About The Holy Gasp

Founded in 2011 by Toronto-born poet and composer Benjamin Hackman, The Holy Gasp is a multi-genre ensemble that strives to entertain fans of theatrical, darkly comical, literary music, with instrumentation and personnel that changes regularly to meet the needs and vision of each new project.

Benjamin Hackman at the Kiever Synagogue during his Composer’s Residency in 2020. Photo by Alex Gray.

Their first record, The Last Generation of Love (2015), was funded by the Toronto Arts Council, and regarded as “a future cult-classic debut” by The Toronto Star, as “undoubtedly one of the best Canadian albums of the year” by Grayowl Point, and as “one of the best albums to come out of Toronto in 2015” by Toronto Music Reviews.

Press shot of The Holy Gasp, taken during the shooting of the music video for A Daily Affirmation, no. 1, from the studio album, The Last Generation of Love. Left to right: Christopher Weatherstone (woodwinds), James McEleney (bass), Oso (drums), Benjamin Hackman (lead vocals and percussionist), Sebastian Shinwell (guitar). Photo by Karol Orzechowski, 2015

In 2017, The Holy Gasp was commissioned by The Toronto Outdoor Picture Show to compose an original film score to the 1925 silent comedy, The Freshman, which was written during Composer’s Residency at The Church of St. Andrew by-the-lake on Toronto Island. The Freshman was conducted Maestro Pratik Gandhi, and premiered as a live accompaniment to the movie on opening night of The Christie Pits Film Festival in June of 2017. It was attended by an audience of 800 and encored later in August of 2017 at the Slapstick by Starlight Festival.

Waiting for the sun to go down before the outdoor premiere of The Freshman, opening night of The Christie Pits Film Festival. Seated from left to right: Sebastian Shinwell (fretted strings), Karl Silviera (trombone), Robert W. Stevenson (woodwinds). Standing left to right: Benjamin Hackman (composer, percussion, vocalizations), Bennet Young (bass), Eric Woolston (drums), Joseph Organ (keys). Photo by Nick Greaves, 2017.

In 2018, The Holy Gasp released The Love Songs of Oedipus Rex, a 27-person concept album about a troubled marriage further burdened by the death of the husband’s father. The album reached #1 on the Earshot Campus Radio Charts in Windsor and Detroit, and was the subject of a CBC Short Doc by director Luke Sargent on the process of turning trauma into art. The album was described by Sacred Exile as “an immediately captivating mix of genres, anchored by a powerful vocal performance… ultimately unlike anything you have  heard before.” And to quote Domionated: “From the most painful and precarious of predicaments, The Love Songs of Oedipus Rex rises as a creative masterpiece.” The album premiered live in concert at 918 Bathurst in Toronto on October 27 2018, and was funded by the Toronto Arts Council, The Ontario Arts Council, The Canada Council for the Arts, FACTOR, and The SOCAN Foundation.

Some of our saxophonists from The Love Songs of Oedipus Rex, from left to right: Naomi McCarroll-Butler, Naomi Higgins, and Patrick Smith. Photo by Karol Orzechowski, 2018.

The 2020 pandemic proved a fruitful year for The Holy Gasp, first with the release of Mmm Urkh But, co-composed with Robert W. Stevenson. This 16-minute piece marked a new foray for The Holy Gasp into music-accompanied storytelling. Composed for bass clarinet and percussion, Mmm Urkh But is the story of a man and woman who attempt to mend their troubled relationship by committing to a life together in which three words alone are permitted to be uttered. Mmm Urkh But premiered via live stream in co-presentation with URGNT Music and Macleans Magazine. In the words of Governor General Award-winning poet, Jacob Scheier: “Mmm Urkh But tells a story both familiar and original in style and content—Beckett-esque and biblical, ironic, absurd, yet genuine and poignant. One might think there is nothing left to say on the subject of communication in romance, or perhaps the impossibility of it, yet Hackman tackles the topic in a fresh and, at times, surprisingly delightful way.”

Co-Composer and bass clarinetist Robert W. Stevenson (left) with Benjamin Hackman (co-composer, narrator, percussion). Photo by Evan Arbic, 2020.

Later in 2020, during a Composer’s Residency at the Historic Kiever Synagogue in Toronto’s Kensington Market, The Holy Gasp premiered Grief, a sunset-to-sunrise choral performance written for 10 vocalists, 2 pianists, and percussion, and performed in both English and American Sign Language by both deaf and hearing perfomers. Prior to the performance, the public was invited to enter the names of their dead loved ones into The Database of the Dead (where you are still welcome and encouraged to memorialize your loved ones). These names were then inscribed by Rochelle Rubinstein into a series of scrolls from which Hackman read for 9.5 straight hours, while the ensemble around him performed the same ceaseless melody until all 17,000 names had been read, and the sun had come up. Grief was funded by the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the SOCAN Foundation.

The Grief ensemble, deep in the thick of it. Photo by Karol Orzechowski, 2020.
The names of the dead piled high as the night moved on. Photo by Karol Orzechowski, 2020.

Presently, The Holy Gasp is preparing a new studio album written for an orchestra of 45, scheduled for release in the spring/summer of 2022. Follow us on social media to keep yourself up to date, or write to us at:

The Holy Gasp
200-21 Nassau St.
Toronto, ON.