40 songs, soundtracks and musical numbers

4 March 2019

As part of ISTA’s 40th birthday celebrations we are putting together lists of resources and things we love – and here you’ll find 40 songs, soundtracks and musical numbers loved by different people from the ISTA community. Enjoy!

And if you want to listen to this incredibly eclectic mix of music, there’s a Spotify playlist of all of the right here.

‘On the Wrong Side of Relaxation’ by Barry Adamson
It’s the soundtrack for a film that was never made. I used to listen to it on tape, on a Walkman no less, when I lived and worked in Moss Side in Manchester, UK. In later years I revisited it as a teaching tool—it’s great as a stimulus for all sorts of drama work.
Jen Tickle, Jamaica

‘Dancing with Myself’ by Billy Idol
When I sometimes do 5Rhythms with students I use this song in the Chaos bit. It’s a wild, fast and fantastic song to dance to and there is no special dance style that goes with it—you can dance however you want to. I might also put it on if I feel like the students can do with releasing some wild, chaotic energy—with the added bonus of educating them in a bit of punk rock history.
Emmy Abrahamson, Sweden

‘A Bad Trip’ by The Night Trains
I use this instrumental acid jazz piece as a stimulus for a devising exercise. It works great to introduce students to the Collaborative Theatre project and is also helpful in movement work. New instruments add to the beat every ten seconds or so and it can lead to a great discussion on the elements of storytelling. It’s upbeat but dark at the same time and seems to resonate with everyone.
Jillian Campana, Egypt

‘Harry Lime Theme’ by Anton Karas (from The Third Man/recorded by Lakatos-Gipsy Classics, Deutsche Grammophon)
I just love the playful nature of this track. I use it frequently when devising comic moments with stylised movement. It never fails to get students energised and interacting with one another. It is also great for a keystone cop chase scene improvised around the space as a warm up.
Mhairi MacInnes, Austria

For What it’s Worth’ by DJ Drez, India Dub
Such a glorious beat and a great reference to the Buffalo Springfield song from the 1960s. I use it for meditation and for a warm up sequence.
Bill Bowers, United States

‘Downtown’ by Majical Cloudz
I just love this song. The song itself I found when I watched the OA and I had to Shazam it right away. I find the song haunting and beautiful at the same time. I use it sometimes when I am doing physical reactions to music and share it often with people as I am desperate to see it choreographed in a dance. Would love to see how others interpret it.
Keriann O’Rourke, Singapore

‘All The Candles in The World’ by Jane Siberry
I just recently used this song as part of an activity during TaPS in NYC and students in my ensemble commented on how hypnotic and mystical it is; it’s dark, haunting, choral, beautiful. I first used it in a play entitled Poverty that I wrote many years ago for a student competition in Peru. The play caught on and has been performed several times since and so did the song! I have loved Siberry since I was 18 when her song/video of Mimi on The Beach appeared on MTV in Canada and challenged my definition of music and music videos. So many of her songs really move me (‘The Walking’ and ‘Constantly’) or make me laugh (Canadians, check out ‘Hockey’!) She has so much music that is free to access and so rich.
Anthony Cunningham, The Netherlands

‘That’s Life’ by Frank Sinatra
Despite being a huge fan of The Clash, The Jam, The Specials etc and always being drawn back to the songs of my youth, my first introduction to music was through my dad’s love of jazz. I think this song is a classic and have it earmarked for my funeral. ‘That’s life. That’s what all the people say. You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.’ Great lyrics.
Ian Pike, United Kingdom

‘Sam’ from the Danny the Dog soundtrack by Massive Attack
A piece from a great soundtrack that I’ve come back to again and again over the years to accompany theatrical moments of contemplation, sadness, peace, transcendence etc. The track follows a clear emotional journey but I’ve also found myself picking specific sections for different purposes.
Corin James, Singapore

‘Pulstar’ by Vangelis
This is used when beginning work on devising to encourage students to get up and do as opposed to sitting and discussing for ages. They listen to the music first to gain a sense of atmosphere and then they create a character individually without any discussion. The music is played again and students are encouraged to enter a space or the stage and take up a still image or position. These positions or images are then brought to life slowly and they interact with each other and students see the possibility of creating a storyline or performance without the need to sit down for ages first to discuss ideas. Often the bringing to life happens in stages—working from simple movement and connection into acknowledgement and conversation. A variation would be to add props or objects that the students use to enhance their characters or to build a storyline.
Hazel Ball, The Netherlands

‘The Nature of Daylight’ from The Blue Notebooks by Max Richter
Hauntingly beautiful music, perfect for physical theatre work. We used ‘The Nature of Daylight’ to accompany a drowning sequence in a physical theatre version of The Odyssey and it will stay with me forever.
Kate Friend, Switzerland

‘Ordinary Day’ by Great Big Sea
This song is my anthem. It was on my iPad shuffle and as I went on my last run before cancer surgery and treatment, it came on. It is always a reminder that I have a pretty great life even on the regular days. And that no matter how difficult the times, if I treat it like an ordinary day, I will get through it. I am strong.
Angela David, Peru

Soundtrack to Gattaca by Michael Nyman
I think it’s great for creating different atmospheres in pieces of theatre. I used many tracks for music in our school’s production of The Laramie Project. Michael Nyman produces great music for theatre.
Alan Hayes, Belgium

‘Keep Breathing’ by Ingrid Michaelson
I first used in at an ISTA festival in Berlin about eight years ago when my ensemble and I were making a piece inspired by the Stasi Prison we had visited. It seems to get to the heart of what we wanted to say immediately and I think we were all incredibly moved by it and what it helped us to make. I have since used it in another show with my company Junction 25 in our A Bit Of Bite about contemporary politics and how we can use our voice as young people today. Again it seemed to help us get right to what felt most urgent and important. It feels like a song I’ll always use in my teaching and making—certainly as long as the world is as turbulent and confusing as it is today. It’s a song about the need for action but also how easy it can be to ignore things and bury our heads. Ultimately it is telling us that whatever else is happening we have to keep breathing—that’s the first step.
Jess Thorpe, Scotland

Ederlezi’ (Time of the Gypsies) by Goran Bregovic
This has many wonderful ISTA memories attached to it. Back in the day, in the distant early 90s Sally Robertson, Tom Wilkins and I had a mini festival in Budapest on travelling communities and the film and this track was central to it—in fact somewhere there’s a photo of the three of us posing in still of a movement sequence (well something like that). I’ve used it since in many workshops and festivals because it’s haunting and starts very slow with a lone voice before turning into a full choral piece—a lovely metaphor for ensemble! I use it for internal and physical focus and control, for exploration of space with different tempos and for transitional exploration of solo to pairs to small group to whole group.
Dinos Aristidou, United Kingdom

‘Like Singing Plates’ by Radiohead
This track is so sublime and feels so unlike a lot of contemporary music. It’s evocative, gritty and full of the soulful heartache that Radiohead is so wonderfully known for. I feel transported whenever I listen to it. I listened to this album (Amnesiac) a lot after it came out. I was studying in NYC and living uptown. Every morning as I traveled on the subway I’d plug in this album, ride the subway for 40 minutes and wake up. I love using this particular song for open physical improvisations. It encourages simple, poetic and purposeful movement. I love it!
Shane Jones, Australia

‘Staccato’ by Gabrielle Roth
It offers so many different possibilities and can be used as inspiration or movement stimulus in so many ways and for various situations. I use it for a movement exploration called ‘Snakes and robots’. Divide the room with a line (masking tape, or a row of shoes) down the middle. One side is ‘snake-land’ and the other is ‘robot-land’. Crossing from one side to the other means you have to change the style of your movement from smooth and slinky to choppy and mechanical. Particularly ambitious movers try standing with one leg on each side.
Claudia Kennedy, Saudi Arabia

‘Finished Symphony’ by Hybrid
This has loads of peaks and troughs and dramatic moments and drops and it is wonderful for doing physical theatre warm ups because it is so motivating and has a very good pace; especially recommended for the frantic assembly exercise ‘Quad jump’.
James Copp, Germany

‘Mon Oncle’ by Frank Barcellini
I have used it for many years in clown exercises and workshops and occasionally for performance. The music sums up Jacques Tati’s clown work and is perfect to play during simple, tragic or boss clown routines and I never tire of it. If you are studying or teaching clown or physical comedy, I would also urge you to watch the film, it is a work of genius.
Stephen Finegold, People’s Republic of China

‘Everyday’ by The Cinematic Orchestra
I was first introduced to the band The Cinematic Orchestra by my neighbour George when I was thirteen years old. The track begins with a playful yet brooding double bass improvisation and gradually—almost imperceptibly—builds into a sweeping, surging, hypnotic mass of instruments, electronic samples and a children’s choir singing in a language I don’t recognise and would prefer to keep mysterious. From this dizzying peak, the song plummets right back down to a haunting combination of marimba and brushed cymbals, with waves of electronic shimmers that surge past like swooping manta rays. These sounds gradually become quieter and quieter until, eventually, nothing is left.
I often use ‘Everyday’ as a backing track for creating written text as well as movement, both for myself and my students. It’s atmospheric, multifaceted and has many different sections that rise and fall, swell and ebb, build and disappear across ten minutes and often provokes an interesting and varied creative output in the listener/writer/mover.
Ben Vardy, United Kingdom

‘Banatzeana’ by Fanfare Ciocarlia
This band makes music that makes you want to move. Involuntarily. I have used their music for many years for the musicality, energy and pure joy they bring to a room. The size of their sound and the theatricality of their music also perfectly compliments my Commedia teaching; creating a rich theatrical landscape for exaggerated characters to enter into. This particular track is pure Zanni music, destined to accompany a chase or the performing of multiple jobs at the same time—if adrenaline was musical this would be the result!
Christopher Hawes, United Kingdom

‘Time’ by Pink Floyd
From the evocative cacophony of chimes and ticking at the start, to the slow building rhythm and rocking guitars, to the melancholy lyrics and vivid imagery—this track has it all. I’ve used it in a piece with students where we created psychedelic images of time sped up and slowed down—where days looped and lives were wasted.
Also: there are copies of Dark Side Of The Rainbow available on the internet which is worth a watch. It’s The Wizard of Oz with the songs replaced by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. The parallels between the music and film are uncanny and mesmerising!
Carl Robinson, Belgium

‘The Hours’ by Philip Glass
I use this a lot when working on Laban movement for devising stories, characters and location. It has a lot of freedom at the start but builds when the piano comes in and there is tension which is emotive for movement. The different rhythms are like water or air flowing, which helps with working on levels and planes when focusing on storytelling in different spaces. I have also used this with teachers when devising from a starting point. It helps with imagery and plot development. For group devised pieces it helps participants identify moments of solitary work/isolation and group connections/harmony, as there are moments in the music that reflect these feelings. It lends itself to working with tension, emotion, atmosphere and meaning.
Fenella Kelly, Hong Kong

‘Ave Maria’ by Jocelyn Pook
The track ‘Ave Maria’ by Pook is just so full of emotion. It’s the perfect soundscape for physical theatre work that really gets under the skin of the human condition, bridging the gap between east and west.
Nicola Murray, United Kingdom

‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ by Radiohead
It’s an amazing song that uses lots of different rhythms and speeds which is great for students as they develop pieces of physical theatre for them to respond to. It’s also a great way to open a show as it crescendos quite quickly and pulls an audience in before the action starts on stage. It also makes me very happy!
Adam Walker, Hong Kong

‘The Night We Met’ by Lord Huron
The song brings about a feeling of connection and nostalgia and would work seamlessly with physical theatre/frantic assembly style work. The song talks about travelling and leaving people —a story I believe would be very familiar to a lot of our ISTA students living an international life that requires movement and change. It is about gains and losses and taking the time to grieve.
Odette MacKenzie, Australia

‘A Forest’, ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Black Hole Sun’ from Westworld: Season 1 (Music from the HBO® Series)
I love this album from the TV show Westworld. I have used the songs in performances, as warm-ups and provocations for devising. I love the fact that there is familiarity in the pieces, but each track has been re-imagined to make it fresh and new—as though being played from an old fashioned music box for example. ‘A Forest’, ‘No Surprises’ and ‘Black Hole Sun’ are faves! Lots of potential and fun. Plus it’s on Spotify…
Nicole Glisson, Singapore

‘Elevation of Love’ by Esbjön Svensson Trio
For me the tune sets a tone of joy and discovery that goes on a journey of intensity of beauty and it is lovely music to enter and a explore a space with.
Rob Russell, Bangladesh

‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ by Elaine Stritch
I use this song in my lyric writing class because it is such a fine example—one of the best—of lyric craft. The perfect rhymes, internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, percussive words and sounds, end rhymes—you name it—are amazing. Also the performance by Stritch is striking. You can couple the analysis of and the listening to the song with the scene of ‘Stritch’s epic struggle with her big number’ that serves as the climax to the D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: Company. ‘Stritch, Stephen Sondheim and the orchestra were all exhausted because it was after midnight and the end of a long day of recording. After struggling several times to perform the vocals, the recording session was suspended. Stritch returned two days later, after a matinee performance of Company and successfully recorded the final take for the album.’ (June Thomas, Slate, July 17, 2014).
Margie Duffield, United States of America

‘Embers’ by Max Richter
My first ISTA ensemble, never been to a festival before. The AD, David Gardiner, brought a CD of music inspirations. The title of the festival was Survival. For some reason, the students loved a boat punting technique I showed them from Chinese theatre and this turned into a boat rescue operation of immigrants washed overboard on the open seas. Although the music was called ‘Embers’, there was something very haunting and touching about the conflagration of water, ash and spoken voice in the far background of the music that made the movement piece very melancholy. I like using Max Richter’s work in devising—indistinct talking and resonant patterns of sound.
Jo Riley, Germany

Various tracks by David Byrne
I find myself always using music from David Byrne’s score for The Forest, a theater piece by Robert Wilson. It’s quirky and dramatic and otherworldly—very much sui generis—and it’s unusual enough that people don’t know it. One track in particular, ‘Tula’, I return to again and again. It starts with accordion and gypsy violin and percussion and eventually builds to a truly mad climax with strings and brass. Another track, ‘Machu Picchu’, weaves a beautiful and eerie landscape of sound. A third, ‘Ur’, starts with solo trumpet and builds into a majestic orchestral processional. Vocals—from Byrne and others—are woven throughout. Truly a remarkable and unusual musical experience!
Greg Pliska, United States of America

‘Enter Our World’ by District 78
I recently used this piece for a choreography inspired by video games. I find it incredibly hard to chose just one track as a favourite but as this is my favourite at the moment that’s what I’m going with. Also love the title. It has loads of ‘oomph’ and the students responded really well to the energy and clear beat. The distinct sections and changes in dynamics also helped students create each section of their choreography. I can be found jumping around the kitchen to it to reignite a bit of energy at the end of the day and chop the veg with gusto. It’s not my husband’s kind of thing though!
Zoe Weiner, Portugal

‘I’ll Rise’ by Ben Harper
This is an incredibly moving and powerful song that’s loaded with meaning and history. Towards the end of the song Harper sings ‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave’. And this is followed by the determined repetition of ‘I rise’. While this is rooted in a specific historical context this song tends to speak to many others of their own oppressions and hardships and about the nature of resilience and resistance. Harper borrows these words from the poetry of the wonderfully talented civil rights author Maya Angelou and this adds a further dimension. I have used this song as a stimulus with various groups over the years and the work they have created in response has been poignant and beautiful. In schools it also ties in nicely with cross-curricular work in various subjects, including for example history and English literature.
George Fearnehough, France

‘Chammak Challo’ by Akon, Hamsika Iyer and Mickey Singh
I love this song because it’s upbeat and fun. A neat fact—this was the first musical collaboration of Akon with Indian artists. Who doesn’t love a bit of Bollywood? I have the kids/teachers make up moves as well and add that into the dance along the way. I like to use everyday actions like ‘wipe the windows’, ‘twist the lightbulbs’, ‘wipe the table’, ‘touch the ceiling’, ‘I don’t know’ (shoulder shrugs) or ‘shake your booty’ to help us remember the dance moves. It’s great for a warm up, a brain break or just some fun! Everyone’s always smiling if not laughing by the end.
Edna Lau, Singapore

‘Salento’ by René Aubry
I first heard this song when it was used by Frantic Assembly in one of their workshops during an ISTA TaPS (teacher workshop). I’ve heard it again when I watched the performance of Lovesong performed of course by Frantic. I fell in love with it immediately and I’ve used it numerous times when exploring movement with several of my classes or to underscore dialogue. I find it both uplifting and heartbreaking at different points within the music… a must use!
Rachel Jackson, Sri Lanka

‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ by Frank Sinatra
I use it as a warm up. We all start to dance around the room imagining that there is something inside us trying to get out. It makes us do random pointing, shaking, kicking, flicking and veering—getting wilder until the instrumental build up, when it all gets too much. Milt Bernhart’s explosive trombone solo allows the ‘creature’ to burst out of our bodies (think John Hurt in Alien). It’s totally outrageous and I love it so much I have to get a grip—as I really want to bust the buttons off my shirt and howl.
It’s a tour de force by Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle. There are so many great songs on the album (Songs for Swingin’ Lovers) and if your kids have never heard Frank sing, this is a great starting point.
Annie McManners, Germany

‘One Great City’ by The Weakerthans
I used this song to open our production of Morris Panych’s 7 Stories, a one act surrealistic play that is about (among other things) a search for meaning in a town. A strange but honest song about winter in Winnipeg and hating one’s own hometown. Listen once and fall in love with it. Exceptional song-writing example—how to tell a story and how each time a phrase repeats, it does so with new weight and new meaning.
Dave Gagnier, South Korea

‘Horizonte’ by Mauricio Maestro featuring Naná Vasconcelos
I love Brazilian music in general! I lived in Rio de Janeiro for a year and it was pretty amazing. I interned at the Theatre of the Oppressed, learned Portuguese, taught English and French… and went to the beach a lot. I find this song really uplifting and nice to play in the background when warming up for a class, playing games… usually when I do Theatre of the Oppressed workshops I try and play more Tropicália style music—which was a response to the dictatorship that attacked them—much like they attacked Augusto Boal. The percussionist and vocalist featured on this track is also inspiring because he is so unique and unconventional. There is a nice TED talk about Hidden Music Rituals, by Vincent Moon, where you can also see him playing. He can turn anything into an instrument, or a song.
Desta Haile, United Kingdom

‘Falling Slowly’ by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
I’ve used this song several times with students as an introduction to singing in harmony, particularly in a choral setting. The music is really beautiful and people often seem to really connect with it emotionally. The original duet includes a harmony with the lines working in parallel and this, combined with the particular shape of the phrases, makes it really great for groups of singers blending together.
Rebecca Applin, United Kingdom

‘Colorblind’ by Counting Crows
I love this track because it is both powerful and calm. I use it for both meditation and movement. I have seen Counting Crows many times in concert and they are wonderful artists because it is a new experience every time you see them. They improvise and truly express their music onstage—so even the same song is a new journey each time.
Liisa Smith, Canada