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It was a composer’s Cinderella story:  a CD/DVD project with symphony orchestra and all my original music.  7 cameras, a director, designers, producer, Union negotiations, makeup artists … and did I mention the full symphony orchestra?

The video would go beyond simple documentation to truly bringing an audience into my world, my experience as an orchestra composer and soloist. I didn’t know at the time, but it would eventually be shown on PBS stations all over the US, and the CD would get a GRAMMY® Nomination.  I’d sit in the dark, waiting to see if my name was called, terrified about tripping on my way to the podium.  Then keenly disappointed that I didn’t have that chance.  A huge, rich, vibrant slice of life most composers only dream of.

And all of it was made possible by one man, a philanthropist – and now my friend — Peter Wege.  He’d walked up to me after my first concert with his regional orchestra, the Grand Rapids Symphony, and he said, “What I saw out there on stage, I want the whole world to see.”

Peter Wege and Deborah Henson-Conant

Peter and me

And he meant it.

When he invited me to submit a proposal for a project, I knew this was the chance of a lifetime.  My husband, producer Jonathan Wyner, encouraged me to propose a project that was not just about my music, but about me as a performer, something that could bring the audience into the very middle of my work for electric harp and symphony orchestra.  That meant making a DVD as well as a CD.

Once the project was approved, I spent over a year simply preparing the music, rehearsing and practicing.  And this was after 10 years I’d spent writing, performing and editing the pieces.  Meanwhile, Jonathan, as the producer, was spending all his time putting together the greatest team he could find, watching video after video to find the best lighting designer, the best director, editor, production company and graphic designer he could.  We’d never done a project like this, so were assembling a team from scratch, but he already had ideas of some of the ‘dream people’ he wanted to work with, like multi-Grammy winning audio engineer Tom Bates.

So while Jonathan’s challenge was to assemble the team, my biggest artistic challenge was that I was the composer, the orchestrator and the soloist.  I had a year of work to do as composer and orchestrator – but my performance was what the audience would actually see.  The 3 days of taping (one of which was my birthday) were high stakes: each minute on stage cost over $1000. The key to my being free and focused as a performer in those high-pressure moments —  as well as the key to the crew’s being able to capture it — was to be completely prepared, and for everyone on the team to know the material.

I knew that the best way to do that was to practice the project in miniature as much as we could before the official shooting.  We needed to make what my architect friend Fred calls a “Maquette” – a mockup .

So Jonathan and I created two musical “Maquettes,”  Instead of a 70-piece orchestra, we used a 9-piece ensemble that represented the orchestra.  Instead of a 2,000 seat hall, we used two small local theaters  Instead of a ballet company, my dancer-friend Karen Montanaro created on-the-spot choreography and two volunteers held silk streamers; instead of 7 cameras and a huge editing truck, filmmaker Ian Brownell taped with 3 cameras and edited it himself … and so on.

It meant I had to write the music twice in many cases: once for chamber ensemble, and then for full symphony.  But that was the only way we could test the whole project and see how it would work on stage. It would also create the foundation for chamber music repertoire with harp – another dream of mine – but that’s another story.  We scheduled 2 Maquette performances, with a few months between them, for me to edit or create new material.

So these two Maquettes became part of the scaffolding of the final orchestral project. They allowed us to practice the music and the moves, and the edited videos became reference clips to help the director and lighting designer to envision the final project, since they came in fairly late in the game.

But the Maquettes themselves were real performances, and these ‘miniature’ chamber music versions were as fun and challenging to play as the full-orchestra versions.   And since we had a limit on how much orchestral music we could include in the final release, they also include some music that never made it into the final project.

Now that the final project has been out for a few years, I lan to release the Maquette versions on YouTube as part of my 2011-2011 “Re-DHC” project. In part I want to release them because I love them for what they are – and in part I want people to have the opportunity to compare the two versions, so that students of orchestration can see examples of the same piece in ensemble form and full symphonic form, and so that other performers interesting in learning and programming these pieces, can see how they work in the more economical chamber music versions.

These releases are part of my “Re-DHC” blog project, a year of weekly releases of projects that are sitting on my shelves … some that are “done” and were simply never released, and some that will never be ‘done’ and that I want to share in their ‘final’ sketch-form.

(As soon as I get the first ones up I’ll link them to this blog)


ON SEPT. 30, 2011 – Denver, CO:  I’m presenting a hands-on workshop for harpists on “Baroque Flamenco” on Friday, Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, CO.

Baroque Flamenco is one of my most famous and fiery pieces. But it wasn’t always.

The first time I heard the melody, it was in a  Minuet by Jean-Jacques Rousseau  (pictured below – quite fetchingly, I think).

I found it in one of my first harp books (“Medieval to Modern, Vol. 1″ by Samuel Milligan) under the title “Minuet in A Minor.”

I fell in love with the melody and started improvising on it, first in a Baroque style, and then over time, I started adding rhythm to the variations.

Little by little the piece became a conversation of styles: the melody was Baroque, but the variations took on a Latin rhythmic character (a lot like the rhythm of Bernstein’s “America.”)

Then, one day, packing up my gear in a rock club in Berlin, and hearing Ottmar Liebert’s “Nuevo Flamenco” on the house sound system, I had a revelation: “Wait a minute!” I yelled at myself over the music, “The harp … the HARP … is just a big GUITAR!”

By which I meant: there’s a whole other instrument here, not just the strings, but the sound box as well.

I started experimenting, and created a cadenza for the piece that included my best imitation of a flamenco troupe, from strums and slaps to foot stomps – all created on the strings and soundboard of the harp.

DHC Playing Baroque Flamenco with the Grand Rapids Symphony

Me playing "Baroque Flamenco" with the Grand Rapids Symphony

Thus was born, “Baroque Flamenco,” which morphed from a sweet, haunting minuet into a fiery tour-de-force that was the dramatic finale of my PBS music special “Invention and Alchemy”, and later became the 3rd movement of my  concerto “Soñando en Español.”  You can see a video of the performance of “Baroque Flamenco” from the DVD (and GRAMMY-Nominated CD) “Invention & Alchemy” here:

SEPT. 30, 2011: I’m presenting a hands-on workshop for harpists on “Baroque Flamenco” on Friday, Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, Colorado – for all levels of harpists.

NEXT: Hand to Hand: Passing on Baroque Flamenco…

Using the clock to force ideas out of hiding

A blog about artistic process – creating “Electra’s Lyre” for May 7 Mother’s Day Eve performance at Regent Theatre (Boston-Area).

Earlier this week at the “Rethink Music” conference in Boston, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and friends created a 6-song album from start to finish – including writing the songs – in 12 hours.  The project was called 8in8 since the original plan was to create 8 songs in 8 hours.

The result was an album of roughly mixed songs which were inspired by sometimes haiku-like Twitter responses to tweeted questions by Neil Gaiman. It was rough, but it was a “thing” – meaning, by the end of the project something existed that hadn’t existed before, and it’s likely that at least one of the songs invented during the night will go on to have a longer life in another album or project.

"Honey, I Shrunk the Harp" - quickly created in November 2010

This is a form of creativity I call “CAPTURE” — versus “CRAFTING.”  It uses time constraints to flush the muse out of hiding instead of painstakingly courting her. I think of it as the difference between a hunter-type artistic model and a builder-type model.  Ultimately I think the two can work together, but that means accepting the rough gem for awhile.

This idea of forcing oneself into an artistic corner in order to capture art is something I’ve always been interested in, and experiment with a lot, especially in my last two mini-one-woman-show projects.  My own process is to start with a title, publicize the show and then write and rehearse the piece in about 3 weeks.  The first was called “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” which I performed in November, and the 2nd is called “Electra’s Lyre” which I’ll perform this Saturday at the Regent Theater in Arlington.

This way of working creates a special relationship with the audience, since they become part of the birthing of a piece. When I present a new work like this, I like to keep it to about 15 or 20 minutes, and present it in the context of a full show, so that the audience gets to really see the difference between new, rough, works — and polished pieces I’ve been performing for years.  That experience is important – it’s part of the value of live performance – that rawness and insight into the process.

For me, the artist, there are other advantages.  The format forces me to go with my first impulse, which is often the strongest. It forces me to stretch out of my comfort zone as a performer — and maybe most importantly for me personally – it forces me to reach out to other artists for coaching and collaboration.   In “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” in which I literally shrunk the harp on stage during the show, I got huge help from mime-dancer Karen Montanaro,  physical comedian Alex Feldman and composer-colleague Steve Murray.  For “Electra’s Lyre” I’ve been working with Alex Feldman again, and with dramaturg Mary-Ann Greanier.  And I meet monthly for critique sessions with the ‘Advanced Writer’s Lab” of the “New Opera and Musical Theater Initiative” (NOMTI).

My general process is this:

•    Title: I come up with a title that I think is funny or intriguing
•    Research: I start working that title – either researching it on the web or just playing with the ideas
•    Costume: I go to my local costume shop and get something, anything, to help me create the character
•    Script format: I FORCE myself to make my amorphous idea into a document that looks like a script – meaning it’s in script format, so even if you didn’t read the content, it would appear to be a script, with dialog, stage directions, songs – all in standard formats.  This idea of making it ‘look’ like a script I learned from the book “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days.”
•    Get help: I FORCE myself to give that script to someone who will be coaching me and let them read it, even though I’m cringing the whole time.
•    Get more help: I take the script to the Advanced Writer’s Lab at NOMTI, and, as embarrassed as I am, I read it and/or act it out for them.  They follow with a critique session which is always illuminating and often leads to big changes in the script or the idea as a whole
•    Get even more help: This time I’m even in a more serious collaborative relationship, since I’m working on the show with dramaturg Mary-Ann Greanier, so we’re in contact daily, as she reads each draft, comments, questions and suggests ideas.
•    Write blurbs & publicize: Meanwhile, I publicize the show, write press releases, create posters and postings about the show — and creating those “blurbs” often helps me focus what the show is truly about
•    Make sets: I FORCE myself into my studio to build some kind of set that will bring the show alive for me
•    Get Direction: I beg my director-friends to spend time with me working through the show – even if it’s just a half-hour –  either in person or on the phone
•    Rehearse: I rehearse it in the theater (and videotape it), thanks to the kindness of the Regent Theatre in letting me rehearse the week before the show
•    Chronicle: I videotape and review as much of my work as possible, from the first ideas to the show itself
•    Ask people I love and trust to run tech: Both in “Honey I Shrunk the Harp” and “Electra’s Lyre” my step-son and husband are involved in running tech.  Having them involved, knowing they’re ‘watching my back’ lets me relax that part of my brain on stage.
•    Kick myself:  There’s always a point where I think, “What was I THINKING???  How did I get myself into this??? I’m going to TOTALLY HUMILIATE myself this time for sure.”
•    Walk onto stage: I take a deep breath, go on stage and perform it

In the end, I have a mini-one-woman-musical.  It’s a new piece of work, which I’ve performed and videotaped and will then take to a director.  Rough? Yes.  A real, new, never-before-existed thing?  Yes.

And what amazes me most about the process is that in each case I started with a fairly arbitrary title – yet as I research and develop the piece over this short period of time, there comes a moment when I realize the subject has a profound meaning for me. I’ve built a trap to capture the art – but the art captures and releases something in me.  

Electra’s Lyre will be featured on my Mother’s Day Eve show at the Regent Theatre in Arlington.  More information & tickets here.

The harp, the artist & the company that made it happen.

PARIS, FRANCE – Nov. 4, 2010 – From CAMAC Harp’s harp log:

The “DHC Blue Light” is Camac Harp’s  latest collaboration with strap-on-harp-legend Deborah Henson-Conant. Made of super-light, mega-strong carbon fibre, it weighs just 11lbs, boasts a new lever design, and comes in 34- or 36-string models. Even Deborah herself can’t get a back-up model right now because of the length of the waiting list.

Ingeniously, Camac collaborated with bicycle manufacturers to make it happen,

Deborah began working with Joel Garnier in the early 1990’s , while she was on the hunt for a lever harp she could harness to her body and move about on stage with.


“I had wanted a harness harp for years. Some harp makers built quick prototypes (such as John Hoare of Pilgrim), but finally, I got a small Rubarth lap harp, covered it with red-and-silver contact paper, put a pickup in it, made a rudimentary harness for it, took it on tour and played it for Joel.  He said, “Ah, Deborah, now I see what you mean,” and the next time I saw him (it seemed like 4-6 months later, but was maybe more), he handed me the prototype of the Baby Blue. I still have that very first prototype!

I built a new harness (the prototype for what we’re all using now), a friend modified the harp (which was wood, so fairly easy to modify) it so it could attach to a bogen camera-tripod as a stand, and I started touring with it, wrote orchestral pieces for it, and learned about amplification.   For awhile I always shipped the harp in a bicycle box, as It fit perfectly and I could often get it on a plane free that way.

The culmination of the Baby Blue was “Invention & Alchemy,” when I got to really show what the instrument could do both as a solo instrument as a feature with orchestra.  The end of the era came soon after at the Arles harp festival about 3-4 years ago, when I came without my Baby Blue and played a modern model.

Technical improvements had made the model so heavy that it was too much to wear, even for me, someone pretty big and used to it. It was painfully (literally) clear that that model had no future commercially as a harness harp.  It was that ‘failure’ that forced Jakez and me to sit down and talk about the future of the instrument.  It seemed like the idea was either going to die and I’d be one of a few people left in the world playing the original model, or the next model needed to be revolutionarily different.

Jakez decided to go ahead with the expense and time investment of a completely new model, and asked me for input on what changes we needed.  That investment was huge on many levels:  there was no way to know that this investment would pay off financially; I don’t think there was a huge interest in harnessable harps at that point — something which seems to have changed — but he would know more about than I.  In retrospect, I’m awed at the leap he took, both financially and creatively.

Jakez tells me that I had been going on at him for so long to work with bicycle manufacturers to develop a harp with a truly light carbon-fibre frame, that finally he did. It wasn’t as simple as copying their manufacturing processes, however. The main problem in designing a lighter harness harp was the cost of producing a mould for the body of the harp. This was prohibitive, because it is a technology which is designed either for companies who don’t care about costs (competition bicycles), or who count on big quantities (mass production). As a harp maker, Camac was neither of these. Another technical problem we faced was that the harp needed wooden parts (for the tuning pins and levers, for example) inserted inside the carbon fibre skin of the body, which does not happen with bicycles because they only have foam.

In the end, the idea of a mold was dropped entirely, and Camac chose to produce the harps the same way cycle manufacturers produce their prototypes – by hand, one by one. The inside parts are produced in the Camac workshops, the foam parts and wooden inserts are cut out, the bodies are assembled and then the harps are sent to the bike company, who has the knowledge to cover them with the carbon fiber skin with a special “bag” and a vacuum system.

My First Concert wtih First Version "DHC Blue-Light"

The new carbon fibre harp was a huge success for me from the moment I put it on. I remember that moment – all of us:  Jakez, Jonathan (my husband/producer) and I – noticed that it was as if my body and my hands had just been waiting for this instrument.  The low C string (just 2 more strings than I’d had before) was revolutionary in terms of my playing — it suddenly gave me a range and heft I hadn’t realized was missing — suddenly this was a hugely viable solo instrument.

That was a magical moment. Not because something “unusual” happened, but because, after years of working with Joel and Jakez on the harp, and with Jonathan on how to project that sound best in both concert and recording situations — suddenly everything clicked into place.  We’d reached – not the end – but the true beginning of this instrument.

About a year after that, at Jonathan’s suggestion, I  started experimenting with a looper pedal — and with the convergence of those two technological changes: the expanded, improved instrument and the addition of the looper, suddenly my shows and my way of composing expanded.  I’m still right at the beginning of that development, so I feel like a hungry gourmand whose just sat down to a splendid table.

The DHC Blue-Light trumps the Baby Blue in pretty much every way. The sound is more even, it’s nearly half the weight, with more strings, better levers*, visually it seems to really capture the imagination of the harp-playing audience.  Everything just seems to have ‘clicked’ with this model, from what I can tell.  And now it’s a matter of improving little things (like an anchor pin for the harness; a better, lighter stand that allows for removing the harp more easily; a simple holding stand for touring, etc.), which are often the responsibility of the user to develop, but the fundamental instrument is IT — the instrument I dreamed of, what I see as the crossover instrument of the 21st century.”

Off to explore the world, harp on my back!

And Jakez Francois, CEO of CAMAC Harps adds: “I think there is an additional reason why more people want a DHC Blue-Light: it is more than 10 years that harpists see what Deborah does with that harp, most of the younger generation don’t even know that there was a time when portable harps did not exist, and they find just normal to have one if they want to play non conventional music. Step by step, the harp made a big step.”

Wired for Love

This is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about love & romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

(Please join my mailing list for monthly updates & live show info)

NOTE: This blog includes an audio file related to the story – if you want to listen while you’re reading, you can find the file at the end of the post.

When I was 13, my friend Melinda Johnson in Pfafftown, NC would save a seat for me on the bus.  She was the shortest kid in the class.  Smart like crazy.  She taught me to hunt crawdads.  Her family had an entire pipe organ dismantled in their basement. And she would tell me stories about boys.  Long drawn out stories about closets and shadows and whispering hands and eyes, and every story would end with  “And then …” followed by a long pause, “and then … he kissed me.”

It was the same punchline every time and it surprised and scandalized me every time she said it.

When I was in my 30’s I signed with the GRP jazz label, and recorded three albums with some of the greatest contemporary jazz players of the time.  I always felt awkward and out of place, because that group of players was like a boy’s club of amazing musicians – and here I was, the girl with the harp.So even though I was the ‘artist’ and they were theoretically supporting my album, I always felt like I was the kid sister trying to hang around with the big guys.

Sometimes I never even got to meet the incredible players who ‘backed me up’ on my own albums, but by the third album, I was allowed into the clubhouse a little more.  And on that album, was a great percussionist, among others,  whose name I think was “Cafe” – and forgive me if I have the wrong guy, but I was like a deer in the headlights during these recording sessions – it’s amazing I remember anything.

So, we were recording a kind of Bluesy tune of mine called “And then he kissed me…” in memory of Melinda Johnson, and while we were listening back to the take, this percussionist and I started joking around in the sound booth, talking as if we’d just been on a date, only he was speaking French, which I didn’t understand – and I was responding in English and clearly misunderstanding everything he said.  And he had the most gorgeous voice and the most beautiful …

But now … here, you have to understand that I’m a huge – I mean HUGE – fan of Ken Nordine, who is the original “Word Jazz” creator, mixing jazz and spoken word.  So I’m listening to this French-English thing mixing with this Bluesy music and I suddenly think, “This is GREAT!!! This is so… so Nordine! We have to record this!” And in my one moment of courage I said, “Please can we get this on tape?  We can always erase it later if the company doesn’t like it.”

So we did.  He and I walked into the studio and got onto two mics – which was when I noticed how absolutely gorgeous he was — and as I realized we were really going to do what I wanted … I froze. I couldn’t think of a thing to say, even though I’d been being so brilliant in the sound booth.   I was so dazzled by this guy that after awhile I just sort of sighed and giggled.  Forgive me, oh strong in-control woman I wish I were…

And the upshot is that the company agreed to release the album with this wacked-out conversation on it.

And that was great.  It was fun.  And the tune had a little notariety, which was cool.

So fast forward 5 or 10 years and I’m in France. I’m in an interview with a French journalist, and he starts rattling off the speech from this cut and nearly falling on the floor laughing.  And I look at him, and I realize that it had never occurred to me that people in France would be listening to this cut and how funny people who actually understood what the guy was saying might think it was.

And the moral of the story is … well … there is no moral.  It’s just a story.  So here’s to Melinda Johnson and the romance of the French language … which is just as beautiful whether you understand it or not.

Flute & Harp for Christmas

Flute & Harp for Christmas

In the mid-’80’s, when I still played a big acoustic concert harp, a quiet-spoken flutist called one day and asked me to improvise a meditation recording with him.

He said his name was Schawkie Roth. (“Give me a break,” I thought. “‘Schawkie Roth??? What? Some Jewish kid makes up a wacky first name to sound mystical?”) I was a musical snob so I told him to go work with someone else.

But he came back — again and again. And finally he wore me down. So I agreed to one recording.

For payment, he offered me either a modest fee or an honorarium plus royalty on each album. He tried to convince me the smaller fee and royalty was a better deal, but I scoffed and went for the sure money.

The cuts were all improvised, either on themes or on ideas, and he wanted me to play in what I considered a very ‘harpistic’ style — exactly the style I was trying to move away from. I made sure he knew I wasn’t really that  kind of harpist — but the truth was that, when I let down my facade, I really enjoyed the relaxed playfulness and collaboration of working with Schawkie.

Schawkie was one of the first new age instrumentalists on the scene (I don’t even think the term “New Age” existed then), and the first independent musician/entreprenuer I ever met. As a business-person, Schawkie’s unique – for example, he’s always insisted that any contract fit on a single page and be written in plain English.

Schawkie Roth on "Flute & Harp for Christmas"

Schawkie Roth on "Flute & Harp for Christmas"

He’s is exactly the person his music paints him to be: deeply spiritual, impeccably honest, and very straightforward. 

As it turns out, “You Are the Ocean” became something of an early New Age hit and if I’d gone for the modest fee and percentage I would have seen more money than I ever had to that point in my life as a musician. The price of hipper-than-thou.

On the next album Schawkie let me change my deal, with only the tiniest “I told you so” giggle.  We made three more recordings, culminating in a beautiful album of flute/harp improvisations on Christmas Carols called, “Flute & Harp for Christmas.”

So, fast forward a couple of decades — last year when I joined “Topspin Media,” giving me the ability to sell digital download collections Direct-to-Fans, I knew I wanted to offer “Flute and Harp for Christmas.” And finally just about a week ago — we got it to happen.

So for the first time in my catalog, I’m proud to offer the digital download collection of “Flute & Harp for Christmas” — separately or bundled together with my own solo holiday album “The Gift.”

It’s great to know this album can have a new, digital life. And it’s really fun to hear the cuts again – and especially fun to compare the same tunes from one album to the other (check out the difference between each album’s version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – and you’ll hear a slice of my metamorphosis as a player within a few seconds).

And by the way — I was wrong on all counts. The name Schawkie –well, I recently asked him to remind me how that came about.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Yes,  my father named me Schawkie which is a Swiss nickname, but it roots back to the French name, Jacque, which means “handyman around the farm”  which I changed to mean “handyman around the farm of consciousness” hence my company name, Heavenly Music, and the publishing name Heavenly Musicians Music.

“We recorded this album at the same time we did HYMNS FOR ALL SEASONS (all hymns), and you suggested that we make an album of just Christmas traditional hymns, so I said, show me what you do and how you improvise on traditional Christmas music, and you did, and it just blew my mind how loose and free you got on arranging and improvising on these tunes, so you just wrote out a few intros, we rehearsed some sections for improvisation and some of the tunes, and BOOM in two days the album was recorded and shortly afterwards mixed and mastered along with HYMNS FOR ALL SEASONS. 

You joked it should be titled “HERS FOR ALL SEASONS”

“…Anyway, this was around 1986-1987, and it was around the time of I saw harp players like you and Joel Andrews as “ANGELS”  YEA!  ANGELS!!!! So we played these hymns like we were channeling the angels in heaven–oh it’s so corny– but it was fun and EFFORTLESS…

Deborah Henson-Conant on "Flute & Harp for Christmas"

Deborah Henson-Conant on "Flute & Harp for Christmas"

“And together with YOU ARE THE OCEAN I and II I was able to save up enough money while raising Maelani (born in 1983) to buy my home in Woodacre, which was the best investment of my life, other than creating music recordings.

“Furthermore, sweet Deborah, all three recordings should eventually be made available to your fans, because there are no others like them and you shine equally in all three albums.  So, think about that.

“Since I’m not so much into technology as a marketing passion, these great albums could sink into the closet of, if someone out there actually HEARS a piece of music with total focused absorption, and is TRANSPORTED, then the music lives, and , if not, back to the closet, baby, for another hundred years…


One other thing Schawkie taught me:  don’t be a musical snob.  These albums I made with him are beautiful, totally different from anything else I’ve ever done, and it’s wonderful to know I’ll be able to offer them all from my website soon — starting with this Christmas present, “Flute & Harp for Christmas.”

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