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Rosanne Cash on Creative Heritage, the Bravery of Befriending Our Roots, and What Her Father, Johnny Cash, Taught Her About Artistic Integrity

“Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid and sometimes more potent.”

Rosanne Cash on Creative Heritage, the Bravery of Befriending Our Roots, and What Her Father, Johnny Cash, Taught Her About Artistic Integrity

“When you come right down to it, how much of that was free will?” young Sylvia Plath pondered in her diary as she looked back on the turning points that had taken her to where she was in life and considered what makes us who we are. This puzzlement is far from uncommon — who hasn’t wondered on a sleepless night or mid-stride on a busy city sidewalk how much of our lives are self-chosen and how much determined by our culture, our circumstances, our conditioning, and even our biology?

This question, which most mercilessly bedevils those who walk the nonlinear path of the creative life, is what Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash tussles with throughout Composed: A Memoir (public library) — a beautiful chronicle of her life in music and her relationship with her legendary father, Johnny Cash, ripe with insight into the artistic process and the psychological thrills, terrors, and tumults of the creative life.

Rosanne Cash (Photograph:  Deborah Feingold
Rosanne Cash (Photograph: Deborah Feingold)

Cash writes:

My life has been circumscribed by music. I have learned more from songs than I ever did from any teacher in school. They are interwoven and have flowed through the most important relationships in my life — with my parents, my husband, and my children… Many of my own songs have taken the long way around, as I circled the edges of an experience … constantly roaming and constantly curious.

I dream of songs. I dream they fall down through the centuries, from my distant ancestors, and come to me.

Pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead drew a distinction between our biological ancestors and our “spiritual and mental ancestors” — the cultural, creative, and intellectual lineage from which we spring beyond our immediate genetic kin, those who seed our inspirations and beliefs and frames of reference. But for Cash, these two types of ancestry have always been deeply entwined. She reflects:

I belong to an extended family of musicians whose members sprawl across generations. Some occupy positions of great acclaim (my father and my stepmother’s family, the Carters), some have modest but respectable careers marked by persistence and hard work (my uncle Tommy Cash), while others never made it much further than anecdotal obscurity (my maternal uncle “Wildman” Ray Liberto, a onetime raucous honky-tonk piano player with a handlebar mustache), and some are just embarking (my daughter Chelsea). At sixteen I did not intend to take my place among them. Tradition was anathema to me; I understood that any real rebellion in which I could engage would involve taking a nondomestic, or artistic but nonmusical, path.

And yet she concedes:

Traditions can take root out of the dormant impulses of one’s own soul, if they are powerful enough, whether we acknowledge them or not.

This, indeed, was her own experience — something significant shifted for Cash in her late teens and soon the awareness of this dual heritage awakened in her the longing for a life of and in music. In the summer of 1973, just after she graduated from high school, her father handed her a list in the back of his tour bus. It contained one hundred songs he considered essential to the corpus of country music — knowledge he thought necessary for his daughter to have if she was serious about becoming a roots musician.

Many years later, when a brain surgery and the trauma of her parents’ deaths left Cash bereft of a solid center, she set out to reconnect with her roots by recording her own interpretations of twelve of the songs on her father’s list in what became her magnificent covers album, The List.

Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash (Photograph: Annie Liebovitz)
Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash (Photograph: Annie Liebovitz)

With an eye to the burdens and blessings of her father’s inescapable presence, Cash reflects on what it was like to spend her life locked in “an exhausting dance with his legacy” while trying to be, and very much succeeding in being, her own person and a thoroughly original musician. (In October of 2015, she was inducted into the iconic Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame — an honor equivalent to the Nobel of songwriting.) She writes:

He cast an obviously large shadow, and it was hard for me to find my own place outside of it, or to be comfortable when the shadow was the first thing people noticed about my life or my work.

[…]

In the fullness of that legacy, I am still first and foremost a songwriter. The curatorial work and the deliberate attention on my voice rather than my words, which happened with The List, has only added to my sense of honor as a songwriter and respect for the art and discipline.

Indeed, the idea of singing someone else’s songs might have been odd for Cash, who identifies first and foremost as a songwriter, had she not learned long ago from her father that there is always a deeper dialogue taking place within the music, beyond the singing itself. In a reflection with parallel resonance to almost every kind of creative work, she writes:

It’s not just the singing you bring home with you. It’s the constant measuring of ideas and words if you are a songwriter, and the daily handling of your instrument if you are a musician, and the humming and scratching and pushing and testing of the voice, the reveling in the melodies if you are a singer. More than that, it is the effort to straddle two worlds, and the struggle to make the transition from the creative realms to those of daily life and back with grace. My father did all of those, as a habit of being. He provided a template for me, of how to live with integrity as an artist day to day.

This devotion to artistic integrity stayed with Cash as her career took off and she felt herself pushed one way by the Rube Goldberg machine of achievement, pulled another by her creative integrity. She resisted the conformity steamroll of success and chose the internal and eternal rewards of the creative process instead — a commitment that coalesced into conscious awareness after one particularly prophetic anxiety dream Cash had just as she was setting out to record her sixth album, King’s Record Shop. She recounts the values to which the dream awakened her:

I resisted the push to conform, to buy into a certain narrow aesthetic, and to become part of the established hierarchy. I didn’t want a lofty perch; I wanted to be in the trenches, where the inspiration was.

[…]

I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. If I found myself drifting off into daydreams — an old, entrenched habit — I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. I opened my eyes and focused. Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I … went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship. I realized I had earlier been working only within my known range — never pushing far outside the comfort zone to take any real risks. I had written songs almost exclusively about romance and all the attending little dramas of loss and lust. It was legitimate, certainly, but only one small mode of transportation over a vast landscape of experience that might be fodder for whole new categories of songs. I started painting, so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them, and what I actually wanted to say with them.

[…]

Everything seemed new, frightening, and tremendously exciting. I had awakened from the morphine sleep of success into the life of an artist.

Four of the songs on King’s Record Shop became number-one singles. No woman in the industry had ever achieved this before, but the record’s ultimate reward for her was something far more significant. She recounts:

Although it was my sixth album, I felt like a beginner, and I was relieved and grateful for the chance to start over, to go deeper into sound and texture, language and poetry, and the direction of my own instincts.

But as rooted as she may remain in the past — in her personal and cultural heritage — Cash conceives of the creative process as largely a matter of writing oneself “postcards from the future.” She reflects on the nature of creative work and how her own orientation toward it changed as she grew older:

Creative work sometimes fosters a prescience — not a psychic premonition, but rather a release from linear time, a fluidity of movement on the continuum.

[…]

Sometimes songs are indeed postcards from the future, and are not written out of prescience as much as time travel. Thornton Wilder said, “It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.” In songwriting, I have found my attention to wander both forward and backward on that continuum. But with or without prescience, considering only the hard-earned craftsmanship of songwriting, as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration. This maturation in songwriting has proven surprisingly satisfying. Thirty years ago I would have said that the bursts of inspiration, and the ecstatic flood of feeling that came with them, were an emotionally superior experience, preferable to the watchmaker’s concentration required for the detail work of refining, editing, and polishing. But the reverse is proving to be true. Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid and sometimes more potent.

Complement Composed with Joni Mitchell on creativity and the dark side of success, Amanda Palmer on art and our lifelong quest to feel real, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and beloved writers on the singular power of music, then treat yourself to Cash’s elevating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

Creativity and spirituality [are] the same thing to me.

BP

Schopenhauer on the Essential Difference Between How Art and Science Reveal the World

“[Science] is like the innumerable showering drops of the waterfall, which, constantly changing, never rest for an instant; [art] is like the rainbow, quietly resting on this raging torrent.”

Schopenhauer on the Essential Difference Between How Art and Science Reveal the World

“We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell marveled in her diary. “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his exhilarating Nobel Prize acceptance speech, adding: “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Art and science furnish dramatically different yet complementary lenses on what we call reality and grant us different ways of inhabiting it, of making sense of it, of living with its perennial mystery.

In his beautiful meditation on the creative sympathies between art and science, physicist and novelist Alan Lightman pointed to “the infinite mystery of human nature” and “the infinite mystery of physical nature” as the respective domain of each. Nearly two centuries earlier, the influential German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) considered the relationship between art and science, and their abiding mutual sympathies, in The World as Will and Representation (public library) — the 1818 masterwork that also gave us Schopenhauer on the relationship between genius and madness and the crucial difference between genius and talent.

artscience

Schopenhauer uses mutability as the criterion of distinction — science, he argues, is concerned with change, whereas art contemplates the eternal. He writes:

At the lowest grades of its objectivity, where it still acts without knowledge, natural science, in the form of etiology, treats of the laws of the changes of its phenomena, and, in the form of morphology, of what is permanent in them. This almost endless task is lightened by the aid of concepts, which comprehend what is general in order that we may deduce what is particular from it. Lastly, mathematics treats of the mere forms, time and space, in which the Ideas, broken up into multiplicity, appear for the knowledge of the subject as individual. All these, of which the common name is science, proceed according to the principle of sufficient reason in its different forms, and their theme is always the phenomenon, its laws, connections, and the relations which result from them.

But what kind of knowledge is concerned with that which is outside and independent of all relations, that which alone is really essential to the world, the true content of its phenomena, that which is subject to no change, and therefore is known with equal truth for all time, in a word, the Ideas, which are the direct and adequate objectivity of the thing in-itself, the will? We answer, Art, the work of genius. It repeats or reproduces the eternal Ideas grasped through pure contemplation, the essential and abiding in all the phenomena of the world; and according to what the material is in which it reproduces, it is sculpture or painting, poetry or music. Its one source is the knowledge of Ideas; its one aim the communication of this knowledge.

Because science is predicated on forever reaching into the unknown, Schopenhauer argues, it is therefore inherently forward-leaning and unfinishable, whereas art is about resting the attention on a particular object and beholding it with absolute presence. He writes:

While science, following the unresting and inconstant stream of the fourfold forms of reason and consequent, with each end attained sees further, and can never reach a final goal nor attain full satisfaction, any more than by running we can reach the place where the clouds touch the horizon; art, on the contrary, is everywhere at its goal. For it plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world’s course, and has it isolated before it. And this particular thing, which in that stream was a small perishing part, becomes to art the representative of the whole, an equivalent of the endless multitude in space and time. It therefore pauses at this particular thing; the course of time stops; the relations vanish for it; only the essential, the Idea, is its object. We may, therefore, accurately define it as the way of viewing things independent of the principle of sufficient reason, in opposition to the way of viewing them which proceeds in accordance with that principle, and which is the method of experience and of science. This last method of considering things may be compared to a line infinitely extended in a horizontal direction, and the former to a vertical line which cuts it at any point.

The method of viewing things which proceeds in accordance with the principle of sufficient reason is the rational method, and it alone is valid and of use in practical life and in science. The method which looks away from the content of this principle is the method of genius, which is only valid and of use in art. The first is like the mighty storm, that rushes along without beginning and without aim, bending, agitating, and carrying away everything before it; the second is like the silent sunbeam, that pierces through the storm quite unaffected by it. The first is like the innumerable showering drops of the waterfall, which, constantly changing, never rest for an instant; the second is like the rainbow, quietly resting on this raging torrent.

The World as Will and Representation, it bears repeating, is an existentially necessary read. Complement it with Schopenhauer on the intellectual rewards of boredom, then revisit the story of how the cross-pollination of art and science in early twentieth-century Vienna shaped modern life.

BP

Diane Ackerman on the Evolutionary and Existential Purpose of Deep Play

“In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles.”

Diane Ackerman on the Evolutionary and Existential Purpose of Deep Play

One July morning during a research trip to the small New England island of Nantucket, home to pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, I had a most unusual experience. Midway through my daily swim in the ocean, my peripheral vision was drawn to what at first appeared to be a snorkel. But as I looked directly at the curious protrusion, I realized it was the long glistening neck of a stately bird, gliding over the nearly waveless surface a few away. By some irresistible instinct, I began swimming gently toward the bird, assuming it would fly away whenever my proximity became too uncomfortable.

But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed my approach — for it was deliberate permission that this majestic bird gave me, first assessing me with a calm but cautious eye, then choosing not to lift off or even change course as this large ungraceful mammal drew near. I came so close that I could see my own reflection in the bird’s eye, now regarding me with what I took to be — or, perhaps, projected to be — a silent benevolence.

bird_mariapopova

We began swimming side by side, no more than a wingspan away from one another, and I found myself awash in awe amid the gentle waves, entranced in what could best be described as a transcendent experience — the kind that calls to mind, and called to mind in that very moment in the water, Alan Lightman’s moving encounter with the ospreys. In this small act ablaze with absolute presence, I felt I had been granted access to something enormous and eternal.

The experience was so intensely invigorating in part because it was wholly new to me, but it is far from uncommon. It belongs to the spectrum of experience which Diane Ackerman, one of the greatest science storytellers of our time, describes in Deep Play (public library) — a bewitchingly inquiry into those moods colored by “a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder,” which render us in a state of “waking trance.”

Ackerman — who has previously written beautifully about the secret life of the senses, our poetic communion with the cosmos, and the darkest depths of the human experience — reclaims and subverts the phrase “deep play” from Jeremy Bentham, founding father of utilitarianism, who used it pejoratively in the 18th century to connote any high-stakes activity engaging in which he deemed irrational because “the marginal utility of what you stand to win is grossly outweighed by the disutility of what you stand to lose.” But Ackerman argues that the risk involved in activities of that sort only amplifies their romance.

She considers what deep play is and why it appeals to us so profoundly:

We long for its heights, which some people often visit and others must learn to find, but everyone experiences as replenishing. Opportunities for deep play abound. In its thrall we become ideal versions of ourselves… [Its] many moods and varieties help to define who we are and all we wish to be.

Art by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk, a 9th-century ode to the diversity of transcendent experiences

Before diving into the psychological and spiritual dimensions of deep play, Ackerman examines play itself and its evolutionary function as an indelible part of sentience and a measure of the evolution of consciousness perhaps more accurate than what we refer to as intelligence. She writes:

Why play at all? Every element of the human saga requires play. We evolved through play. Our culture thrives on play. Courtship includes high theater, rituals, and ceremonies of play. Ideas are playful reverberations of the mind. Language is a playing with words until they can impersonate physical objects and abstract ideas.

[…]

It’s so familiar to us, so deeply ingrained in the matrix of our childhood, that we take it for granted. But consider this: ants don’t play. They don’t need to. Programmed for certain behaviors, they automatically perform them from birth. Learning through repetition, honed skills, and ingenuity isn’t required in their heritage. The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play… What we call intelligence … may not be life’s pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish.

Art by Christian Robinson from Leo: A Ghost Story

It is hardly happenstance that the word “play” was central to how Einstein thought of the secret to his genius — he used the term “combinatory play” to describe how his mind works. Ackerman considers what it is that makes play so psychologically fruitful and alluring to us, plunging into its ancient cultural history:

The world of play favors exuberance, license, abandon. [In it,] selves can be revised.

[…]

Above all, play requires freedom. One chooses to play. Play’s rules may be enforced, but play is not like life’s other dramas. It happens outside ordinary life, and it requires freedom.

Art by Katrin Stangl from Strong as a Bear

Ackerman maps the etymological ecosystem of play:

Most forms of play involve competition, against oneself or others, and test one’s skills, cunning, or courage. One might even argue that all play is a contest of one sort or another. The adversary may be a mountain, a chess-playing computer, or an incarnation of evil. To play is to risk: to risk is to play. The word fight derives from the word play. Medieval tournaments were ritualized battles that followed strict rules. So are wrestling, boxing, and fencing matches. Ceremonial violence — at a sacred place, in which special clothes are worn, time limits must be obeyed, rules are followed, rituals are performed, the action is alarmingly tense, and the outcome is unknown — is elemental to play. Festive dancing may seem peaceful by comparison, and indeed in Anglo-Saxon, play was plega, which meant singing or dancing gestures, clapping, quick movements.

But when we peer even farther back into its origins, we discover that play’s original meaning was quite different, something altogether more urgent and abstract. In Indo-European, plegan meant to risk, chance, expose oneself to hazard. A pledge was integral to the act of play, as was danger (cognate words are peril and plight). Play’s original purpose was to make a pledge to someone or something by risking one’s life. Who or what might that someone or something be? Possibilities abound, including a relative, a tribal leader, a god, or a moral trait such as honor or courage. At its heart, plegan reverberated with ethical or religious values. It also contained the idea of being tightly fastened or engaged. Soon plegan became associated with performing a sacred act or administering justice, and it often appeared in ceremonies.

But while simple play may have its timeless appeal, Ackerman focuses on a deeper and more transcendent kind of play — something more rapturous and closer to ecstasy, something that helps us contact our hidden wholeness and is perhaps even required for us to feel whole. She explores the essential point of difference:

Deep play is the ecstatic form of play. In its thrall, all the play elements are visible, but they’re taken to intense and transcendent heights. Thus, deep play should really be classified by mood, not activity. It testifies to how something happens, not what happens. Games don’t guarantee deep play, but some activities are prone to it: art, religion, risk-taking, and some sports — especially those that take place in relatively remote, silent, and floaty environments, such as scuba diving, parachuting, hang gliding, mountain climbing.

Deep play always involves the sacred and holy, sometimes hidden in the most unlikely or humble places — amid towering shelves of rock in Nepal; crouched over print in a dimly lit room; slipping on AstroTurf; wearing a coconut-shell mask. We spend our lives in pursuit of moments that will allow these altered states to happen.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window, his forgotten, philosophical first children’s book

Ackerman narrows in on the seemingly subtle yet monumental difference between the two states most closely associated with deep play, rapture and ecstasy:

Rapture and ecstasy are not themselves deep play, but they’re central components of it.

Rapture means, literally, being “seized by force,” as if one were a prey animal who is carried away. Caught in the talons of a transcendent rapture, one is gripped, elevated, and trapped at a fearsome height. To the ancient Greeks, this feeling often foretold malevolence and danger — other words that drink from the same rapturous source are rapacious, rabid, ravenous, ravage, rape, usurp, surreptitious. Birds of prey that plunge from the skies to gore their victims are known as raptors. Seized by a jagged and violent force, the enraptured are carried aloft to their ultimate doom.

Ecstasy also means to be gripped by passion, but from a slightly different perspective: rapture is vertical, ecstasy horizontal. Rapture is high-flying, ecstasy occurs on the ground. For some reason, the ancient Greeks were obsessed with the symbol of standing, and relied on that one image for countless ideas, feelings, and objects. As a result, a great many of our words today simply reflect where or how things stand: stanchion, status, stare, staunch, steadfast, statute, and constant. But there are also hundreds of unexpected ones, such as stank (standing water), stallion (standing in a stall), star (standing in the sky), restaurant (standing place for the wanderer), prostate (standing in front of the bladder), and so on. To the Greeks, ecstasy meant to stand outside oneself. How is that possible? Through existential engineering. “Give me a place to stand,” Archimedes proclaimed in the third century B.C., “and I will move the earth.” Levered by ecstasy, one springs out of one’s mind. Thrown free of one’s normal self, a person stands in another place, on the limits of body, society, and reason, watching the known world dwindle in the distance (a spot standing far away). The euphoria of flying in dreams, or the longing to fly through the ocean with dolphins, fills us with rapture.

It is hardly any surprise that elements of deep play can be found in most of our major efforts to make sense of the human experience, from Ancient Greek philosophy to Freud’s notion of “oceanic feeling” to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.” Turning once again to the lens of language — for, lest we forget, language is our mightiest vehicle for the self — Ackerman contemplates deep play’s singular quality of being:

Deep play is a fascinating hallmark of being human; it reveals our need to seek a special brand of transcendence, with a passion that makes thrill-seeking explicable, creativity possible, and religion inevitable. Perhaps religion seems an unlikely example of playing, but if you look at religious rites and festivals, you’ll see all the play elements, and also how deep that play can become. Religious rituals usually include dance, worship, music, and decoration. They swallow time. They are ecstatic, absorbing, rejuvenating. The word “prayer” derives from the Latin precarius, and contains the idea of uncertainty and risk. Will the entreaty be answered? Life or death may depend on the outcome.

Reading over a journal entry from her own youth, in which her long-ago self describes the transcendence of travel in a way that calls to mind Albert Camus’s longer-ago meditation on why we voyage, Ackerman extrapolates a common root of deep play across its many guises:

One enters into an alternate reality with its own rules, values, and expectations. One sheds much of one’s culture, with its countless technical and moral demands, as one draws on a wholly new and sense-ravishing way of life… One chooses to divest oneself of preconceptions, hand-me-down ideas, and shopworn opinions, chooses to wipe the mental slate clean, chooses to be naive and wholly open to the world, as one once was as a child. If cynicism is inevitable as one ages, so is the yearning for innocence. To children heaven is being an adult, and to adults heaven is being children again.

[…]

As the world reduces to a small brilliant space, where every thought and move is vital to one’s salvation, one’s scattered energy suddenly has a center. Only then do all of our senses spring alert, and every sensation matters. At the same time, the rest of the world recedes. One is temporarily unshackled from life’s chains — the family ones, the work ones, the ones we wear as self-imposed weights.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

But perhaps the single most perceptible characteristic of deep play is the way in which it alters our already warped experience of time by summoning us to that place where impulsivity and control intersect to grant us absolute access to presence. In a passage that calls to mind Kafka’s assertion that “reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life,” Ackerman considers the reality-concentrating power of deep play through the prism of time:

In deep play, one’s sense of time no longer originates within oneself.

[…]

We want to muscle into life and feel its real power and sweep. We want to drink from the source. In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles… When it happens we experience a sense of revelation and gratitude. Nothing need be thought or said. There is a way of beholding that is a form of prayer.

[…]

When one enters the realm of deep play, the sacred playground where only the present moment matters, one’s history and future vanish. One doesn’t remember one’s past, needs, expectations, worries, real or imaginary sins. The deep-play world is fresh, wholly absorbing, and full of its own unique wisdom and demands. Being able to temporarily step outside of normal life—while keeping one’s senses alert — is indeed like being reborn. To erase all memories and yearnings — to be vigorously alive without self-awareness — can provide a brief return to innocence.

In the remainder of the wholly enchanting Deep Play, Ackerman goes on to explore the types of experiences that grant us entry into this sacred world and the moods, mental states, and orientations of spirit that make us better able to conjure up the temperament of receptivity needed to experience deep play. Complement with Ackerman on the science of smell, what Earth’s nocturnal portrait from space reveals about who we are, and her beautiful poems for the planets.

BP

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