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INTERVIEW | Poet-Composer Benjamin Hackman AKA The Holy Gasp Talks About His Film And His Music

By Anya Wassenberg on November 24, 2023

L-R (clockwise): Benjamin Hackman; still from Algonquin Bridge; The Holy Gasp orchestra recording (All photos courtesy of Benjamin Hackman)
L-R (clockwise): Benjamin Hackman; still from Algonquin Bridge; The Holy Gasp orchestra recording (All photos courtesy of Benjamin Hackman)

With multiple festival awards to its name, Jewish-Canadian poet-composer Benjamin Hackman’s short film The Algonquin Bridge is available to view online today, November 24.

The film was illustrated by Mayte Sanchez and Txesco Montal of Alla Kinda, with Hackman supplying the music and lyrics/narration. It was awarded the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Animation at the Cannes Short Film Festival in 2023.

The short film went on to collect the award for Best Animated Short at the London International Short Film Festival, and screened as a slew of festivals from Greece to Scotland, Edmonton to Portugal.

It’s shaping up as a banner year for Hackman, leader of the fluid ensemble The Holy Gasp. His latest release, …And the Lord Hath Taken Away, released on Roar Records Inc. in April 2023, is probably best understood as a mélange of styles musically. It includes the music from the animated short.

The album’s tracks incorporate spoken narration as well as vocals sung with a dramatic sensibility and technical facility. Genre-wise, it defies description, although there are recognizable strains of contemporary jazz and Western classical music, Jewish music, musical theatre, medieval melodies here and there, and cinematic orchestral scores. Experimental jazz and even bluegrass gospel slip in and out of the musical mix.

In a tribute to its multi-genre mix, it’s been submitted for prize consideration in seven different JUNO categories, from classical composition to adult alternative and contemporary Christian/Gospel.

Lyrically, recurring themes of grief and loss work their way through the music. At 18 tracks and 65 minutes of orchestral suites, it bucks several industry trends. “We are working to film a live concert version of it as well,” Benjamin says.

We caught up with the multi-hyphenate artist to talk about the film and the music.

Benjamin Hackman: The Interview

“The truth is, I kind of snuck into music making. My background is in poetry and creative writing,” he says. He spent eight years as a working writer, during which he struggled to get noticed. “It was rejected maybe 30 or 40 times,” he says.

When he set the poems to the beat of conga drums, however, he says they took off, and he found himself performing them to appreciative audiences. “From there, I built an orchestra.”

Benjamin Hackman aka The Holy Gasp (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Benjamin Hackman aka The Holy Gasp (Photo courtesy of the artist)

The Holy Gasp

The Holy Gasp is a fluid musical collective that can be a trio or quartet, or grow to orchestral dimensions should the occasion arise. For the latest album, The Holy Gasp swelled to 45 people.

He credits a lack of background in music for his ability to build an ensemble with open possibilities.

“I think I’m able to create innovative, quirky things because I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s good to be naive sometimes.”

He did train as a drummer. “Once I started singing with my congas, I went by the name The Holy Gasp.” It was 2011. “I came back to Toronto with no shoes, and started making these odd conga poems.”

When it comes to musical inspiration, it’s hard to know where to begin. “It’s a huge, huge list,” he says. “I really love cinema from the mid century.” He singles out the playfully dark and sometimes sinister quality of movie scores from the late 1950s and early 1960s. “It’s starting to blur the lines between classical and pop and rock sensibilities.” He points out the rise in importance of movie music during that era. “There’s a really rich and developed tapestry for romantic sounding love music,” he says. “I also really like vaudeville stuff,” he adds. That includes the music from classics like Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers films. “There’s really good music in Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry.”

His goal is simple. He begins with what interests him. “If others are entertained and stimulated by what I write that’s a great bonus.”

The Film

The animated film that is garnering international acclaim came together by happenstance.

“I had this little poem.” He brought it to creative partner Anthony William Wallace. “We composed music to the words. I wanted it to be a story.” He recorded his vocals on a cell phone. “We composed music around the sound waves of my vocal performance,” he says. The result was that only his original narration would fit perfectly with the music. After a couple of months of tinkering, he had the music and narration down.

That’s when he was attracted to an Instagram post by Spanish animation company Alla Kinda. He got in touch to tell the company he liked their work. “I just sent a quick off the cuff message.” The company wrote back with a reciprocated appreciation for his own work, and an offer to collaborate. While they handled the animation, he offered direction. “I took care of the story and the music.”

Their collaborations continue with a second track, Devil Oh Devil, and at least another animated musical video in the works.

What keeps him going as an artist?

“What I would say is, […] my arts practice is predominantly concerned with turning conflict into art,” he says, pointing out that it’s what most artists do. “We want to resolve what is unresolved.”

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