Written by Owsley Brown III

Can a symphony orchestra help save a city? In the late 1930s, a small group of visionary leaders put this question to the test in Louisville, Kentucky. Believing that a cultural life rich in artistic offerings for its citizens could make their city great, they created an orchestra as the principal vehicle for this vision. This one fateful decision would not only transform Louisville—it would also give rise to a symphony that would make a lasting contribution to music unmatched by any orchestra in the world.

Louisville had been brought to its knees after the devastating flood of 1937—far and away the worst disaster the city has ever known. Louisvillians faced massive and immediate problems, and some even questioned whether to rebuild the city at all. But this extreme situation brought about a kind of thinking in direct contrast to that which existed before the flood, when the national press could write that Louisville was “the city of leave well enough alone.” Perhaps this was a description many may have been comfortable with given the pleasure they took in their easy—if not elegant—lives, but this quiet façade was only one part of the city’s story. Louisville, like America, was changing radically, and Louisville’s leaders were determined to create a new city that would not only be great for its citizens, but great for the country and the world.

My interest in making this film was to better understand why growing up in Louisville in the 1970s and 1980s was so rich for me. I find it remarkable to consider that I was raised on a healthy diet of theater, opera, ballet, and concerts at the symphony. It’s true that my parents and many like them aspired to give their children a rich cultural life. But that option was only possible because, for forty years, the city’s fabric had been tightly woven with these elements. What’s more, these elements were accessible to all and considered basic to any education received in Louisville.

The citizens of Louisville have always been proud, and I believe they think it normal, for a sophisticated city such as theirs to have such a rich cultural life. In Music Makes a City, we wanted to present our understanding of how this came to be. In doing so, we have learned how the good intentions of visionary leaders and their willingness to take courageous risks can lead to handsome rewards—an outcome perhaps to be expected from a town best known for offering big payouts to those who know how to place good bets!

A Director’s Journey

Written by Jerome Hiler

More than anything, the primary inspiration for making a film about something as remote and forgotten as the struggles of the Louisville Orchestra during its hard-fought early years was my abiding love for the music of that era. I love classical music, and by that I mean the music of what is called the “pre-classics” as well as the classics. I’m not too fond of the sweaty bombast of the late Romantics, and I’m eternally grateful to Stravinsky for throwing open a window which let in blasts of cool, fresh air. By some strange chronological convenience, all manner of musical masters created works that changed the way music sounded during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Now, under the simple rubric of “twentieth-century music” we have an unbelievable quantity of musical personalities.

As a young man of eighteen, I found my first job as a general gofer for Arnold Arnstein, who ran the premier classical music-copying house in New York. I got to meet and know most of the “name” composers of the time as well as a host of lesser-known but nonetheless wonderful men and women composers.

It was during this period, in the early 1960s, that the Louisville Orchestra recordings began to appear in record stores. I noticed that many of my acquaintances at work—the unknown ones—were represented on these recordings. “What the heck is this Louisville Orchestra?” I wondered. It didn’t seem to record any known music. I must have felt that if recordings didn’t come from the big cities, they were suspect. Thanks to the New York Public Library, I discovered that the Louisville records were wonderful and, since I didn’t read music, a great way for me to get to know the music of Arnie’s clients. I’m not a musician, but I have gone on to a life of intense listening and learning. No matter how distant those early days have become, I remember and love the great generations of American composers who have dedicated their entire lives—without much recompense—to their work, which is now almost entirely forgotten.

As far as I’m concerned, the time is ripe to take another look at and savor the indescribable richness of all that was written in the last hundred years of classical music. Amidst all the talk of the demise of classical music, there are more recordings of little-known twentieth-century music available online at this time than were ever available before. The Louisville Orchestra, through its recording project, led the way to this heightened awareness of non-mainstream music.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of meeting Owsley Brown III. I was able to contribute some 16mm film footage to his film Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles. Owsley was born and bred in Louisville, Kentucky and seemed to have a devouring inter- est in just about any subject that could be imagined. We became fast friends and it was a delight to share any occasion with him.

One night, as we left the Opera House in San Francisco after a particularly satisfying program of George Ballanchine ballets, we began talking about how society had an acute need of great leaders. I remember saying, “You people in Louisville know all about that, with the whole generation around Mayor Farnsley.” Owsley, with that particular zest of his, said, “You should write a book about that period.” And I replied, “No, we should make a movie.”

Why a movie? The simple answer is: the music. With a film, we could bring the fruits of Charles Farnsley and orchestra conductor Robert Whitney’s dream to life. Ideas began to spark: We could have little samplers of music set to simple imagery. We might actually be able to have the entire soundtrack come from the Louisville Orchestra recordings. I wondered which, if any, composers were still alive. Could we interview them? Would they remember? From these initial ideas we embarked on a six-year project. We were faced with a story that seemed at once too ephemeral and also too rich. We decided that we had to limit the timeline to the career of Robert Whitney.

During this early planning period, when doubts were greatest about whether this story could become a movie, I walked into the densely packed confines of Recycled Records on Haight Street in San Francisco. There, on the floor in the most remote corner, I saw nine boxes of Louisville Orchestra recordings at a phenomenally cheap price. I brought them to the register where I met the manager Michael Boul and told him the story of our film and the recording project. He seemed really interested. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call from a customer, and I heard Michael say, “Well, I’m sorry, but those records were just bought by another customer about a minute ago.” That was a close one! If I had come a minute later, who knows how long it would have taken to gather that much of the orchestra’s recordings. That moment was like a sign from on high to have no doubt about the worthiness of our project. Those boxes became the basis of the film’s soundtrack. It wasn’t everything, but it was a start, and I labored in the following years to find moments in all that music that were suitable for our use.

I went to Louisville for the first time in 2005 with Owsley and our producer Cornelia Calder and immediately immersed myself in the University of Louisville’s library, which had bales of material of all sorts on the orchestra. This collection proved to be a treasure trove of major finds and minor tidbits. But the most important discovery was a massive dissertation on the very period we were investigating. The author was Sandra Fralin, and she had written a detailed account of the orchestra’s early development, with an examination of every commission the orchestra played. I remember saying, “If we could use this, it would save us a year of research.” In retrospect, I may have understated that. As it turned out, Sandy Fralin was a kind, public-spirited soul who worked and taught at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She gave us permission to copy and use her dissertation. This favor gave us the basic roadmap for the story.

It was during that visit that we filmed our first interview with the long-time Louisville music critic William Mootz. Mootz was gravely ill and bedridden, but, with the help of his caregiver, he dressed up and planted himself in his favorite leopard-skin chair and held forth for an entire day, reliving decades of news, opinion, and gossip with a gusto that made us think he was as healthy as could be. He also oversaw the serving of a sumptuous lunch for our crew. His caregiver was astonished at his sudden return to life. If it weren’t for Mr. Mootz’s labored speech, we would have used his colorful, stirring account of the orchestra’s story as our film’s narration. We consider ourselves very lucky to have met this extraordinary man. Bill passed away within three months of our day with him.

In December, Owsley, Cornelia Calder, and I were in Manhattan filming interviews with Lukas and Cornelia Foss and Ned Rorem. If there is one thing that we’ve learned during the course of this film, it is that there is no such thing as a typical composer. A more variegated group within the same profession is hard to imagine. Foss was terse and spare in his statements and extremely intense. Rorem was quite generous with his time and conversation but seemed uninterested in talking about Louisville. We did, however, learn many shocking details about musical personalities far and wide. Here, too, we met our cameraman Anthony Savini and sound recordist Jonathan Nastasi, who are responsible for the elegant look of the interviews; and both of them photographed theParable of Death music sequence.

2006 was a very bad year for me. I had to take a medical leave from the film which kept me out of action for half a year. During this time, Owsley interviewed composers Chou Wen-chung, Harold Shapero, Norman Dello Joio, and Joan Tower. Beyond that, he interviewed all the Louisville musicians and personalities. I was able to help him prepare topics and questions. I also kept in close touch with Owsley and Marcel Cabrera as they filmed material for music sequences.

In the fall I joined Anne Flatté, our editor, in piecing together the growing mass of interviews and archival material. At last, we were all up and running. Later, I was able to travel and made several more trips to Louisville and New York to film and do research. In Louisville, I met Robin Burke, who became our producer. She has been “herding cats” from that day to this, and, also, has fallen in love with her city’s noble history.

A sort of running joke during the entire course of the film’s gestation was the issue of an interview with Elliott Carter. I approached him early on via a letter and phone call and was brusquely rebuffed. He claimed to have no memory of that era whatsoever. I took the attitude that “no” meant “no” and that was that. Yet, every person even remotely connected with our project, who had not been personally singed as I had pressed to have him approached again. Ingenious routes to his good side were devised and tried. He wished us well, but couldn’t see how he could help. Then, he suddenly said yes and just as suddenly fell ill for a period, and then, we lost him again. It looked like finally a consensus was developing to regard the issue as closed. It was around this time that the Louisville Orchestra appointed a new CEO, Robert Birman, an ex-San Franciscan who was kindly disposed to our project. Robin asked him if he could help us to get an interview with Carter. In no time, we heard that Mr. Carter was looking forward to talking with us on whatever subjects we wished.

We made the earliest appointment possible and flew to New York. I was delighted and excited to see that, on the night of our arrival, Pierre Boulez would be conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. The program was entirely modern: Stravinsky, Varese, and Carter. Of course, we attended. Carter was there and acknowledged a standing ovation from his seat. He had recently celebrated his 100th birthday and this concert was one event among many that recognized the unprecedented achievements of this man. At intermission, Owsley managed to slowly press his way through the wall of people surrounding Mr. Carter’s seat to say hello. The next day, we had our interview. I had carefully crafted a list of questions to pry memories of the Louisville commission out of him and lead him on to other subjects. But, as soon as the camera rolled, he took off on his own, talking about the commission Variations for Orchestra as if it were yesterday. Subject after interesting subject poured forth from this good-humored man. He went well over the time limit set by Sarah Baird, his publicist, who was naturally looking after his health. Afterward, Sarah took me aside and said that in her ten years of working with Carter she had never seen Elliott give such a good interview. “He said things that I’ve never heard before,” she added. He was treating us so affectionately that it was hard to take our leave. But he had work to do. I told him that, as zealously as I collected his recent recorded pieces, I couldn’t keep up with him, and he said, “I can’t even keep up with myself, there’s so much that I’ve done lately.” Afterward, we filmmakers wondered at the day’s events and felt that attending the previous night’s concert might have served as one of the bonding elements with the composer. One can hear, on the DVD extras interviews, how his mind returned to that concert several times. Whatever the reasons, we couldn’t have had a happier ending to the long quest for an interview with Elliott Carter.

A final grace note for our interviews was sounded when Robin and I flew up to Boston and met with Gunther Schuller. This man has to be the master of the overview as far as the post-war musical world is concerned. During my days at Arnstein’s, Schuller had a number of radio shows that encompassed the century’s jazz and classical music. He has always been a model for me of a creative artist who is also a scholar.

Back in the Bay Area, I filmed the material for the Carter music sequence and the end credits and rounded out my work on Chou Wen-chung’s And the Fallen Petals. At about this point, all agreed that we had as much material as we needed, and it was left to Anne Flatté and Nathaniel Dorsky to compact, reorder, and shape the un- wieldy contents of three decades of Louisville history and beyond. To this story they gave flow and drama while I showered them with choice snippets of music.

A debt of thanks is owed to so many people not mentioned in this booklet. We do have a rather lengthy credit sequence. Just about everyone whose name appears at our film’s end could be singled out for special thanks. Everyone seemed to adopt the project as his or her own.

As the title of our film suggests, the story we tell shows an intrinsic relationship between the desire to promote cultural activity—here in the form of an orchestra—and the hope of building a strong civic life. The connection is both a discovery as well as something that seems very obvious. Music brings people together and then inspires them. Inspired groups make better communities.

Ultimately, our film is about civics and society. Music Makes a City actualizes our dream of honoring all the people, in whatever role they played, who gave their utmost to bring about a good society through music, dedication, and audacity. By looking at a moment in time, we instinctively compare and reflect. The next step is to awaken and rouse. I’m not sure that a lasting legacy is the sole criterion by which to judge a society. All great things disappear or change beyond recognition. Like children building sand castles, the important thing is the joy of the effort.