Search Results for: The Classical

Monsters, Mothers, Mulieres: A Reading List on The Women of Classical Antiquity

Images of four classical women with a gold background.
Illustration by Carolyn Wells

By Rachel Ashcroft

History is supposedly written by the victors. It is certainly written by the people who were taught basic literacy skills. In Ancient Greek and Roman society, this means men recorded almost everything we know about classical antiquity. Men like Herodotus and Livy wrote the history books, while men such as Julius Caesar recorded their military campaigns. Men also wrote the law, literature, letters, speeches, and often the tombstones of the time. 

Greek and Roman women were considered to be inferior. They were barred from voting and public office, while most women (Sparta being a notable exception) did not receive an education. Their activities were largely confined to the domestic sphere. These barriers prevented many women from writing down their thoughts and observations. 

This poses a problem when we want to study the lives of ancient women. As historian Bonnie MacLachlan wrote in Women in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook, we face numerous challenges when we “seek to listen for the female voice, to get access to what mattered for women and girls.” With a few exceptions (poets like Nossis and Sulpicia come to mind), ancient women’s voices are almost impossible to come by. 

Instead, we learn about women’s role in society from male sources. Sorting objective facts from biased reportage can be a frustrating task, especially given that such men grew up in cultures that constantly reinforced their superiority over women. Greek and Roman mythology was particularly effective in this respect. Female figures like Medusa acted as warnings to society about the monstrous nature of women. Myths about ill-fated women like Medea helped to reinforce real-life female subservience to the patriarchy by highlighting the disastrous consequences of female independence.

However, since the 1970s, historians have been unpacking evidence about the lives of real ancient women. After all, women living in patriarchal societies have always found ways to exercise power. Wealthy women spent money on the tools that outwardly reinforced their upper-class status: jewelry, makeup, and expensive clothing. Natural beauty transcended rank and could help women to attract rich suitors, buy gifts, or wield influence over male lovers. Furthermore, upper-class women often had powerful male relatives they could potentially manipulate to their advantage. 

In ancient societies, where men were frequently off fighting in foreign lands, the women left behind held some sway. Between 218 and 129 B.C.E., the Roman Empire was at war with an enemy every year in at least one theater of conflict. Widows and orphans became so numerous that they attracted special consideration from the censors. There are also rare cases of women exerting political influence in public life. The Oracle at Delphi was Greece’s most authoritative seer, while the Vestal Virgins of Ancient Rome held influence in the Senate. Such power came at a price, but it was power all the same.

Examining women’s history requires a great deal of sensitivity, as Jane F. Gardner writes in the book Women in Roman Law and Society, “what the law says people may do, as we must constantly remind ourselves, is not necessarily the same as what they actually do.”

*Related Read: Debra May Macleod discusses this issue in relation to the Vestal Virgins and the infamous “live burial” punishment some of them endured.

When we examine why inequality existed and how frequently it occurred, we must also explain it in relation to ancient historical and social contexts, rather than our own present-day assumptions.* That said, there is little doubt that Greek and Roman women were born into societies that heavily privileged males over females, and the resulting imbalance has led to a dearth of significant non-academic writing about the women of the time.

But there are exceptions. The pieces below describe ambitious empresses, fearsome gladiators, and ordinary working-class residents; all are glimmering snapshots of the female experience. While mythical monsters acted as warnings to women not to transgress society’s restrictive expectations of them as wives and mothers, some women still chose to bend the rules to their own advantage — or disregard them altogether.

Why So Many Mythological Monsters Are Female (Nora McGreevy, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2021)

Despite women’s inferior status in classical antiquity, female characters abound in mythology from this era. Helen of Troy is a well-known figure in Greek legend, as are powerful goddesses such as Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Furthermore, many of antiquity’s most intriguing monsters are female too.

Myths are not just nice stories we tell each other to pass the time. They often reflect cultural ideals or fears about the behavior of our citizens. As Nora McGreevy observes, ancient myths help to explain the real-life prejudice suffered by Greek and Roman women: “Ancient male authors inscribed their fear of — and desire for — women into tales about monstrous females.” Medusa, for example, is a snake-haired demon who tricks men with her lethal gaze — a deadly symbol of female cunning, during a time when such stories were considered to be a quasi-historical reality.

Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters: Building A New Mythology, which McGreevy reviews in this piece, provides a highly useful basis for this discussion. Zimmerman’s essay collection illuminates the precise ways in which ancient monsters reinforced assumptions about the true nature of women. The article does well at highlighting lesser-known instances of monstrous women, such as the female Sphinx in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Many of the monsters mentioned, such as Scylla and Charybdis, often thwart men like Odysseus who are trying to achieve greatness. 

Particularly illuminating is Lamia, a monster with the upper body of a woman but the lower half of a snake who regularly steals and eats children. She and other female child-killers of lore served as a warning to women: Subvert your role as a nurturing mother or wife, and pay the price. 

Women are expected to care for children, but society remains constantly worried [they] are going to fail in their obligation to be mothers and to be nurturers,” Zimmerman says. If a woman rejects motherhood, expresses ambivalence about motherhood, loves her child too much or loves them too little, all of these acts are perceived as violations, albeit to varying degrees.

To deviate in any way from the prescribed motherhood narrative is to be made a monster, a destroyer of children,” Zimmerman writes.

Gossip Was A Powerful Tool For The Powerless In Ancient Greece (Fiona McHardy, Aeon, February 2019)

Ancient Greece was divided into a vast number of kingdoms and city-states. With a few exceptions, most Greek women were second-class citizens who had to find subtle ways to wield what little power they could in society. 

This was easier for wealthy women, who possessed money and powerful male relatives. As Fiona McHardy points out, those with the least rights and resources were generally “low-status women without strong family connections.” However, McHardy argues that gossip was one tool such women could feasibly rely on when they wanted to exact revenge on someone. And revenge was a popular pursuit in Ancient Greek society. 

One example involves Zobia, a non-Greek resident who helps a man named Aristogeiton. He repays her kindness with physical abuse and threats to sell Zobia into slavery. Zobia embarks on a campaign of gossip which is so effective “that his reputation as untrustworthy and abusive spread through the city.” This gossip was then successfully used in court by a male litigant as proof of Aristogeiton’s poor character.

Despite being a woman, and a non-Greek one at that, Zobia’s example shows that justice was possible even for women who didn’t have straightforward resources at their disposal. McHardy’s essay is an excellent example of the type of academic work that women scholars have been carrying out for decades. Through careful analysis of the written evidence from this period, McHardy shows that it is perfectly possible to find instances of everyday female agency.

Athenians were well-aware of the calculated use of gossip to launch attacks on their enemies, and they made careful use of gossip in rhetoric to cast aspersions about their opponents in the law courts. The presence in legal cases of women’s gossip, including gossip spread by low-status members of society, demonstrates that the Athenians did not discriminate about the source, but took advantage of all kinds of gossip in their attempts to defeat their adversaries. Through calculated use of gossip, women, non-citizens or slaves with no access to official legal channels wielded a potent weapon in their attempts to attain revenge against those who wronged them.

Reading Between The Lines: Women On Roman Tomb Monuments (Francis Grew, Museum of London, June 2020)

Alongside written sources, archaeological evidence provides a fascinating window into the past. It allows us to reach out and touch the everyday objects that ancient people interacted with, even to walk the same streets as them.

Tombstones are a common archaeological find. In London, scholars have uncovered a surprising number of women’s graves from Roman Britain. It’s exciting, but also frustrating. Why? As Francis Grew demonstrates, trying to establish basic facts about these women from the commemorations written by male relatives is by no means simple. 

This is because men often used such tombstones to enhance their own reputation. A typical example involves Claudia Martina, a Roman citizen whose husband Anencletus was a former slave. It’s likely that he was partly motivated to celebrate his “most dutiful wife” in glowing terms due to the prominence her Roman citizenship conferred on him. 

It’s tempting to feel disappointment at the idea that even in death, women’s lives and experiences were being manipulated by men. But Grew’s research is exciting because it shows that occasionally, women could play the same games as men. The tomb of procurator Julius Classicianus features unusually large lettering reading U X O R, or “wife.” Julius’ wife was Julia Pacata, the daughter of a great French chieftain who aided the Romans in battle. It’s likely that she commissioned the tombstone in full awareness of how her family had contributed to her husband’s career. “In Julia,” Grew writes, “perhaps, we, at last, find a woman speaking in her own voice.”

There is often an uncomfortable ambiguity about funerals and funerary monuments. They can be more about the living than the dead, a chance to showcase a familys achievements to a captive audience. This could be the case with the dedications to women from Roman London. None of them came from an ordinaryfamily, each had something exceptional to celebrate.

Take Grata (the Latin equivalent of Graceor maybe Cheryl). Her fathers name – ‘Dagobitus’ – betrays the fact that she was of British heritage, almost certainly born here. To commission a gravestone in proper Roman style, with good syntax and phraseology, was proof that her family had made itin Londinium.

Roman Empress Agrippina Was A Master Strategist. She Paid The Price For It. (Isabel Barceló, National Geographic, March 2021)

What about the women of whom we know plenty? They were often the female relatives of emperors and generals. Women like Livia Drusilla, married to Augustus, or Valeria Messalina, Claudius’ third wife. Although these women were barred from holding public office, they exploited family connections to enhance their own position.  

Agrippina the Younger was sister to an emperor, wife of an emperor, and eventually the mother of an emperor as well: Nero was her son from her first marriage. Her main asset was her family heritage. She was highly aware of how advantageous her imperial ancestry was to male suitors. She used these attributes to secure a third marriage to her uncle Claudius. Once empress, she worked tirelessly to ensure her beloved Nero would inherit the imperial throne. 

Agrippina wasn’t shy about wielding her own power either. She established close links with the Senate and advised her husband on imperial matters. As Barceló writes, she took the title Augusta and would often appear standing next to the emperor in public — an unprecedented show of power. Indeed, we gain an excellent sense of Agrippina’s ambition throughout this piece. Barceló expertly narrates how Agrippina pushed the boundaries that her position as a woman entailed. It’s a fascinating portrait of Ancient Roman matriarchal power used to its full potential.

We know that Agrippina could write, but sadly her own diaries have been lost. Secondhand accounts of her life were shaped by male authors’ vested interests: Tacitus depicts Agrippina as a temptress tricking her uncle into marriage; others spread rumors about incest between Agrippina and Nero, or that she poisoned her second husband Crispus. The truth of these accounts is still unclear today. What we can’t deny is that Agrippina used all the resources her position afforded her to pursue an unbridled ambition. This wasn’t common for women in Ancient Rome, but it wasn’t impossible either.

Within a year of Nero becoming emperor, Agrippina was ordered to leave the imperial residence and relocated to an estate in Misenum. She had been cast out from the inner circle of power, but she was not safe from her son. Nero tried to drown her by sabotaging a boat, but she survived. Undeterred, Nero sent assassins to the villa where Agrippina had taken refuge and had her murdered there in A.D. 59. There were no funeral honours. To cover up the matricide, Nero and his advisers crafted a misogynistic cover story, attributing various crimes to her, according to Tacitus, that included, “[aiming] at a share of empire, and at inducing the praetorian cohorts to swear obedience to a woman, to the disgrace of the Senate and people.” Her reputation lay shattered, and her birthday would be classed as an inauspicious day.

Despite the innuendos and criticisms, begrudging respect for Agrippina was expressed by some Roman historians. Tacitus wrote: “This was the end which Agrippina had anticipated for years. The prospect had not daunted her. When she asked astrologers about Nero, they had answered that he would become emperor but kill his mother. Her reply was, ‘Let him kill me—provided he becomes emperor!’”

Female Gladiators In Ancient Rome (Joshua J. Mark, World History, April 2018)

Few people are aware that women fought in the arenas, so Joshua J. Mark’s article provides a thrilling insight into the real-life female gladiators of Ancient Rome. Women from all social classes participated: “Women who chose a life in the arena – and it does seem this was a choice – may have been motivated by a desire for independence, a chance at fame, and financial rewards including remission of debt.” Such a choice came at a price: the women’s loss of respectability in wider society. 

Women’s participation didn’t mean that women and men were allowed to fight together, or even against one another (evidence shows that they trained separately and were kept apart by their tutors). However, the arena presented women with some form of independence. They chose their own path and often ended up being celebrated in the same way as their male counterparts. In one example, Mark examines the remnants of an ornate relief found in Bodrum, Turkey, showing two women reenacting the story of Achilles and Penthesilea, the Amazon Queen: “The women in the relief must have been popular performers to have merited the expense of the work.”

What’s refreshing about this article is its refusal to paint women gladiators as being motivated by a desire to rebel against the patriarchy. Rather than feeling tempted to analyze these unusual female figures through a 21st-century lens, Mark uses archaeological and literary evidence to bring these women and their varied motivations to life firmly within an Ancient Roman context. 

Women may have been considered second-class citizens by the patriarchy but this does not mean every woman accepted that status. Many high-born women were able to exert considerable control over their husbands, homes, and even at court. Juvenal, in the same book of his Satires noted above, makes clear exactly how powerful women could be, in fact, in controlling men who still believed they were the masters. In the case of female gladiators, it seems some women were not content even with that level of autonomy, however, and sought to control their own fate in the arena.


Rachel is a freelance journalist who has written about arts and culture for The Economist, New Statesman, and more. She is currently based in Edinburgh. 

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy editors: Peter Rubin, Cheri Lucas Rowlands



The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

The Milky Way Galaxy in the night sky over the dormant San Pedro Volcano by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
The Milky Way Galaxy in the night sky over the dormant San Pedro Volcano by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is an ancient volcanic caldera or crater, filled with water thousands of years ago. (Photo by: Jon G. Fuller, Jr./VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Inside Kyiv on the Night of Ukraine’s Stunning World Cup Qualifier Victory

Wright Thompson | ESPN | June 2nd, 2022 | 4,282 words

“I came to Kyiv to watch a city watch a game,” writes Wright Thompson. And watch he does, while absorbing and documenting all he can as he wanders the capital and spends time with Ukrainians in this gem of a piece. Thompson captures the air in Kyiv on this first day of summer: the fear felt when air raid sirens go off, the tension that builds in the hour before the men’s national team plays Scotland in a must-win World Cup playoff semifinal, and the strangeness of life, of everything now. “But still there is an unspoken feeling hovering over everything, a mixture of worry that the success they’ve known so far could turn to defeat, that the destruction of war might return to Kyiv.” Everything in this piece feels raw and immediate: the scenes, the conversations, the moments. “History is being written in real time and nobody knows how things will end. These could be the last days of a regional war or the first days of a world war.” What a snapshot of this night, and a fleeting portrait of the city in a time of war. —CLR

2. Two Fathers

Mitch Moxley | Esquire | June 2nd, 2022 | 5,756 words

I remember the Humboldt tragedy vividly. When a semitruck plowed into the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, killing 16, it dominated the Canadian news — the country mourning alongside the small prairie town that lost so much. In this report for Esquire, Mitch Moxley takes us deeper, giving us a glimpse into the raw pain of those closest to the lost boys. I inhaled sharply at his account of the severity of the injuries incurred that day — so disfiguring that in one case, a family held vigil by the bed of a boy who was not their son, learning later that their boy was in the morgue. It’s a difficult read. From that excruciating time, Moxley examines the paths the families take as they follow the court case of the semitruck driver, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu. Distracted, Sidhu passed five warning signs before hitting the team bus at an intersection, and many families could not forgive him. Chris Joseph, who lost his son Jaxon, became a strong advocate for both prison and then deportation: “Joseph’s feelings about Sidhu weren’t motivated by malice or hatred, he says. They were motivated by a sense of justice and, more than that, by his unimaginable grief.” Scott Thomas’ son Evan was also killed, but Thomas found a different way, writing a forgiveness letter to Sidhu, passed on to him during the trial. Sidhu asked to see him: “Thomas turned around to see that Sidhu was already down on one knee, sobbing. He took Thomas’s hands, and Thomas lifted Sidhu. The two embraced and cried.” An emotional, searing account of a tragedy and how different families experience grief in the aftermath. It’s worth your time. —CW

3. The Surreal Case of a C.I.A. Hacker’s Revenge

Patrick Radden Keefe | The New Yorker | June 6th, 2022 | 11,064 words

A CIA hacker with a grudge, poor impulse control, and access to troves of extremely sensitive government data makes for a particularly dangerous combination. After an ongoing spat with a colleague escalated, former CIA hacker Josh Schulte believed that the organization had not treated him fairly. He is alleged to have used WikiLeaks to exact his revenge, not only exposing the CIA’s hacking methods and ongoing projects in a huge data dump, but also endangering the lives of assets embedded with foreign targets. While giving away government secrets is one thing, what investigators discovered about his activities outside of work revealed that Schulte had a dark secret of his own: a huge collection of child pornography. At The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe gives us a front-row seat to the “theatre of secrecy.” —KS

4. The Stargazers

Joshua Sokol | Science | June 2nd, 2022 | 4,000 words

“We found a large number of books. As they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all.” So wrote a Catholic priest in the Yucatán, describing the destruction of Mayan texts after the arrival of European colonizers in the 1500s. It will come as no surprise that the priest was dead wrong — about what the texts contained, and about their erasure. As this feature details, over many generations, descendants of the ancient Maya quietly preserved their forebears’ unparalleled astronomical knowledge. Today, Indigenous people are working with Western scholars to identify and again record this mastery of the cosmos. (For example: A graphic designer who is also a “daykeeper,” a person who tracks the 260-day calendar around which Mayan ritual is oriented, and travels to communities in Central American highlands to ask people what they know about the stars.) This story, full of astounding scientific tidbits, is also a moving reminder of the cultural and intellectual resilience of Indigenous communities. —SD

5. Just How Important Is Eye Contact Between Musicians? And What Does It Signal?

Ariane Todes | Classical Music | May 27th, 2022 | 2,015 words

I play bass in a band. When my lead guitarist and I lock eyes, it’s because a) we’re counting up to make sure we both hit the chorus of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” correctly, each time b) our singer decided to sing an additional verse before the guitar solo usually starts, or c) our singer accidentally skipped a verse and we’re taking the song home early. It’s these quick glances and smiles — camaraderie across the stage — that averts disaster mid-song and helps us stay in the moment with our singer, who is often deep in the thrall of the Blues. This is why I was fascinated by Ariane Todes’ dive into orchestral eye contact at Classical Music. While the members of the orchestra outnumber our little four-piece by dozens, the purpose of eye contact from the conductor to various musicians and sections conveys something quite a bit different: “Basically, a conductor only has six things to tell the orchestra: it’s either faster or slower, longer or shorter, or louder or softer, and everything else is based on that. The eyes and face are what communicates all the other things.” And, while the Blues and classical music differ vastly in style, strong eye contact among the musicians pays off in good vibes on-stage and off. “But occasionally there are fleeting moments where something passes wordlessly – friendship, encouragement, solidarity, shared endeavour, perhaps even love – and maybe that makes eye contact the very essence of music.” —KS

Welcome to Hive

William Gottlieb / Getty, Universal Records, Michael Ochs Archives / Getty, Epic Records

“I was happy when I saw my dance all over,” Jalaiah Harmon, 14-year old dancer, choreographer, and creator of the Renegade dance told Taylor Lorenz of the New York Times. Last fall, the suburban Atlanta teen, trained in all the classical forms, took to her bedroom and created movement to accompany the stuttering 808s of “Lottery,” a single by Atlanta hip hop artist K Camp. Its lyrics and sonics describe a flamboyant kind of self-possession. Harmon recorded the moves on her phone, uploaded her recording to the social video app Funimate, and then to Instagram. The dance went viral when TikTok influencers recorded and uploaded themselves doing it, buoyed by the attention of celebrities like Lizzo and Kourtney Kardashian. Harmon — young, Black, female and Southern — was rarely named or linked to in the frenzy. But Black Twitter intervened, and by the following winter, she would be. Harmon performed centerstage with cheerleaders at February’s NBA All Star game, and publicly, K Camp thanked her for making his song “the biggest in the world.”

In the early days of rock and roll, according to Ann Powers, “Girls ran the fan clubs, bought the records and the magazines, filled the concert halls.” Harmon’s creative brilliance, an extension of the girl-fueled heritage of popular music, is also a reminder of all the credit we have yet to give.

Women are underrepresented, missing, even, in many areas of influence and power in the music industry — as journalists, songwriters, producers, and executives. But they’ve long been the quiet center of music culture, keeping it vital. This is especially true of Black teenage girls and femme people, whose tastes and creative responses to what they love shape and originate many trends. You don’t get Beatlemania without teenage girls, or Sam Cooke without swooning adolescents like my mother, who remembers slow dancing to “You Send Me” at junior high school dances and blue light parties with Blue Magic crooning from the speakers. My memories of our household of women thrum. The TV, brown and boxy, atop a shelf of vinyl, taller than me by miles, playing “Freeway of Love” — the pink Cadillac, Ms. Franklin’s short cut and stonewash denim an everlasting, glamorous imprint. My teenage sister’s blouse with lace and ruffles and her feathered curls bouncing to the first saxophone notes of “The Glamorous Life.” My mother and her marcel irons in the bathroom mirror singing “You Bring Me Joy.” These women make the music I love, live. They help me remember that despite the dominance of male critics and tastemakers in the mainstream press, teenage girls — in hallways between classes, scrolling on their phones, making up dances in their rooms — are shaping what’s next.

Welcome to Hive, a new Longreads series about women and the music that has influenced them. The pieces in Hive live in the gap between the swarm or hive — the crowd of girls and femmes who form the base of pop trends — and the critical male voice that has shaped the “formal,” “legitimate” interpretation of music culture. The essays embrace fandom and rigor in equal parts, considering both as conduits for creativity. “Strange things happen when an artist is moved to a new depth by another,” writes contributor DJ Lynnée Denise, in her forthcoming essay about Southern crunk funk artist Joi. In this series, each contributor trusts their tastes and thinks with and through the music to tell a story of unexpected connections and embodied intellectualism.

Hive is inspired by: the Beyhive; the family of women who shaped my tastes; zines from the ‘90’s; viral Vines, the hustle, mashed potato, and dab; epistolary essays; Tumlbr; group texts; the voice of Alice Smith; and each contributor’s voice and experience.

“I wanted to be less peripheral to the things I poured my attention into,” writes contributor Eryn Loeb, in an upcoming essay about how creating a zine in her local scene as a young girl shaped her as a grown woman writer and critic. I imagine the Hive essayists writing to their teen selves, to each other, and maybe to you, reminding us that we’re all already in the center.

Also in Hive:
Welcome to Hive: Series Introduction by Danielle A. Jackson
Miami: A Beginning, by Jessica Lynne
On Watching Boys Play Music, by Eryn Loeb
Funk Lessons in Sonic Solitude, by DJ Lynnée Denise

Removing Beethoven’s Wig: A Classical Music Reading List

AP Photo/Capital City Weekly, James Brooks

I know as much about classical music as I do car mechanics, which is close to nothing, but I do know I like it. Not choruses. I’m not a fan of things like Bach’s choral works. And as much as I appreciate Mozart, his best work is too tempestuous for me. I prefer chillaxed baroque chamber music. I prefer Bach’s Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos. And Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Handel’s Water Music, “Pachelbel’s Canon,” and the kind of sprightly, buttoned-up small group sound that fits quiet workday mornings and cups of tea. If there’s anything I’m not, it’s buttoned-up, so my particular love of chamber music still surprises me. Bad Brains’ fast songs and Dead Moon’s gritty guitars sound like my spirit feels, but I’m a Gemini, and my opposite side is contemplative, calm, and still, suited to reggae, jazz piano trios, and Schubert’s Octets. I find that kind of classical soothing. Maybe it counteracts the blaring amplified guitar part of me. Whatever it does, I like it.

I first discovered classical music’s charms as an undergrad, during a period when Fugazi and instrumental surf music dominated my stereo. Cruising the listening stations at those chain mega-bookstores that thrived in the ’90s, with their stuffed rows of books, CDs, and bustling cafes, I found a few classical CDs that were well-reviewed and gave them a try. Where rock ‘n’ roll normally provided the soundtrack to my innumerable college road trips, the Brandenburg Concertos played on a certain winter trip to the mountains of southern California. It did not fit. Speeding along San Bernardino freeways, the charged up cellos made me feel like I was preparing to storm a castle. Driving in the forested mountains to hike old-growth pine forests, Bach’s music made it sound more like study time than bushwhacking time, but I liked the mood it provided, and I liked that the mood felt new. By the late ’90s, I’d grown tired of boot-stomping guitar bands and needed a break. As Fugazi sang in their song “Target”: “It’s cold outside and my hands are dry / Skin is cracked and I realize / That I hate the sound of guitars.” After a break, I came back to loud guitars, but I returned with more varied tastes and a diversified music collection that put Tchaikovsky albums next to ones by T. Rex and jazz trumpeter Thad Jones.

Classical music can seem so staid. It’s easy to imagine the kind of people who perform and listen to it being repressed, teetotalling stiffs who haven’t had sex, let alone a good buzz, for years. Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music proves that assumption wrong. Taking us inside this relatively insular subculture, which is lived backstage in concert halls, recitals, and academia, this insider’s portrait shows classical musicians who are as wild and deviant as rock ‘n’ rollers, and a subculture as dramatic as any other. As a young deviant myself, I was impressed. Her book, and the music, led me to read more about classical history and performance.

Here are a few interesting explorations of classical music history, practice, and performance that might help you hear the music, and think of its culture, differently, too.

* * *

Beethoven’s Kapow” (Justin Davidson, New York Magazine, March 17, 2010)

Classical music can seem so staid that you don’t associate it with shock or revolution, but Beethoven’s Third Symphony has continued to shock people since the composer first performed it in April of 1805. Writer Justin Davidson loves the piece, and keeps coming back to it.

 If I could crash any cultural event in history, it would be the night in April 1805 when a short man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a wrestler’s build stomped onto the stage of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Ludwig van Beethoven, 34 years old and already well along the way to deafness, swiveled to face a group of tense musicians and whipped them into playing a pair of fist-on-the-table E-flat major chords (blam! … blam!), followed by a quietly rocking cello melody. If I listen hard enough, I can almost transport myself into that stuffy, stuccoed room. I inhale the smells of damp wool and kerosene and feel the first, transformative shock of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” as it exploded into the world.

But Davidson also recognizes the way shocking, profound art or ideas — things that were once revolutionary — grow familiar enough to be tame over time. “Beethoven toyed with expectations we do not have and dismantled conventions that no longer guide us,” writes Davidson. “As a result, the ‘Eroica,’ which emerged with such blinding energy that some of its first listeners thought its composer must be insane, sounds like settled wisdom to us.”

Why do we reenact these rituals of revolution when revolution is no longer at stake? How can an act of artistic radicalism retain the power to disturb after two centuries? What’s left when surprise has been neutralized and influence absorbed?

Strike With the Band” (Kate Wagner, The Baffler, September 3, 2019)

“The world of classical music is neither noble nor fair,” Wagner writes, “though its reputation says otherwise.” Wagner played violin since her parents first rented her one when she was 4. After accruing $44,000 of student loan debt and developing carpal tunnel in college, she quit music and switched careers. “Despite its reputation as being a pastime of the rich and cultured elite, classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job, and the people who do that job are workers just as exploited as any Teamster.” Her illuminating essay reveals the true story about low pay, limited job opportunities, and rented instruments, which is the story of “arts under capitalism, in a culture where the abandonment of government funding results in a void filled only by wealthy donors and bloodsucking companies.” In the process, her essay dismantles the fundamental American myth of meritocracy and access.

Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Vogel Staar” (Elena Passarello, Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016)

Unlike parrots, Starlings do not repeat back what you sing to them, but they transmute, scramble, and modify your singing enough to give you a new view of it. When the young Mozart whistled at a caged starling in a Vienna shop, the way the bird sang it back changed how Mozart heard his song, and how he wrote, and he immediately bought the bird.

There is no other live-animal purchase in Mozart’s expense book, and no more handwritten melodies; no additional transactions were praised as schön! This is one of the very few things we even know about his purchasing habits. He’d only begun tracking his spending that year, and by late summer, Mozart had abandoned the practice and only used that notebook to steal random phrases of English. So this note of sale is special among the extant scraps from his life.

The purchase of this bird, Mozart’s “Vogel Staar,” marks a critical point for the classical period. At the end the of eighteenth century, tunes were never more sparkling or more kept, their composers obsessive over the rhetoric of sonata form: first establishing a theme, then creating tension through a new theme and key, then stretching it into a dizzying search for resolution, and finally finding the resolve in a rollicking coda. The formal understanding of this four-part structure permeated classical symphony, sonata, and concerto. By 1784, sonata form had imprinted itself on the listening culture enough to feel like instinct; Vienna audiences could rest comfortably in the run of classical forms as familiar—and thus enjoyable—narratives. And nobody played this cagey game more giddily than Mozart.

Claus Felix/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Darkness Invisible” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Winter 2011)

The Threepenny Penny review editor Wendy Lesser has written frequently about classical music. In 2010, she sat in a New York City concert hall in complete darkness for an hour, listening to a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’ third string quartet. Listening was all the audience could do. “We were unable to see our hands before our faces, much less check our watches or glance at our companions,“ she wrote. It was an experiment: how did sensory deprivation change the listening experience? Would the experience have been different with music she’d previously heard?

Sitting in the dark at a concert is a way of being at once alone and in the company of others. As I explored my unusual and tourist feeling of privacy (stretching about in ways I would never do in a lit concert hall, yawning widely, tilting my head way back or lackadaisically from side to side, and repeatedly holding my hands in front of my face to see if they had become visible yet), I thought of D.W. Winecott’s notion about how the child learns to be alone in the presence of its mother – that is, the baby gets to test out being solitary and accompanied at the same time. I imagined I was enjoying this childish sensation immensely, and yet on some level I must have felt a bit of fear or anxiety too, as I realized during my wild head-tilts, when I discovered that the room was not actually completely dark. There were two rows very faint almost-lights barely visible in the ceiling, and another ghostly spot at the very back of the room – and this, strangely, filled me with the same kind of energetic hope that hostages and TV thrillers feel when they come up on a nail or some other sharp protrusion against which they can slowly fray away their binding ropes. But try as I might, I could not free myself from the darkness: I could never manage to see a thing, not even my pale hands waved directly in front of my face. Once, in a moment of casual listening such as one might do at a regular concert, I closed my eyes, and the shock when I opened them and perceived no difference at all with severe.

Apparition in the Woods” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, July 9, 2007)

The story’s subhead “Rescuing Sibelius from silence” is vague and cryptic, but this is the story of Finland’s greatest composer, arguably what Ross calls its ”chief celebrity in any field.”

Composing music may be the loneliest of artistic pursuits. It is a laborious traversal of an imaginary landscape. Emerging from the process is an artwork in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel. Nameless terrors creep into the limbo between composition and performance, during which the score sits mutely on the desk. Hans Pfitzner dramatized that moment of panic and doubt in “Palestrina,” his 1917 “musical legend” about the life of the Italian Renaissance master. The character of Palestrina speaks for colleagues across the centuries when he stops his work to cry, “What is the point of all this? Ach, what is it for?”

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius may have asked that question once too often. The crisis point of his career arrived in the late 1920s and the early 30s, when he was being lionized as a new Beethoven in England and America, and dismissed as a purveyor of kitsch in the tastemaking European music centers, where atonality and other modern languages dominated the scene. The contrasts in the reception of his music, with its extremes of splendor and strangeness, matched the manic depressive extremes of his personality—an alcoholic oscillation between grandiosity and self-loathing. Sometimes he believed that he was in direct communication with the Almighty (“For an instant God opens the door and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony,” he wrote in a letter) and sometimes he felt worthless. In 1927, when he was sixty-one, he wrote in his diary, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair….In order to survive, I have to have alcohol….I’m abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.”

Notes on Birdsong” (Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine, May 29, 2020)

Birds are among nature’s greatest musicians. “The 20th and 21st centuries teemed with birdsong quotations in music,“ Giovetti in an essay of surprising connections, “from Amy Beach’s “Hermit Thrush at Eve” to John Luther Adams’s “Canticles of the Holy Wind.” But the era has most closely been associated with Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). As a teenager in Aube, he began to notice the avian world.“ Humans have matched nature’s beauty with our own beautiful music and ugliness.

In the video of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park, this same shift takes place in Amy Cooper’s voice when she calls the police. It’s so uncanny it may as well have been part of a score.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she tells Christian as she dials. She repeats “African-American” twice with the dispatcher. When it seems like she needs to explain the situation a third time, her tone modulates from steady (although perhaps slightly heightened by adrenaline and stress) to screaming in shorter breaths: “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!”

“Strategic White Womanhood is a spectacle that permits the actual issue at hand to take a back seat to the emotions of the white woman, with the convenient effect that the status quo continues,” writes Ruby Hamad in her forthcoming book, White Tears/Brown Scars. “White women’s tears are fundamental to the success of whiteness. Their distress is a weapon that prevents people of colour from being able to assert themselves or effectively challenge white racism and alter the fundamental inequalities built into the system. Consequently, we all stay in the same place while whiteness reigns supreme, often unacknowledged and unnamed.”

Patrick Pleul/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Prodigy Complex” (Hartmut Welscher, VAN Magazine, October 6, 2016)

“Prodigies exist in every field,” Welscher writes. “But since the time of Leopold Mozart, who dragged his son through the drawing rooms of Europe’s nobility like a trained monkey, the prodigal youngster has become a familiar, peculiar trope in classical music hagiography.” What is it about the idea of in-born genius, of the gifted child destined for greatness, that captivates so many cultures? America in particular fails to empathize for the talented childhood whose lives permanently suffer from the way their parents and society use them as commodities. Welscher exposes the ethical dimensions of the prodigy complex, what he beautifully calls “the darker side of prodigy reception,” focusing on coverage the 10-year old composer Alma Deutscher received.

In a profile of Deutscher for Die Zeit, the well-known journalist Uwe Jean Heuser asks, “Who is this child who, at the age of 10, is capable of amazing an ambitious, knowledgeable audience?” Isn’t the real question: Who is this audience that allows itself to be amazed by a child? Is “ambitious” or “knowledgeable” really the right way to describe an audience that is satisfied by “poise and skill,” when it should expect communicated life experience, storytelling, expression? Are these qualities really so much harder to judge in musicians? As Solomon writes, “Musical prodigies are sometimes compared to child actors, but child actors portray children; no one pays to watch a six-year-old playing Hamlet.”

Symphony of Millions” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, June 30, 2008)

So few people publish long stories about classical music that Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, appears in this list twice. Classical music, once such a provincial Western music, had taken up residence inside Communist China. “For the past fifteen or twenty years, classical music has been very à la mode in China,“ one accomplished composer told Ross. Ross visited Beijing to investigate if China was indeed the future of classical music. Ross found a classic music culture that reflected Communist China of that time: suppressed, well-polished and publicized in a self-serving propoganda-type way, and fraught with the tension between the freedom practitioners wanted and what little freedom they had.

For a musician on Long Yu’s level, politics is unavoidable. Since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Party has discouraged dissent not just by clamping down on rebellious voices but by handsomely rewarding those who play it safe. Richard Kraus, in his book The Party and the Arty in China, writes, “By 1982, the Party had given up trying to purge all dissident voices and opted instead for the strategy of urging all arts organizations to strive to earn money. “Those who work within the system may be expected to reach the stage where they can win prizes, obtain sinecures, hold illustrious posts, and we will paid for teaching. Artists end up censoring themselves – a habit ingrained in Chinese history. Behind the industrious façade is a fair degree of political anxiety. Reviews often read like press releases; indeed, I was told that concert organizations routinely pay journalist to provide favorable coverage. Critics feel pressure to deliver positive judgments, and, if they don’t, they may be reprimanded or hounded by colleagues. One critic I talked to got fed up and quit writing about music all together.

Crowd Control” (Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review, Spring 2008)

As with Ross, Lesser writes so well, and so distinctly, about classical music, that this list would be insincere not to include another piece.  Unfortunately, this one doesn’t appear online for free in full, but it’s too unique not to include. Watching an orchestra, you can’t miss the conductor, but it takes effort to truly see them. After watching one conductor, Simon Rattle, lead the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 2008, Lesser trained her lens on him to examine the conductor’s larger triumphs, challenges, and contribution to orchestral performance.

Whenever a conductor lifts his arms, points his fingers, or gestures with his head, he is actually controlling thousands of body parts. These include (among others) the right arms and left fingers of the string players, the hands and lungs of the woodwinds, the lips of the brass section, the writes of the percussionists, and the eyes and ears of all the musicians performing under him. But the body parts also include the eyes, ears, lungs, and hands of those of us out there in the audience; we too are watching his characteristic movements, listening for the notes, catching our breaths, bringing our palms together in applause. The control can never be perfect, in regard to either the bodies onstage or those off it, and that is a good thing, because robots can neither play nor appreciate music. But to the extent a conductor’s control approaches perfection, in a Zeno’s Paradox-like fashion, without ever getting there, we in the audience stand to benefit. Listening to the Berlin Philharmonic perform under Simon Rattle, one has a sense of what that near-perfection might sound like.

Just How Important Is Eye Contact Between Musicians? And What Does It Signal?

Longreads Pick

If you’re in the orchestra and the conductor give you “the look,” what does it mean? What does it mean when the musicians won’t make eye contact with the conductor? Ariane Todes investigates, in this piece at Classical Music.

Eye contact between musicians isn’t a necessary condition for great music. Conductors have other means to convey their intentions and instrumentalists find the information they need by watching technical cues.

Source: Classical Music
Published: May 27, 2022
Length: 8 minutes (2,015 words)

But Who Tells Them What To Sing?

Getty Images

Adrian Daub | Longreads | September 2021 | 21 minutes (5,894 words)

When a new trailer for the Marvel film Black Widow dropped in April of this year — after the movie had been repeatedly moved back due to the pandemic — the producers seemed intent on reminding people about why they’d been excited about the movie before the lockdowns started. They did so by closing the promo with a new version of the theme from The Avengers, probably to call back viewers to a different, less socially distanced time. How could you know this was a new version of the motif? It was choral, but that was a well Marvel had gone to before. This time it had lyrics. As best I can tell, for the first time.

As fans welcomed the callback in online comments, I was brought back to a question that I’d had when Game of Thrones did something similar at the end of its fourth season and again at the very end of the show. It’s something of a trend these days to take a highly recognizable instrumental theme and make it choral. And I get why: The gesture is big and bold and epic. But my question concerned something comparatively pedestrian: Who decides what the lyrics are? What language are they even in? And who writes them? I decided to find out.

Those of us who listen to soundtracks obsessively do so knowing that that’s not how soundtracks are intended to work on us. Whoever mixed in a chorus for a few seconds of the Black Widow trailer was going for an emotional reaction, not some new layer of meaning to be disentangled. “When I do a film score,” the late James Horner said in a TED talk in 2005, “I am nothing more than a fancy pencil” executing the vision of a filmmaker. You’re not meant to listen to a soundtrack in isolation from the image. It is music in service of the moment.

You’re not meant to listen to a soundtrack in isolation from the image. It is music in service of the moment.

But one place where this fancy pencil has more autonomy is when it comes to the text that a chorus sings. Perhaps it’s better to say that the pencil is condemned to freedom. When the composer John Ottman was hired to score the 2008 Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, he realized that he needed a break in the texture of the soundtrack at the very end of the film. That’s because in the final scenes of the movie basically all of the even remotely redeemable characters get executed. After they had all died and the credits rolled, Ottman decided he wanted a “sense of release, because there had to be a different feeling as the audience walks out of the theater.” So he hit upon the idea of a self-contained choral piece. “The problem was though, what on earth would they be saying?”

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What on earth indeed? It’s a moment where blockbuster filmmaking — always so anxiously in control of its meanings — seems to be at a bit of a loss. And it’s a moment where we as an audience suddenly get a sense for how films make meaning, and how it isn’t always the meaning they intend to make.

So who decided what the lyrics to the theme from The Avengers were? The short answer is that I still don’t know. But the long answer to my pedestrian question leads into the high-pressure, highly collaborative world of film scoring. A world in which composers often have just a few weeks to write music that pleases the studio and the director, and potentially even test audiences. And in which they toil with assistants, orchestrators, sound editors, and many, many session musicians to find a sound for a film that is still in the process of evolving. I wanted to find out who among this massive group would be the one to say “hey, let’s add a chorus and have it sung in Sanskrit” or something along those lines.

The answer turns out to be: Pretty much any of them can and sometimes do. What film choruses offer us is a perfect synecdoche for the collective, frenzied, and deeply mercenary magic that creates movies in the first place. It’s as likely that a director had the screenwriter invent specific lyrics early in post-production as that a subcontractor, assistant composer, or orchestrator jotted down some words or went on a Wikipedia deep-dive eight weeks out from release in a desperate late-night quest for a non-copyrighted text to use with a cue that might please a bunch of suits half a world away.

What film choruses offer us is a perfect synecdoche for the collective, frenzied, and deeply mercenary magic that creates movies in the first place.


Choruses have been part of film scoring for over a century. People have been singing on screen since the earliest silent reels, and with increasing technical wizardry we could even hear them doing it. But something like the Black Widow trailer is what we call an non-diegetic chorus: These are voices that viewers aren’t supposed to somehow locate within the screen action. In early cinema you had to have musicians physically present, first in the cinema with a viewer, eventually in the scene with the actors. Both of which pretty much ruled out the use of a choir. And, as film music historian Mervyn Cooke points out, once technologies existed that allowed films to have at least a partial soundtrack, filmmakers initially avoided non-diegetic music — precisely because they needed to sell the illusion that the sound was coming “from” the scene.

Non-diegetic music started to become the norm only in the early ’30s. And even then the limitations of recording technology meant that non-diegetic voices were not usually worth the trouble. By the late ’30s this had changed. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had its choir chime in even when it wasn’t for the explicit musical numbers. (Snow White was also the first soundtrack issued as an album, so choruses were part of how film soundtracks traveled semi-independently from their films from the very beginning.)

Alfred Newman had begun relying on wordless “heavenly choirs” going ooo and aaa in the background, in films like Wuthering Heights (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Song of Bernadette (1943). As the music historian Donald Greig, who is also an active session singer on many modern scores, has pointed out, in the beginning choruses had to be at least somewhat motivated by theme or screen action — they were there to speak for ghosts, to intimate religious dimensions to the screen action.

And then there was Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). The film concerns the discovery of Shangri-La in the Himalayas, and when we finally get to the fabled land the soundtrack accompanies the matte-painted wonderland with a chorus singing in … well, in a language that isn’t English and doesn’t seem to be Tibetan either. And thus another Hollywood tradition was born: film choruses belting out perfectly nonsensical prose with utter conviction.

And thus another Hollywood tradition was born: film choruses belting out perfectly nonsensical prose with utter conviction.

Both types of choral performance have never left the Hollywood lexicon. In thinking through how film choruses make meaning, I became obsessed with what the process of recording a soundtrack looks like today and at what point in that process someone actually writes lyrics in fake Tibetan. In the Golden Age, studios kept their own choirs — professional singers would show up at the lot and ooo and aaa for a Miklós Rósza score today and belt out a ferocious battle hymn for Erich Wolfgang Korngold the next. Studios also had their house orchestrators (usually several), and while laypeople remember the composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, there are other figures that probably shaped the way films sound just as much if not more, all the while just quietly collecting their paychecks.

Speaking with modern singers about their experiences, I was struck by how little their day-to-day job description had changed since Tiomkin’s day. But the world in which they are performing is altogether different. As part of my research for this article I made a massive choir belt out the most menacing rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” ever, and all it cost me was $199 plus tax. The EastWest Symphonic Choirs software allows you to make a virtual choir sing in just about any style imaginable. Want your ooos and aaas to sound like a whisper? More Broadway or more classical? All of that’s in the package.

But there’s more: Due to a system called WordBuilder, you can have this choir sing pretty much anything — you can type in text in English, in phonetics, or a proprietary alphabet called Votox, and the software will assemble it out of a massive databank of vowels and consonants. This is a commercially available product, but there are even bigger sample libraries kept by individual composers: If you’re wondering who’s dropping by to supply a quick “agnus dei” for a Hans Zimmer score, well that’s almost certainly a proprietary sample owned by Zimmer’s film score workshop, Remote Control.

All the professional singers I spoke to were keenly aware of products like EastWest Symphonic Choirs and the sample libraries — because more likely than not they’re in them. If you’re in the business of singing on film, these days you won’t always be asked to sing for an actual score, but instead you might get booked to record samples. There’s a scary possibility that these artists are slowly eroding the industry’s need for their labor — that the fruits of their one day of paid work will perform for the studios in perpetuity and with no extra residuals. Their disembodied vowels are putting their vocal chords out of business. But that possibility hasn’t been fully realized: Often enough when they arrive in the recording studio, singers will find that there is a vocal track already, but it’s done by computer. And yet, the composer wants a live version. Almost all the singers I spoke to expressed some surprise that Hollywood still bothered.

Their disembodied vowels are putting their vocal chords out of business.

One possibility why they do: Composers simply like working with live humans and consider it part of their job to do so. As Jonathan Beard, who has been composing and orchestrating in Hollywood for over a decade, put it to me, choirs are an easy, effective way to give dimension to a scene — “because you have a human body as one of the instruments, and there’s a power the human voice [has] over us in general.”

Composers are highly trained musicians, and a lot of their training has involved singing. The composer brothers Harry and Rupert Gregson-Williams (Harry composed for films like Kingdom of Heaven, the Narnia-films, and most of Denzel Washington’s films of the last 15 years, while Rupert is best known for DC Universe films like Wonder Woman and Aquaman) were both choirboys at St. John’s College in Cambridge — it makes biographical sense that choral textures and their creation would be important to them. And that they might like to think through music with a live chorus rather than a computer. Another surprising preference that speaks to a kind of sweet traditionalism: While sometimes vocal tracks get doubled in recording (meaning what sounds like 16 singers is just eight overlaid onto each other), this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Clearly someone in the process enjoys working with large groups of people and thinks they give you an aesthetic payoff that engineering wizardry would not.

But there’s a more cynical reason as well, and it’s the reason why automation hasn’t displaced human labor in other fields: The process of booking some freelancers through a fixer, having them record for a day, and then paying them no residuals isn’t actually much of an expense. That’s how London became a preferred place for Hollywood to record: a large population of well-trained musicians, whose union doesn’t insist on residuals. Several London-based singers I spoke with suggested that the reason Hollywood doesn’t record in, say, Germany as often is that singers in continental Europe have steadier income and are less dependent on session work. And once a producer decides that even London-based musicians are too demanding — well, then there’s always Prague or Budapest. The gorgeous voices you heard in a John Ford Western were the sound of unions and full-time employment; in a Hollywood score today they are monuments to the globalizing power of the gig economy.


So that is the world from which these vocals emerge. Imagine you are a classically trained singer in, say, London who has done some previous work on soundtracks. You get a call from a fixer, who is assembling a chorus, or soloists, for a production company. You book the gig, and you show up for the recording session knowing which film you’re singing for, probably knowing the composer you’re recording for, but nothing else. Most recording sessions take place in the famous Abbey Road Studios, which are expensive, so you’re usually booked for no more than a certain number of union-approved hours.

Importantly, by the time you show up for the recording session, the film is pretty much “in post post production,” as one session singer put it to me. The film is basically finished, the wrangling over what the score is supposed to sound like is over. By the time you record, whatever orchestral parts you are supposed to accompany are fully assembled — you usually have them in your headphones as you sing. When you get there, you are handed a large stack of notes to sing and, according to all the singers I spoke with, you get through some portion of them in the next few hours — never through all of them. Some cues you sing will never be in the finished film, some cues you might do 10 versions of. And then the studio time the composer booked is over, you hand over your stack of notes, sign statements agreeing not to divulge anything about what you just sang, and you are on your way.

As the soprano Catherine Bott said: “You enter a studio and you open the score and off you go. You sing what you’re told, and it’s all about versatility, just being able to adapt to the right approach, whatever that may be for that conductor or that composer.” And part of that, singers told me, was singing the words — whatever they may be. As Donald Greig pointed out to me, a lot of these singers have training in classics; they certainly know their way around a Requiem or a Stabat Mater. And yet often enough when they step into Abbey Road they’re being asked to sing perfectly nonsensical phrases in pseudo-Latin — but the studio is booked, the clock is ticking, and as Bott put it, “that’s not the time to put up your hand and, you know, correct the Latin.”

Or the English: Bott sang on the soundtrack for the 1986 animated feature An American Tail. For a cue where the little immigrant mouse Fievel first lays eyes on New York harbor, composer James Horner had the choir intone the famous Emma Lazarus poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. As she was singing through the cue — “Give me your tired, your poor” — Bott realized that whoever had put together the score had written down “your huddled masses yearning to be free” rather than “breathe free.” She was pretty sure she knew better, as did some colleagues, but out of English reserve, deference to the Americans, or professionalism, no one felt it was their place to say anything. The misquote stayed in the picture and you can buy it on CD today.

Perhaps part of what made me look for the meaning behind the lyrics on some of my favorite soundtracks was exactly this professionalism. A good singer sells the emotion and the conviction, to the point that a listener sort of has to believe that it all means something. Interestingly enough, early in this long tradition of made-up languages, Hollywood felt the need to pretend that it did mean something. When Lost Horizon was released in 1937, Columbia Pictures claimed in its publicity material that Dimitri Tiomkin’s score “includes authentic folk songs of Tibet.” The same press sheet noted that the Hall Johnson Choir, a popular gospel choir, “will sing the folk song arrangements in the native Tibetan language.”

Film music historians agree that this is hogwash. There is no evidence Tiomkin researched Tibetan folk songs for his score — what the ad men were selling as “authentic folk songs” were almost certainly newly written pieces in a made-up language. Tiomkin had started out as a concert pianist and relied on a small army of orchestrators to turn his melodies into actual playable scores. Someone in that group put a pen to paper and wrote these pieces, and either that same person or someone else seems to have made up some fake Tibetan text to distribute to the singers.

But for whatever reason Columbia Pictures’ publicity department didn’t want to frame the vocals in this manner. Perhaps extradiegetic voices were still sufficiently new that they wanted to tell an audience what these voices were doing on the soundtrack. Or it had nothing to do with the soundtrack itself, and was just another way of selling the broader spectacle of filmmaking: Look at the lengths we went to.

At the same time, lyrics have a pesky way of clarifying the intended audience. After all, it is not altogether difficult to imagine why Tiomkin and company wouldn’t have bothered with actual folk songs and actual language. Lost Horizon is one of those movies that stars noted non-Asian persons H.B. Warner as “Chang” and Sam Jaffe as “the High Lama of Shangri-La.” The broad and bogus claims to authenticity are also making a point of who the movie is for. The fact that the Hall Johnson Choir was an African American group best known for singing spirituals, amplifies the sense that Lost Horizon turns non-white people’s authenticity into charming window-dressing for white audiences. Like Shangri-La for its white visitors, even when its lyrics were incomprehensible film music was still “for” white English speakers.

At other times when Hollywood filmmaking relied on choruses, the point was the opposite of exoticism: hyper-comprehensibility. Decades later Tiomkin wrote a rousing score for John Wayne’s jingoistic epic The Alamo (1960). At the end of the movie, with the siege over and one lone survivor and her little daughter leaving the ruined fort, a chorus drifts faintly onto the soundtrack, almost as though the singers were standing somewhere far away in the field of battle. Over the movie’s final shots, the choir takes over the soundtrack, singing a version of what would eventually spend some weeks on the pop charts as “The Ballad of the Alamo.” The first lines a viewer is able to clearly hear are: “Let the old men tell the story / let the legend grow and grow. / Of the thirteen days of glory / at the siege of Alamo.”

This music explicitly tells us why it needs to turn human voices singing in a language the viewer is supposed to understand. The “Ballad” tells us what to do with the story we have just heard: Pass it on, let the legend “grow and grow.” Also — since this was made by John Wayne in the ’60s — the message is probably also don’t be a communist. But note how the movie has to treat three things as essentially the same: the singing has to be audible for the casual moviegoer, over people getting out of their seats early or finishing off their popcorn; the words have to be comprehensible on a purely linguistic level to an audience that has been taught to tune out the music on some level for the last two hours; and the reason why these words were included in the movie has to be clear.

Also — since this was made by John Wayne in the ’60s — the message is probably also don’t be a communist.

The fact that these three factors are separate can be easy to forget for an English-speaking audience reared on American pop culture. I grew up on Hollywood films in dubbed versions — though those didn’t typically dub the music. Meaning, as a kid who didn’t speak English, I became pretty used to following a plot in German, then the music would swell and I’d sort of tune out for a few minutes as the soundtrack, and the English language, washed over me. I’d get the basic idea of course — the characters were happy, or sad, or patriotic — but I had no idea what they were saying, and I was okay with that.

That’s sort of how most of us feel when we listen to the theme to the 21st-century version of Battlestar Galactica — unless we happen to be familiar with the mantras of the Rig Veda. Still, it’s a culturally specific experience. These days we can’t watch fantasy or science fiction without being sung at in Sanskrit, Old Norse, Dwarvish, Elvish, Uruk-hai, Klingon, and so on. When composer John Williams returned to the Star Wars universe for 1999’s The Phantom Menace, he composed an amped-up piece for the final duel — and over its churning ostinatos he overlaid a chorus belting out a … Sanskrit translation of a Welsh poem. And apparently the syllables of the Sanskrit text were rearranged to the point of incomprehensibility. Clearly, these shows and movies are not addressing us as potential speakers of Klingon or Sanskrit or even Welsh — they’re interested in the feel and a sound of a language rather than its meaning. At one recording session, Donald Greig told me, “they spent ages telling us how to pronounce the Russian and then we realized, ‘well this doesn’t actually mean anything.’” This turns out to be both a pretty new and pretty old way of listening to music.

When composer John Williams returned to the Star Wars-universe for 1999’s The Phantom Menace, he composed an amped-up piece for the final duel — and over its churning ostinatos he overlaid a chorus belting out a … Sanskrit translation of a Welsh poem.


Hollywood scores come in waves. The film industry isn’t known for being particularly fond of risk taking, and film scores in particular often build on previous scores. The director will often cut the film to a temp track consisting of existing pieces, and it’s easy to imagine that the filmmakers would eventually want something that sounds like their temp track to accompany the finished film. Choirs have never really left Hollywood, but there are certainly moments when producers and directors seem to have almost reflexively sought them out and others when they have avoided them. The Omen (1976) with its massive latinate choral opener, “Ave Satani,” kicked off one such wave. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy kicked off another.

This new chapter in the way films sounded started in the Town Hall, a storied concert venue in Wellington, New Zealand. That’s where composer Howard Shore recorded the earliest parts of his soundtrack for The Fellowship of the Ring (the rest would be recorded in London). The recording involved a full orchestra on ground level and rotating choirs in the balcony. It wasn’t lost on the composer that the scene was weirdly traditional: “The orchestra,” Shore explained, “was set up very much the way a pit orchestra was set up in an opera.” The collaborative process around the composition, too, felt like something Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte might have recognized. The screenwriters wrote the text the choir would be expected to sing, an on-site translator would translate them into Tolkien’s languages, and Shore would then set the Dwarven or Elvish text.

Somewhat counterintuitively it’s not actually choral music with incomprehensible lyrics that is novel and needs explaining, it is choral music with comprehensible ones. For a long time, and for far longer than instrumental music, choral music in the West belonged to the church, to the mass, and that meant to Latin. A language as native to Christian religious life as it was foreign to most Christians. The Lutheran Reformation did a lot to hand church services over to language the congregants could actually understand, but throughout Europe the experience of being talked, and in particular sung, at in Latin persisted. That’s of course not to say that people didn’t sing in their vernacular languages — just that the experience of singing words you don’t, or don’t fully, understand would have been very normal to these people.

For a long time, and for far longer than instrumental music, choral music in the West belonged to the church, to the mass, and that meant to Latin. A language as native to Christian religious life as it was foreign to most Christians.

For the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer choral music was meaningful only insofar as the words were not the point. In his The World as Will and Representation, which appeared first in 1819, was republished in 1844, and strongly influenced composers like Richard Wagner, Schopenhauer claimed that music was the purest expression of reality because it didn’t linger with “representations” — words and the things they represent — but tapped automatically into something deeper. Choral music would seem to fall short of that standard — being pretty centrally concerned with words and the things they denote — but Schopenhauer didn’t think so. After all, you shouldn’t listen to sung music primarily for the words, and often you may not even know the words. And Schopenhauer thought this was for the better.

Latin still works that way for most modern audiences: You might argue that there isn’t much of an expectation on the part of an American film composer circa 1989 (or on the part of the filmmakers who hired him) that the audience should be able to follow along with the Latin lyrics — in fact, it might well be distracting if they did. What text is included, both singers and composers confirmed to me, has far more to do with the flow of phonemes and how it interacts with the raw sound of the vocals. The words are simply yet another instrument in the repertoire the composer has at their disposal. But it’s an instrument that comes freighted with all the complications that inevitably arise when our loquacious species uses language.

The words are simply yet another instrument in the repertoire the composer has at their disposal. But it’s an instrument that comes freighted with all the complications that inevitably arise when our loquacious species uses language.

After all, unlike a humming chorus, a Latin chorus does create extra levels of meaning for those who want to listen more carefully. Composer Jerry Goldsmith wrote “Ave Satani” for The Omen as a deliberate transposition of various Catholic masses. While the individual Latin may have been hard to pick up on (and wasn’t entirely correct to boot), listeners who were Catholic likely would have recognized what was being inverted here, given that they’d spent most Sundays around the actual Latin texts. It’s not clear how seriously Goldsmith (or the choirmaster who jotted down the Latin lyrics for the composer) grappled with that dimension of the score — for one thing, the very title of the piece messes up the declension of Satan. But that dimension was there nonetheless —The Omen was part of a kind of religious revival in Hollywood, and though it plays as camp today it was taken far more seriously then.

James Horner’s score for the 1989 film Glory relies heavily on a Latin chorus, and in the film’s climactic moment that chorus sings recognizably in Latin. Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment, an all-Black unit during the American Civil War, and the film ends with most of the unit being mowed down by Confederate soldiers while assaulting Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The piece in question relies on a text drawn from a Latin mass, frequently incorporated into the classical canon in various requiems from Mozart to Verdi. But, as so often, Horner (or his orchestrator) doesn’t stick to the actual text, but rather seems to create a mashup of snippets from the traditional requiem mass.

So is Horner just using the text of the requiem mass the way layout professionals use the phrase “Lorem ipsum?” Hard to imagine. After all, it makes a lot of sense to have a requiem text being sung as your characters are dying one by one. But more importantly, precisely because the text is so garbled, certain words stick out all the more: “Recordare,” Latin for “recall,” “stricte” (severely), and “judex” (judge). These pieces are largely taken from the Dies Irae, the part of the requiem mass that tells of the end of the world and God’s judgment, albeit with admixtures from just about every other part. The text, though hard to parse, is remarkably consonant-heavy for a Hollywood soundtrack, and a lot of it seems to be due (and I hope I’m hearing that right, as no actual text exists for this piece that I was able to track down) to the text’s overreliance of the future active participle, which ends in “-urus”: just in terms of pure grammar, the threatening hissing in the text is literally about what is to come.

So is Horner just using the text of the requiem mass the way layout professionals use the phrase “Lorem ipsum?” Hard to imagine.

So maybe the text, and the fact that it’s in Latin, isn’t about pretentiousness on the part of the filmmakers at all. It’s a mass for the dead and a tale of divine wrath, and it seems to make — over the heads of most of the film’s audience, admittedly — a point about retribution. It is remarkable how sophistic (white) Americans, who are frequently so proud to deal in moral absolutes, get when it comes to their Civil War. Horner’s grammatically challenged remix of the “Dies Irae,” I think, makes a point that is stark and simple and remarkably rare in American depictions of the country’s most bloody conflict: The Confederacy is evil, those who kill on its behalf are committing a sin, and they are bringing God’s wrath (and future judgment) upon themselves. There is, then, in this particular instance something to be gleaned from a text that otherwise we’re not meant to pick up on.

Which gets at an interesting disconnect — namely, that different constituencies will experience the same song differently. The choir members know what they’re saying, even if they have no clue as to what any of it means. And the composer, director, sound designer, etc., although they live with a soundtrack far longer than either the performers or even the most devoted audience, don’t tend to get to the words that go with the music until fairly late in the game. They often have to rely on orchestrators and assistants, or a helpful choirmaster who claims he really knows Latin. Their budget, and thus their time, is not tailored to their needs, but to the dictates of the director and the studio. The prose simply appears, like a ghost in this immense machine. And — in spite of the fact that most parties involved seem to be content to have it not mean very much — it winds up signifying something.

One example: An “exotic” text can only be understood by very specific listeners. But, very much to the point, they are not therefore the intended listeners. Lost Horizon wasn’t banking on a particular reception in the Tibetan community — rather the opposite: Dimitri Tiomkin and his collaborators seem to have counted on not having any actual speakers of Tibetan in the audience.

This gets a lot more troubling in the case of the phrase “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba,” likely one of the most repeated, parodied, and bowdlerized lines of text in any soundtrack. It’s clear that it isn’t addressing the average viewer with the intention of being understood. The very fact that it is in Zulu, but the story of The Lion King appears to take place in the Serengeti, thousands of miles to the north, suggests that the language is here to signal one thing and one thing only: African-ness.

For contrast, look at the way composer Michael Abels’ score for Jordan Peele’s Get Out features Swahili voices: Outside of the considerable number of Swahili speakers in the world, most people watching Get Out won’t know what the singers are saying. But what they’re saying does matter, in a way: Literally “listen to your ancestors,” but as a saying meaning something kind of like “you’re about to be in danger.” The viewer who doesn’t understand this line is missing an important warning about what is to come in the film. As is, of course, the film’s African American protagonist who cannot listen (or at least understand) his ancestors. Peele and Abels manage to wring from this small decision a whole range of subtle points.


But as with all exoticism, there’s a strange tug of war between condescension and appreciation in these kinds of borrowings. When Ottman decided to use a choral piece at the end of the 2008 film Valkyrie, he clearly needed a German text, and I suspect any German text would have sufficed. But he didn’t pick any German text. The film stars Tom Cruise as Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, a historic figure who led the only attempt by members of the Nazi state to get rid of Adolf Hitler. The text is “Wandrers Nachtlied,” one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s most memorable, well-known texts, and if it’s a little bit treacly by the great poet’s standards, it’s hard to deny it’s a deeply appropriate choice for this moment. Not overtly about politics, it is nevertheless about history, about reflection, about resignation. And about a different use of the German language than one is used to in Hollywood films.

For any German person it’s weird to hear bad guys so consistently speak (and butcher) your language. I’m not complaining, mind you, it makes perfect sense. But what’s remarkable about Valkyrie is that it seems unusually careful for a Hollywood-film in how it deals with the German language. Earlier in the film, Cruise’s character says that “people need to know we were not all like him,” and this final poem seems to do something similar for the German language — the filmmakers close their movie by pointing out that this language is capable of beauty and deep humanity. The poet Paul Celan — himself a Holocaust-survivor — pointed to the strangeness of writing in a language that was both “my mother’s tongue” (Muttersprache) and “the murderer’s tongue” (Mördersprache). Ottman seems to want to recover the former after showing plenty of the murderers.

The strange thing is: I am pretty sure Goethe’s “Nachtlied” is the first utterance in actual German in this film about Germany. Cruise sort of tries a German accent every other scene, the largely British supporting cast doesn’t even bother. And no one speaks any German, the way Sean Connery does with Russian at certain moments in The Hunt for Red October, or Alan Rickman in Die Hard. The film’s supporting cast is stacked with Germans who belt out accented English throughout. It almost feels like the film wants to bend over backwards a little too much: remind us what beauty and thoughtfulness this language is capable of — even though it never shows us the barbarity, which the film renders in English.

I suppose it’s moments like that one that made me obsess over what choirs sing in movies, and who decides what they sing. Because it’s a moment when blockbuster film or TV, which increasingly is created for the greatest possible global audience, which has been focus-grouped and test-audienced within an inch of its life, manages to speak far more directly, more improvisationally to a much smaller audience. All of us are sometimes in that smaller audience, sometimes not. But we’re aware it’s there. When cinema is literally speaking in tongues, how could we not? And to be the person who hears a call the object of fascination never knew it was putting out there — what better definition could there be of what a fan really is?

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Adrian Daub is professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of four books on German thought and culture in the nineteenth century, as well as (with Charles Kronengold) “The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism” (related story here). He tweets @adriandaub.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo

Odetta Holmes’ Album One Grain of Sand

David Corio/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Matthew Frye Jacobson | One Grain of Sand| Bloomsbury Academic | April 2019 | 19 minutes (3,117 words)


When twenty-year-old Odetta Felious Holmes — classically trained as a vocalist and poised to become “the next Marian Anderson” — veered away from both opera and musical theater in favor of performing politically charged field hollers, prison songs, work songs, and spirituals before mixed-race audiences in 1950s’ coffeehouses, she was making a portentous decision for both American music and Civil Rights culture. Released the same year as her famous rendition of “I’m on My Way” at the March on Washington, One Grain of Sand captures the social justice project that was Odetta’s voice. “There was no way I could say the things I was thinking, but I could sing them,” she later remarked. In pieces like “Midnight Special,” “Moses, Moses,” “Ain’t No Grave,” and “Ramblin’ Round Your City,” One Grain of Sand embodies Odetta’s approach to the folk repertoire as both an archive of black history and a vehicle for radical expression. For many among her audience, a song like “Cotton Fields” represented a first introduction to black history at a time when there was as yet no academic discipline going by this name, and when history books themselves still peddled convenient fictions of a fundamentally “happy” plantation past. And for many among her audience, black and white, this young woman’s pride in black artistry and resolve, and her open rage and her challenge to whites to recognize who they were and who they had been, too, modeled the very honesty and courage that the movement now called for.

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This Is How You Lose Your Mind

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Dani Fleischer | Longreads | November 2019 | 11 minutes (2,731 words)

There’s no single answer to the question of why I lose my mind at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. There are just things that happen over the years, and those things accumulate over time, and those accumulations finally break me. Like the crack of a whip, it’s loud and startling, and it feels like it comes out of nowhere.

It doesn’t.


I spend my whole life aiming for academic perfection, starting when I am 10 — the year my father tanks another job and my parents move me and my older sisters down to New Jersey from upstate New York. It’s the second time in a decade they’ve made that particular move, under eerily similar conditions: a lost job, a desperate reach, an uprooted family.

But there’s another condition too — a preexisting one that comes before anything else I can remember: this strange suspicion I have that I am somehow deficient. Being the new kid in 5th grade only exacerbates this vague and amorphous feeling of not-enoughness. It makes me painfully quiet at school and slow to make friends.

Each morning, during journal-writing time, I ask for the blue laminated bathroom pass and go to the bathroom, to the last stall on the right, and I cry. I’m not even sure why I’m crying but I know it has something to do with the sadness that’s bundled up inside me. Nobody ever told me it would be this lonely, I keep thinking. Then, after a few minutes, I pick the blue index card off the dirty tile floor, splash some water on my face, and return to class. It’s a secret ritual that goes on for months.

Then this happens: I become the first 5th grader who can properly fill out a map of all 50 states, and something temporarily replaces that not-enoughness. I don’t even know what it is exactly, but the urge to steal away to a bathroom subsides for the week, and I spend the rest of the year chasing that feeling. State capitals, vocabulary words like doldrums and oxymoron, letters to Elie Wiesel: there’s so much to try to be the best at, and that pursuit carries me straight into summer. It turns out to be a good year for me. I adapt. I make friends, get straight A’s, and begin to feel comfortable in Jersey.

A few days before 6th grade starts, I find out that we’re moving back upstate again. The reasoning my parents give is muddled: the house upstate never sold, and Mom doesn’t like living so close to her mother. I begin to wonder about how the decisions shaping my life are being made.

I return upstate and bring with me the comfort of academic perfection. School becomes the perfect closed system, a way to quantify my worth, and for a long time that system serves me well. I’m good at it and it seems as good as anything else by which to define myself; it’s rigid and unforgiving, and it doesn’t account for my own humanity. The perfect vehicle for self-destruction: something that feels like control, but isn’t. A car speeding down an icy highway late at night.

I spend high school grinding away at perfection and show myself no mercy when I graduate second in my class. I still get to make a speech at graduation, which is nice. I quote Rilke and people congratulate me and I feel smart, even as I continue to eviscerate myself for not being first.

I get into a good college.
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Walking the Line in the Bekaa Valley

Syrian refugee children in the eastern town of Bar Elias, in Bekaa valley, Lebanon, Thursday, May 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

When every single day seems to contain ten distinct — and equally dramatic — news cycles in North America, it’s all too easy to forget that one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time continues to unfold in and around Syria. In Popular Mechanics, Bronwen Dickey follows a small group of slackliners as they criss-cross the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of refugees reside in makeshift camps. Their mission is to give as many refugee children as possible a chance at a literal balancing act, a fleeting moment of controlled fear — and, hopefully, joy — in a daily life that’s full of the chaos of displacement.

If tightrope-walking, with all its sober elegance, is the classical violin, then slacklining is the country fiddle, full of mischief and improvisation. Though some do it competitively, for most enthusiasts there is nothing to summit or “win” in slacklining. The same line you crossed (or “sent”) yesterday could very well defeat you today. The aimlessness of it, the lack of scorekeeping, is part of its appeal. What’s more, it does not require fancy gear or exceptional fitness. It is a test of patience, not of strength. It is also a flawless barometer of the practitioner’s state of mind. “Fear and stress turn into muscle tension,” Sonya says, “which makes the line shake, which makes you shake, and it all comes back to you. It’s like talking to a mirror.”

Three hours after setting up in Nasser’s field, the Mediterranean sun hangs low in the sky, and the Crossing Lines team is ready to start teaching. Three twenty-foot lengths of one-inch-wide flat nylon webbing have been propped up on wooden A-frames, cinched into clove hitches, and tightened with heavy metal ratchets so that they can support weight, yet still have some give. Each line is suspended about twelve inches off the ground and radiates outward from The Rock. Encircled by color-blocked tumbling mats, the ClimbAID truck shines like a beacon in the dusty white rock-yard.

“I never know if anyone will show up,” Beat says, scratching nervously at his dark beard. The problem for him, and for Sonya, and for anyone hoping to organize diversions near the settlements is that in Lebanon, Syrian youth as young as ten are encouraged, sometimes forced, to find jobs as soon as they can physically handle them. Basic survival doesn’t leave much time for extracurriculars. “It’s very hard to plan ahead,” he says. “For these kids, there is only now. There is no tomorrow. There is no five minutes from now.”

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