Today I have the pleasure of posting an intriguing article regarding Steampunk Music from Admiral Ramon del Mar, regarding the ever challenging consideration of Steampunk music. This particular topic has always vexed description, but his work is certainly a guidepost to garnering a better understanding of the topic! As such...
Is Steampunk Music Really Victorian Influenced?
While Steampunk Music is presumed to have some sort of Victorian influence, that seems doubtful at times in some bands, but we must take into consideration that modern audiences might not really show up much to a straight Victorian style concert. On the other hand, one of the defining factors, for what most would accept as a legitimately "Steampunk Band", has less to do with clothing than with the sound, the instruments, and the lyrics. As I discuss this topic in another Blog post on a similar topic already, I will try to be brief and say simply that what matters most to me are that the sound is older ins style than, oh...lets say... "Metallica" for instance, and that they work some older acoustic instruments, (preferably older even than guitars or modern drums sets, such as fiddle, mandolin, harpsichord, Sitar, Dumbek, Tabla, Djimbe etc) into their music in a very prominent way. What is most important though is that they present the sort of fictional stories that are at the heart of the Steampunk movement in the lyrics of many of their songs. What that amounts to may vary of course, but the songs tend to be about adventure, wanderlust, and a fondness, even obsession with invention, especially the sort of science fictional inventions imagined in the Victorian age such as clockwork robots (which did actually exist, courtesy of Archimedes as early as 250 bc, but had a very limited range of preset actions), Tesla coils, times machines etc.
I realize this may open up the question of whether or not there are more of what I define as steampunk musicians at the local Renaissance Fairs than there are at most Steampunk Conventions, but what of it? In the first place, they clearly do a better job of using pre-modern instruments, and in the second place, they cover the adventure, highwayman, pirate, and wanderlust songs, extremely well. On the other hand, they do not incorporate anachronistic or steam era items in accoutrement (most of the time anyway) and most importantly, do not call themselves "Steampunk Musicians", but many bands that do use that label would do well to look hard at what those musicians do so well and learn from them!
As circuses were a very widely talked about and enjoyed form of entertainment enjoyed since the Roman Empire, but came into prominence as a traveling show under the guidance of Gypsies around the 1400s. As such it is actually renaissance era material, and was around in America as early as before the revolution to become a nation, but came ever more into prominence as time passed.
How much impact or connection there is between Vaudeville era and Steampunk depends on who you ask, although it is certainly at the heart of entertainment in the early Diesel Punk Era, but it is likely that Vaudeville type performances were common in less high brow establishments long before the speak easy era such as during the late Victorian Era, although they would have been kept hidden and secret, except in frontier areas, prior to the sexual revolution of the roaring 20's. As such, while Vaudeville was kept secret during the Victorian Era, it certainly flourished in some Opium Dens and back rooms of Gentlemen's Clubs, or private chambers of some mansions, but more a private performances or sex clubs entertainments where Victorian "Gentlemen" could release their "sexually oppressed" desires out of sight of the Queen's men. As such, I would argue that although public Vaudeville Acts are actually Diesel Punk, their predecessors and historical sources actually developed under, and were partially created by, the sexually oppressive public culture of the Victorian Age. As such their themes are also appropriate lyrics for "Steampunk Music", even though they, like circus and carnival songs, have a very distinctive and different flavor all their own.
Post apocalyptic Era adventure fiction where the steam era re-surfaces is unquestionably a major theme in many Steampunk stories and therefore an excellent source of lyrics for "Steampunk Music". This is especially true when you consider that a modern "Steampunk Ensemble" is considered incomplete without at least one "clunky raygun" per most internet descriptions although I would say that the majority prefer more elegant looking ones, but that requires a higher level of fabrication skill, or a lot of money, which not all of us have. Regardless, a "raygun", by definition something using electromagnetic radiation, as in a laser, or some other form of very advanced radiation or sound weapon, would not only never have been invented in the Victorian Age, on any time line, for the same reason Lonardo De Vinci could not complete his greatest designs, namely inferior materials and fabrication techniques, but the power supply to power such a device in a hand held version may never be created, by humans at least, as we are far more likely to destroy ourselves, or at least the level of technological civilization necessary to produce it before it can ever come to pass. As such, a post-apocalyptic scenario is much more in keeping with the "Steampunk Fashion" I am seeing most often among some of the most elaborate and sought after new "Steampunk Airship" groups that entertain with appearances, modeling, and panels on regalia and ensemble fabrication these days, and the standard weapons presented are, in my opinion, pretty fantastic (both senses of the word) without either introducing time travel or alien interaction. Add in the fact that modern instruments are almost always used at least somewhat, along with soundtrack backgrounds for (extra parts they don't have enough members to play all at once, and the idea of post-apocalyptic adventures, or at least time traveling adventures, seem to be the most appropriate of all for "Steampunk Music".
Just the same, I titled this as I did, because I looked up the best Victorian Music tidbits I could find and will post the first paragraph with a link, as well as posting the full text as a separate page here. I found them very interesting material. I'm sure more is available, but this is what looked most enlightening of what I could find.
The early Victorian era (1830s) primarily saw most of the music entertainment being held in public locations such as saloons. Unfortunately, the older music halls that people would enjoy music in earlier times within England were pushed out of existence by the urban development. Although many still stood, they had severely lost their popularity. The saloons would offer drinks, singing, and it was where most of the music and drama was performed during the early Victorian era. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century there were some new music halls being built throughout London. These quickly became the place to go to hear some of the newer music and many people enjoyed visiting them regularly.
[Victorian Web Home —> Authors —> Music, Theatre, and Popular Entertainment —> Sir Edward Elgar]
The following text comes from the program for the 2007 Bard College concert series and symposium entitled Elgar and His World, which was organized by Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors, Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director, and Byron Adams, Scholar in Residence 2007. Readers may wish to consult the festival site for additional information about this and past festivals and related publications, including Elgar and His World, ed. Byron Adams, which Princeton University Press published in 2007.
By long tradition, concert programs in the Victorian era tended to balance vocal and instrumental pieces. During the period of Elgar's musical apprenticeship, it was the convention to alternate between the two kinds of music and to avoid performing several examples of the same genre in a row. These practices grew from a deep fascination with virtuosity in its contrasting forms, the voice and the instrument being thought mutually interdependent — a "love duet" of bel canto between them, as Rodolfo Celletti has argued. Nor would a concert offer only music from one country, least of all from the immediate region: cosmopolitanism was essential to the musical culture of Britain during this period. The present program resembles the new kinds of concerts that were moving away from old norms after around 1840. It became common to give much more weight to the vocal component while nonetheless including a few instrumental numbers as contrast. A preponderance of vocal numbers had first appeared at concerts focused, nationalistically, on British music, particularly at the Vocal Concerts offered from the 1790s. British composers had been all but excluded from the King's Theater since its founding, and few were admitted to the programs of the Philharmonic Society; for that reason musicians working against that pattern tended to go against other musical conventions.
Ramon Fagan, LCSW (aka “Admiral” Ramon Leon del Mar) writes articles and reviews for 5 different online Steampunk magazines as well as for his blog at http://artofsteampunk.blogspot.com . He also writes fiction, songs, short comedic plays, and educational books and articles about world religion and cultures for other outlets. “Admiral” Ramon is also the leader of “Kali’s Hourglass”, a nautical oriented Steampunk/Clockpunk performance art troupe, co-administrator for the North Texas Steampunks Facebook Website, organizer for the DFW Clockpunks and Renpunks Group, and a member of the Steampunk Illumination Society.