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Haack: The King of Techno (2004)

by on 2013/02/08

Haack: The King of Techno (2004)

“I’m not really sure how effective a lot of his records are actually as children’s records. I don’t know, but I would think some of them would really horrify children which, uh, I guess I’m not helping…”

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As a child I discovered electronic music on cassettes at the library. In truth, they were probably all that remained once the popular stuff was checked out. As a result I developed a healthy appreciation for Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Yello.

Later, as a teen, I heard something jazzy on the radio, which my mother told me was called “salon” music. After a few disappointing purchases, I learned she had actually meant “lounge”. It was just about as far from electronica as I ever strayed.

I never imagined those disparate worlds could be brought together successfully but, as time went on, I gradually found a precious few people had done so, most notably Leon Theremin, Raymond Scott, Robert Moog . . . and our subtitle’s King of Techno, Canadian Bruce Haack.

Born May 4, 1931 near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, Haack was an eccentric boy who didn’t quite fit in. Unable to study music in the province, he went to New York City, where he attended the Juilliard School to learn composition. Teaching himself to improvise, he was a modest pianist, and worked part-time as an accompanist for classes in dance.

A small group of friends encouraged him to pursue more profitable work, resulting in the occasional commercial song. However, he was easily discouraged by various “near misses” and slowly withdrew from public, uncomfortable with business, politics, and socializing.

Possessed of a childlike fascination with new technology, he began to build electronic gear to express the sounds in his head. Many were of his own invention as he pursued sonic perfection. His machines didn’t need notation, practice, played perfectly every time, and represented the next stage in music’s evolution.

Aside from any parallels with the stories of Glenn Gould, you probably know by now whether you consider Haack a freak or a geek.

As the documentary advances, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish plot from production, as the content and style intertwine. It all begins with his birth and, eventually, reaches his death, but the path between them isn’t strictly chronological. It’s more a route that’s been rearranged to move from order to chaos. Or perhaps, some will believe, it’s the other way round.

We begin with traditional approaches, photographs arranged in montage; stock footage of the era; clips from appearances on TV, including Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Bit by bit, the musical backing becomes much more percussive, then electronic and, later, surreally garbled.

Black and white animation soon replaces photos and film, like proto-Gilliam imagery, predating Monty Python, based on Haack’s own poems and paintings. Visuals are labelled with novelty fonts, moving on hypnotic paths, in high speed, in slow motion, pixelated and blurred. These sequences struck me as essentially retroactive music videos.

Near the end of the running time, after Haack has died, there are wrap-up interviews conducted with those who were influenced by him: avant-garde performers, caretakers of the autistic, disc jockeys, educators, and his closer friends. Every one of them seems, unsurprisingly, eccentric.

Haack: The King of Techno is only partly historical record, and more an audio-video mosaic inspired by an outsider artist, less definitive bio than freeform experience. It’s clearly a work of respect and affection, endearing despite – or even for – its imperfections. It reflects the fantastic bewilderment of his sounds with the briefest of glimpses into Bruce Haack’s life and, maybe, his mind.

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Not Rated

70 minutes

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