This weekend is Alberta Culture Days, a three-day province-wide celebration of Alberta’s vibrant and diverse arts and culture communities. Originally created in 2008 as a one-day event called Alberta Arts Day, Alberta Culture Days has become the flagship autumnal arts celebration for people of all ages and interests. Thousands of events will take place this weekend all over Alberta.
When it comes to the music community, many people are likely familiar with famous Alberta musicians whose long careers and commercial success have led them to worldwide acclaim. Ian Tyson and k.d. lang come to mind, as well as more contemporary artists like Feist, Corb Lund, Cadence Weapon and Purity Ring. However, there is one person in particular whose influence on music is only now being fully understood, decades after his death in 1988. His name is Bruce Haack and he grew up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Looking back on his career and musical output, you wouldn’t be far off in thinking that maybe this man was the living embodiment of the concept of, “way ahead of his time.”
In short, Haack is regarded as a cult figure who helped popularize (and sometimes invent) the use of electronics in music. Again, it has only been in the last decade that his influence on experimental, electronic, hip-hop and, yes, children’s music, has been unraveled. This is a man from the foothills of the Rockies whose music career influenced other genres and artists similar to that of other electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk in 1960s Germany.
After being rejected from the University of Alberta’s music program (not for lack of musical talent, but for the lack of dedication to musical notation), Haack ended up completing a psychology degree at the school. Shortly after graduation, he accepted a scholarship from New York’s Julliard School where he began to score ballet and dance pieces, as well as tinker with homemade electronics in his studio. Through trial, error and trips to local shops, Haack would go on to invent an early prototype of the vocoder, and a peculiar analog synthesizer that would activate through touch and heat: the dermatron, or “peopleodeon.”
It was also around this time that Haack met dancer Esther Nelson. In 1963, on their newly-created Dimension 5 record label, the two released their first children’s album: Dance Sing & Listen.
Haack and Miss Nelson continued to work together and recorded several subsequent children’s albums. This musical partnership led to one of the most surreal moments in Alberta music history: Bruce Haack playing homemade synthesizers and Miss Nelson performing interpretive dance with children on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood:
Part 2 is available here.
In 1970 Haack would go on to release his only major record label album, Electric Lucifer. In terms of content, sound and inspirations, this was a departure from his children’s recordings with Miss Nelson, and still to this day remains one of the more lauded “electronic” records of the 1970s.
After more children’s recordings, Haack would record the dark and painful Haackula and a follow-up to Electric Lucifer called Electric Lucifer Book II, which wouldn’t be released until years later. Again demonstrating his “way ahead of his time” bonafides, Haack recorded the infinitely danceable track “Party Machine” in collaboration with Def Jam’s Russell Simmons. This is a song that, while perhaps lacking in fidelity compared to the music of today, could have been recorded in 2012 rather than 1982.
All at once a futuristic children’s composer, homemade synthesizer mad scientist and genre-bending pioneer, the true influence Bruce Haack has on this particular subsection of art and music may not be understood (or even known) for years to come. If you’re interested in learning more about this mysterious Rocky Mountain man, just type his name in Google or YouTube. And if you’re out creating, sharing and participating in Alberta Culture Days 2017, remember that the people, stories and the art they’ve created might still be out there, waiting to be discovered.
Written By: Jared Majeski