're also still the artist. It's a new, it's as if you've given teaching a new dimension in these classes.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah. No, I couldn't--for instance, if anybody would ask me technical, vocal technical questions, I really have no idea. I have, God had given me a voice which was placed in my throat rightly and I have never, never had very many difficulties. And I wouldn't be able, I really couldn't teach vocal technique. And I would have no interest whatsoever. I have only interest in developing a character, developing the understanding, and the understanding of the background of a song, and that is--what is my goal and what is my joy.

Studs Terkel Of course, what that does, again, and I think of a part of the tape I heard of the masterwork session when you were, it was the interpretation of Wolf's songs. Monday, May 8th it was. And I think the girl was singing and there was something you said. Even though the song was slow and sentimental, you want to get a feeling of something else. She had experienced joy, this heroine of this particular poem.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel Of Mörike, of the song, had experience. And not to be sad. What had happened is because of a certain experience. Again, you want to get underneath--

Lotte Lehmann It [kindles?] an urge in it. Yes, of course. Because, you know, nothing makes me more nervous as if somebody sings slowly and it has nothing in--behind the slowliness. But even, you can express great passion in a slow tempo. It has nothing to do with tempo. It has nothing to do with forte or piano. It has to do with your feeling.

Studs Terkel We come back to that again.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel I suppose an artist would call that tension. I mean tension in a marvelous way.

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel Against something.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah yeah. Yeah.

Studs Terkel Something against something.

Lotte Lehmann Yes

Studs Terkel As, I suppose, life itself. You're also talking about paradox within life, aren't you? Paradox.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel Contradiction.

Lotte Lehmann Contradiction? What do you mean? I don't get that. What you mean?

Studs Terkel Oh. I mean, even though it's slow--

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel The tempo was slow--

Lotte Lehmann Uh-huh. Yes. The urge [has to be in it?]--

Studs Terkel Therefore, it's sad.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel Oh, no. It could be--

Lotte Lehmann Certainly.

Studs Terkel Something exactly the opposite.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel Just as life has its very--I think you used that word somewhere. You didn't use the word variety. I was taking these notes before I came to see you here and you were speaking of--oh, I know what I'm looking at here. Larger than life. You were talking to one of the, I think, young singers.

Lotte Lehmann Oh, [unintelligible], yeah.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible] and you were mentioning a certain word, gelassen.

Lotte Lehmann Gelassen. It's a word for which one can, which is difficult to translate. It has something very queenly and [over?] human in it. Gelassen. A queen walks gelassen.

Studs Terkel Regal.

Lotte Lehmann Regal.

Studs Terkel A queen.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel And serene, you were saying.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah, yeah. It is a combination of different words which, but it is so, to me, I see that night, coming out of the darkness: gelassen. I think it's so such a beautiful word. But I think one has to be German to really feel the beauty of these words, don't you think so?

Studs Terkel Of this particular word you're talking about? I suppose every language, here in the case--since the poet was German--in every case there must be a certain word--

Lotte Lehmann Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel That has this quality. But you're also telling him, the young singer--or her--to do it larger than life.

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel It's something beyond--art is larger than life.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. Yes. Especially this song. This song, and when they didn't, the night--it says in the poem she leans against a mountain. She doesn't lean against a rock, or against a tree; she leans against the mountains. That is [greater than life?].

Studs Terkel So, therefore, the very fact that the word "mountain" is there, which is something towering, which is something natural, and huge, and lofty, and therefore it should not be sung in a certain manner--

Lotte Lehmann No, no.

Studs Terkel That would make a it seem like a rock or a stone.

Lotte Lehmann That's it. That's it. What one has to--but, you see, this is very difficult, really, to explain to a young singer how he shall do that. I don't know. I know that I could do it but I couldn't quite explain how. This is something so subtle and so indescribable.

Studs Terkel You know, I think what you do, Madame Lehmann, if I may say this, and I'm sure that many observers and listeners will agree: you are more than a teacher. That is, you are not explaining. There is something you offer. You are still the artist. See, you are the artist in that classroom or studio.

Lotte Lehmann No, I don't want to explain. I want to inspire.

Studs Terkel Inspire. I think this is the word, isn't it?

Lotte Lehmann That is what I want to do and that is which, perhaps, sometimes I succeed in doing.

Studs Terkel I remember there was one other one I was listening--just these notes I've taken down about, I forget what the song was, was it "Die Spröde?" [I said to them?], "Don't give it away." The girl was sad right off the bat. "My peace is gone." And you were telling them, "Oh, no!"

Lotte Lehmann Oh, yes. That is in the beginning. When--one has to build up a song and she started from the beginning so that when she--she wanted in the beginning the audience feel what she has to feel on the end of the song.

Studs Terkel Ah-ha.

Lotte Lehmann That was it. At first be [unintelligible]

Studs Terkel You know, this is something. You were telling her not to give it away. This is a drama. There is suspense.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel It is a drama. It's theater.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. And she has to build this drama up, she has to make it clear. That first she has the joy in seeing [Damon?] sitting there and playing the flute, and then on the end always through her mind goes the melody of this flute.

Studs Terkel Madame, as you're talking a strange memory comes to me. I acted part-time for a little while and I was in a play by Arthur Miller called "A View from the Bridge." It is directly connected to what you said. And I saw another performer do it and I felt this was bad because this is a tragic play.

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel At the end he dies. It's almost self-destruction.

Lotte Lehmann Yeah.

Studs Terkel But at the very beginning I saw that actor and he was telling me, on the stage, the way he acted, that he's going to die. And so when I took my, when it became my chance to do it for summer theater I said I must do it exactly the opposite.

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel I must do this joyfully, innocently--I do a terrible thing--and then, it builds and builds and builds.

Lotte Lehmann Oh, I think that's much better. That sounds to me much better.

Studs Terkel Basically it's what you are saying, you were telling this girl--

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel You were telling this girl that.

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel That the person singing that song must give the audience, in other words, that he/she is not aware of her fate at the beginning.

Lotte Lehmann Yes. Certainly. That's it.

Studs Terkel It must happen to her.

Lotte Lehmann That's it. That's it. you understand that very rightly. [unintelligible?]

Studs Terkel No, a few more before I leave, Madame Lehmann, before you go off on your 6, 7, 8, 9 ventures, you said painting. You became interested in painting, too?

Lotte Lehmann Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel When was this?

Lotte Lehmann Oh, I have painted already. When I was on tour I started always to paint, looking out of the window. I started to paint and now I have a studio in Santa Barbara and I do all things [with you?]. I have done now, I have done now, for instance, pictures from which I put together with little pieces of felt. It sounds crazy. I will show you one. I have one with me. And I want--it's not finished. I will work on it and I have taken it along because I like to work.

Studs Terkel You mean you're working with fabrics, with material?

Lotte Lehmann Yes.

Studs Terkel Not the traditional painting material?

Lotte Lehmann Oh, no, no. You'll have to see it. Sounds terrible [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel Well, no, it sounds like you're a pioneer painter.

Lotte Lehmann I am a good friend of our, in Santa Barbara, of our art critic and she is so delighted by it. She says she wants to give me an exhibition of these things because it's very unique.