Thoughts on Music in Steampunk


For some time now, I’ve been performing music under the stage name Painless Parker. At first, it was just a sandbox for musical ideas. I recorded some webcam videos of cover songs with slight tweaks, loosely tied together with a stage persona. Then, as I got involved in the New York steampunk scene, I’d sing songs at picnics, and eventually got invited to play a full set at some indoor events at the Way Station. I got to perform an old union song at a steampunk pro-labor rally, and might even be a performer at next year’s Steampunk World’s Fair. My friends in the community have been incredibly supportive. Because they rock. It’s actually turning into a thing! I am, naturally, chuffed to bits.

All this has rekindled musings about musical steampunk. What is steampunk music? People have answered that in many ways. For the sake of argument, I’m going to classify three main approaches:

Music about steampunk, music in a modern or hybrid genre, in which the subject matter relates to steampunk. Abney Park are a prime example of this: The music itself is modern, including electric guitars and synths, with touches of world music thrown in. The songs revolve around the band’s alter-egos as airship pirates. Their stage presence and musical instruments reflect a well-considered and beautifully executed steampunk visual aesthetic.

Music outside of steampunk, which is not overtly steampunk in sound or subject matter, but fits in for whatever reason. The Two Man Gentleman Band would be a good example, and Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band may be another. Their music draws on a lot of the same sources that fuel steampunk, and they would be at home at any steampunk event. I’d put Painless Parker in this category, as well. Everything I do is only tangentially steampunk. The music is a mix of folk, country, puck and rock covers, plus an original or two that started out life as punk songs. I usually dress in a pseudo-victorian style, but nothing with gears on it or mechanical arms. I like to joke that Painless Parker and Steampunk are like red wine and stake—they aren’t the same thing, but they go together very nicely.

Music from within steampunk, which would be what a steampunk character would listen to or play, which is to say the music being made in an alternate reality. This approach interests me the most of the three. This is in part because there are hardly anyone’s doing it yet, despite its enormous potential. The rest of this little ramble will focus on this approach

First off, I’d like to add a caveat to the above statements and definitions, and say that there is a strong case for classifying Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band as employing the third approach, possibly by way of the second. Magpie’s SPWF 2011 review argues the point well. From what I can tell from interviews, they did not set out to be steampunk. However, the music they arrived at fits in perfectly with the aesthetic. Not only that, but I can totally imagine them parading around and making their lovely racket in a steampunk universe.

Let’s look at this idea of music from within a steampunk setting. Imagine the archetypical airship pirate. Zeppelins don’t fly themselves, and surely would require as much work to operate as a sailing ship. Lines to haul, decks to swab, and all the rest. Our pirate probably knows a handful or air shanties, some adapted from old sea shanties and some specific to air travel and the dangers of the skies. This ruffian of the clouds has surely been all over the world, and has been exposed to many regional styles of folk traditions in the different ports where the crew has docked. One is likely to pick up some exotic songs on the way. Maybe this character even plays an instrument. Something small and portable, like a mandolin or a concertina. Perhaps something handmade, or specially designed by a tinker. When this character was a kid, what sort of lullabies did Mother sing? What sort of entertainment was there on weekends? You can see that there’s a rich vein to be tapped here. But where to start?

Since steampunk draws its inspiration from the 19th century, it seems like a good idea to start with whatever people were listening to back then in the real world. There’s plenty to work with here: Beethoven, Gilbert & Sullivan, Scott Joplin, and many others were active at the time. The Romantic composers held sway over classical music. Music Hall in England showed up in the 1850s. Cabaret started in France in 1881. Sailors the world over were singing shanties, travelling circus bands were blending European folk and Roma traditions into their repertoires. Minsterl shows, performed by both black and white musicians, emerged in the US in the 1830s. Before the invention of the phonograph in 1877, people bought sheet music and played it at home for each other in the parlor. Many of our modern nursery rhymes began life as topical street songs, essentially musical political cartoons. And this is just Europe and North America. Colonialism meant a lot of cross-pollination between Western music and the music of Africa, Asia and South America. There’s a lot to work with, here.

Now take it up a notch and imagine an alternate history. The common historical conceits of steampunk involve major historical events turning out differently, various technologies appearing before their time, and similar anachronisms. What effect would this have on music? For instance, take James Ng’s idea of a world where the Industrial Revolution happened in China, making it the dominant worldwide power instead of Western Europe. Certainly this would have a tremendous influence on music, both in content and instrumentation. Imagine the workers of a steampunk world. What sort of protest songs would they sing? Look as well to the Tinkerer and Mad Scientist (I’m not mad, damn your eyes! I’m just eccentric) archetypes. What kind of musical instruments would they come up with? What if recording technology had been invented in the 1820s and by the late 1870s we already had folks dabbling in Musique Concrète? Imagine a wandering musician who tinkers with her instruments in her spare time, coming up with ways to accompany herself or play multiple melodies? Just look at what was actually happening in our world in the 19th century: musical automatons, player pianos, new musical instruments (Saxophones were invented in 1846), calliopes, music boxes and much more.

There are many fundamental questions to ask when searching for an intrinsically steampunk sound: who is producing music? How is it being distributed and consumed? How do musical tastes differ between classes, nationalities, trades, and so forth? Is music being used to unite people? To divide them? What is considered high art, what is considered popular vulgarity? How are different traditions interacting? What instruments are being used? How are they evolving?

At the moment, I haven’t got answers to any of these. It’s an overwhelming subject, and there’s a part of me that wants to go back to school and study musical history just so I have the background to engage in a project like this competently. The other part of me says just chill, do what you like and see where it takes you.

Above all else, what I think is needed is discussion. This sort of thing can’t be the product of one person. It would not have developed in a vacuum. I want others to weigh in with thoughts and ideas, to help me brainstorm and come up with something unique and meaningful that embodies steampunk from the inside.

So, who wants to talk shop?

13 Responses to “Thoughts on Music in Steampunk”

  1. This is very interesting, I like the three categories. I was thinking about how the Abney Park Steampunk Revolution kind of explains their idea of steampunk rather than seeming from the era.

    I don’t know a lot of technical stuff about music, although i do enjoy it, and, like most things in my life, prefer that with a bit of an olden-days sound to it. I love music that I think of as ‘sounding like old music boxes’ (like some of Agnes Obel’s music) or ‘hurdy-gurdy’. I also like old celtic style music.

    I have always loved the idea of the glass harmonica, and was lucky enough to hear one played in an old episode of Regency House party I was watching recently, and the sound really was quite hauntingly beautiful. I would love to see the return of the glass harmonica!

  2. Tom Slatter says:

    Great post – there are lots of fascinating avenues of ‘what if’ that could be explored in steampunk music.

    Most steampunk musicians (myself included) play music about steampunk, not what you’d necessarily expect to hear in a steampunk world. I find myself fascinated by the possibilities.

    ‘Colonialism meant a lot of cross-pollination between Western music and the music of Africa, Asia and South America.’

    Absolutely. What would we be listening to in a world where African and European music had not been fused as they have been? What rhythms would there be in popular music? What harmony would we hear in African vocal music if colonialism had never bought European hymns to Africa?

    What if massive sound systems had been invented to go with the gramophone? Would we have huge arrays of sound horns, mechanical sub-woofers and tweeters rather than electrical ones?

    Is scratching possible on a gramophone?

    Rather than the mellotron, would we have a machine that plays different wax cylinders, each playing a recording of a different pitch?

    The possibility of musical ‘what ifs’ is definitely worth exploring…

  3. […] debate on Steampunk music as a whole is an interesting article by Painless Parker entitled, “Thoughts on Steampunk Music.” Here’s a short selection from the article: There are many fundamental questions to […]

  4. Noam says:

    More to think about: Technology and class. This came up last weekend at the Waystation. Would an orchestra composed of automatons be considered an improvement over real musicians? Would it be high or low culture? If, in this fictional scenario, automatons are more expensive to make and maintain than human musicians, than the luxury of automatons may overcome any short-fallings they may have as musicians (articulation, phrasing, overly-accurate performance, etc). If they’re cheaper than humans, they might be consigned to popular music halls. Maybe they’re part of a government program to bring “proper” music to the masses. All sorts of fun politics to be had!

    Maybe composers prefer automatons who can be programmed to perform their music exactly as they envisioned it, no rehearsals needed and no self-important First Violinists to deal with. Perhaps they form a lobby to bar human musicians from concert halls. Perhaps then the human musicians rebel in some way, form a union and sabotage robots in musical ways (sneaking in and reprogramming them to do Finnegan’s Wake in the middle of a Wagnerian opera).

    How would Wagner have composed differently if he was composing for automatons? Or augmented musicians who could play multiple instruments at the same time?

    Something that had not occurred to me when I started thinking about this subject is that this whole process of figuring out where the music would come from is fertile ground for fiction. I was looking for the music itself, but the music’s story is just as compelling. Perhaps that’s a good way to get to the music: write a music-related story, then give it a soundtrack. Trying to make a soundtrack for an entire genre is a gargantuan task. In fact, it doesn’t really make sense. There should be at least as many kinds of music in steampunk as there were in the world during the 1800s. Hell, as many as there are now!

  5. Angel Harridan says:

    You should give a listen to The Clockwork Cabaret. They do an excellent job giving a soundtrack to steampunk adventures (both real & imagined), they play music, have silly sponsors, and the hosts are a hoot.

  6. Monsieur Noam touched upon one element- Cabaret & Catherine touched upon the other – audience interaction/breaking down the 4th wall, which, as far as I can tell, are the very elements that plant La Moi into the midst of the “real world” Steampunk realm, though I feel I’d fit just as aptly into any alternate reality I might ever happen to be plopped into.

    Monsieur Jordan Bodewell of stumbled upon my music back in the heyday of MySpace, and that is pretty much how I was “discovered” and inducted into the Steampunk genre.

    The quirkiness of my live perv-ormances (as I like to call them) isn’t readily apparent in my sound recordings, but luckily there’s video evidence in abundance to prove that I’m “not like the other girls.” 😉

    Gail Carriger, author of the “Parasol Protectorate” series of novels recently posted about how, because she takes a humourous approach in her work, in some quarters, she’s not considered a “true” steampunk writer.

    I find a similar challenge in the realm of bookings at steampunk events. For the most part, my own special brand of ODDitory madness had been warmly welcomed, but there are a few events who repeatedly book other acts with whom I’ve appeared, but steadfastly refuse to answer even one email from La Moi.

    I have no quarrel with promoters who wish to stick to acts that fit a certain set of what they consider “authentic steampunk “criteria, and in fact, I embrace the rejection, for in truth, I prefer simply to be regarded as an “artist” or “entertainer”, with NO adjective before either word.

    I create to please myself, and if members of some subcultures who label themselves a certain way can accept La Moi as I am, great, and if not, well, that must mean I’m growing and evolving and it’s time to move along, and find my next audience.

  7. Miriam says:

    Interesting article! I don’t have much to add, except to ask you if you know the band Sixteen Horsepower, and to offer you a CD if you don’t.

    One of my favorite of their songs; based on a Union Army marching cadence from the American Civil War. Definitely repurposing of old music, in this case a soldier’s folk song, which is totally, totally steampunk.

    • Noam says:

      As a matter of fact, last time you mentioned them to me I went and found a bunch of their music. good stuff! And yes, that’s a fantastic example of the sort of thing I’m talking about.

      • Miriam says:

        Oh good! I can never remember what I’ve actually told people about, and what I’ve sat there thinking I should tell people about…

        Think you could come up with a steampunkish song with gay rights themes? We’ll talk.

  8. Mary says:

    “What is considered high art, what is considered popular vulgarity?”

    (This is all off the top of my head, so don’t expect too much)

    Wow – it just struck me that I don’t actually think there *is* any conception of high art in steampunk – it’s all within a range of what would be considered pretty damn vulgar in a 19th century context.

    One of the most interesting things I find within steampunk music is the methods of production and consumption. At least in my own experience, discovery happens through live performance – I’ve only bought about 2 discs from musicians I hadn’t seen live first. In quite a contrast with more general science fiction conventions musical performances are a huge draw to steampunk events, whereas a general sci-fi con might have a “filk track”, but very few of those performers are a particular draw to that event/putting out CDs/performing outside of cons.

    “Is music being used to unite people?”

    Essentially, I think. Looking back at all the live performances within the scene I’ve been to the “shared experience”, whether it be dancing to ENSMB, or singing sea chanties with you have been the moments where I felt we were all “clicking” perfectly, if that makes sense. (There’s a larger idea here, I’m just not unpacking it properly.)

    • Noam says:

      All valid points, but I think you may have misunderstood my intent. You’re answering those questions with regard to the real-world steampunk community. I’m trying to ask them about fictional steampunk settings.

      • Mary says:

        Ah! Sorry about that.

        Now I’m imagining experimental symphonies. That could get…interesting. Like if Micheal’s Disorientor was originally invented as an instrument – “The concert could not be reviewed because the audience exploded.”

  9. Catherine says:

    The nineteenth century elements and the punk elements both seem important to me, but another thing about Painless Parker’s performances that seem very steampunk to me is the community element. When you’ve performed, whether at the Way Station or one of the picnics, there’s a lot of singing along, interaction, a sense of breaking that fourth wall. There’s not just “oh, the band is on, we must listen passively or move to the other room”; there’s real engagement between performer and audience; I suspect one reason for the deep love so many have for ENSMB is similar. Which, come to think of it, is very punk in some ways and hearkening back to the days when people sat around the parlor and created music for themselves and others. My friend Jessica Valiente wrote a manifesto called “Take The Damned Earbuds Out Of Your Ears” about the value of live music; it’s not posted anywhere but message me with your email address and I’ll pass it along.
    Thanks for a thoughtful post; I’ll come back when I don’t have a vast stack of finals to grade and see what else has been said . . .

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