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 distopian 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
sandiegostory.com / May 2013
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
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.
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.
Bill Holab Music, 377 Sterling Place, No. 4, Brooklyn, NY 11238
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Latest CD release
THE MYRIAD TRIO: THE EYE OF NIGHT
The Myriad Trio launches their debut disc, featuring classic work for flute, viola, and harp. The last piece on the CD is
the source of inspiration for the disc and the work that anchors the album: The Eye of Night. Commissioned and premiered by The Myriad Trio in 2010, The Eye of Night, written by the British-American composer David Bruce, highlights the very special qualities that make this instrumental combination distinctive and this unique ensemble extraordinary.