Fireworks Magazine Online 51 - Interview with Iona

IONA

Interview with multi-instrumentalist Dave Bainbridge 
by Paul Jerome Smith

Iona, named after one of the smaller islands that is a part of the archipelago of the inner Hebrides, is a beguiling band whose uplifting music fuses together elements of rock, folk, progressive, ethnic and ambient elements. The band has been in existence for over twenty years, having been conceived way back towards the end of 1988; it was formed the following year and the first incarnation of the band played their debut gig in June 1989 going on to release their first -- self-titled album in 1990. This featured the founding trio of Dave Bainbridge, Joanne Hogg and Dave Fitzgerald along with various supporting musicians and special guests. The band has had a fluctuating line-up over the past 23 years, but Bainbridge and Hogg have been ever-present since the earliest days.

I begin by asking about the band's present line-up and for mention of some key players from the past, no longer part of the current "team"...

It's been an amazing journey over the past 23 years! But the idea for the band stretches even further back. After I left Leeds College of Music in 1980 my older sister Maureen (singer / keyboardist), drummer Pete Fairclough and guitarist Nick Fletcher formed a band called 'Plan B'. In some ways this was a blueprint for Iona with the mix of short songs and lengthy instrumentals featuring female vocal sections that we did - very much influenced by the progressive rock bands of the '70's such as 'Yes', 'Gentle Giant' and 'Hatfield and the North'. We rehearsed together every week for about a year and recorded a demo tape - even auditioning Martin Alcock (later of Fairport Convention!) for the bass playing spot, but the musical climate at the time was very anti anything remotely 'progressive' so the band folded due to lack of interest from gig promoters and we all went on to different projects.

In early 1985 I first met Joanne (Hogg) and David (Fitzgerald) when I was co-producing 'Alpha and Omega', an epic album project for a singer songwriter called Adrian Snell. Adrian had just met Joanne at a Christian Artists convention in The Netherlands and loved her voice and wanted her to sing a track on the album. The album co-producer Neil Costello had come across David and suggested he play some saxes and woodwind on the album.

Jo, David and I all got on very well both musically and socially and over the next few years David and I toured extensively with Adrian. Joanne did one of the tours and also did an opening solo set and I realised that she was a seriously gifted musician, singer and songwriter.

Whilst touring with Adrian, David and I found lots of time to jam together and were very excited with the combination of his numerous instruments (saxes, flute, chinese flutes, tin whistles etc!) and my keyboard textures and we started talking about various ideas for a project. Gradually the vision for Iona was formed and the obvious third person to be involved was Jo.

The line up for the first, self titled Iona album was basically the three of us plus guests, who included drummer, percussionist Terl Bryant, bassist Tim Harries and Troy Donockley on uilleann pipes and low whistles. Once we started playing live after a few gigs as a three piece we realised that we needed a regular drummer and bass player to complete the line up, so we enlisted a great young drummer / violinist from The Netherlands called Frank van Essen (I'd toured with Frank with Adrian Snell's band in 1990) and very soon after, Nick Beggs (of Kajagoogoo fame - and more recently Steve Hackett's band). Nick was a friend of the photographer who took our first album photos.

By the time we did the second album 'The Book of Kells' in 1992, the band line up had become fairly fixed with Nick on bass / Chapman Stick and drummer Terl Bryant (the logistics of having Frank in the band at the time were proving too tricky as he lived in The Netherlands and also had a full time job at that stage).

A few months after Kells was released, David left the band and started a 3 year music degree course. This was quite a major thing for us at the time as David had been the co-founder of the band with me and has a unique musical voice and we have a great musical empathy. However Jo and I really felt that the band should continue, so we enlisted Mike Haughton. Mike was already a friend and is a very gifted sax player who also plays whistles, flute and recorder and has a great singing voice akin to Graham Nash. He is very much in evidence on the band's third album 'Beyond These Shores', with his lyrical and emotive playing.

Nick left the band late in 1994, primarily because he was really busy with other musical projects and also at the time had an A&R role for Polygram Records. Nick's expertise on the Chapman stick was a brilliant asset to the band's sound on both 'Kells' and 'Shores' and of course he's very charismatic on stage. As with all other former band members we're still good friends and keep in touch occasionally.

Joining us for the recording of our next album 'Journey into the Morn' on basses was Tim Harries. I'd known Tim for many years and Tim had previously guested on the first Iona album. As well as being a great electric bass player, Tim is also brilliant on double bass, so this was another sound we were able to incorporate on this album. Tim joined us for several tours before and after the release of 'Journey' but by mid 1996 he was finding it increasingly difficult to find time to play with us. At the time he was also in Steeleye Span and Bill Bruford's Earthworks so he had a pretty heavy schedule!

When Tim had to pull out of a London gig at fairly short notice Terl recommended Phil (Barker) to stand in and Phil did an amazing job learning the whole set in a week or so, despite no rehearsals with the band! Once it was clear that Tim couldn't commit to the band, Phil joined permanently and has now been with the band since 1996.

Towards the end of 1994 Mike Haughton joined Cliff Richard's band and was consequently unavailable for much of the time we were writing and recording 'Journey in the Morn'. Troy (Donockley) had guested on all the Iona albums and occasionally played live with the band, especially after his own band You Slosh disbanded in 1992. So it seemed a natural transition that Troy should become a permanent band member, which he did in 1995. Troy and I co-wrote two tracks on 'Journey into the Morn' - 'Heaven's Bright Sun', with Troy coming up with the great pipe melody at the end and 'The Search', where Troy improvised the wonderful low whistle part. It was around this time that we discovered what has become something of an Iona signature sound - the unison sound of uilleann pipes and electric guitar playing tightly together - especially on fast reels and jigs. We first tried this on a slow melody on the track 'Matthew - The Man' on 'The Book of Kells' back in 1992, but it was on the track 'Heaven's Bright Sun', recorded in 1995 that we realised the full potential of this sound combination.

The band line up remained the same from 1996 up until mid 1998, with Terl, Phil, Jo, myself, Troy and Mike (whenever he had time off from Cliff Richard). Change was on the way again in 1998 when Terl left to persue his Psalm Drummers project and Mike left, partly because the material we were now writing was more centered around the sound of the pipes and whistles, rather than the saxophone.

From the very beginning of the band I'd imagined that the sound of the pipes would be an integral ingredient. I wasn't certain what kind of pipes and I actually met Kathryn Tickell, the famous Northumbrian piper when I was playing on a TV show in Newcastle in 1989, and asked her if she'd like to guest on the very first Iona album. However, very soon afterwards and before anything was finalised with Kathryn, I first heard a recording of Troy's band and knew THAT was the sound that was in my imagination (uilleann, or Irish pipes). So to feature the pipes more, especially now that Troy was in the band seemed a natural progression. Troy is a totally unique musician and plays many instruments really well, especially the pipes, various whistles, guitars and bouzouki, but also keyboard and he's a very good singer to boot and of course a great composer in his own right. So after Mike left Troy and I started to write together more - not least because we only lived an hour's drive from each other in Yorkshire.

When Terl and Mike left in 1998, we decided to keep the band as a five piece and discovered that Frank van Essen, our original live drummer had just left a band in Holland and was looking for some new musical challenge. I happened to be working with Frank in a band for a conference and we both knew that Iona was about to become part of his life again! Though we lost a top line instrument in Mike's sax / woodwind, we gained one with Frank's incredible violin playing, which we have been featuring more in that last couple of years.

So this line up (Frank, Phil, Troy, Jo and myself) became the longest without any personnel changes - from 1998 up until 2009, when Troy decided to leave (the only line-up change now in the past 14 years!).

Troy was becoming increasingly busy with many other time consuming projects - The Bad Shepherds, Barbara Dixon and Nightwish in particular and was unable to commit to the small amount of Iona gigs that there were in 2009. Also he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the band's Christian ethos, so in the end it wasn't a shock when he decided to leave. We still keep in touch fairly regularly and always have a laugh.

Replacing Troy was never going to be easy but amazingly we found pipes / whistle player Martin Nolan, who was recommended by Moya Brennan's husband Tim. It is not an exaggeration to say that Martin has brought a whole new lease of life and a great dynamic to the band. Coming from the Irish traditional music scene, Martin is a great musican and engaging personality on stage. The fact that he also shares our Christian beliefs has really had a positive effect on the band and in some ways if now feels like we've come full circle with the latest album 'Another Realm' - back to the road that we first set out on all those years ago. He's also now learning to play the bouzouki and we hope to introduce him playing that live on a few songs in the very near future.


23 years is a long time for a band to remain active. Please tell me how you have managed to keep Iona so fresh and relevant and please share with me some of the happiest memories you have from across all those years, Dave...



What for me has been very satisfying is that despite several personnel changes - especially in the early years, Iona's music has retained it's unique identity. I think it's because we had such a definite vision and idea of what sound we were trying to achieve right from the beginning. We have also tried to strike a good balance between home life and band time and to allow everyone time to also pursue other projects outside of the band. This has in the main made for healthy relationships and also kept things fresh for when we do come together as Iona. We all love the times we're together on tour and each other's company and interacting with people who come to the gigs. It is a real honour to be able to do what we do.

We still see the relevance of what we're doing both musically and spiritually and as long as that continues then I think that will inspire new Iona music. There are lots of musical textures for us still to explore with the current line up and Joanne is singing better that she has ever done, so it feels like we're in a good place at the moment.

There have been many great experiences over the years and for many different reasons, and the great thing is they keep on coming which is great! It's often not the obvious, big events that are the most significant, but one definitely has to be playing in front of 25,000 people at Cornerstone Festival on 4th July in the USA in '96 or '97. As it was independence day Troy and I had worked out a pipes / keyboard arrangement of 'The Star Spangled Banner'. In the middle of us playing it a great fireworks display started - not planned to coincide with us playing but it was an amazing moment!

Another would have to be the 'Woven Cord' concert / recording with the All Souls Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1999. This was an ambitious project and it was amazing to see it all come together.

Another very contrasting, but much more moving thing was when someone came up to me at a gig in England and said that listening to the song 'Beachy Head' from the album 'Beyond these Shores' had stopped him from committing suicide by jumping off this cliff, infamous for the many suicides that had happened there! When you hear a story like that - and there have been many others in which the bands music has been very significant in different ways - it is very humbling and thrilling and encourages you to continue doing what you're doing.


I guess there must have been some less happy moments too?


There have been a few, for instance concerning being ripped off financially by people we trusted on a few occasions early on, but you live and learn from these experiences. Just after one gig in 1997 Jo heard that her mum had died suddenly, which was a terrible shock. But it was a gig that one of Jo's sisters and her brother-in-law were at and Jo, Troy and I were with them at their house when the news came through. Though it was a tragic event, being together with Jo at that time was very precious and certainly demonstrated that being in a band over a long period really does feel like family.


23 years in existence, and yet the band has only released seven studio albums in all that time! Leaving aside the new album 'Another Realm' that I reviewed in Fireworks #50 just for a while, for the benefit of our readers who may be unfamiliar with the band's discography, please briefly summarise the focus of each of the six previous releases...


IONA
This was the band's first, self-titled album release, which came out in 1990. It was very much inspired by the history and landscapes of the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne along with contemporary events of the time - the fall of the Berlin Wall and the massacre of students in the protests for democracy in Beijing. From the beginning we wanted a mix of vocal songs and evocative instrumental tracks, atmospheric sections and big, epic soundscapes. We got the rights back for this album around 2001 and I remixed 8 of the 12 tracks, adding some additional overdubs and we also remastered the album and then re-released it in 2004. The original release suffered from some mediocre mixes and the budgetary constraints we were under at the time, but the newer version is much more like I'd envisaged it to be originally. We still play tracks from this album and they always go down well.

THE BOOK OF KELLS
Released in 1992 and re-mastered and re-released on our own Open Sky Records label in conjunction with Voiceprint in 2004, this is a 'concept' album based on the incredible 8th century illuminated manuscript of the 4 gospels, which is still in existence in the Trinity College Library in Dublin. This was a very ambitious project musically and we really went to town to be as creative as we possibly could be. It includes a 26 minute passage where there are no vocals, some of Joanne's most remarkable songs ('Chi-Rho', 'Revelation', 'Kells Theme' etc), the band's longest track up to that point ('Matthew - The Man'), and even congregation of about 1,400 people recorded live in a church in London on the last track!

Ironically 'Matthew - The Man' is probably one of the most played pieces of music anywhere as it has been the default music on a media player that pipes music into many major chain stores for the past 8 or 9 years. It kicks in whenever there is a break in the internet connection streaming the music - which happens very regularly. So if you suddenly hear a piece of ambient / Celtic, ethno-rock in B&Q or Wilkinsons, McDonalds and the like that's probably what you're hearing!

BEYOND THESE SHORES
1993 (re-released 2004): This album was largely based on the story of the 6th century 'Voyage of St Brendan'. Brendan reputedly crossed the atlantic ocean a thousand years before Columbus and in 1976, the explorer Tim Severin replicated the leather and wood boat described in the Brendan story and followed the likely route Brendan took. He proved that it was certainly feasible that this incredible journey took place. But what really attracted us to this theme, apart from the incredible imagery in the story, was the tremendous faith of Brendan and his fellow monks - willing to trust everything to God and follow Him wherever He led them.

We were very fortunate to have King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp guest on a few tracks on the album. Not long before we started recording Nick (Beggs) was doing some songwriting with Robert's wife Toyah Wilcox. On a visit to their house Nick gave Robert the first two Iona album and later Robert told Nick that he really enjoyed listening to them, especially when he was relaxing in his bath! He said to let him know when we were next recording as he'd love to guest with us. We were very honoured of course! One of my favourite tracks ever is 'The Night Watch' on King Crimson's 1974 'Starless and Bible Black' album and it has the most beautiful guitar solo from Robert. However I could really imagine Robert contributing some of his 'Frippertronic' soundscapes to the Iona album to help set this timeless scene of being out on the open ocean, so we spend a brilliant day with him just recording some amazing, improvised guitar / synth guitar landscapes in various keys. Later we were able to insert these into various tracks on the album, and they really help to glue the album together thematically.

The re-released version features some beautiful artwork and we re-mastered it and it sounds so much better than the original master - more punchy and present.


JOURNEY INTO THE MORN
1995 (re-released 2009) Again we had a loose theme running through most of the tracks on the album, based on the 8th century Irish hymn 'Be Thou My Vision'. We took each line from the hymn and wrote tracks around them, expanding upon the meaning with the help of contemporary Celtic poet / author David Adam's amazing book 'The Eye of the Eagle'.

Again Robert Fripp guested on this album on a few tracks. We'd actually recorded so much material with him on the previous session that much of it remained unused and we were able, with his permission, to use more of it on this album, again to help create some beautiful, timeless soundscapes.

As the hymn was originally written in Irish Gaelic, we were keen to feature a version of the theme in this beautiful language. Moya Brennan from Clannad, whom we'd met the year before, kindly gave us a Gaelic adaptation of the hymn that her grandfather had written. She also spent some time coaching Joanne in the pronunciation of the Gaelic - who though she's Irish - is not a Gaelic speaker. Then Jo and I spent a brilliant couple of days in Dublin recording Moya singing and playing Celtic harp on several tracks on the album.

Quite a few things came together for us on this album, distribution, management etc to make this our best selling album to date, with over 83,000 copies sold. It was in Q Magazine's top 50 albums of 1996 and in their Top 5 folk albums of that year.

OPEN SKY
Released in 2000, this album didn't have an over-riding theme as such. This was the first studio album with the 5 piece line up of Jo, myself, Phil, Frank and Troy. Guesting on a few tracks was the fantastic Scottish Celtic harp and Clarsach (steel strung harp) player William Jackson, but other than his contribution everything else was played by the five of us.

Troy's contribution to the playing (on numerous instruments) and writing was much greater on this album, notably on tracks such as the majestic 'Woven Cord' and 'Castlerigg'. Troy has this old harmonium that used to belong to Cliff Richard which he played to great effect on the opening of the track 'Hinba'! The three part, 22 minute long suite 'Songs of Ascent' is a highlight of the album for me and it contains some of my favourite ever Iona music. The end of the album has this bit where you hear snatches of all the tracks on the album rushing past, sounding more and more distant until there is silence. This was inspired by the amazing opening scene of the 1997 film 'Contact', starring Jodie Foster, where you hear radio signals going back in time, reaching out further and further into space.

THE CIRCLING HOUR
Released in 2006, this was the first album that we'd funded ourselves, though distribution and manufacturing were still through Voiceprint.
The year after 'Open Sky' was released, Joanne gave birth to the first of her two boys Isaac, with Ethan, her second, coming the following year. Motherhood, plus a rather serious (but fortunately successful) operation on her neck in 2005 which could have threatened her vocal cords meant that things understandably slowed down for the band for several years. By the time 'The Circling Hour' came out many things had changed in the music industry and the previous record company financial support that we had was not there anymore. Record companies we'd previously worked with were going bust left, right and centre and illegal downloading had begun to impact sales. This, combined with a lack of co-ordinated advertising meant that sales of the album were fairly disappointing. However we all felt it was a very strong album and it was a thrill to be able to work on the album mix in Los Angeles with noted producer / mix engineer John Kellogg (5.1 mix producer for Deep Purple, ELP, Black Crowes, Chicago, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac, Britney Spears etc), who described it as 'one of the best albums he's ever worked on.'!
As well as the studio releases we've also released four other albums:
'The River Flows - Anthology volume 1', (2001), a limited edition 4cd box set which contains the newer versions of the first 3 albums, plus a fourth CD of rare tracks (including an expanded version of the music we wrote for a BBC documentary on Snowdonia in 1993) and new 'live in the studio' recordings and a fantastic 80 page booklet.
'Heavens Bright Sun' (1997) - a live double album
'The Woven Cord' (1999) - a unique collaboration with The All Souls Orchestra, recorded live at the Festival Hall in London
'Live in London' (2005) - 2 DVD film of a great gig at London University - the CD version of this gig was released in 2008

We also have a self titled DVD release (IONA), which contains footage from one of the bands earliest concerts and documentary footage of the band on the island of Iona back in 1991.


My review of 'Another Realm' suggested that the release represents "business as usual" for the band, and I go onto explain that what I meant by this - "Ethereal, quirky, spiritual, multi-layered, textured chill-out Prog with magnificent, haunting female vocals all couched in a Celtic framework". Do you agree with this assessment?


Yes, that's a fair assessment! When people ask us what kind of music we play it's actually very difficult to describe without starting to sound pretentious. A number of people, including some reviewers, have described 'Another Realm' as a return to our roots, or a return to form. Though I don't think we've made a bad studio album, I think there is something about 'Another Realm' that is connecting with people on a deeper level than the previous two studio albums.

There are a number of reasons for this. After the birth of her boys, Jo went through quite a dry period as regards creativity and struggled to write songs or find enthusiam to play live. This all changed during our year off from touring in 2008, when we all went through what I can only describe as something of a spiritual renewal. Suddenly the focus that first inspired the band was there again and the songs and a new vision for the band started to flow out.

Jo realised that the power of Iona's live performances did not depend just upon her voice delivering on the night, but upon us focusing on the author of our creativity and seeking to experience His amazing presence as we played. This was a pivotal moment for her. Gone now are the anxieties that she might not hit some of the high notes in the songs, or that she might forget some of the complex keyboard chords. There is a freedom and lightness in Jo on stage now that is tangible and beautiful to see. She is now singing better and more freely than ever. This was also apparent during the recording of 'Another Realm'. Such was Jo's passion for the message behind the new songs that her studio performances of the songs blew us all away. Where in the past it was sometimes difficult to get that intensity in the studio that she can deliver live - this time it was there from the word go. The fact that all five of us are really united in vision now is another factor that makes 'Another Realm' both as an album and live very fresh and powerful.


You have quite a busy touring schedule lined up for this year to promote 'Another Realm'. I saw the band at the Classic Rock Society in late 2006, and for me it was a very special gig, and hopefully you might appear there again -- or in my home town of Bury -- before the year is out....


Yes this year is turning out to be a busy one for Iona gigs, which is brilliant. We've already played a few in the South-East of England and a tour in Switzerland. In April we'll be in Germany and then have a run of UK dates from 31st May to 3rd June (Beverley, Lancaster, West Sussex and Wavendon (Milton Keynes), two in Northern Ireland on 8th/9th June then a tour in the USA in June / July, a festival gig in Estonia in July, then more UK dates in September / October (including London, Cheltenham, Leeds with about 5 more to be confirmed soon - hopefully including either Bury or Manchester!). Then we have a few more dates in Switzerland in November and a few in Holland in December!

Oh, Martin and I are doing a duo gig (possibly with Frank) in York on 30th May. That should be a great night! All the latest tour info can be found on our website at www.iona.uk.com/tour


Finally, I'd like to find out something about your activities outside of Iona. You very kindly sent me a copy of your solo album 'Veil Of Gossamer'. It is a fantastic piece of work, and not too far removed from what one has come to expect from an Iona album: particularly as it features various female voices including that of your Iona colleague Joanne Hogg. Something that really struck me about the album was the guitar tone and style you frequently used. I found this to be very reminiscent of Eric Johnson on his 'Venus Isle' album. Were you previously aware of this? What other musicians have influenced and inspired your development as a multi-instrumentalist?


When we originally formed Iona, it was partly so that I'd have an outlet for my own compositions. However with a band there are always compromises and everyone's ideas and opinions do have to be taken into account. Generally within Iona we tend to agree eventually on what direction a particular track should go in and it has always been the combination of us all that has produced the unique sound that is Iona. But with 'Veil of Gossamer' I was able to just let my imagination run free and perhaps go further in certain directions than I would with the band. As I write much of Iona's music there are bound to be aspects of that sound within anything I do, but solo I can allow more aspects of my musical personality to come to the fore.

Certainly it's great to be able to play more and longer guitar solos, but even so I only want to play what works compositionally in the context of a piece and the whole album. I've always aspired to be a composer first and musician second, so whatever I play must have a purpose and meaning within the bigger picture.

I've not heard Eric's 'Venus Isle' album, but I have a couple of his early albums and love his playing, so I'm sure I've assimilated some of his licks! I also like a lot of the players who've influenced his playing - McLaughlin, Hendrix, early Clapton, Steve Morse etc, so it's probably not surprising that there are similarities. Allan Holdsworth and Jeff Beck are other big guitar influences, the former for the total uniqueness of his approach and incredible, awe inspiring technique which always serves a musical purpose, the latter for his incredible touch and heart rending feel.

I could list hundreds of musicians and composers from almost every genre that have had some influence on what I do. I suppose early on when I was still at school, Mike Oldfield's music made a big impression on me. In fact not so much the music, but the fact that he played everything himself! I thought I'd like to be able to create music in that way and that led me to early experiments with overdubbing several guitar / keyboard / vocal parts on the primitive reel to reel tape recorders of the 1970's. In fact my first idea with 'Veil' was to play absolutely everything myself! But then I realised that though technically it might be possible (apart from the female vocals of course - no trousers tight enough!), it wouldn't make for the best album and nowadays I just love working with other musicians and hearing how they will interpret your ideas.


What are your present plans outwith the confines of Iona? Might another solo album be in the offing?


Yes! I'm actually currently recording a second solo album and hope to have it ready before the end of the year if all goes well and I find enough time to finish it! Most of the music is written, but I need to raise some money to fund the rest of the recording. I have some great guest musicians lined up to play / sing on the album including of course some of my Iona band mates.

Stylistically it follows on in a similar vein to 'Veil of Gossamer' but with a slightly more 'progressive rock' edge in places! I've been drawing upon many of my early musical influences for inspiration, but hopefully translating them through a more contemporary soundworld. There are more electric guitar solos on this album than on the Iona albums, and more piano playing. Piano is my first instrument, but has often been understated on Iona recordings. There are a couple of solo piano pieces I've recorded for this album and a couple of the more epic tracks feature piano quite a bit. There have been some pretty tricky parts to play! I'm really excited about the material on this album, which generally is a bit more 'up' than 'Veil' or 'Another Realm'

I'm also producing a couple of projects for other artists this year, so it's going to be a busy year!


Well, Dave...very many thanks for your detailed and interesting responses. Hopefully, more readers of this magazine will now wish to investigate Iona, and -- hopefully -- will seek out one of your upcoming concerts to experience for themselves the emotional intensity of such occasions.


Thanks Paul - it's been a pleasure talking with you!

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  • Berny : Fireworks #79 out now! Ye Banished Privateers video premiere! 14000 words interview with Harem Scarem! New album and live reviews!
  • Rocktopia Te : 20 new album and 10 new live reviews!
  • Berny : Thanks Rob, review was updated!

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