Tuesday, April 1, 2008

when this is over, give me your shoulder, I need a place to wait 'til morning

You know, something odd's occurred to me. In this seemingly endless search to identify what separates "steampunk music" from other identifiable genres, I suddenly realized--no one but me has mentioned Thomas Dolby as a potential influence.

Why not?

I'll leave it to the Wiki to cover who he is and where he's been, what he's doing now--between that and his own website, you'll gain everything you need to know. I more want to talk about why I'm thinking including him in this becoming-eternal debate is of value.

Thomas Dolby has always been interested in how music and electricity interface. What sounds can be drawn from machines, how machines make music, and how the human element interacts. He was one of the first synthpop musicians, but more than that, more than recording on his own, is how often he pops up working with other musicians--writing, remixing, rescoring, playing backup on various instruments. It sometimes seems that if you heard a song during the decade of the 1980's, about half the time you're hearing something that Dolby had a hand in.

So let's ask this again: what is steampunk music? After a day of reading over everything I've put out there to date, and running through the lists of influences and current creators of music, I will say this:

Steampunk music does not exist. Because steampunk depends on an alternate reality to exist.

HOWEVER, with that, we can then say: we can make educated guesses as to what steampunk music would sound like, if we existed in that alternate reality.

Vernian Process is making his best guess. Abney Park is making their best guess. Other bands are doing the same thing. Bands and artists like Emilie Autumn, Beat Circus, Legendary Shack Shakers, White Ghost Shivers, Tom Waits, Tori Amos, Dresden Dolls, the Residents, the Clockwork Dolls, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson--and so many more--they have all touched down, briefly or more permanently, into this zone of musical sound from which we identify the thematic identity of "steampunk music".

Call it what you will--"steampunk music", "chamberpunk", "cinematic darkwave"--or any other term you personally prefer--we are merely in the infancy of identifying what it is, what it comes from, what it might be--in a very disconnected effect-preceding-cause fashion.

We are learning what this alternate reality would sound like. We are envisioning what it looks like. We are beginning to categorize and label what is definable, from what's even more nebulous, at this point, in our own timeline.

So. Thomas Dolby. Thomas Dolby lives in the forefront of technology of this age, while looking--through much of his career, and still occasionally today--as if he lives and exists in a more steampunk reality. Videos, interviews, movies he's been in, music he's made--I think he is a huge unrecognized influence on the "genre that does not exist" of steampunk music.

Europa & the Pirate Twins
She Blinded Me With Science
I Scare Myself

Five videos to view as defense of this claim. Five small films, segments frozen in various moments in time, to examine as potential assertions that Thomas Dolby is one of the backbone musicians for this music that does not fully exist, purely exist, in our own time.

He also has a blog, which is well worth reading, because he's still at the forefront of music technology, and still recording, remixing, remaking, revising, the music of his time, our time, and all the time in between.

Now, you'll excuse me, but there's this pair of steampunk goggles I'm contemplating making.


Darien Mason said...

Could the same not be said for Gothic music, requiring a shared concept of some dark alternate reality to exist?

You describe the genere as depending upon an alternate reality to exist. I would define steampunk music however as having an ideal or even a goal. That doesn't mean it's not a valid definition.

John Lennon wrote Imagine with a vision of an alternate reality. Gospel music invokes visions of a Kingdom Come.

I remember these same sorts of debates on Usenet newsgroups more than a decade ago, before the mainstream media started noticing Goth, debating whether Goth was truly existed or was simply an evolution of Punk and Metal.

Now as we can see Goth has assumed an (un)life of its own to become a sprawling genre and for some a lifestyle.

Perhaps in another decade we'll see kids dressed like Caledonian sky pirates at the local mall and not bat an eye.

Emilly Orr said...

I'm not saying we can't create music for alternate realities; consider cyberpunk, after all, or fantasy metal; or bands like Blue Oyster Cult and Hawkwind, recording songs written by Michael Moorcock. Songs of great imagination and power can come out of such 'non-real' places.

Still, goth is different. The debate may be endless there, too, as to whom deserves the label; even some bands freely accepted as goth deny it.

But steampunk is different. Goth *has* a historical basis, is growing *from* a specific cultural base. Steampunk, as yet, does not, and may not for some great while to come. It may be said in future that yes, this is where it began, and yes, in that future, it should be accorded its own place; but we're not there yet.

Now? It doesn't exist. Doesn't mean we can't move from the place of imagination and bring what we dream out into the real; just means it's still imagined territory...