Electronic innovator. Futuristic composer. Godfather of techno. A more inauspicious career could hardly be imagined for a boy from a remote Alberta mountain town.
Born in Nordegg in 1931 and growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Bruce Haack embraced music from an early age, organizing country and folk groups, teaching piano from age 14, and participating in pow-wows and peyote-infused vision quests with local First Nations. After being rejected by the music program at the University of Alberta, Haack obtained a bachelor's degree in psychology. Soon thereafter, he was accepted to New York's Juilliard School on a full scholarship and commenced study with Vincent Persichetti, one of the leading American composers of the mid-twentieth century.
Haack spent his early career scoring pieces for ballet and dance companies, as well as composing music concrete, tape music and commercial pop songs in the 50s and early 60s. By the mid 60s, Haack had co-founded the Dimension 5 record label with Esther Nelson. Together they recorded 11 classic albums of outsider electronic music, generally in the guise of educational music for children, and largely performed on Haack's homemade synthesizers built from circuit boards and spare materials. His inventions include an early vocoder, as well as the Dermatron and the Peopleodian, both used to create sound from skin-to-skin contact.
Haack's Dimension 5 records were singular works of mad genius, infused with the ethos of the 60s, and veering from sweetness and beauty, to darkness and paranoia. Examples of Haack's boundless creativity include “Mudra” from 1968's The Way Out Record For Children, which attempted to teach children about India via sitar grooves over synth bleeps, and recitations of tripped out astral poetry. Another song from that record, “Accent”, veers abruptly from a jaunty Schoolhouse Rock-type pop song to segments instructing children to clap poly-rhythmically over odd 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures. The jarring changes of melody, style and tone seemed directly inspired by Haack's study of modern composition. His next album, 1969's Electronic Record for Children, featured an even greater array of hallucinogenic sounds and such far-out, groovy themes as space exploration and aboriginal folklore. Later, Captain Entropy backed away somewhat from the hippy tropes, presenting Haack as pedagogue and pop-smith, and featuring some of his best hooks in songs like “Music” and “Catfish”, as well as the proto-exercise jam, “The Universal Unicycle Show”.
The Electric Lucifer, released on Columbia in 1970, was Haack's only major label pressing and remains one of his most celebrated albums. Instead of creating another album of children's songs, Haack tackled the counterculture and the Vietnam War, drawing inspiration from protest music, tribal chants and acid rock. In the instrumental “War” and the blatantly political “Song of the Death Machine”, Haack deconstructs militaristic refrains, while other tracks such as “National Anthem for the Moon”, “Angel Child” and the excellent “Incantation” present a psychedelic alternative to the political inclinations of the silent majority.
While Haack envisioned a utopian future in which music would be shared telepathically, and communicated directly from mind to mind and soul to soul, his later work grew increasingly dark and insular. One of his last completed projects was 1978's infamous Haackula, a critique of conventional society largely involving explorations of various modes of sexuality including a notorious slow jam called “Blow Job”. The taboo subject matter and heavy cursing led Haack's record company to bury the record for over 20 years. Haack's final release was 1981's Bite, which expanded the social critique of Haackula but toned down the vulgarity. While Dimension 5 continued to produce records throughout the 80s, Haack's failing health essentially ended his musical career. His last important work was another left turn, the 1982 single “Party Machine”, a piece of proto-hip hop produced with Russell Simmons of Def Jam fame. Haack died of heart failure in 1988 leaving behind one of the strangest and most esoteric discographies in popular music.
Still, while early electronic contemporaries such as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream have enjoyed cult status for years, Haack largely went unnoticed. The rediscovery of Haack's work began in earnest with the release of the documentary film Haack: The King of Techno in 2004 (see video clip above). A year later, Dimension Mix: A Tribute to Bruce Haack was released, featuring contributions from Beck, Stereolab and Apples in Stereo. Re-releases and the production of previously unreleased work soon followed. Most recently, the hip hop label Stones Throw released a collection called Fared: The Electric Voice and a related remix album, after label DJ Peanut Butter Wolf was introduced to Haack through the late J Dilla.
Perhaps the strangest chapter in the rediscovery of Haack involved production duo DJ Me DJ You, who hired a medium to contact Haack from beyond the grave. According to Miss Angela, who purportedly had a pleasant, if somewhat dispassionate conversation with Haack, when asked what he thought about the rediscovery of his music by a new generation, “(Haack) said that if he was still alive that would make him happy. But since he is dead he really doesn't have any feelings either way on the subject (…). In death, he does not have any desires or wants.”
A desire for new sounds and a longing for a better future infuses Haack's compositions. While his story, that of an artist marginalized by his own strangeness and rediscovered too late, is sadly common, the music he left behind is a singular achievement and an important signpost of where electronic music came from and how far out it can go.
– Mike Oxman