If you’re not familiar with Bruce Haack, here’s a potted history. A gifted musician and composer of everything from musicals to musique concrete, Haack was also a prodigious inventor, constantly creating electronic/instrument hybrids and developing new ways to manipulate sound. Despite having no electronics training, Haack designed and built many unique instruments and devices, most of which would make today’s batch of analog keyboard fans wet their pants out of sheer awe.
Haack’s work took him everywhere from television studios to children’s dance classes. It was in one such class that he met teacher Esther Nelson, with whom he’d go on to create many albums of popular children’s music.
Haack and Nelson’s records were largely unique for one simple reason: they addressed their youthful audience as human beings rather than baby-talking simpletons. The songs stressed imagination, role-playing and creativity, routinely paired with infectious, futuristic melodies. Last year, Emperor Norton released a Haack/Nelson retrospective, Listen Compute Rock Home, which is well worth tracking down.
Hush Little Robot is Haack alone, once again creating, as the album’s liner notes put it, “an electronic musical-poetic treat for children and high school people, revealing more wonders of our earth-ship.” The phrase “earth-ship” speaks volumes on what to expect here—the perspective is very bohemian. Front and center here is a polyphonic music computer, hand-built by Haack over 18 months. Capable of multiple voices and random on-the-fly composition, it would be nothing more than a massive paperweight today.
If this is your first Haack experience, you may find yourself slack-jawed during the burbling electronic interference of the Haack-ified “This Old Man” or amused by the analogue baroque leanings of “Four Dances”. Haack’s vocal approach varies between Dr. Science-style Atari-karaoke and an electronically-modified predecessor to Tom Waits. He’s really not like anyone else you’ve heard before. Though it wouldn’t seem that unusual to today’s experimental rock fans, this stuff must have been utterly mind-blowing in the sixties. If you listen carefully—the production’s a bit muddy—you’ll get to play (“Word Game”), learn (“Elizabeth Foster Goose”, “Program Me”) and explore touchy-feely body-language concepts (“Bods”).
Haack even closes the album with a “Thank You” to children and teachers who’ve supported his previous records. Ever heard an artist do that before? Somehow I don’t see Barney being as genteel.
Would Hush Little Robot work for today’s kids? Unless they’ve been raised in seclusion, probably not, though it’s their parents who are likely to be the naysayers. Haack’s approach here is a little too “weird” by the standards of the Teletubby Generation, and some of the concepts here—the sinister, titular lullabye that concludes “Four Dances,” or the ominous “Song of the Death Machine”—are better suited to the “primitive” 1960s than the “liberated” 2000s. Imagine trying to release a children’s album today with a song on it called “Song of the Death Machine”...
Honestly, kids might love Hush Little Robot, though I’d suggest testing the waters with the more accessible Listen Compute Rock Home first. Hush… is probably better suited for adults, unless you’ve got kids who sit around the house tinkering with vintage keboards.
// Notes from the Road
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