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Yale University Department of Music

Reviewed Work(s): Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality by Susan McClary
Review by: Jenny Kallick
Source: Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 391-402
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the Yale University Department of
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/843788
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Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

by Susan McClary
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991
vii, 220 pp.


Jenny Kallick

Feminine Endings is a collection of six independent essays that

employ feminist critical strategies alongside methodologies from tra-
ditional music scholarship. Written between 1987 and 1989 and pre-
sented here without revision, these essays traverse a wide range of
musical repertories, investigating works by Monteverdi, Bizet, Tchai-
kovsky, Donizetti, and Richard Strauss, as well as by Janika Vander-
velde, Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galas, and Madonna. An
extended opening chapter introduces the discipline of critical studie
of which feminist criticism is a part, and it delineates the theoreti
perspectives--for example, structuralism, deconstruction, semiotics
and narratology--that are brought into play throughout the collec-
tion. The chapter concludes with a discussion of five areas of inquir
that have been the author's focus in developing a feminist critique
music. These include: (1) "musical constructions of gender and se
uality"; (2) "gendered aspects of traditional music theory"; (3) "gen-
der and sexuality in musical narrative"; (4) "music as a gender
discourse"; and (5) "discursive strategies of women musicians" (p
Critical musicology of the kind McClary advocates would support
the investigation of musical signification and "the ways in which dif-
ferent musics articulate the priorities and values of various communi-
ties" (p. 26); feminist criticism, further, provides models for analyzing
issues related to gender and sexuality. Indeed, a variety of modalities
from within critical thought are at the heart of McClary's work, and it
is through an understanding of these that her work can best be viewed.


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We are reminded by Edward Said, in The World, The Text, and The
Critic, that critical studies developed in Europe during the 1960s in a
spirit of insurrection. Early pioneers of criticism, building on the work
of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Saussure, among others, attempted to
break down "the rigid barriers between academic specialties."' Grad-
ually, Said laments, the insurrectionary spirit was replaced by a new
status quo organized around the often insular notion of textuality, al-
though not before valuable critical tools for examining culture and its
processes were forged.
Early feminist criticism, mirroring the reform agenda of critical
theory in its insurrectionary era, advanced a "revisionary imperative"
designed to address the cultural alienation of women.2 One project
common to early feminist studies involved the retrieval of women's
lives, resulting in the rediscovery of scores of "lost" women and the
revelation of patterns of exclusion that had severely limited women's
opportunities.3 Integrating the history of women into standard histor-
ical accounts required a new mode of feminist critique, for, as Char-
lotte Bunch observed, "you can't just add women and stir."4 In that
women had not been accidentally but, rather, actively excluded from
historical accounts, a critique of the dominant male ideology that had
been controlling the established discourses was required. Thus, fem-
inist analytical work focused on identifying the "reified male readers'
sense of power and significance,"5 and replacing it with a feminist
"reading ... against the grain"6 that would clarify "the social systems
and ideological schemata which sustain the domination of men over
women. "7
By the end of the 1970s, several areas of critical thought had taken
hold especially in historical and literary studies, while feminist criti-
cism still struggled to articulate a unifying theoretical stance. As lit-
erary critic Elaine Showalter quipped, it was unwise "to go around
forever in men's ill-fitting hand-me-downs, the Annie Hall of English
studies."s In the early 1980s, the goal "to decode and demystify all the
disguised questions and answers that have shadowed the connections
between textuality and sexuality, genre and gender, psychosexual
identity and cultural authority"9 gained primacy within feminist crit-
icism. A companion objective coalesced around the activities of
women artists, centering on the problem of how to recapture the fem-
inine consciousness of "undissociated sensibility," or, as referred to in
French criticism, the notion of l'criture fiminine, and the inscription
of "the female body and female difference in language and text."'1 At
just about this same time, there emerged a consensus that encouraged
a variety of critical approaches, and "feminism-as-theory" became "a
diversified field of theorization of at times considerable complexity."''
The available arsenal of theoretical weapons came to include: Marxist


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theory for addressing issues of history and economics; Foucault's
structuralism and deconstruction for analyzing discourse; Derrida's
narratology for identifying and designing paradigms, Marxist and Al-
thusserian theory for discussions of ideology, and Freudian and La-
canian psychoanalytic principles for questions of sexuality.
Gradually, two primary questions have become the focus of femi-
nist research: 1) Do men and women read texts (such as novels, paint-
ings, musical works) differently? 2) Do men and women produce
different kinds of texts?12 Put another way, feminist research explores
two perspectives: (1) woman as reader in examining the past and (2)
woman as artist creating "paradigms of practice to change the
McClary's collected essays employ a generous sampling of critical
strategies to explore aspects of the themes: woman as reader and
woman as artist. Having herself read widely in critical theory and fem-
inist criticism, the author, to use the language of British art critic
Griselda Pollack, enacts a series of feminist critical "interventions"
into music scholarship.'4 The reader receives valuable introductions to
the author's "theoretical acquisitions" (p. 23): ample footnotes sup-
plement the body of the work, providing extensive bibliography and a
cognoscente's view of the key issues that drive debate within the vari-
ous theoretical communities. Never failing to explain a new theoret-
ical construct before advancing a specific argument, the author forges
a stunning alliance among methodologies from music scholarship and
critical studies.
The six essays form two groups clustered around the dual pursuit of
feminist studies described above. The first three explore the perspec-
tive of woman as reader (or listener), examining narrative schemes
and representations of gender and sexuality embedded in traditional
musical fabrics; the second three investigate the activities of women,
who, as composers and performing artists, seek through their music
both to deconstruct traditional formal models controlled by male ide-
ology and to build new paradigms with "feminine endings" (p. 19).
The essays in the first group concentrate on repertoire from the
traditional canon, and, in this respect, operate within the sphere of
traditional music scholarship. (McClary passes up an opportunity here
to define music history more in terms of activity and process rather
than in output or product, a shift that would have shed greater light
on the activities of women in Western music history.) Chapter 2,
"Constructions of Gender in Monteverdi's Dramatic Music," takes a
fresh look at Monteverdi's dramatic music in the context of current
discourse about sexuality, as described by Michel Foucault in The His-
tory of Sexuality; chapter 3, "Sexual Politics in Classical Music," ex-
amines narrative structures in Bizet's Carmen and Tchaikovsky's


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Symphony No. 4, taking into account aspects of gay criticism; chapter
4, "Excess and Frame: The Musical Representation of Madwomen,"
looks at the changing construction of madness, following its course
through Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa, Donizetti's Mad Scene
from Lucia di Lammermoor, Strauss's Salome, and Diamanda Galas's
"Free Among the Dead." Thematically, these essays explore the con-
struction of gender and sexual difference in tonal music; the semiotics
of desire in stile rappresentativo; narrative structure, tonal design, and
the dominant male ideology; homosexual narrative paradigms; and
gender asymmetry and containment in the representation of madness.
The unfolding of these concepts exposes the tensions that can arise in
combining self-contained theoretical systems, a problem I will touch
upon later.
The essays in the second group address a repertoire of contempo-
rary music and music videos created by women. Chapter 5, "Getting
Down Off the Beanstalk: The Presence of a Woman's Voice in Janika
Vandervelde's Genesis II," considers one composer who juxtaposes
male-designated, goal-oriented formal scheme with a cyclic scheme,
creating a deconstruction of the former; chapter 6, "This is Not
Story My People Tell: Musical Time and Space According to Lauri
Anderson," explores performance art, the expression of feminin
pleasure, and the "agency" granted to "female bodies in motion" (p.
139); chapter 7, "Madonna's Resurrection of the Fleshy," examines
music videos as "ongoing conversations about gender, power, and
sexuality" (p. 150). Taken together, these last three essays reveal the
challenges, both theoretical and practical, inherent in the creation of
a feminine or feminist artistic practice. Most problematic is the pro-
cess of acknowledging and then defusing the pervasive traditiona
structures before new paradigms can be given priority.
Overall, readers of this journal may find that McClary's essays do
not sound like "business as usual." No doubt the author has let emo-
tion and meaning out of the musicological closet, to paraphrase Rose
Subotnik, and has employed numerous critical interventions to serve
this end; yet, on both counts, others within the discipline have done
the same. What distinguishes her work, in both senses of the word,
and gives it the flavor of a world apart is the author's intellectual com-
mitment to several powerful and musicologically uncommon pre
The first premise influences McClary's definition of culture. As ex-
plained by historian Neil Harris, the word culture has a "complex his
tory." In the nineteenth century, culture signified "the highest and
most valued human activities, connected particularly with the high
arts."'" Although this definition may be a comfortable one for many


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music theorists and historians, critics in other fields increasingly con-
sider culture to include any activity or object that distinguishes a
group or subgroup of people, including the "pattern of value stric-
tures, mores, and institutions."16 McClary not only prefers this
broader definition of culture but, also, along with other postmodern
critics, views music in the context of "the leveling off of hierarchies
... the blurring of boundaries ... [and] the explosion of the field of
culture.""17 Operating from a principle of nonexclusion, McClary
moves freely between high and low culture, decentering the canonic
repertoire of traditional Western music. Rejecting our discipline's ten-
dency toward reverence for the canonized masterpieces, the author
prefers to pose irreverent questions.
Adopting a second unconventional premise, the author emphasizes
that "music is always a political activity" (p. 26) and that its "political
potency" enables music to "precipitate [societal] transformations" (p.
25). Like author Greil Marcus-best known for Mystery Train, a his-
tory of America through music-McClary believes that "music seeks
to change life." We talk about music, Marcus explains, because "life
goes on; the music is left behind; that is what is left to talk about."18
For McClary, traditional analysis permits an examination of music's
technical features, while critical analysis elucidates what music means
in the context of cultural ideology. It is critical analysis undertaken in
the context of social history, rather than music scholarship's tradi-
tional context of chronological history, that the author finds compel-
ling in her investigation of music's role in societal formations.
In the three essays concentrating on works by contemporary
women composers, McClary explores new music in a broadly-drawn
arena of culture and politics. In each instance the author delineates
how the composition in question challenges male-dominated narra-
tive schemes and representations. For example, performance artists
like Anderson and Madonna can-through wit or by threat-
effectively undermine the underlying immobile feminine images and
reassert control as artists and as women. Laurie Anderson's perfor-
mance art, "a reaction against [the] erasure of people from art" (p.
137), brings her physical presence as creative artist into the fore-
ground, exposing the underlying structural mechanisms that enable
art to give the impression that it is mirroring reality. In doing so,
Anderson aims to obliterate the apparently immutable feminine im-
ages and supersedes them with her deconstructive physical presence.
A difficult issue for both artists and critics, addressed in several
contexts by McClary, is that of how to frame a field of feminist ex-
pression in the absence of a discernible tradition, while at the same
time avoiding the implication of essentialist positions which would


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clash with theoretical tenants that are central to feminist criticism. As
argued in the structuralist work of Foucault and in Lacanian psycho-
analytic theory, gender and sexual difference results from the inter-
action of societal discourses, not from an "essential" biological
difference. In that representations of gender, sexuality, and difference
in music and art inevitably conspire with other discourses such as
medicine, psychoanalysis, politics,and economics to shape gender and
sexual constructions, a feminist critique must involve an analysis-or
deconstruction-of these discourses. This analysis also helps clarify
the boundaries among gender, sexuality, and difference, keeping the
various categories from collapsing into each other. Furthermore, dif-
ference, when understood in terms of societal influence, can more eas-
ily be broadened beyond the male/female polarity to accomodate gay
and lesbian identities.
McClary cautions early in her presentation that "essentialist stereo-
types ascribed to women by masculine culture" (p. 18) as well as newly
constructed essentialist representations must be avoided. She explains
that in the first case old stereotypes ascribe to women innate negative
qualities; in the second case, new stereotypes are promulgated, and,
although these new stereotypes may be more positive, they neverthe-
less suggest the existence of an innate female essence.
Nevertheless, the author's discussion of Janika Vandervelde seems
to sanction the composer's blurring of the distinction between an es-
sentialist position and a societally-constructed sexuality. According to
McClary, in Genesis II the composer places formal structures identi-
fied with women's culture over traditional male-identified structures,
granting the women's voice the upper hand by positioning it at the
opening and closing of the work. For material that can be identified
with women, the composer creates music in a minimalist style with
prominent cyclic patterns that depict childbirth; for male-identified
material the composer generates striving, aggressive gestures that
"typically characterize Western concert music" (p. 119). Although
Vandervelde's work steers dangerously close to the "essentialist trap"
(p. 33) McClary lets it stand. As she would have it, Vandervelde in-
vokes the birthing experience because it is a metaphor, not exhausted
by male ideology, that represents a departure from musical gestures
[that] are phallic" (p. 124). In other words, Vandervelde's response is
conditioned by the "masculinist traits" (p. 33) of traditional music
from which she is attempting to separate herself, not by the notion of
a feminine essence. Art critic Griselda Pollock, in contrast, has traced
essentialist representations such as this one to the feminist artistic ap-
proach, formulated in the 1960s, that makes "claims for an autono-
mous and self-defined sexuality" and found expression in the work of
Judy Chicago, who employed "the women's sexualized body functions


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as the sign of the reclaiming of women's essential identity and integ-
rity."19 Both Vandervelde's Genesis II and Chicago's The Birth Project
(1985) employ the birthing experience to signal a narrative associated
with women. Although in Vandervelde's work there is no explicit
claim, as in Judy Chicago's work, that sexuality is an innate quality or
attribute, the implied sense of a female essence is strong.
To be sure, throughout her essays McClary argues against essen-
tialist views, asserting sexuality as a "fabrication" of societal dis-
courses. Particularly in her first three essays, she presents historical
evidence to illustrate the development of gender and sexual construc-
tions in Western music. She begins her survey with the seventeenth
century, as does Foucault, who posits it as the beginning of a "putting
into discourse of sex."20 According to McClary, the emerging tonality
and stile rappresentativo of the seventeenth century participated in this
new discourse: a system of musical signs was developed that permitted
the delineation of dramatic characters, dramatic action, and the con-
struction of gender and sexuality. The questioning of "traditional hi-
erarchies of authority" (p. 52) and the attendant "ideological struggles
in the public sphere" (p. 35), not to mention contests over "social
power" in the private sphere, that characterized this period rendered
these musical gender constructions politically significant. That is, if
the musical constructions of gender were understood to represent "re-
ality," such constructions could influence the resolution of these rag-
ing power struggles.
Correspondingly, in the music dramas of that period the signing of
gender was first negotiated, just as the arousing and channeling of de-
sire was becoming a significant aspect of all kinds of music. At first,
two sorts of sexual images, those related to pleasure and those related
to desire, were circulated. Desire became associated with men and
eventually acquired the qualities of rationality, power, and domina-
tion, creating "a world rife with phallic posturing." This model is so
pervasive, the author explains, that some critics have come to view it
as universal. Robert Scholes, for example, argues that "the [male] sex
act" (p. 126) is the archetype of all fiction. Tonality, based on the neu-
tral model of tension/release, gradually became fully identified with a
sexual narrative, namely, the "metaphorical simulation of sexual ac-
tivity" (p. 12), and soon acted as the principal means for the commu-
nication of desire. Music theory contributed metaphors of gender and
sexuality to describe tonality and its related formal structures. Sonata
form, controlled by tonal structuring, assumed primacy as a kind of
cultural narrative with heavily gendered features.
One way to understand the ambiguity in McClary's position is to
recognize the author's distinctly anti-modernist sentiment, an atti-
tude not uncommon among feminist critics. As has been extensively


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documented by literary and art critics, modernity in daily life and its
reflection in artistic modernism concentrates on the experiences of
men. Expressions of women's lives are relatively rare or incidental in
a canon of art and literature that records and constructs the lives of
men as portrayed in the public sphere, engaged in commercial and so-
cial transactions. McClary finds that an invisible male ideology per-
vades "modernist" classical music and posits that new compositions
require a dual political agenda: reject the unwanted "phallic postur-
ing," and advance an alternative narrative with a "feminine ending"
that, by necessity, is just as sexualized as the male narrative. Accord-
ing to this argument, Vandervelde's Genesis II counts as a success,
confirmed by McClary's report that men who hear it are horrified and
women elated: "Usually they gaze at one another in bleak disbelief, as
though they have just discovered that they are irreconcilably of dif-
ferent species" (p. 124). In this anti-modernist frame of reference,
McClary suggests a behavioral difference between men and women:
men, by nature, respond positively to the portrayal of desire, women,
to the portrayal of pleasure.
As detailed earlier, McClary's orientation is primarily toward post-.
modern criticism as exhibited by her fascination with new music and
its "ongoing cultural conversations about gender, power, and plea-
sure" (p. 150). It is when McClary emphasizes postmodern perspec-
tives that she is at her most compelling, perspectives that Steven
Connor has associated with "the waning of the cultural authority of
the West and its political and intellectual traditions" in combination
with a "multiplication of centres of power and activity."21 In her dis-
cussions of rock music, she examines an unbounded territory of cul-
tures and styles thereby displaying remarkable intellectual range and
vision. There are noticeable rhetorical shifts when the author moves
from a postmodernist to an anti-modernist perspective which attacks
the "modern" discourse of classical music. The clash that results from
the mixture of anti-modern and postmodern critical sensibilities con-
tinues to confound writers in various disciplines. The identification of
appropriate strategies "to cut across the modernist/anti-modernist and
modernist/postmodernist axes"22 will be of increasing concern within
music scholarship as criticism gradually plays a more significant role.
In the meantime, McClary's combining of critical issues does result in
some theoretical inconsistencies.
In the discussion of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, McClar
affirmative reply to the question "Does the fact that Tchaikovsky w
homosexual have any bearing on his musical narratives?" (p. 32) lead
to an exploration of gay criticism. McClary begins with a specifical
"homosexual" reading of the symphony's first movement. She asser
that, unlike the normative, strong, masculine first theme, Tch


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kovsky's "limping theme is hypersensitive, vulnerable, indecisive ...
marked with yearning, with metaphysical angst" (p. 71). The second
theme, although properly "feminine" is "no simple 'feminine' theme."
It is "sultry, seductive, and slinky" (p. 71). We also learn that the first
theme,"obsessively goal-oriented . .. seems victimized by patriarchal
expectations and by sensual feminine entrapment" (p. 76). It is not
that Tchaikovsky has failed to produce a normal male narrative, says
McClary, rather, he has decided "to tell another kind of story," one
that "deconstruct[s] the powerful narrative of adventure and con-
quest" (p. 76).
Apart from questions concerning the author's presupposition of
narrative content, the most striking aspect of McClary's analysis is its
mode of ventriloquy: the words are decidedly those of a homophobic
persona, uttered by the author without attribution. Having unveiled
this homosexual voice, the author warns that "the complexities of the
composition ought not to be reduced to a single totalizing label" that
provokes "pernicious essentialist stereotypes of homosexuals (exces-
sively emotional, hysterical, self-loathing, etc.)" (p. 78). Informed gay
criticism will be possible, McClary continues, only when a norm for
nineteenth-century symphonies is established, making it possible "to
gauge inflections by homosexual composers" (p. 78). Some of the re-
cent gay criticism has suggested different priorities. Whereas McClary
seeks to delineate gay and straight narratives, some gay theorists em-
phasize the importance of rethinking "the stability and ineradicability
of the hetero/homo hierarchy.'"23 Just as feminist theory stresses the
need to deemphasize the polarity of male/female, with all of its fused
identities, so also does gay criticism see the binary opposition of ho-
mosexual and heterosexual as an obstacle to critical understanding.
One final theoretical quibble. In the discussion of Monteverdi's
L'Orfeo, the author problematizes sexuality in a manner that seems
forced, and, in doing so, collapses the categories of gender and sex-
uality into one other. Orfeo, the "quintessential rhetorician," explains
McClary (p. 38), must use his gift to bring Euridice back from the
dead. Orfeo's rhetorical skill is matched with rhetorically powerful
music, thus presenting a construction of his gender. By contrast, Eu-
ridice lacks rhetorical power both in word and in music, thereby fixing
a female gender construction appropriate to a young, inexperienced
woman. But McClary also argues that Orfeo is "feminized," and his
"masculine authority . . . severely threatened" (p. 47) by his associ-
ation with grief and lament, which, unlike rhetorical persuasion, are
the domain of women. She asks us to note that this problem with Or-
feo's masculinity is inherent in Greek depictions of Orfeo; in one ver-
sion of the myth, he is even described as having become a homosexual
after Euridice's death.


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Interestingly, classicist Charles Segal has described Orfeo as "in-
habiting what the ancients considered the fringes of the civilized
world" such that " . . . the Greeks were ambivalent about both his
Hellenism and his divine parentage."24 Half-man, half-god, Orf
was considered dangerous because he was "able to move all nature by
his song." According to Segal, "music, poetry, and rhetoric are com-
posite, virtually indistinguishable parts of the power of art," ... "th
various versions of the myth oscillate" in their representation of Or
pheus.25 In McClary's analysis, we find his lack of masculinity equated
with homosexuality. Neither the operatic version nor the mythic tr
dition unequivocally supports this equation. Monteverdi's librett
proposes that it is self-control that Orfeo lacks, not masculinity: whe
Apollo arrives, he rescues Orfeo, not from being "feminized," bu
from loss of control. McClary's notion that rhetorical control i
aligned with gender is completely convincing; its alliance with sexua
identity, less so.
In conclusion, the experience of reading McClary's Feminine End-
ings is an exhilarating one. Hers is the first sustained effort to brin
music scholarship in contact with feminist thought, one which presen
feminist criticism as an intervention in music scholarship's "business
usual." We have already witnessed some initial responses to McClary
that expose the anxiety generated by intervention, but we can also lear
from the experience in art history: its "paradigm shift" in the early
1970s appears to have left no permanent scars.26 We could not have
asked for a more courageous or more enthusiastic guide to lead us to
ward new perspectives on what we do. Never sidestepping thorny is-
sues, McClary's work exhibits a daring spirit. We might have wished
that the author would have explored more fully how traditional analy
tical methodologies might interact with her untraditional premises.
Also, the analytical observations sometimes seem incomplete as with
for example, the treatment of third relationships in chapter three. Bu
on balance, these problems matter less than that McClary has opened
a way which is already bearing considerable fruit.


1. Said 1983, 3.
2. Gilbert 1980, 31.
3. Nochlin's ground breaking essay (1971) exposed the institutional pract
had discouraged women from pursuing careers as painters and sculpto
4. Charlotte Bunch 1987, 140.
5. Kolodny 1980, 149.
6. Nochlin 1988, xiii.
7. Pollock 1988, 1.


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8. Showalter 1979, 139.
9. Gilbert 1980, 36.
10. Showalter 1981, 249.
11. Pollock 1988, 16.
12. Pollock 1988, 10.
13. Pollock 1988, 14.
14. Pollock 1988, 1.
15. Harris 1990, 14.
16. Harris 1990, 14.
17. Connor 1989, 184.
18. Marcus 1989, 3.
19. Pollock 1988, 161.
20. Foucault (1980, 12) quoted by McClary (1991, 36.)
21. Connor 1989, 9.
22. Pollock 1988, 160.
23. Fuss 1991, 1.
24. Segal 1989, xiii.
25. Segal 1989, 2, xiv.
26. Thomas Kuhn (1962) coined the phrase "paradigm shift," which has been
adopted by social historians.


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