SteamU: What is Steampunk Music; Featuring Valentine Wolfe, Cirque Noir, and The Melting Clock

Friday, September 27, 2013




Roaming around the steampunk universe is fun. From discovering everything from steampunk writing, art, poetry, fashion, comics, tinkered devices, and even cakes, you learn there is a lot going on in steampunk. I was delighted to discover a steampunk facebook group entirely devoted to steampunk music! As I took a look around, I discovered that steampunk music, like steampunk writing, varies a lot in flavor-but it is all still beautifully steampunk. Today on SteamU, I asked three fantastic steampunk groups, Valentine Wolfe, Cirque Noir, and The Melting Clock: “What is steampunk music?” Their replies are as unique and as varied as steampunk. I am delighted to highlight these three talented groups today: 


Steampunk Musicians: Valentine Wolfe





Interviewee: Sarah

 

"What is Steampunk Music?"


Anachronism is the predominant feature in Steampunk Music. This can include all aspects of the music such as the lyrics, instrumentation, orchestration, costumes, and stylistic elements. Just as in steampunk fashion, the music can be a melting pot of several different ideas, some of which may include but are not limited to Victoriana. 

For our most recent album/project, we have focused on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. They really inspire the era of Victorian otherworldliness in a way that is dark and decadent it makes his work so steampunk (to us)! His stories really imagine the future in ways that not many other people of his time could envision.

For our project, we are partnering with a visual artist named Jacob Wenzka. He is responsible for all the visual art and graphic design of the graphic novel which accompanies our newest album. Here’s a bit from the back cover of the book:

In the mists of a past both forgotten and imagined, an expert historian discovers that the sanctuary of his sanity is just an illusion. The life and work of Edgar Allan Poe is our guide through this world of forgotten and forbidden knowledge, echoes through time, and the revelation of a simple yet horrible secret. Begin your journey into Poe’s darkness with the art of Jacob Wenzka and the Victorian Chamber Metal score by Valentine Wolfe.

Yes, we call it Victorian Chamber Metal. When we include those three elements in our music, it becomes firmly defined it as anachronistic and, by extension, steampunk. We use Victorian-esque accompaniments for several of the songs such as Morella, The Assignation, and Ligeia. Listen to the piano parts and even some of the melodic arco bass lines to hear what I mean. These parts are meant to sound similar to Victorian parlour music of the time. The Chamber part is a term in classical music that usually means one person plays per part. It is different from orchestra music where many violinists may be playing on that particular part. 

We both have quite a bit of classical experience and some of our songs are designed to reflect art songs in the classical world from the Victorian time period. That time period in classical music is known as the Romantic Period and features such wonderful composers as Robert and Clara Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven, and Berlioz. One of the features of our music that makes it steampunk is that we combine many of the aspects of classical music from the Victorian time period and combine that with modern distortion and electronic music programming thereby re-imagining a past that never was or a future that we’d love to work towards!

Some of the features from the Romantic Period we use are form and coloration or experimenting with timbre. One of the popular musical forms (how the music is organized) of the Victorian time was sonata form. None of our songs are completely in sonata form, but we do like to develop some of our themes in a similar way. Romantic Composer Franz Schubert wrote art songs, which were very popular in the 19th century and remain so today, such as Gretchen am Spinnrade and Die Erlkonig. As such, we love composing art songs. Poe’s poem are so lyrical and song-like already, so it was such a joy to set these to music! We let the words that Poe wrote completely guide us in The Lake and The Bells where we set his words as he wrote them. They both tell stories that lurk on the dark side. 



This was the atmosphere we wanted to capture for some of the Poe stories we wanted to set such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death, which bring to our discussion of timbre, or coloration in music. Composers from the Victorian time period began experimenting with using a variety of timbres of various instruments to help tell the story. We like to experiment with that as well, especially in the bass playing. The bass is such a versatile instrument with such an incredible range: On our album we did not use any guitars or violins or cellos, yet sometimes it sounds as if we did!

We hope that you will listen to our album and see how well we did on all these elements we were going for! You can order our album Once Upon A Midnight from our website or go to iTunes or Amazon.




Steampunk Musicians: Cirque Noir

 


 

 


"What is Steampunk Music?"

 

For CIRQUE NOIR, Steampunk is the mysterious and open-ended "non-genre" our listeners generally associated us with, in our formative years. The various bands which are most generally connected to the Steampunk genre can range anywhere on the musical spectrum from folk rock, to classic rock, to techno-infused world music, to synthesized orchestras, to hip-hop-laced industrial. But the one thing they all seem to more-or-less share in common is a certain fashion aesthetic, which contains one or more elements of Victorian/Neo-Victorian clothing, historical and/or future-based fantasy, and more distinctive Steampunk fashion elements -- brass/copper metal components, clock gears, and various mechanical details in fashion and artwork. The other element which many so-called "Steampunk" bands seem to have in common is a whimsical, vaudevillian, theatrical and/or comedic vibe which permeates the music, on-stage banter, artwork, and the fantastical "characters" the band members play.

Most of these fashion, artistic, theatrical, and musical aspects are ones which CIRQUE NOIR gladly and uniquely embody in our style! Yet, we also include many elements which are not commonplace in the Steampunk musical genre, which we feel differentiate us as a very quirky and unique approach to and interpretation of Steampunk. Among these are our cabaret-style skits and witty banter between songs, inclusion of prominent goth /punk / new-wave elements in our music and fashion sense, and most certainly, a distinctive and maniacal infusion of "dark cabaret, dark circus, Burton-esque, Marx Brothers-esque, and Monty Pythonesque" facets into the overall mix! We could quite aptly be considered a group of mad scientists in quirky and eclectic dress, haphazardly pouring our many "chemical" influences into the proverbial petri dish, resulting in an unearthly and volatile musical compound which could explode at any time!

From the beginning, our philosophy was to make our music FUN, DARK, and DEEP. We want nothing more than to make you laugh and shake your head at the utter absurdity, add a little ethereal and mystical spookiness to your existence, and furthermore, with our deeper lyrical themes, inspire you to contemplate the true nature of the universe, reality, and the human self. That last component is the most hidden and esoteric layer of CIRQUE NOIR. We are all, in one way or another, involved in deeper intellectual, psychological, scientific, and "spiritual/metaphysical" pursuits -- and the various forms of knowledge which inspire us are undoubtedly infused in one form or another into the music, in order to fuel our own personal quests, and spread that "desire for the depths of human experience" to all friends, Romans, and countrymen (but especially madmen and madwomen!) who would lend us their ears! 

We look forward to inspiring you with our "severe aerial bombardment of ludicrous vaudevillian song and music acts"! WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS!



Steampunk Musicicans: The Melting Clock





Interviewee: Ryan Genengels


 

"What is Steampunk Music?" 

 

As one who is involved in the expression of Steampunk from a musical perspective, I am often asked to provide a description of what exactly Steampunk Music is. This can be difficult to explain, as musical interpretations of Steampunk are as varied as the presentations one might see in Steampunk visual art, fashion, and literature. For example, while attending a Steampunk Convention, one might see a person dressed as if they are ready for an authentic Victorian Tea while others look like clockwork automaton robots. Although musical representations are varied, there are some common threads that run through Steampunk Music. Here are 7 Points where similarity can be found.

1. A Declaration. Perhaps the easiest way to tell if a band is considered Steampunk is if they describe themselves as such. There are many bands (past and present) who certainly touch on elements of Steampunk, but have dedicated themselves to other genres. If you find a band who has devoted themselves to the Steampunk genre at least you can be assured that they are trying to fit the bill with their overall presentation. 

2. The Look. Most bands express their devotion to Steampunk by incorporating fashion elements inspired by the Victorian era and/or Victorian Sci-Fi. Some have argued that the look is all that is necessary for a band to be considered Steampunk. It can be countered that many other bands would then have to be included that might not fit the bill. Many bands in the 60s such as the Rolling Stones used Victorian visual elements as well as 80s artists such as David Bowie. More recently Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber used Steampunk elements in music videos. While one could certainly say these musicians were Steampunk/Victorian inspired, it would be difficult to classify them as Steampunk artists. While most Steampunk musicians do embrace a Steampunk look, it is not absolutely necessary. There are many Steampunk artists who are able to transport the listener musically. 

3. Narrative Elements. Often the works of a Steampunk band will contain Narrative elements. Some have even gone so far as to release books based upon the stories presented in the music. Narrative Elements vary greatly from artist to artist and from song to song. Some present dark distopian views of the Steampunk world while others employ a more whimsical approach. 

4. A Backstory. Like many members of the Steampunk community, Steampunk bands typically fabricate a backstory. Some backstories that have been concocted by Steampunk bands include: Airship Pirates; Automatons; Carnival Performers; Mad Scientists; Time Travelers; Vaudevillians; and Tea Totaling Adventurers.

5. Anachronistic Elements. Often times one will hear the sound of traditional instruments such as violin or piano juxtaposed against the sound of an electric guitar or synthesizer. I have heard people state that modern instruments have no place in Steampunk music as they were not available in the Victorian era. One could argue that things such as electric guitar, drum machine, and synthesizer can help illuminate the Sci-Fi properties of Steampunk. For example, a drum machine might be used to formulate a highly syncopated clockwork sound while the low crunch of an electric guitar might be used to emulate the gritty sound of a steam engine. Using a synthesizer to add electrical, mechanical, and traditional sound can also help enhance a Retro-Futuristic ambiance. Anachronism can also be achieved lyrically. One might hear a song that sounds completely modern while the singer sings of cogs, gears, and corsets. Conversly one might hear an old timey sounding band singing about robots or zombies. In the world of Steampunk music you may well find yourself at a Dubstep Tea Party or doing a Clockwork Reel.

6. Borrowed Elements. Steampunk music often carries elements of other music genres such as Goth, Industrial, and Cabaret. It stands to reason that Steampunk would have close ties to Goth. Queen Victoria herself is known to have started a rage for dressing in black and adorning oneself with mourning jewelry. Victorians also loved things that go bump in the night which is again a common theme in Goth Music. Many great works of Gothic Romance also came from the Victorian era. Industrial music lends well to the sci-fi aspects of Steampunk; especially in the usage of mechanical sounds. Of course Cabaret harkens back to the Moulin Rouge/Carnivalia aspects of life around the turn of the century.

7. DIY. In keeping with the Do It Yourself spirit of Steampunk, many musicians within the genre are self-produced. Very few Steampunk musical projects have been big budget endeavors. Often projects are funded via Kickstarter/Crowdfunder campaigns or out of pocket.

For me personally Steampunk combines many of my favorite things. I have long been a fan of Victorian style, Science Fiction, and History. I am inspired by the creativity that exists within the community as a whole. When I see pictures of pocket watches that people have made that highlight the beauty of the inner workings, it makes me want to capture that musically. When I see pictures of ladies with lavish gowns and corsets adorned with gears, or gentlemen dressed in finery with mechanical arms, it makes me want to take part. Steampunk allows me to tinker with music much as someone who makes something out of cogs and gears. There are so many artists who have laid a firm foundation for the genre, yet there is still so much room for exploration. The diversity of ways in which an artist can express themselves in Steampunk is exciting. It is also what makes Steampunk Music so difficult to describe. 




I am so grateful to these fantastically talented artists for sharing their thoughts on steampunk music. Please be sure to check out their work! Next week, we have another fabulous steampunk writer at SteamU. Be sure to stop by!


Class Dismissed!

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