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?