Go Deeper Music Engenders a Feeling: the Musical Inspirations of Ghost Rings

Music Engenders a Feeling: the Musical Inspirations of Ghost Rings

Posted September 1st, 2017

Next week theater maker Tina Satter and her New York-based ensemble Half Straddle will return to Philadelphia with Ghost Rings, part of the 2017 Fringe Festival. The show explores exceptionally close friendship, non-heteronormative romance, female families, and so much more. Oh yeah, and it’s a pop concert.

Half Straddle are no strangers to integrating original music into their shows, but with Ghost Rings, they decided to up the ante. “[Half Straddle composer] Chris Giarmo, and I had been discussing doing a project that really focused on singing,” Satter recently told the FringeArts Blog. “Chris had expressed that he wanted to experiment with making music out of our collaboration that was more challenging and really required very, very good singers to do it and I loved that challenge.” To help realize this goal, Satter looked to a variety of musical sources for inspiration. Whenever it struck, she’d pass the song to Giarmo, explaining what it was about the particular track that caught her attention, and he’d take that influence into consideration as he composed.

Satter was gracious enough to provide us with this short playlist with some of those inspirations. Though the sounds on the list may be varied, they are all bold in their vision, defiant in their aesthetic, and unapologetically female. The music of the show reflects the sonic diversity to some degree, and yet it’s all remarkably cohesive, unified by its absurdly talented band/performers—featuring Satter and Giarmo, and fronted by Erin Markey and, for this iteration, Amber Gray—and the hilarious and heart-wrenching narrative at its core, one that could only have been conveyed through such a theatrical song cycle. As Satter put it in the aforementioned interview, “Music engenders a feeling you can’t even name in your body, heart, and brain. Watching these people onstage not just creating narratives and drama but all this live melody really paired with the content of the show and our holistic approach to it from the earliest stages.”

“The Weakness in Me” by Joan Armatrading

She is the best. Hands down. The storytelling and direct shot of recognizable emotion in this song in particular is very inspiring always. Her music is a constant overarching thing to look to in making music, work, and life in general—so even if not direct at all in a given project we make—looking for our version of the emotional unlocking, storytelling, and melody for a given piece always starts with looking to Joan.


“The Eye” by Brandi Carlile

Cannot remember how I first came to this music. But I heard a song somewhere in the summer of 2015 and then looked up the singer. I had never heard of Brandi Carlile. But I started to get so into some of her songs, and was sending them compulsively to Chris saying there was something about this sound that felt like it could work in parts in our approach to Ghost Rings. Then I learned she was this out lesbian in country music and married to a woman and had kids with her, and it felt even more right that she was embedded in some way in this piece we were making in part about queer family-making.  “The Eye” in particular did influence our final song “Not Here”—both in the lyrics I wrote and Chris’s music approach to it. I think Chris’s incredible drag alter-ego, Kimberly Clark, now also covers some Brandi Carlile when she performs.


“Lola” by The Raincoats

Female British post-punk band. They were totally punk in that they did not know how to play their instruments and taught themselves (which I in particular related to). But their sound is incredible, and filled with this rawness and feeling that is moving and awesome. I learned they recorded a live album at The Kitchen in NYC in the early 80s, and that’s become an artistic home to Half Straddle so felt some glimmer of a kinship there. I just love the flipping of the paradigm when they cover “Lola” so chose this cover by them for this list (if we ever do an encore with this show, I want to do this song). And this quote is everything: “The basic theme in rock’n’roll is what goes on between men and women. Rock’n’roll is based on black music. And it’s based in the exclusion of women and the ghettoization of blacks. Which is why we want to put a bit of distance between what we do and the rock’n’roll tradition.” — The Raincoats interviewed by Greil Marcus in “In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-1992


“Two of Us On the Run” by Lucius

The band Lucius is a current band, a deeply talented girl (woman) band that co-composer Chris Giarmo has worked with before, in turn introducing their music to me. Their match-y aesthetic paired with badass attitude, incredible harmonies, and specific, weird, but moving lyrics made me fall in love with them and their songs. For all those reasons they influenced ideas I already have/had for my work in general, particularly for this show which is centered on two female singers singing closely together in good outfits. So many of their songs are incredible, but “Two of Us On the Run” is about two girls doing their own thing, the lyrics are great, harmonies are spine-tingling, and then it just breaks open in this almost anthemic way that I always fall for and think is such great performative modeling.


“Take Me with You” by Destroy All Monsters

The artist Mike Kelley is an ongoing influence and art hero. When we were figuring out how to make our own band—and what their sound and look should be—and things were inherently punk-y since I was learning an instrument to be in it, I looked to this really early Detroit total punk band that Mike Kelley had. And there was a girl singer. The lyrics and style of this song are SO GOOD. I knew as soon as I heard “I walked through the cemetery late that night” sung in that voice. Also the grainy images of the band I could find online influenced a bit the aesthetics of the costume and set at the premiere run of Ghost Rings at New York Live Arts.


“King Kunta” by Kendrick Lamar

Really love Kendrick. Since we were going to be using a lot of original tracks and beats in songs and under other parts of the show, I was drawn to the particular beat in this song as inspiration, particularly when it breaks open unexpectedly with short dialogue at like 2:07 and 2:48. So I shared this one with Chris. As with most of the songs I share with Chris as influences, it’s more an essential or very small thing in the songs that I’m drawn to that Chris then completely re-interprets (or disregards!), but he always takes the songs I pass on and reads them for whatever clues or direct ideas I say I’m drawn to in them.

“Step Aside” by Sleater-Kinney

American riot grrrl music and the movement has been a long-time interest and inspiration, and was something we were all inherently considering as we made this piece and its music. The song of ours where a riot grrrl kind of feel most clearly arises is in the middle section of “Map of the Area.” The first time we played it during a showing at the Performing Garage in like 2014 Erin and Kristen [Sieh] went crazy and it was so exciting. But bands like Heavens to Betsy and Le Tigre, and then of course Sleater-Kinney—probably my favorite band ever—are just constant inspirations at the level of music, politics, personal conduct, etc. “Step Aside” might be my favorite Sleater-Kinney song. Love the part where Corin name checks Carrie and Janet so much.


Excerpts from “Can You Pause That For A Second?” by Tracy + the Plastics

The Tracy + the Plastics project by artist Wynne Greenwood became a source of inspiration for the show. The music and videos were something I looked at a lot at the point when I was trying to nail down what the show would actually be for it’s premiere commission. I was trying to conceive of it as a rock show, but still with a DIY and feminist feel. Coming upon this work became a good way in. Even the Personal Inner Being animals that each girl in our show has were inspired a bit by imagining what the characters in the Tracy project would make. And the electronic beats she uses tied into what Chris was already doing in the sound design, which then allowed me to think of using that more to underscore dialogue sections, etc.


“Gun Street Girl” by Tom Waits

I don’t remember how I came upon this song. It was the summer of 2015 when I was really figuring out the show for the premiere in April 2016. I just thought there was something about this song that felt right as in influence, so I wrote lyrics to a song that “could sound like this” and sent those and the track to Chris. Our song “8 Ways to Disappear” is a bit informed by this song.


 “Sleeping Alone” by Lykke Li

Again, don’t remember how I came upon her, but also in that work period of summer 2015. There was an aesthetic about a show she did at Glastonbury I saw online. We looked at her look—this great robe kind of thing—and the stage for inspiration for our stage aesthetic. Then I just got really into this song in particular. It wasn’t one Chris and Erin used to influence any songs, but one I would listen to when I would write other parts of the show. There’s always that song that can just trigger the right kind of writing space for a given project, and it’s an intangible thing that just clicks. This song doesn’t feel connected to our show content, but to a period when I worked on it a lot. Like a Pavlovian prompt to make myself focus on the work.


Ghost Rings
Half Straddle

Sept 8 at 8pm
Sept 9 at 8pm*
*Features American Sign Language interpretation by Hands Up Productions.

Painted Bride Art Center
230 Vine Street
Wheelchair accessible

$29 (general)
20.30 (member)
$15 (student + 25-and-under)

Playlist and reflections by Tina Satter. Additional text by Hugh Wilikofsky. Show photos by Maria Baranova.