Demonstrating an early ability for music, Bruce Haack is said to have started picking out melodies on his family's piano at age four, and progressing to providing piano lessons for others by age 12.
While attending college in Edmonton Canada at the University of Alberta, Haack began performing in local venues with a then-popular local band called The Swing Tones. While the band played primarily modern and old-time music, they also performed Ukrainian Folk music, which introduced Haack to Eastern musical motifs and themes. This exposure would prove to be a significant influence Haack's work later in life. Prior to leaving Alberta to move to New York City, Haack would assemble a large record collection of music from many parts of the world. In later years, Haack's painting of St. Basil is said to be reminiscent of his earlier years with The Swing Tones in Edmonton.
Bruck Haack is remembered at this time in his development as having a surprising ability to hear music and play it back immediately from memory, and would often composing innovative riffs through improvisation.
Haack was also invited by Aboriginal peoples in Canada to participate in their pow-wows, experimenting with Peyote, which influenced his music for years to come. His upbringing in the isolated mining town of Rocky Mountain House in Alberta, Canada, gave him plenty of time to develop his musical talents.
Seeking formal training to hone his ability, Haack applied to the University of Alberta's music program. Though that school rejected him because of his poor notation skills, at Edmonton University he wrote and recorded music for campus theater productions, hosted a radio show, and played in a band. He received a degree in psychology from the university; this influence was felt later in songs that dealt with body language and the computer-like ways children absorb information.
New York City's Juilliard School offered Haack the opportunity to study with composer Vincent Persichetti; thanks to a scholarship from the Canadian government, he headed to New York upon graduating from Edmonton in 1954. At Juilliard, Haack met a like-minded student, Ted "Praxiteles" Pandel, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. However, his studies proved less sympathetic, and he dropped out of Juilliard just eight months later, rejecting the school's restrictive approach.
Throughout the rest of his career, Haack rejected restrictions of any kind, often writing several different kinds of music at one time. He spent the rest of the 1950s scoring dance and theater productions, as well as writing pop songs for record labels like Dot Records and Coral Records. Haack's early scores, like 1955's Les Etapes, suggested the futuristic themes and experimental techniques Haack developed in his later works. Originally commissioned for a Belgian ballet, Les Etapes mixed tape samples, electronics, soprano, and violin; the following year, he finished a musique concrète piece called "Lullaby for a Cat."
As the 1960s began, the public's interest in electronic music and synthesizers increased, and so did Haack's notoriety. Along with songwriting and scoring, Haack appeared on TV shows like I've Got a Secret and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, usually with Pandel in tow. The duo often played the Dermatron, a touch- and heat-sensitive synthesizer, on the foreheads of guests; 1966's appearance on I've Got a Secret featured them playing 12 "chromatically pitched" young women. Meanwhile, Haack wrote serious compositions as well, such as 1962's "Mass for Solo Piano," which Pandel performed at Carnegie Hall, and a song for Rocky Mountain House's 50th anniversary. One of his most futuristic pieces, 1963's "Garden of Delights," mixed Gregorian chants and electronic music. This work was never broadcast or released in its complete form.
From Children's Music to Electric Lucifer (1963-1976)
Haack found another outlet for his creativity as an accompanist for children's dance teacher Esther Nelson. Perhaps inspired by his own lonely childhood, he and Nelson collaborated on educational, open-minded children's music. With Pandel, they started their own record label, Dimension 5 Records, on which they released 1962's Dance, Sing, & Listen. Two other records followed in the series, 1963's Dance, Sing, & Listen Again and 1965's Dance, Sing, & Listen Again & Again. Though the series included activity and story songs similar to other children's records at the time, the music moves freely between country, medieval, classical, and pop, and mixes instruments like piano, synthesizers, and banjo. The lyrics deal with music history or provide instructions like, "When the music stops, be the sound you hear," resulting in an often surreal collage of sounds and ideas.
The otherworldly quality of Haack's music was emphasized by the instruments and recording techniques he developed with the Dance, Sing, & Listen series. Though he had little formal training in electronics, he made synthesizers and modulators out of any gadgets and surplus parts he could find, including guitar effects pedals and battery-operated transistor radios. Eschewing diagrams and plans, Haack improvised, creating instruments capable of 12-voice polyphony and random composition. Using these modular synthesizer systems, he then recorded with two two-track reel-to-reel decks, adding a moody tape echo to his already distinctive pieces.
As the 1960s progressed and the musical climate became more receptive to his kind of whimsical innovation, Haack's friend, collaborator, and business manager Chris Kachulis found mainstream applications for his music. This included scoring commercials for clients like Parker Brothers Games, Goodyear Tires, Kraft Cheese, and Lincoln Life Insurance; in the process, Haack won two awards for his work. He also continued to promote electronic music on television, demonstrating how synthesizers work on Mister Rogers Neighborhood in 1968, and released The Way-Out Record for Children later that year. Kachulis did another important favor for his friend by introducing Haack to psychedelic rock. Acid rock's expansive nature was a perfect match for Haack's style, and in 1969 he released his first rock-influenced work, The Electric Lucifer. A concept album about the earth being caught in the middle of a war between heaven and hell, Electric Lucifer featured a heavy, driving sound complete with Moog synthesiser, Kachulis' singing, and Haack's homegrown electronics including a prototype vocoder and unique lyrics, which deal with "powerlove" — a force so strong and good that it will not only save mankind but Lucifer himself. Kachulis helped out once more by bringing Haack and Lucifer to the attention of Columbia Records, who released it as Haack's major-label debut. As the 1970s started, Haack's musical horizons continued to expand. After the release of Electric Lucifer, he struck up a friendship with fellow composer and electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott. They experimented with two of Scott's instruments, theClavivox and Electronium. Nothing remains of the collaboration, and though Scott gave Haack a Clavivox, he did not record with it on his own. However, he did continue on Lucifer's rock-influenced musical with 1971's Together, an electronic pop album that marked his return to Dimension 5. Perhaps in an attempt to differentiate this work from his children's music, he released it under the name Jackpine Savage, the only time he used this pseudonym.
Haack continued making children's albums as well, including 1972's Dance to the Music, 1973's Captain Entropy, which was the first album in history to be recorded using the Optigan, and 1974's This Old Man, which featured science fiction versions of nursery rhymes and traditional songs. After relocating to Westchester, PA, to spend more time with Pandel, Haack focused on children's music almost exclusively, writing music for Scholastic Corporation like "The Witches' Vacation" and "Clifford the Small Red Puppy." He also released Funky Doodle and Ebenezer Electric (an electronic version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol) in 1976, but by the late 1970s, his prolific output slowed; two works, 1978's Haackula and the following year's Electric Lucifer Book II, were never released.
From Party Machine to Death Machine (1977-1988)
His darkest album to date, Haackula strikes out on into dark, yet playful territory. Haackula seems to have inspired Haack's final landmark work, 1981's Bite. The albums share several song titles and a dark lyrical tone different from Haack's usually idealistic style. Though Bite is harsher than his other works, it features his innovative, educational touch: a thorough primer on electronics and synthesizers makes up a large portion of the liner notes, and Haack adds a new collaborator for this album, 13-year-old vocalist Ed Harvey.
Haack's failing health slowed Dimension 5's musical output in the early 1980s, but Nelson and Pandel kept the label alive by publishing songbooks, like Fun to Sing and The World's Best Funny Songs, and re-released selected older albums as cassettes, which are still available today. In 1982, Haack recorded his swan song, a proto-hiphop collaboration with Def Jam's Russell Simmons, entitled "Party Machine". Haack died in 1988 from heart failure, but his label and commitment to making creative children's music survives. While Dimension 5's later musical releases — mostly singalong albums featuring Nelson — may lack the iconoclastic spark of the early records, Nelson and Pandel's continued work reveals the depth of their friendship with Haack, a distinctive and pioneering electronic musician.
In 2005, a tribute album was released titled Dimension Mix -- a tribute to Dimension 5 Records, featuring covers of Bruce Haack songs by Beck, Stereolab and others. The project was produced by long time friend and Beck collaborator, Ross Harris, whose autistic child, and godson to Beck, inspired the album.
Despite the success of Sam and Friends, which ran for six years, Henson spent much of the next two decades working in commercials, talk shows, and children's projects before being able to realize his dream of the Muppets as "entertainment for everybody". The popularity of his work on Sam and Friends in the late fifties led to a series of guest appearances on network talk and variety shows. Henson himself appeared as a guest on many shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show. This greatly increased exposure led to hundreds of commercial appearances by Henson characters throughout the sixties.
Among the most popular of Henson's commercials was a series for the local Wilkins Coffee company in Washington, D.C., in which his Muppets were able to get away with a greater level of slapstick violence than might have been acceptable with human actors and would later find its way into many acts on The Muppet Show. In the first Wilkins ad, a Muppet named Wilkins (with Kermit's voice) is poised behind a cannon seen in profile. Another Muppet named Wontkins (with Rowlf's voice) is in front of its barrel. Wilkins asks, "What do you think of Wilkins Coffee?" and Wontkins responds gruffly, "Never tasted it!" Wilkins fires the cannon and blows Wontkins away, then turns the cannon directly toward the viewer and ends the ad with, "Now, what do you think of Wilkins?" Henson later explained, "Till then, [advertising] agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a very different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh." The first seven-second commercial for Wilkins was an immediate hit and was syndicated and reshot by Henson for local coffee companies across the United States; he ultimately produced more than 300 coffee ads. The same setup was used to pitch Kraml Milk in the Chicago, Il., area and Red Diamond coffee.
In 1963, Henson and his wife moved to New York City, where the newly formed Muppets, Inc. would reside for some time. Jane quit muppeteering to raise their children. Henson hired writer Jerry Juhl in 1961 and puppeteer Frank Oz in 1963 to replace her. Henson later credited both writers with developing much of the humor and character of his Muppets. Henson and Oz developed a close friendship and a performing partnership that lasted 27 years; their teamwork is particularly evident in their portrayals of the characters of Bert and Ernie and Kermit and Fozzie Bear.
Henson's sixties talk show appearances culminated when he devised Rowlf, a piano-playing anthropomorphic dog. Rowlf became the first Muppet to make regular appearances on a network show, The Jimmy Dean Show. Henson was so grateful for this break that he offered Jimmy Dean a 40% interest in his production company, but Dean declined stating that Henson deserved all the rewards for his own work, a decision of conscience Dean never regretted. From 1963 to 1966, Henson began exploring film-making and produced a series of experimental films. His nine-minute Time Piece was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an Oscar for Short Film in 1966. The year 1969 saw the production of the NBC-TV movie The Cube – another Henson-produced experimental film.
Also around this time, the first drafts of a live-action experimental film script were written with Jerry Juhl, which would eventually become his last unproduced full-length screenplay, Tale of Sand. The script remained in the Henson Company archives until the screenplay was adapted in the 2012 graphic novel, Jim Henson's Tale of Sand.
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