Instruments of change: A new documentary looks at how the Louisville Orchestra rose to prominence more than a half century ago.

Hiler and Brown's Visionary Music

Michael Fox March 17, 2010

The so-called culture war is over, and the reactionaries have won. I recall with nostalgia Jesse Helms’ condemnation of the NEA for funding Marlon Riggs’ queer-centric Tongues Untied, and the late East Bay filmmaker’s blisteringly eloquent response. Such public right-wing remonstrations are no longer necessary, for the simple reason that 30 years of overt and covert pressure have cast a permanent chill on Federal and state arts organizations. I daresay the anti-intellectual denigration of culture and higher education, a cornerstone of the Reagan-Bush-Bush Era, is an unacknowledged factor in the current decimation of the public university system (which is conveniently blamed on the Great Recession). In this climate, Jerome Hiler and Owsley Brown III’s Music Makes a City is nothing short of a revelation. Now in its finishing stages, the documentary revisits the remarkable mid-century revival of Louisville, Kentucky, in the wake of the Great Flood of 1937.

“Their response was to come back with so much civic pride that they founded an orchestra that year,” Hiler says. “What a contrast with the bungling response to Katrina that’s still going on today. We seem to be living in a time of such grandiose ineptitude that it’s inspiring to look back at a time when everybody went along with such a crazy visionary idea, and it worked. General Electric moved 30,000 people into Louisville and built an enormous complex, and they were one among many companies.”

The notion that a city–a Southern city, at that–would use a cultural institution as a catalyst is so foreign as to defy belief. Even more astounding, from a contemporary perspective, is the philosophy of the mayor who pushed the Louisville Orchestra to national prominence after his election in 1948.

“Our emphasis is on Charles Farnsley, who considered himself a follower of Confucius [while also] burnishing a good-old-boy Southern image of himself with a string tie and sort of Col. Sanders outfit,” Hiler explains. “He embraced the Confucian ideal of creating a cultured and happy citizenry that attracts wealth and power to a city.”

With a figure of such radical enlightenment at its center, Music Makes a City has an outside shot at attracting a wide cross-section of moviegoers. Realistically, though, co-directors Hiler and Brown see the classical music crowd as the core audience. After all, the Louisville Orchestra is the real star of the show.

“The Orchestra started around 1937, and struggled every year and the deficits grew and grew, and there was an idea that the town was too small to support it,” Hiler relates. “Before he became mayor, Farnsley took a course in how to run an orchestra. When the mayor died and the board of alderman appointed him, he [decided] that instead of paying visiting soloists, the Orchestra should spend the money on commissioning new pieces. Then they should record those pieces and sell them via the new technology of long-playing records. They were no longer going to be just about the museum pieces.”

After a few years of reasonable success with this approach, Farnsley went to the Rockefeller Foundation and came away with $400,000 for more commissions. In order to present all these new pieces, the Louisville Orchestra had to add a Saturday afternoon series. As one measure of its international respect, it was the only orchestra whose concerts were broadcast by the Voice of America to Eastern Europe.

San Franciscans Hiler and Brown have been fast friends since their introduction in 2001, after Brown’s Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles came out. Hiler, whose partner is the renowned San Francisco avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, has made experimental and industrial films for years before embarking on Music Makes a City, his first feature-length doc. The producing duties were undertaken by Brown and Robin Burke, with Cornelia Calder and editor Anne Flatt‚ serving as co-producers.

“There has been a real rallying among family and friends back in Kentucky,” Brown reports, “which is where all the funding has come from, which is fantastic and frankly, was the right place to focus our energies. This is a story that so many people locally [in Louisville] knew nothing about or had forgotten. The whole sense of self that active and engaged people in Louisville have, at least in some part, is linked to the cultural arts. They love basketball, but they also love that it’s an incredibly rich cultural scene. The Humana New Play Festival that’s going on now is born out of the spirit that’s the story we tell in the movie.”

The New York public relations firm 21C Media Group, which specializes in classical music, approached the producers about working on the film. Opting for self-distribution at this point, the filmmakers will open Music Makes a City in mid-May at the Cinema Village in Manhattan, followed by a Louisville engagement. The picture is uncertain after that.

“We’re feverishly working to obtain Bay Area screening dates for late spring or early summer,” Brown says. “Although we are extremely close to finishing, we haven’t shown it to anybody on the TV side of the equation. We hope to use the week in New York to get would-be buyer folks to take an interest.”

The DVD release is tentatively scheduled for December, along with a book. Hiler notes,

“There are definitely people who say, ‘Who is this film supposed to be for?’ On the other hand, it’s a completely enjoyable experience. This was a story about ordinary people like the viewer–not the officialdom and stuffiness and exclusivity of classical music.”

Notes from the Underground
Denise Zmekhol screens her new short, Trading Bows and Arrows For Laptops, with her 2008 documentary Children of the Amazon March 10-11 at the Rafael Film Center and March 18 at the Roxie. Children airs nationally on PBS in April. The Lab, which hosts the Rough Cuts series, holds a fundraiser on Saturday, March 20. Get the lowdown on the 2010 Art Sale and Live Auction at In conjunction with its first Classic Film Festival (April 22-25 in Hollywood), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) hosts a free screening of The Lady From Shanghai April 21 at the Castro. Peter Bogdanovich and Jan Wahl introduce Orson Welles’ literate 1948 noir with the timeless San Francisco denouement. Download tix at The world premiere of Esther and Me, the debut film by S.F. comedian and impresario Lisa Geduldig, has been set for April 29 at the Jewish Film Festival Berlin.

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