Steamfunk * Steampunk * Sword & Soul

EXPRESSING THE INEXPRESSIBLE: A Steamfunk Soundtrack!

EXPRESSING THE INEXPRESSIBLE: A Steamfunk Soundtrack!

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Would The Matrix have been a success if its action scenes had been accompanied by a romantic harp and piano score?

Would The Titanic have been a blockbuster if its emotional scenes were driven by a gangster rap score, or even L.L. Cool J’s sugary I need Love?

Of course not.

Music – the type and where it is placed within scenes – can make or break a movie.

One unforgettable scene in Django Unchained is when Django – played by Jamie Foxx –  rides off on horseback, using the horse’s mane as its reins, to save his wife, Broomhilda. The scene’s music score – the moving Who Did That To You, performed by John Legend – enhances the powerful image and evokes strong emotions in the audience. The score is an effective one, forcing us to remember the scene long after we have seen the movie. In the movie Malcolm X, when Malcolm – portrayed by Denzel Washington – heads to the Audobon Ballroom for what is to be his final speech and the place where he is murdered, many in the audience were moved to tears by the scene’s image of a sullen Malcolm walking alone toward his fate and the score – the iconic and powerful A Change is Gonna Come – performed by Sam Cooke.

Music has helped to enhance movie scenes since the era of silent films. The first known use of music in a movie are the silent films of the Lumiere family of Paris, who played the piano at a screening of their films at the Grand Café in Boulevard de Capucines on December 28, 1895. The Lumiere family then presented their films – with the piano score – to audiences in London on February 20, 1896. Within a few months, several London theatres adopted the same approach, drafting orchestras to give live music accompaniment to their movies. Audiences felt more fulfilled and enjoyed the musically enhanced films much more than the previous ghostly silence they experienced in the theatres.

The first movie with its own score was L’Assassinat du Dur de Guise, released in 1908.

Filmmakers came to realize that by toying with our emotions through music, our vision of what we see onscreen is enhanced.

For most, the function of a film’s music is not easily defined. It is part of an audiovisual system that allows spectators to escape. Movies allow audiences to perceive reality in a passive framework and a movie’s music provides a reconstruction of old experiences and a proposal of new ones.

A film’s score helps far-fetched ideas to become plausible. Alien abductions, serial murders and love affairs in the White House are not usually associated with our everyday experiences, so how does cinema extrapolate such experiences so realistically? Music plays an important role as it provides a rhythmic beat that enable the audience to measure internally the psychological time of the film, relating it to the basic sensation of real time.

Furthermore, the relative time passed between events on screen can be expressed through the music. A narrative that spans decades can logically take place within a ninety minute film because the music in the movie helps us to experience the sensation and speed of time and recreates our sense of reality.

A film’s score constantly alerts us to the feelings that are congruent with what we see – the worlds on the silver screen are, indeed, emotionally perspicuous.

This concept is well illustrated by the classic martial arts masterpiece, Drunken Master 2, directed by Lau Kar-Leung and Jackie Chan. The use of music in the final fight scene allows the viewer to achieve a comprehension beyond that of real life experience. The depressed, drunken state of the hero, Wong Fei Hung, is portrayed brilliantly by Jackie Chan. At the same time, the aggression and power felt by Wong Fei Hung is illustrated by synchronizing each strike with a driving beat and erratic string instruments and horns. By combining an audible expression of emotion with a visual one, this scene allows the viewer to experience two emotions simultaneously – an effect that is impossible in everyday life.

Not only does music function in allowing the virtual replication of time, it also allows events on screen to achieve clarity beyond that of our everyday experiences.

Through music, the spectator is engaged beyond the visual action into a realm consisting of unconscious emotional receptions. After all, the best film scores are heard at a subconscious level.

Music organizes and dredges memory, invoking something akin to a feedback system. The repetition of musical experience creates a residual psychic structure that becomes archetypal.

A film’s score can convey a wide range of emotions – afraid; happy; sad; romantic; angry –because it involves the coordination of two different symbol systems – music and movies – two symbol systems in a complementary relationship; each system supplying something that the other system lacks, or, at least, does not possess with the same degree of effectiveness that the other system does.

By listening to the music and by employing a comparison between pre-experienced musical idioms (usually unconsciously), the audience can engage contextually with the experience being offered through the film.

Music can use its timeless quality to increase audience understanding and to enhance the effect of a film by serving as a kind of binding veneer that holds the film together.

Music creates tension by setting up anticipations and prolonging their resolution.

Rhythm and intonation also play a part in the emotional effect a score has on its audience. Rhythms familiar to a culture and regularity of rhythm will have a soothing, safe effect on an audience.

In contrast, sudden tempo changes jolt our perceived notions of rhythm and make us feel uneasy.

Lookin’ For the Perfect Beat…through Brass Goggles

In the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, the score will feature what Director, Balogun Ojetade and Producer, Milton Davis have dubbed “Steamfunk Music” – a combination of Funk, Hip-Hop and Southern U.S. Folk Music.

Now, before you blow a cog, let me remind you that, as Joshua Pfeiffer, founder of the Steampunk band Vernian Process, and co-founder of the Steampunk-centric record label/collective Gilded Age Records, says – “There is no defining element to Steampunk music. Steampunk music is different to every individual’s interpretation of it.”

Right on, Josh!

Mr. Pfeiffer goes on to say – “The only true definition (of Steampunk) could be – ‘Music created by Steampunk fans, or music that Steampunk fans find invokes the atmosphere they expect from a Steampunk setting or aesthetic’. Steampunk music, as I see it, more often than not consists of a mixture of genres; usually a mixture of genres from various periods in music history; be it Ragtime with Punk Rock, Industrial and Neo-Classical, Chamber music and Electronica, Swing and Hip-Hop, or any other variety of combinations. The only constant element that must be present is some form of vintage – 19th or early 20th Century – musical influence.”

Some of you may shrug and say “Fine by me; hell, I don’t know exactly what funk is anyway.” Well, let me explain…

What is Funk?

Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins

Funk is a very distinct style of music based on R&B, soul and jazz which is characterized by a strong bassline – often in the percussive “slap bass” style of Larry Graham (originally of Sly & the Family Stone), complex rhythms and a simple song structure.

The name “Funk” originated in the 1950s, when “funk” and “funky” were used increasingly as adjectives in the context of soul music — the meaning being transformed from the original one of a strong, pungent odor to a strong, distinctive groove.

Funk de-emphasizes melody and harmony and brings a strong rhythmic groove of electric bass and drums to the foreground. Funk songs are often based on an extended vamp on a single chord, distinguishing it from R&B and soul songs, which are centered on chord progressions.

Funk typically consists of a complex groove with rhythm instruments such as electric guitar, electric bass, Hammond organ, and drums playing interlocking rhythms. Funk bands sometimes have a horn section of several saxophones, trumpets, and in some cases, a trombone, which plays rhythmic “hits”.

In early jam sessions, musicians would encourage each other to “get down” by telling one another, “Now, put some stank on it!” At least as early as 1907, jazz songs carried titles such as Funky Butt.

Some of the best known and most skillful soloists in funk have jazz backgrounds. Trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonist Maceo Parker are among the most notable musicians in the funk music genre – both of them working with funk maestros, James Brown, George Clinton and Prince.

Now, I am willing to bet that you know what Hip-Hop is…even you die-hard, Maine born and bred Caucasian Steampunks out there. Why? Because Hip Hop and Steampunk are cut from the same cloth.

Oh, that cog is about to pop, now!

Don’t believe me that Hip Hop and Steampunk are apples that dangle from the same tree? Disagree? Read on.

What is Hip-Hop?

Hip Hop Artist, T-Pain

Hip Hop Artist, T-Pain

Hip Hop is an art form that includes deejaying (mixing, cutting and scratching records); emceeing/rapping; breakdancing; and graffiti art. Hip Hop originated in the South Bronx section of New York City around the mid 1970s.

From a sociological perspective, Hip Hop has been one of the main contributing factors to the curtailing of gang violence, as many adults and youth found Hip Hop effective for channeling their anger and aggression.

Hip Hop caught on because it offered young urban youth a chance to freely express themselves. More importantly, it was an art form accessible to anyone. A member of the Hip Hop community did not need a lot of money or expensive resources to express any of the four elements of Hip Hop. A member of the movement did not have to invest in lessons or anything like that.

Hip Hop also became popular because it offered diverse and unlimited challenges. There were no real set rules, except to be original. Anything was possible. The ultimate goal was to be perceived as being “def” (“good”) by one’s peers.

Finally, Hip Hop, because of its inclusive aspects, allowed its members to accurately and efficiently inject their personality.

No two people expressed Hip Hop the same, even when mixing the same record, reciting the same rhyme or dancing to the same beat.

The Hip Hop movement continues to be popular among today’s youth for the same reasons urban youth were drawn to it in the early days – it is an accessible form of self expression capable of eliciting positive affirmation from one’s peers.

Throughout history, music, art, dance and literature originating from America’s Black communities has always had an accompanying subculture reflective of the political, social and economic conditions of the time. Hip Hop is no different.

Hip hop is a lifestyle with its own language, style of dress, music and mindset that is continuously evolving.

Defining Characteristics of Hip Hop

Defining characteristics of Hip Hop include:

Most members of the movement take on a nom de plume and many even assume an alter-ego.

Most members of the movement wear fashions readily identifiable with Hip Hop.

Resistance to a hierarchical, oppressive society.

Resistance to mainstream, “industry” representations of the culture.

A literary (rap; spoken word), visual art (graffiti; fashion), musical (deejaying) and dance (breakdancing; krumping) component.

Blends future and past (cave drawings with drawing on walls and trains; ancient African martial arts with modern dance moves; ancient African rhythms with contemporary music).

Uses creativity and innovation to solve problems and to challenge limits. A do-it-yourself attitude.

Defining Characteristics of Steampunk

Now, let’s compare the defining characteristics of Hip Hop with those of Steampunk:

Most members of the movement take on a nom de plume and many even assume an alter ego.

Nearly all members of the movement wear fashions readily identifiable with Steampunk.

Resistance to hierarchical society; often attempts to resist oppressive, imperialistic society by ignoring its existence or by rewriting and redefining history.

Resistance to mainstream, “industry” representations of the culture.

A literary, visual art and musical component.

Blends future and past (anachronism; retrofuturism).

Uses creativity and innovation to solve problems and to challenge limits. A do-it-yourself attitude.

Sound familiar?

Hip Hop and Steampunk bear strong resemblances to one another and both have their origins in resistance to an establishment that begs for escape or rebellion.

For many “Hip Hop Heads” (aka “B-Boys” or “B-Girls”) – what those heavily immersed in the Hip Hop culture are often called – Steampunk provides an attractive aesthetic due to its similarities in attitudes and its differences in style. The gadgets are especially attractive and new to Hip Hop Heads and sightings of Steampunked turntables and headphones are bound to happen soon.

The members of the Hip Hop culture, always seeking to bring something old to the movement and make it new and cutting edge (remember the marriage of Rock and Hip Hop, ala Run DMC and the Beastie Boys?), are fiercely anachronistic and cannot help but find a kinship with their fellow rebels in Steampunk.

Thus, the rise of Chap Hop in the UK, the emergence of Steampunk MCs (rappers) in the U.S. and mainstream Hip Hop megastars going Steampunk.

For the opening credits for Rite of Passage, we are hoping to get permission to use the song, Snowden’s Jig, by the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Who are the Carolina Chocolate Drops, you ask?

Read on.

Grammy Award-Winning Band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops

Grammy Award-Winning Band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops

The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an old-time string band from Durham, North Carolina. Their album, Genuine Negro Jig (2010), won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Formed in November 2005, following the members’ attendance at the first Black Banjo Gathering, all of the musicians sing and trade instruments including banjo, fiddle, guitar, harmonica, snare drum, bones, jug, and kazoo. The group learned much of their repertoire, which is based on the traditional music of the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, from the late African American master fiddler, Joe Thompson, although they also perform old-time versions of some modern songs such as Blu Cantrell’s R&B hit Hit ‘em Up Style (Oops!).

The Harlem James Gang

The Harlem James Gang

For the closing credits for Rite of Passage, we hope to get permission to use the song Shut it Down by The Harlem James Gang – a throw-back Neo Vaudevillian performance troupe that puts the entertainment factor back into music, combining music, dance, theatre, song and magic into their live show.

The Harlem James Gang mashes up the sounds of the 20s and 30s with hip-hop to create a unique, original and infectious sound sure to have audiences at the end of our film bobbing their heads and dancing in the aisles.

Be sure to reserve your seat for the red carpet premiere of Rite of Passage in February, 2014…and let the movie and its masterful musical score transport you through time and space to the town of Nicodemus.

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4 responses

  1. Fujimoto

    February 2014? Just in time for my birthday!

    Now that was one of the best, informative articles I’ve yet read. I had a blast reading it. Loved the overviews on funk and hip-hop. I relish excellent background music and soundtracks, so this is all very important to me. Good luck on getting permission for the two songs, and let us know when the Kickstarter Fundraiser for Rite of Passage is ready.

    May 9, 2013 at 9:33 am

    • Thanks, so much, Fujimoto! I am glad you enjoyed it.
      The Kickstarter will be ready very soon and I will, most certainly, inform everyone. :)

      May 9, 2013 at 10:45 am

  2. Pingback: EXPRESSING THE INEXPRESSIBLE: A Steamfunk Soundtrack!

  3. Pingback: THE (almost) FORGOTTEN FRIEND OF STEAMFUNK! | chronicles of harriet

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