Bruce Haack - "Hush Little Robot"
Hush Little Robot
(QDK Records, Germany, 1998)
I discovered this German import CD (originally released on Bonn's Normal Records) in the "Used Electronic Music" bins at Soundgarden and picked it up out of curiosity. A library co-worker whose boyfriend is into electronic music had mentioned that Enoch Pratt Free Library's children's records collection had several Bruce Haack titles on vinyl that she thought I might like because, well, they were weird. That's an understatement - both about the weirdness (we're talking about a guy who released a kiddie record called The Electric Lucifer!) and about me liking them! In fact, the Pratt has 10 Haack titles on vinyl, including The Way Out Record for Children (1968), The Electronic Record for Children (1969), Captain Entropy (1973), This Old Man (1974), Funky Doodle (1975), Ebeneezer Electric (1977), and four kiddie dance records on the Dimension 5 label (the '60s Dance, Sing and Listen trilogy and 1972's Dance to the Music). I had listened to Captain Entropy and was sufficiently impressed by its oddball factor, determining that Haack was a kindred spirit to Raymond Scott, and I rued the fact that I passed up grabbing the out-of-print documentary about him - Bruce Haack: The King of Techno - when I saw it for a mere $7 at Daedalus Books & Music (Doh! I thought it was about computer hacking!). (Click here to see a preview of this film on Amazon.com.)
I still know virtually nothing about Haack, other than he was Canadian who made electronic children's records (think Hap Palmer meets Kraftwerk), had a regretable name for a musician (a Haack musician?), invented/built/& played his own electronic musical instruments, and passed away in 1988. Oh, and I know the hipsters have discovered him because in 2005 artists like Beck and Stereolab and Brother Cleve of Combustible Edison appeared on a tribute album called Dimension Mix. Thankfully, he has a web site, www.brucehaack.com where the curious like me can learn more about his incredible legacy. I'm just wondering who, besides electronic music buffs like Abby's boyfriend, actually checks this stuff out of the library - because Raffi or The Wiggles it's not!
That said, here's a review of this album - which is apparently a compilation of 6 songs from The Electric Lucifer, ten tracks culled from This Old Man and The Way Out Record for Children, and two radio interviews - by somebody who does know about Bruce Haack. Namely, epinion reviewer Henry Thoreau...
Henry Thoreau's Thoroughly Thoreau Review of "Hush Little Robot":
from Bruce Haack: Pioneer of Elecronic Music
The year was 1970. An acquaintance played a bizarre Columbia LP, The Electric Lucifer by Bruce Haack. My ears pricked up delightedly as I heard “Farad” (an electronic voice) singing the opening bars of the initial, weirdly pulsating track, “Electric to Me Turn”:
Electric to me turn this night
Reflecting universal light
All I knew that should be true
Is reality in you
Turn, turn to me, electric.
The accompanying, all-electronic music struck me as far more intriguing, even, than that of Wendy Carlos and other purveyors of moog synthesizer music per se. While the moog was, in fact, employed by Haack for elements of The Electric Lucifer, what more so intrigued me was the cornucopia of never-before-heard ear candy via his own, homemade electronics which he’d pioneered in the 1960s for various LPs for children (all released on his own label). Complementing the music was the colorful, contemporary, cartoon-like artwork on the album sleeve and, no less, the notes on the reverse: unabashedly “far out” rhapsodizing by Haack about his vision of a perfected universe, one free of “hate and pain and fear,” and very much in keeping with the idealism and weirdness of the era. From the moment I first sampled his quirky genius, I was hooked—indelibly stamped a lifelong fan of Bruce Haack.
Trouble was, until recently, Haack’s music had virtually vanished after Columbia’s release of The Electric Lucifer. From the early 1970s until very recently, Bruce and his bizarre art had seemingly departed the planet for some other, more congenial dimension. In actuality, I subsequently learned that “Dimension 5” was the moniker he used (along with cohort Esther Nelson) for a long line of children’s albums that constituted the bulk of his output. Some of those are too puerile for adult ears, though the stylizations of the electronic music are consistently, unmistakably, and pleasingly Haackian. But interspersed among his works for the Sesame Street set are fascinating digressions and anomalies for adults that either have yet to be released or which were originally released only on the “Dimension 5” label with limited distribution.
Bruce Haack was born in an obscure Canadian village whence he derived his affection for nature, animals, and Indian culture. He was musically educated and active in New York City from the early 1950s through the early ‘70s; thereafter, he resided in West Chester, PA, continuing to produce music, but no longer “commercially successful.” He died unexpectedly in his sleep, apparently of heart failure, at age 57 in 1988. There remains a wealth of promising, recorded material just waiting to be mined for posthumous release; Mr. Praxiteles “Ted” Pandel, Bruce’s lifelong confidant, hopes to issue many more of those works eventually. (Very recently, the uniformly ingenious and masterful Electric Lucifer Book 2, created and recorded around 1979, has appeared on QDK, a German label.)
Hush Little Robot, an import CD via Germany, is currently the next-best thing to a complete reissue of The Electric Lucifer, as it encompasses six tracks from the latter, including the aforementioned “Electric to Me Turn.” As well, two brief 1970-ish “Campus Radio” interviews with Bruce are included. Finally, ten tracks from two of his children’s albums, This Old Man and The Way Out Record for Children, round out the disc. Among these is a remake of “Program Me,” an original track from The Electric Lucifer.
Personally, I would have preferred that The Electric Lucifer and This Old Man had been reissued in their entirety as separate CDs (The Way Out Record for Children interests me far less); while many of their respective tracks do coexist pretty effectively—displaying two modes of Bruce’s creativity--the partial, arbitrary melding of the two albums is, ultimately, not fully satisfying. But, as this is one of only two adult-oriented Bruce Haack CDs available (Electric Lucifer Book 2 is the other), it’s definitely worth adding to your collection. Unlike certain other “electronic music” releases, it should have wide appeal to music lovers of all ages and temperaments. While one may choose to skip two or three tracks, the many others will surely delight.
Hush Little Robot comprises eighteen tracks, as follows:
From The Electric Lucifer (1970):
Electric to Me Turn. Arguably Bruce’s signature song, this remains a favorite of mine. Quintessential Haack, lyrically and musically.
War. While this was undoubtedly inspired by the Vietnam War, it truly is a timeless commentary on all wars. The opening tones are somber and foreboding, with an incessantly beating snare drum suggesting the martial theme; suddenly, a cacophonous eruption bursts forth, followed by a caricatured military march whose decadent, carnival atmosphere escalates to an inexorable crescendo and a manmade Big Bang. Suddenly, a child’s voice proclaims, “I don’t wanna play anymore!” and a confused, disintegrating “fall out” descends, concluding the track.
Chant of the Unicorn. [Actually, this was originally titled “Chant of the Unborn;” I assume “Unicorn” is simply a blooper on this German reissue.] Inchoate “fetal” utterances—sounding rather “adult,” really--are backed by lively, slightly dissonant electronic percussion and other Haackian dance-like effects.
Incantation. Human voices are used for the first stanza, then Farad, the electronic songster, takes his turn. As with other aspects of the album, Haack borrows ostensibly Christian icons for his imagery, as with
Time told of Mary
In reality, I understand Haack was not himself traditionally “religious;” indeed, and thankfully, the general feel of the album is altogether catholic, not Catholic. As with Milton’s poetry, atheists, agnostics and believers alike can appreciate Bruce's eclectic visions.
Song of the Death Machine. The theme here seems to be that of a derelict “Death Machine” or master computer that has survived its misguided inventors. Like its progenitors, it blithely kills with utter detachment and calm:
Resting easy, meditating,
No anxiety, kill.
Senses relay information,
No hostility, kill.
Primal memory, kill.
Resting easy, logic functioning,
Reason programming, kill.
Against the above lyrics Haack juxtaposes music evocative of childhood nursery rhymes (a characteristic and effective ploy throughout his career), which, in this instance, makes for a darkly ironic and chilling effect.
Word Game. Bruce Haack loved to play with words. Ted Pandel informs me that there is a body of poetry that may yet be published. Accordingly, this track showcases the Haackian fascination with words--their roots, resemblances, and “resonances.” Some of the juxtaposed terms employed in “Word Game” include:
Uni-verse / One Poem
Love / evolve
Re-volve / To love again
Live / evil
Lived / Devil
As usual, what makes such whimsy work is the continual inventiveness of the accompanying electronic music, which in this instance assumes a leisurely pace nicely complementing Bruce’s pseudo-etymological meanderings.
From The Way Out Record for Children (1968):
School for Robots. Here is another track that borders on the puerile. The music is interesting, nonetheless.
Rubberbands. A fairly good, all-instrumental track. This resembles many of the sound effects Bruce would employ two years later on The Electric Lucifer, though I can’t honestly say it’s that excellent.
From This Old Man (1974):
Note that Bruce created the This Old Man album ostensibly for children, but, unlike much of his juvenilia, this one is performed entirely by Bruce, sans his erstwhile cohort Esther Nelson. No insult to Esther, but Bruce did much better by himself. Indeed, while This Old Man supposedly is a children’s album, in actuality it is sufficiently “adult” that only a few tracks (e.g., “Elizabeth Foster Goose”) seem overtly on the childish side. And even those tracks are so satisfyingly inventive, both musically and lyrically, that surely most adults will enjoy them too.
This Old Man. Intermittently throughout the album, Bruce employs the gritty persona of a grizzled old man; initially, I found his mock old-man voice a bit contrived; but it’s gradually grown on me--somewhat. At any rate, the old-man narration only pops up at a very few points, and only for short intervals. As for the “This Old Man” track per se, it showcases some felicitous Haackian sound effects from Bruce’s homemade, 1960’s-era apparatus. The lyrics seemingly parody the old “Hush Little Baby” nursery rhyme, and, of course, the long-familiar “This Old Man” ditty:
This old man
He play one
He play for you
This old man
He play two
He play electric song for you
Now this old man
He play three
He play your head electrically
And when this record’s gone
This old man inside your mind
The lively complementary music saves this thankfully brief number, which merges well into the ensuing track, “Bods.”
Bods. The theme of this song is “body language.” Along with still more mellifluous electronic music, this number highlights Bruce’s proclivity for linguistic frivolity; the wordplay is whimsically winsome, as with:
Now when somebody looks you in the eye
That doesn’t always mean it’s a truthful guy
Sometimes it’s something like hypnosis
And sometimes it’s simply staring where your nose is.
Elizabeth Foster Goose. This “children’s” song is so cleverly composed that only the most constipated person--of any age--could fail to be charmed. Bruce’s insouciant narration is complemented by utterly enchanting keyboard harmonies.
Four Dances. While I could do without the “old-man” introduction, the four “dances” that ensue (including “Hush Little Robot”) evince Bruce’s penchant for catchy keyboard riffs and bizarre electronic sounds.
Wooden Bread. Here we are told of an arcane recipe, ostensibly from an old witch, for bread made from maple or hickory trees. By turns witty and jejune, this is not the strongest track on this compilation; nonetheless, it's sufficiently intriguing and engaging.
Program Me. Originally from the Electric Lucifer album, this is Bruce’s solo remake (the original featured other vocalists). Having heard its antecedent, I rather like this version. The theme is that a computer is the ultimate tabula rasa, a veritable child just begging to be programmed.
Shine On. This has its moments, but all the “fascinating” facts Bruce shares here (regarding the scientific properties of light) sound a bit too much like a gee-whiz science show for kiddies. A great track for Newton’s Apple fans; otherwise, a yawner.
Thank You. Here Bruce cleverly, graciously expresses his gratitude to the “many thousands of teachers and kids” who’d supported his children’s music over the years. With its mock-banjo backing and engaging melody, this makes for a brief and agreeable denouement for the compilation.
Note: Capping off the Hush Little Robot CD are two “Campus Radio” 1970 interviews wherein Bruce briefly discusses the making of The Electric Lucifer. The first of these has survived the years well enough; the second opens promisingly with remarks about the moog synthesizer versus Haack’s own homemade paraphernalia, but then the discussion digresses and gets inextricably mired in a bog of 1967-style, “groovy,” nonsensicality. Were he alive today, I wonder if Bruce wouldn’t be a tad embarrassed--or amused--to hear himself uttering the following observations:
“Touch is like, uh, togetherness, touching minds and touching bodies, and what a great way to make music. To aim the focus of your, uh, to focus your aim on touching a person's body, to bring together, and thus producing sound .... touching each other, and also touching ourselves without and within and, uh, also touching each other in harmony, which is great. In other words, this touch gimmick, as I have it, is actually producing sound when you are touching.”
I’d guess that most Haack fans will do as I do: listen once or twice to these interviews, then skip ‘em.
Until complete CD reissues (hopefully) appear for The Electric Lucifer and This Old Man (not to mention the heretofore unpublished portions of Haack’s oeuvre), the Hush Little Robot CD serves admirably as an introduction to the music of Bruce Haack. In the meantime, check out the recently released Electric Lucifer Book 2 CD (on the QDK label, and distributed by Forced Exposure.) If anything, the sequel--lacking even one bad track--is still better than the Columbia original! You can read about and order both Hush Little Robot and Electric Lucifer Book 2 via the following link: http://www.forcedexposure.com/artists/haack.bruce.html
Bruce Haack Music (www.brucehaack.com)
Bruce Haack (forcedexposure.com)
Bruce Haack: Pioneer of Electronic Music
Bruce Haack (Wikipedia)
Haack on YouTube