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Electronic Music Pioneer Bruce Haack Was Decades Ahead of His Time 

Thursday, Sep 4 2014
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Bruce Haack

Bruce Haack

When it comes to the life of Bruce Haack, separating truth from fiction is not easy.

Haack's entire CV reads like that of a mad scientist.

The groundbreaking electronic music composer and inventor is said to have taught himself to play piano by age 3. By 8, he apparently was escaping his abusive mother's wrath by sneaking off to Indian reservations, where he had early psychedelic experiences smoking peyote.

It's quite plausible that by 12 he was building his own instruments, which led to some of the earliest synthesized recordings, decades before they became popular. In fact, Haack may have been the very first to employ a vocoder on a commercial record; its previous incarnation was as a cloaking device used during World War II to disguise the human voice.

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But then Haack's entire CV reads like that of a mad scientist, years ahead of his time.

In his early career he wrote, produced, performed and often designed sleeves for a flurry of children's albums. They, like his other work, were incredibly strange and went largely unnoticed, until recently.

Even in the mid-'00s, when artists like Beck caught onto Haack's genius, the media mostly didn't, and decades after his 1988 death, Haack remains dreadfully obscure. But local filmmaker Philip Anagnos — a quirky, unrelenting Haack obsessive — is determined to prove that his subject's time has finally arrived.

Is Los Angeles ready? According to messages Anagnos believes Haack has sent to him from beyond the grave, the answer is yes.

Bruce Haack was born in 1931 in the small Alberta town of Rocky Mountain House. His father was a miners' accountant who had a deformed back from a childhood bout of polio; he died when Haack was young. His mother was a music teacher who later ran a corner store, where she was said to have treated First Nations customers poorly, as she did young Bruce.

By the mid-1950s, Haack left Canada to attend the Juilliard School in New York City. He studied under famed composer Vincent Persichetti and wrote several compositions in the then-vanguard musique concrète style, before dropping out of college a few months later.

Eschewing classicism, Haack took low-paying commissions for off-Broadway dance and theater scores. He penned ad jingles for Kraft Cheese and Bazooka Gum, which his Juilliard friend Praxiteles "Ted" Pandel, a trained concert pianist, pitched to the agencies along Madison Avenue. The pair also managed to land two B-sides with teen-pop singer Teresa Brewer.

Through it all, Haack earned next to nothing.

"Bruce was cosmic and creative," says Pandel, a retired college music professor, speaking from his home in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "He was not a strong person; he was a dependent person."

Pandel says Haack rarely went anywhere by himself, and often missed appointments. Unable to secure regular employment, Haack began playing piano for a children's dance class just north of the city. It was there that he met instructor Esther Nelson, who would help launch his career.

Nelson, an elfin figure with a big personality, still lives in the same Bronx co-op where she was raised by activist Russian-Jewish parents during the Depression. By the 1950s, Nelson was rubbing shoulders with folk icons such as Moses Asch and Pete Seeger. (Seeger described Nelson as "one of my favorite people," adding, "There must be thousands of children who feel the same way.")

Today Nelson remembers Haack as a kindred spirit. Back in the '60s, she recorded seven children's albums with him for their homespun label, Dimension 5 Records. The first, 1963's Dance, Sing and Listen, was essentially a field recording of Nelson's class. Haack accompanied them using his homemade inventions.

"Bruce would go to Grand Street and buy a bag of parts for a dollar and build instruments with them for us to record with," Nelson recalls. She still owns several of Haack's inventions, including a metal bracelet that he'd attached to a battery pack and an amplifier, which created musical sounds when you rubbed it against human skin.

Haack filled his earliest recordings with whimsical, creepy, sometimes brooding instrumental tracks. The lyrics, intended for elementary school kids, were filled with bizarre sexual undertones and wildly imaginative story lines. The album sleeves offered Haack's inspirational tidbits, including: "In this wild and wonderful time, we take the slogan, 'Drop Out,' turn it around, and print our own button for children: 'Drop In.' We love you."

The works received stellar reviews in publications including The New Yorker and The New York Times, which enthused: "Bruce's music, produced on a Hohner Cembalet, an electronic mechanical keyboard, is incredibly varied and gives off sounds that UFOs would make — if there were such things."

Even amid the weird landscape of '60s electronic music, Haack stood out as a true outsider. He befriended Moondog, the blind, Greenwich Village jazz guru who played handmade instruments and dressed as an 11th-century Viking. Besides creating his own instruments, Haack was hired to program Raymond Scott's Electronium, an algorithmic synthesizer, which was employed by Motown Records artists during the psychedelic era.

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