13 June 2013

Dr. Some's ABC of Steampunk Part 7: S - U

S is for Steam

A big steam engine!
Steam! Thats what is all about! It is the main power-source and (quite obviously) namesake for steampunk! There might be other technologies as well, like primitive chemical batteries or even green energy like wind-power (just think of sails!), but they are all overshadowed by happily smoking and rattling steam-engines!

As rule of thumb you can say: wherever are moving parts, there can has to be a steam engine. Don't restrain your imagination with steam driven trains or ships or maybe airships only. There are countless applications! You are too lazy to wind up your clock? Make it steam driven! Shoveling coal with a spoon-sized shovel is so much more fun! And it has so many more moving parts (see "O is for Over-engineering"). Steam robots with mechanical brains are also great. Or steam driven coffee machines, gramophones or organs (they really exist and are called calliopes!). Did someone just say steam-driven toothbrushes? Great idea!

Pretty big actually!
The historical roots of steam engines go back into the 17th century and are mostly focusing on things like pumps to drain the groundwater from mines (no-one back then even considered steam-powered toothbrushes - imagine!).
For decades the power and reliability of steam engines remained less than desirable. It took until 1776 to fully unleash their potential with a dramatically improved design by James Watt and his business-partner Matthew Boulton, which literally did boost industrialization.

Steam-power was irreplaceable for the technology of the 19th century and even in our modern times there are applications where steam is still the best available technology. Solar thermal-power plants, coal plants and even our "beloved" nuclear plants - all are working by the same principle:
A heat source (the sun, fire, or a nuclear reaction) transforms water into high pressurized steam, which drives a steam turbine, which mechanical power drives an electrical generator... well, I'm sure you can guess the rest now.

Oh and finally technology did advance far enough to bless us with - the steam powered toothbrush! The world is good!

T is for Tunes

Not Steinway but Seaway!
Emma playing on a original Captain-Nemo-organ!
After intense acoustic research (as in "listening to lots of music") I am pleased to say that there is quite an amount of diversity amongst what people call steampunk-music. And despite the media focusing on a few bands (I didn't say "Abney Park" now!): there is not the definite steampunk sound and I am very happy about this. There are lots of different shades. And we love diversity, don't we?

There are the Victorian/industrial sounds of "The Clockwork Dolls", the goth-rooted "Abney Park", the industrial-hip-hop-operas of "Dr. Steel" (who did sadly retire), the Gothic Lolita violinist "Emily Autumn" and the wide and colourful universe of bands like "Vernian Process", "Beats Antique", "Steam Powered Giraffe", "Stolen Babies", "Katzenjammer", "Ghostfire", etc etc...

Rockstar Drow!
The influences of steampunk music is very diverse. Apart from rather obvious gothic influences (bands like "Fields of the Nephilim" with their gothic-cowboy-look were surely inspirational), there is a strong influence of classical music, cabaret and vaudeville, movie soundtracks, electro, industrial, folk, metal or even hip-hop and trip-hop. It all works and the musicians usually really know how to play!

This richness in styles is also reflected by the sheer number of different instruments. Besides commonplaces like guitars (electrical and acoustic), bass, drums and keyboards there is a wide variety of classical instruments too. Especially pianos, violins (lots!), cellos and wind instruments. Typical folk instruments like bagpipes, accordions and banjos are also popular, as well as really weird things like the theremin (once known as aetherphone - there we go!), musical saws, calliopes (see "S is for Steam") and (greetings to Mike Oldfield) tubular bells!

Concluding you can say the only thing all steampunk bands have in common is a creative mix of old and new. It is a very vivid and colourful movement with influences from countless directions. Lets hope it stays so diverse. With mainstream success comes often uniformity and uniformity kills creativity. Other genres went that path and did fade into triviality.

U is for Utopia

Utopian looking, but actually a Forgotten City!
The world of steampunk is an ideal, whimsical nostalgic parallel universe. A world that never was and which is therefore simply a better place is than our modern, increasingly complex life.
Technology is usually a blessing there, solving the problems of humanity, or it at least replacing them with new, more entertaining ones! And contrary to its modern counterpart steam-technology its even fun looking!

This of course doesn't means steampunk doesn't know evil. There are plenty colourful villains - just think of the mad scientists! However even evil in steampunk gets quite the sympathy credits. Its just a much more appealing idea to have the world taken over by a Dr. Steel than by your typical real-life-dictator, isnt it?

The utopia steampunk represents is much like the renaissance/medieval-revival and shares many similarities with it: Its both an escape. An idealized world that did never exist (and where people won't really feel comfortable in) with fancy clothes, often self-made in many many hours of patient work and - yes, a healthy amount of nerdiness too!

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