Earlier this year, Ensemble ACJW performed the New York premiere of David Bruce's, Carnegie Hall-commissioned, Steampunk. This PBS Arts mini-documentary—and the composer's program notes—place the work in the wider "steampunk" context.
Composer David Bruce introduces Steampunk
I first came across the word "steampunk" when a friend introduced me to the collection of strangely futuristic lights, clocks, and other objects that he'd fashioned out of copper pipes and scrap materials. As a fan of homemade instruments, it was a form of creativity that instantly appealed to me. I later discovered that steampunk was originally a science-fiction genre that has gone on to become a recognized form of design, fashion, and subculture. It centers on a kind of "alternative history"—an alternative universe that resembles a technologically advanced Victorian England, where electricity never existed and everything is steam-powered. Brass, copper, and wood feature prominently, and complicated mechanical spaghetti creates unfeasibly steam-powered devices like watches, laptops, and x-ray machines. Strange futuristic forms of transportation dominate the dystopian high-rise cityscapes.
When Ensemble ACJW offered me this commission based on the Beethoven E-flat–Major Septet instrumentation (though I added an oboe to mine), the horn and bassoon immediately stood out to me as defining colors of the group; somehow a connection formed between them and the images of the steampunk world. The French horn's complicated brass plumbing makes it about as iconic a steampunk instrument as you could hope for; similarly, the bassoon, the bass clarinet, and the English horn each have the distinct air of an eccentric Victorian gentleman. This seemed like a lineup from a steampunk cartoon. To stretch the analogy a little further than I probably should, you can see classical music itself as a kind of steampunk music: It's one of the very few genres in music where unamplified, non-electronic sound is still the norm. The sound may not be steam-powered, but it is solely produced by muscles and breath—for me that's one of its major selling points. There is something vital for me about the direct connection of live unamplified sound.
Steampunk is in five movements. The brief opening movement features wild fanfares on clarinet and French horn, and is followed by a dark, brooding passacaglia. The lyrical third movement was inspired by the "armillary sphere," a model of the celestial sphere often found in steampunk design. I hope the movement captures a sense of a mysterious spiraling celestial mechanism. The fourth movement is much more lighthearted and hints at strange ticking clocks. The final movement starts with a desolate stillness, but gradually and relentlessly—indeed, as if powered by steam—builds up speed until arriving at a breakneck denouement.