Babylon: Ghetto, Renaissance, and Modern Oblivion

Babylon considers the text of Psalm 137 (By the Waters of Babylon) as it has resonated through the music of two ghettoized peoples – Italian Jews of Mantua during the period of the Counter-Reformation, and African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Narrated by the titanic voice of actor Ezra Knight, the musical performances of works by Italian-Jewish composer Salamone Rossi (1570 – 1630) and contemporary American Brandon Waddles (1988 –) are by the groundbreaking Kaleidoscope Vocal Ensemble. Other musical selections are historical recordings by such luminaries as Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, and others, as well as two luminaries in contemporary West African music, Kevin Nathaniel Hylton and Yacouba Sissoko.


It was our pleasure to interview Jessica Gould, the director of the film who enjoys a multifaceted career as writer, soprano, artistic director, and award-winning filmmaker with over 40 laurels to her name, including Best Original Script from the London International Monthly Film Festival, and Best First Time Director from the Silk Road Festival Cannes, 1st Monthly Film Festival Belgrade, and Dreamer's Film Festival Bucharest, all for Babylon: Ghetto, Renaissance, and Modern Oblivion.

Ms. Gould’s program notes include essays for Carnegie Hall, the Clarion Society (New York City), the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia), the Da Camera Society (Los Angeles), NYU Villa La Pietra (Florence), Palazzo Grimani (Venice), and Villa Finaly La Chancellerie des Universités de Paris – La Sorbonne (Florence), among many others. Her creative nonfiction, satire, and essays have been published in the literary journals Belle Ombre, The Blue Nib, Exquisite Pandemic, and Months to Years. A soprano, artistic director, Italian translator, and researcher, she performs and records in Europe and the United States. As the Founder and Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, based in New York City, her original projects have received grants from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Florence Gould Foundation (no relation), the DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, the Charles Schwartz Foundation for Music, the Krumholz Foundation, and NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, among others, generous support which has enabled the series to blossom into one of the more significant presenters of historical performance in New York City and beyond.

She holds a BA from Macalester College in Art History, Music, and Political Science, and studied Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons School of Design, and the National Academy of Design. Ms Gould studied film history and theory under Joel Doerfler and Linda Schulte-Sasse in the United States and Maria Grazia Bucchioni and Vito Tobbia in Italy.



How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?

I am a musician and have run an early music concert series, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, since

2009. The pandemic, which made live performance impossible, forced all of us in every genre of

performance to convert our seasons to video. While we all scrambled to put whatever material

we could online in the absence of live concerts, by April of 2020 I was starting to contemplate

what would work cinematographically rather than as a simple filmed concert. In the fall of last

year, someone from NYU Casa Italiana, an institution with which SSC frequently collaborates,

contacted me and asked what I was working on. I shared that I was ruminating over the text of

Psalm 137, “By the Waters of Babylon,” its significance to many oppressed groups, and the

many musical settings the text has received throughout many eras and musical styles. I continued that I wanted to create a project that contrasted the setting of the text by Salamone Rossi, a Jewish-Italian composer who lived four hundred years ago, with an African American setting of the text. I discussed the ways that the murder of George Floyd had caused me to re-examine the ways in which my organization could respond to the racist violence of our society and reach as many people as possible. I also talked about how such a project could find ways to unite disparate minority groups by exploring the commonalities in our historical experiences of

oppression. My colleague said Casa Italiana would support the project if I included narration

between the musical sections, so I wrote a script for an actor to go along with the musical

selections, and Babylon: Ghetto, Renaissance, and Modern Oblivion, was off to the races. It is

the first film I have ever made.



What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?

As deeply troubled as I was to see a few overtly racist and antisemitic social media posts by a

younger musician in my field, I was even more perturbed to see a professional community ignore the horror of these posts and enthusiastically promote this individual’s career. That so many could see “jokes” about the Holocaust and the massacre of people of color and do absolutely nothing beyond dismissing such things as “youthful indiscretion,” sometimes even chiming in with likes and laughing emojis, proved to me and to many others just how much work awaits us in achieving a climate of equality in our field. This was, of course, not the only instance of racism and anti-Semitism I have witnessed in early music. It was just one of the most egregious as well as the most recent.

While I have addressed social justice issues in my concert programming for years, a live concert

reaches only those who pay tickets to see it. Those who pay tickets to see what you are

programming already agree with you. A film, online, for free, reaches thousands more, even

those who disagree with me, even those who are so triggered by what I have to say that they send me hostile emails, to which I respond with reading lists and other educational resources, because when someone is triggered, it means my film has hit a nerve, and when you have hit a nerve, you have quite possibly inspired someone to rethink things down the line after they have had time to calm down. Opprobrium sent my way for the message of Babylon is greater proof of its success than any film festival trophy could ever be.


What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film

industry?

I am a neophyte here, so I see perhaps as many challenges as joys simply because I am

completely new to filmmaking and just beginning to find my way in the industry. I see many

similarities between the indie film world and the early music world, in how much each field

demands of one’s resourcefulness and originality of vision. At the moment, the path to

distribution seems to be a formidable challenge. I am profoundly inspired by the wide ranging

recognition that Babylon has already received from so many film festivals in so many countries.

This recognition was completely unexpected, and it is a delightful surprise for which I am most

grateful.



How difficult is it to fund indie films?

As the Artistic Director of a concert series I am no stranger to the challenges of fundraising. As

film becomes a more integral part of early music programming as a result of the pandemic, we

are reaching out to our supporters and inviting them to consider how film enables us to reach

even more audiences than live performance, and how film can attract new listeners to the

admittedly small niche we occupy in the world of live classical music performance. Perhaps if

film is continued to be taken seriously as an indispensible part of early music programming, our

niche will not remain small for much longer. Long after the pandemic becomes a memory, I

think film will remain a well funded part of many a concert series’ programming for these

reasons.


Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your

work?

It’s hard to know where to begin, because I think of film directors, but then I also think of opera

stage directors who also directed films, the latter being more closely connected to what I do. I

love the stark historicity of Jean-Pierre Ponelle 1980 film of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, set

among Roman ruins, as much as the Joseph Losey setting of Don Giovanni among the villas of

the Brenta, with his commedia-inspired costumes to indicate the over the top eccentricity of

some of the characters. Franco Zeffirelli, whose lavish, hyper-realist stage productions inspired a

minimalist backlash, (a price that we lovers of more is more are still paying today), directed

some of the most conservative, yet breathtakingly precise opera films ever made. As for the

classic film masters, I don’t think anyone can even think cinematographically without being

informed, even subconsciously, by the suspended time of Igmar Bergman or the wry comedic

flamboyance of Federico Fellini. I guess one could say that those two are the Apollo/Dionysus

foundational polarities of modern filmmaking. I’m sure that someone much more informed about

cinematic history than I will dispute me on this point, but that’s what comes to mind.


How did your film go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?

Babylon started first and foremost as a musical project, so my first concerns, after curating the

program, were how we would manage to produce ensemble music at the highest level in the

middle of a pandemic when no one could be in the same room with each other at the same time.

The selection of performers was a no brainer. A group featuring many of my colleagues, the

Kaleidoscope Ensemble, had recently formed, with an intent to bring attention to the paucity of

singers of color in choral and early music. These singers, under the direction of the excellent

conductor Arianne Abela, are some of the finest working in the field today, so the idea of using

any other group for this project was pretty much inconceivable. The actor Ezra Knight had

worked on some of our other projects before and brought them to a whole new level through his

vocal and dramatic presence. His delivery lends a gravitas and urgency to both the biblical text

and film narration that I think few others can match. Our AV director, Aaron Fagerstrom, had

collaborated with the series previously on smaller projects. He has the technical mastery to

execute what I envision with a degree of precision that often astonishes me, and his music

mixing united the voices and instruments in different cities as if we were in the same room

together. This film could not happen without him. For my scene, Debbie Patzelt, who has an

architecture degree from MIT, wrung out of a cell phone what few others can, and I am

convinced she has a world class cinematographer lurking inside her. Composer Brandon

Waddles’ magnificent final piece brought the film to a joyous crescendo when it could have

easily ended on a note of despair, given the subject matter and the state of our world today. The

success of this project is due to the excellence of every individual involved. Had there been a

weak link anywhere, we wouldn’t have garnered the over 50 laurels and counting that we have

today.


How was the film received by your audience and film festivals and what is your plan for

further distribution of the film?

The initial success for Babylon came from many of SSC’s and Casa Italiana’s audiences that

already know our work. The wide-ranging success of Babylon on the film festival circuit comes

as a wonderful surprise to me. This is my first film, and I never expected this kind of reception

on a global scale, with awards for Best First Time Director, Best Short Documentary, Best

Sound, Best Musical Film, Best Social Justice Film, Best Soundtrack, Best Original Script, etc.,

from festivals across the globe who had never heard of me or my organization before.

The ground that Babylon covers is deep and its historical sweep is wide for a short film. I would

like to expand it to something closer to feature length, with additional space for some of the

overlooked female voices in this history, such as various women blues musicians and Salamone

Rossi’s sister, who was named Madame Europa and was considered the first opera singer of all

time. I welcome any and all help with distribution, and will be looking into the specifics after we

complete this additional material. I am happy that the current incarnation of Babylon is on

youtube for free so as many people can watch it as possible. I know that is not the most attractive scenario for distributors, but it is important that the message of Babylon reach large numbers, including those in financial difficulty. We will have an expanded version available soon, and I am eager to hear from any and all potential distributors.



What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution

of independent films?

Well, I would love for someone to answer that question for me! As for the creation of

independent projects, I may be a newcomer to film, but I am no neophyte as a producer. Along

those lines, I would say, know your truth and don’t get swayed by all the seductive trends that

envelop and distract us all the time as denizens in a consumerist society. There is no need to be

or to chase the next new thing because that constantly changes. Just tell your story and if the

formal means by which you communicate it are equal to the veracity of your message, your truth

will be honored and your creation will resonate.


What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?

I just completed O Sweet Woods, another short film which is a musical reflection on my

pandemic solitude as reflected in six English songs from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

The film is divided into six vignettes and has no overt narrative, but rather traces an arc from

isolation to despair to return through the cinematic interpretation of music that is centuries old,

and from a time when plagues were common. All the footage comes from rural New England,

where I have been living on and off since March of last year in a very pleasing and creatively

fruitful state of seclusion. I will be working on an expanded version of Babylon, as I mentioned

above, and have plans for cinematic re-workings of various programs that have enjoyed healthy

lives as live concerts in pre-pandemic times.


Why do you make films?

My background is in the visual arts and music, so film to me is magical. It affords a level of

artistic exploration not possible in live performance because you are playing to two senses at

once – the aural and the visual. As a musician who lives aesthetically in the past, film gives me

the opportunity to take an audience with me as I fill a canvas with motion, composition, and

sound in the service of musical time travel. I can visit other eras through the representational, or

stretch sensory dimensions through the abstract. Within the same film I can do both.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many of us in the field of historical performance approached

the necessity of video with trepidation and resistance, as if film were too “high tech” for our pure

world of early music. Many of us thought the rightful place of video was utilitarian – a tool for

the purpose of documenting our stage performances for the archives and potential funders. I was one of these people. But I think of film now in quite the opposite way. Ironically, because this

most modern of technologies allows one to paint with movement and sound, a filmmaker can

walk through a door to a level of historical veracity in music that concert performance can only

hold ajar. Film is a new place for me and I find I rather like it here, so I would like to thank the

film world for opening the door for me with such a warm and unexpected welcome.