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Steampunk by DAVID BRUCE


I first came across the word steampunk when a friend introduced to me as such the collection of strangely futuristic lights, clocks and other objects that he'd fashioned out of copper pipes and other scrap materials. As a fan of home-made instruments it was a form of creativity that instantly appealed to me. I later discovered that steampunk was originally a science fiction genre but has gone on to become a quite recognised form of design, fashion and sub-culture. It centres on a kind of 'alternative history' - an alternative universe which looks a lot like technologically- advanced Victorian England, only one where electricity never surfaced and everything is steam-powered. Brass, copper and wood feature prominently and complicated mechanical spaghetti creates unfeasibly steam-powered devices like watches, laptops, x-ray machines, and so on. Strange forms of transport including zeppelins or futuristic steam-powered cars dominate often quite dystopian high-rise cityscapes.

When Carnegie Hall offered me this commission based around the Beethoven Septet line-up (though I added an oboe to mine in the end), the horn and bassoon immediately stood out to me as defining colours of the group and somehow a connection formed between them and the images of the steampunk world. I think above all it was the French horn with its crazy complicated brass plumbing, making it about as iconic a steampunk instrument as you could hope for; but similarly the bassoon, the bass clarinet and the cor anglais each have the distinct air of an eccentric Victorian gentleman, the product of a particular kind of obsession. It seemed like a line-up from a steampunk cartoon. To stretch the analogy a little further than I probably should, you could see Classical Music itself as a kind of steampunk music. It's one of the very few areas in music performance where unamplified, non-electronic sound is still the norm. The sound may not be steam-powered, but it is produced by muscles and breath alone and for me that's one of its major selling points. There is something essential for me about the direct connection of live unamplified sound.

Steampunk is in 5 movements. The brief opening movement has wild fanfares on clarinet and french horn and is followed by a dark, brooding passacaglia. The third lyrical movement was inspired by the 'armillary sphere', a model of the celestial sphere often found in steampunk design, and I hope the movement captures a sense of a mysterious spiralling celestial mechanism. The fourth movement is much more light-hearted and seems to hint 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 break-neck denouement.

David Bruce, November 2010

Press / Latest Reviews

Ventura County Star / Jan 2016
Rita Moran

"Steampunk," contemporary composer David Bruce's witty homage to a fantasy Victorian era true to innovation but without the emergence of electricity, vividly creates the idea that everything is powered by steam, offering a fair amount of whimsical clunking in the process. The piece was so enthusiastically embraced by Camerata founder and artistic director Adrian Spence that he ordered up costumes for many of the musicians and introduced the program in 19th-century attire, enhanced by a hearty beard he grew for the occasion and a top hat with wings rising out of the sides.

..."Steampunk" is the most fun, allowing a range of modes for each musician... All made the most of individual and cooperative moments in a work that is not only amusing but often compellingly lyrical. British-American composer Bruce, like the other composers for the concert, has accrued many distinctions while still in his mid-40s. He is currently associate composer for the San Diego Symphony. / May 2013
Ken Herman

The 43-year-old Anglo-American Bruce is one of the hot "go-to" composers on today's classical music scene. 'Steampunk,' for example, is one of four of his commissions from Carnegie Hall, and the San Diego Symphony has just signed him on to write works for their upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, the China Tour, and the 2014 season.

Bruce's style might be described as a funky retrofit of the neoclassicism that flourished in Europe during the last century between the World Wars. Yet, even when he resorts to predictable motor rhythms to keep his textures humming along, he finds distinctive, ear-catching yet idiomatic turns for each instrument. His inventive treatment of the octet's matching quartet of strings and quartet of winds offered a quickly changing soundscape of textures and sonorities that evoked characteristic moods: the sauntering boulevardier, the wry comedian, the yearning mystic.

'Steampunk' struck me as a polished, wry chamber work that should find a wide following, especially when performed with the suave facility the Art of Elan musicians

PBS Arts / Aug 2011
PBS Arts

David Bruce features in a documentary from PBS Arts 'Off book' series. Steampunk art evokes an alternate reality where steam is the primary source of power. Technology, though highly advanced, has taken on a very different look and feel, and fashion is heavily influenced by Victorian styles. In this episode, we explore the Steampunk aesthetic and art movement. We speak with a Steampunk artist, a composer who created an entire piece of music inspired by Steampunk, and a performing arts collective whose work falls naturally into this intriguing world. / Jul 2011
Harry Rolnick

Last night was especially exuberant, since they premiered a wildly happy work by the noted American-British composer David Bruce.... essentially, this was a mechanical tour de force. At times it resembled Mossolov's futuristic Steel Foundry or the 1920s German music of Hindemith and Weill. At times, this was Chaplin's music for Modern Times. But it was all David Bruce.

Which means that is was extremely well-ordered, without a single harsh harmony, the eight instruments playing pinpoint notes against each other, a virtual contrapuntal festival. An exceptionally complex music, yes. But like a Rube Goldberg invention, all the different squawks, squeaks, pipings, whines and cries somehow came together. In other words, Steampunk was joy, real joy.


for Mixed Octet

1 Oboe (doubling Cor Anglais)
1 Clarinet (doubling Bass clarinet)
1 Bassoon (doubling contrabassoon -optional)
1 French Horn
1 violin
1 Viola
1 Cello
1 Bass

Duration 22mins
Composed Sept-Nov 2010
First performance Ensemble ACJW, Zankel Hall, Saratoga Springs, NY, 5 Feb 2011
Commissioned by Carnegie Hall Corporation

Future Performances

Past Performances


  • Steampunk - ACJW
  • PBS Off Book - Steampunk
  • LPO - Steampunk rehearsal

Related Posts

 • On Poetry, the body, and the earth (12/10/2012)
 • Foot in the door (10/12/2012)
 • Steampunk beards (8/31/2011)
 • Steampunk at WQXR's Green Space (4/4/2011)
 • New Carnegie commission (1/25/2011)
 • Forthcoming premieres (1/9/2011)
 • Complete Gumboots (12/16/2010)


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