Artist Profile: The Holy Gasp23 July 2020 / by Shafniya Kanagaratnam (author)
Surrounded by candle light, with masks covering their faces and distanced 2 meters apart, 4 instrumentalists and 10 vocalists perform with their every move being streamed live through a split-screen video feed. On one half of the screen we see a handwritten list of names scroll upwards and on the other we watch as these musicians perform for an uninterrupted 12 hours. Streamed in black and white, you can see the passion each performer gives and can see the difficulty of performing such a feat of endurance.. At some point past midnight, some performers were on their knees, some pacing to relieve the pressure and empty glasses of water were over taking the filled ones. Somewhere in the room, you can see a pile of paper quickly increasing in size as the band’s leader stands behind a podium with a pen on hand placing small check marks beside each name as he reads them out one-by-one.
The band leader’s name is Benjamin Hackman and this is The Holy Gasp, his musical project originally formed in 2011. Hackman describes The Holy Gasp as a “band” that incorporates elements from theatre, music, literature and poetry. What makes The Holy Gasp stand out is lack of permanent “bandmates”. Instead Benjamin picks performers that will meet the specific creative needs of each project - whether it be a 2 person storytelling ensemble with bass clarinet and percussion to 7 person chamber ensemble doing live accompaniment during film screenings.
Grief is their most recent performance and - in Hackman’s words - a “communal mourning ritual for those who have suffered the sorrows of losing a loved one.” It was performed at The Kiever Synagogue on July 1st from sunset to sunrise and was live streamed on their website due to COVID-19 restrictions. Written for 10 vocalists, 2 pianists, 2 percussionists and performed in both English and American Sign Language. Throughout the performance, Benjamin read off a scroll called the “Database of the Dead”, which contains the names the public submitted of the loved ones they have lost, as the Holy Gasp will perform around him non stop throughout the night.
CJRU sat down for an interview with Hackman to discuss how Grief came to life, the importance of accessibility and the influence of The Book of Job.
CJRU: What is the origin of this newest performance?
Hackman: An incredible amount of people in my life had died. My father died of a heart attack, shortly after that my therapist died of pancreatic cancer, my oldest friend hanged himself, my brother-in-law overdosed, my other friend died in a car accident, my grandmother died of old age. It was just a massive list of people close to me who had died in totally different ways from one another and who had impacted my life and complexified my grieving process in unique ways. When I looked around my peer group, none of them could relate to the experience of losing so many people, especially with such a complex amount of different ways to lose so many people. I was hungry to feel connected because grief can be such an alienating experience sometimes, although I would argue that it shouldn’t be, because we all grieve. I sought to find something that would be meaningful to my experience and that could provide some sort of clarity and understanding as I processed my grief. It occurred to me that our culture is not particularly good at speaking about death and grief and that there is a durst of narratives around grief that is presented to us in our literature, music and art. I set out to find examples of complex, concurrent grief within art and literature.
CJRU: What pieces of literature did you find that influenced the development of Grief?
Hackman: I found solace in the Book of Job. Which I think is a text that a lot of people find solace in seeking to understand the reason for their human suffering. There are countless examples of historical figures that speak about the Book of Job as a comforting text as an attempt to understand the reason for their suffering. I was struck by a line “While he was still speaking, another also came and said,'The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camel and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have survived to tell you!' While he was still speaking, another also came and said,'Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” The idea of one person of so many deaths having been given this role, that be given by God or given by other circumstances being told to announce those who had died struck me as a very powerful thing. From that line of The Book of Job, I crafted the lyrics of Grief: “These are the people that died and we alone have survived to say that these are the people who died…” which goes on and on for the entirety of the performance.
CJRU: Why perform it on July 1st from sunset to sunrise?
Hackman: There is something holy about the span of the night. There's also something intrinsically comparable between night and death. So in the act of spanning the entirety of night as a group of people, it would be the process of spanning our own internal darkness and of course confronting the darkness of death, so there's a symbolism to it. I needed an allotment of time but it's also an artful symbolic gesture. Finding a statutory holiday that wasn't on a weekend was the first priority but then it turned out in Canada Day people were going to read into that. The early moment of conception for this piece I did not want for people to read into the date, that was very important. I did not want to alienate anyone's culture, but the idea of July 1st being Canada's birthday, the idea of the entire country having an opportunity to come together in the wake of Covid-19 and to take an opportunity to grieve nationally felt interesting to me. Then of course from a First Nations perspective, Canada Day has always been a day of grief, it's always been a day associated with with mass murder and I felt that I could be in solidarity with their liberation in a subtle way by having it on July 1st. But these things were not planned; they're just “happy accidents”.
CJRU: Why did you choose to include a deaf vocalist?
Hackman: Music is very powerful in a way of uniting people across cultures and that was part of my thinking as to why having a musical component to this communal morning ritual. I did not want anybody to feel excluded by this project and for my quest to build a distinctly diverse ensemble for this iteration of The Holy Gasp, it struck me as unforgivable to leave out the deaf population, for whom music would be inaccessible. So I thought well, I can see no reason why to have someone signing with us and that person of course should be representative for the deaf community. So we found Thurga to join us, and she did a beautiful job translating my lyrics into American Sign Language. In ASL, the lyric is “we alone have survived to sign that these are the people that died …”
CJRU: How has COVID 19 influenced or impacted Grief?
Hackman: With relevance to my own arts practice and getting all the things in the world that I would like to get done, I felt that I needed to get Grief out of the way. I was planning on doing Grief in the summer , then Covid hit and I was like, I can adapt to this. It just seems more topical and if anything people want to talk about grief more. It was just another “happy accident”. I did not plan on it, I didn't want to stop working and I have a residence at the synagogue. I have the whole building effectively to myself because they can't have religious service during the shutdown. I just wanted to keep working. It was kind of wonderful, well “wonderful” is kind of a perverse adjective right now, but it struck me and it seemed to strike everybody the Grief seemed to coincide very well with what was happening in the world and what people were in need of.