One Thousand Pieces: Q&A with Music Librarian Mona Butler

Mona Butler has been a bassoonist in Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra since the orchestra was founded in 1989, and PNB’s Music Librarian since the position was created in 1996. Marketing Assistant Maris Antolin sat down with Mona in late February to talk about what a Music Librarian does, the years-long process of putting together the orchestra parts for Alejandro Cerrudo’s One Thousand Pieces, and the hard-working artists of PNB’s orchestra.


Click below to listen to Mona and Maris’ podcast episode, and keep scrolling for a full transcript of their conversation.


Q & A – Music Librarian & Bassoonist, Mona Butler
Interview February 27, 2020


Maris Antolin: Hello, my name is Maris Antolin, and I’m the Marketing Assistant at Pacific Northwest Ballet. And I’m here today with Mona Butler, who is PNB’s Music Librarian and bassoonist. Thanks for talking to me today.


Mona Butler: Nice to talk to you.


MA: So first things first, I’m wondering how one becomes an orchestra or a music librarian at a ballet company?


MB: At a ballet company! That’s the real key because it’s kind of a niche-y thing. So usually the music librarians are for the orchestra and the piano. So we have two parts of our music library. We have whatever the rehearsal pianists use for the music that they use for the rehearsals in the studios, and the term for that is a répétiteur. And so, one side of us is all the piano scores, but then we also are lucky enough to have our own orchestra. So the orchestra needs music. And so the question is, in a ballet environment with a ballet orchestra, how does the Music Librarian come to be?  


In many ballet companies [the Music Librarian] actually usually is one of the répétiteurs or the pianists that that fulfills that function. Which was the case before I became the Music Librarian in 1996.


I had been playing with the orchestra already, but I was looking for something that was not playing that I could make my own hours with and be with my young children. And so when this position came open I thought, “How cool!” I wasn’t trained as a music librarian, but it uses all of the skills that we as musicians use, so it makes sense to use some somebody from the orchestra. And often the training for that just comes from what we already are doing as musicians.


There’s some unique things: originally when I started, music that we produced here in house had to be written out by hand. Now of course we use computers. If it didn’t come already published in a published format from a company outside then often we’d write it ourselves and manuscript it. And I had gone to University of Southern California in LA and one of the my elective classes that I took just for fun was Music Copying because everybody was into it in LA for the films, because you have to do them right away. And I love calligraphy I thought, “How cool, I’ll do that.” And so when they opened [the Music Librarian position] up, they actually asked me to do some of the music copying. And that was really cool. Of course, we don’t even use it anymore, it’s all done on the computer.


MA: That’s kind of a bummer.


MB: I do it every once a while, because it’s just faster but it’s not what it used to be. So when I first interviewed for the job, they said, “Have you ever been a music librarian before?” And I said, “No, but I’ve done all the pieces for it.” And all you have to do is put those together, which I did. So I’ve been doing that since 1996.


MA: Amazing. That’s awesome.


MB: Right? So it’s a lot of just creative problem solving is what it is. And a lot of it is relationships with publishers because some of the music we produce for ourselves, some of the music we have to rent from the big publishing houses, and so I develop relationships with them. And one of our wonderful publishing house representatives and I work on getting music for the orchestra. And then we talk about dahlias and tomatoes.


MA: Oh I love that! That’s so sweet.


MB: So it’s been kind of cool.


MA: Yeah, that’s kind of the opposite of what I would expect. You know, usually you think of a librarian as maybe being insular and surrounded by stacks of music, but…


MB: Well, we do have those too. But it is a very collaborative position. I work with our orchestra musicians to make sure they have what they need. Also in a ballet, unlike many other music librarians like in Seattle Symphony or Seattle Opera, we can make this position whatever our company needs. And so one of those things is that I also clear the theatrical licensing for works under copyright protection.


I was already arranging rental music, they said, “Why don’t you just do the theatrical licensing.” So if there’s anything written after 1923 it’s copyright protected. And so I have to find out who holds the rights, intellectual property rights, on that and contact them and negotiate and work with them to be able to have permission to use somebody else’s work for our use. And that’s always a lot of research. Which is really kind of fun. And a lot of collaboration asking other people, you know, other publishers, “Where does this come from? What should I do?” And I like that part of it too.


MA: Yeah. Well, that segues perfectly into the meat of my questions for you today and that’s about the music for our upcoming show One Thousand Pieces and the process of getting all this Philip Glass music.


MB: Yeah because it all fits in all of those categories, actually. There’s so many different things. This has been really interesting one.


MA: Just a little background the music for One Thousand Pieces and specifically for the Alejandro Cerrudo piece One Thousand Pieces is all Philip Glass music and it’s never been performed live before.


MB: No it hasn’t. It’s always been done recorded. Because his home company doesn’t have its own orchestra is what my understanding is.


MA: Yeah, Hubbard Street [Dance Chicago].


MB: He’s had to use recordings. That’s kind of his environment but we have our own orchestra. So we said, “Let’s do this live!”


MA: Yeah, that’s really exciting.


MB: So with the way [Alejandro Cerrudo] puts his music together is, he listens to recordings, and he just – recordings are often separated into what they call tracks, little segments. And he may not use a whole piece, he may just use a part of that and he’s done that. So there are 15 different tracks for this from – I didn’t count them up – but I would say about eight different works. And so what has needed to happen is that I have to locate music for all of those.


And they’re from different sources. So the piano concerto that is a published work. In fact, our own Northwest Chamber Orchestra recorded it. And the “Dracula” quartet, which is really a cool part of this, was done for a film soundtrack, but to the 1931 film “Dracula”. Glass put a new soundtrack under that movie, and the Kronos Quartet performed that and sometimes they perform it live so I was able to go to the publisher to get the parts for that.


A couple of the tracks were film scores. Now film scores are a different animal completely, because film scores exist for, for recording music for a film and then they’re never used again.


So “The Illusionist” was owned by a film company. And when I approached them to do this first, they said, “I don’t think we can give you permission to use this because it’s being used actually for another project.” And I had to get special permission for us to use the music for this so that it wouldn’t conflict with the other project they were using it for. And then they said, “Well, we have to go in our storage and find the orchestra scores and parts.” That’s the actual notes that the musicians have to look at to be able to play this. So that took them six months to look in their storage area and said, “Oh, well in 2008 with the big crash, we had to downsize and we had to get rid of a bunch of stuff in our storage and that’s when we threw it all away. So we don’t have score parts for you anymore.”


MA: And it took them six months to tell you that. Great.


MB: Then I went back to Glass’ publisher and said, “Yikes! Is there any chance we can do this live?” And they said, “Okay, we’ll work on it.” And so then they finally were able to print a set of parts to give it to us, but it’s a film score. So you don’t always get them back. They’re not always kept.


MA: Oh, sure. Yeah.


MB: Yeah. So with all the films that you see out there, if an orchestra has been involved, there has to be scores and parts for the players to play at the recording session, but after that, they may store them and they may just shred them. Who knows. Hopefully they keep them in their computer files, but sometimes not.


MA: Yeah, that’s interesting. That seems silly.


MB: And then I had the one track from a two and a half hour movie, I had to find the two and a half minutes for that track, and identified that with the score and parts that match the recording that Alejandro wanted to use, right. And that’s one of 15 tracks.


MA: For about an hour long piece.


MB: 70 minutes.


MA: 70 minutes. Yeah. Okay. Wow, that’s amazing. How long did the entire process take?


MB: I started around Nutcracker 2018. It’s a little bit of detective work. A lot of talking to people.


MA: Were you able to use other contacts that you had already built from being a librarian?


MB: Yes, yeah, some of the publishers that I’ve used before helped us. We’ve done quite a bit of Glass work and he has a publisher. And so they were really tremendously helpful. Because they have the rights to a great amount of this. But you know, the “Dracula” was is also a film. So sometimes the film company owns the rights and sometimes…So the composer does not always own the rights to their work.


MA:  That’s another interesting thing


MB: You have to find out who actually holds the rights to it.


MA:  Right because you’re talking about so many stakeholders involved. There’s the publisher, there’s the person who actually wrote the music, and then there’s potentially a film studio.


MB: And sometimes, too, depending on where it was recorded, you have to go to the local union so that you get the permission from the players that recorded it. There’s a lot of people. People think that, you know, they just grabbed something that’s recorded. There’s a lot of work that goes into that and a lot of people that collaborate on that. So there’s a recording studio, there’s recording engineers, there’s musicians, there’s composers, there’s editors, there’s a lot of people. So hopefully you can find one person that can pull or one entity that can pull that together for you. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.


MA: That’s much more complicated than you would think. And also, but it’s also in everyone’s best interest to complete this process. Because if you don’t, then it puts the company at risk for being sued or…


MB: The thing is too and you want to really want to – because we are artists, ourselves that produce works, artistic works. You know, it’s just how we respect each other. We want to support people that are doing this.


I mean, it’s important to acknowledge people’s talent and efforts, so it’s just respectful to make sure that you’ve gotten permission from whoever has made this work to make sure you’re doing everything we can to make sure that we have their permission to use it in the way that we use it.


MA: Right. I like that. I love that.


MB: Well one of the things the next step of what I do is once I get the parts and I’ve got the all the permission, and we’re ready to go, then I have to make sure I prepare all of those, that sheet music for the orchestra.


MA: Oh, of course.


MB: Because we all have to be coordinated and all the strings have to be zigging and zagging. So if you’ve ever seen strings bows go up, or go down, that’s an up bow when it goes up and down bow and it makes a different sound on the instruments so they have to coordinate all of that.


So then I take the string parts and I give them to the concert master. He looks through and he decides how everybody’s going to approach the bowing. Whether they go up or down then that has to go to all of the other players, the principal strings; second violin, viola, cello and bass. They look at it and then they make their bowings match the concert master’s.


And then I put them all in the section parts. So we’ll have one first chair first violinist who’s our concert master. But we have nine other first violinists that have to play exactly what he’s playing. So then I have to mark all of their parts to match his part.


I put the parts together, the parts go out two weeks before the first rehearsal. And people come and pick up their parts and take it home and practice. Because we will get generally two rehearsals to put this together with the orchestra.


MA: Wow. Before you’re playing, with dancers.


MB: Yeah, before we play with dancers. We have about two two and a half hour rehearsals is generally what we have. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.


MA: So it takes a lot of at home rehearsal time, more so than you would think.


MB: We all learn our parts on our own time. So by the time we actually get to rehearsal, we’re just putting it together. We’re not learning our individual parts.


MA: Yeah. I mean, that’s incredibly time saving. So no one’s cold reading.


MB: Right. No, we don’t do that.


MA: That’s something I remember from being in band in high school is that cold reading is an important skill for you to learn. So we had entire classes where we were cold reading.


MB: What did you play?


MA: I played baritone saxophone and alto.


MB: Oh that’s one of my favorite instruments ever!


MA: Yeah. It was really fun. And we only had one tuba. So I very often was sitting in the back and playing the tuba line.


MB: The one time when you do that cold reading, and so when you’re playing film scores. If we’re going to do a film score, like when, or a video game – all the Halo ones were done up here at the Chapel at Bastyr University in Kenmore. And when you’re doing that, you don’t see the music ahead of time and you just sit down and play it. So it has to actually be written so that it would be easily site readable.


MA: Oh, that’s really interesting.


MB: Yeah. So there’s actually a school here, Pacific Northwest Film Institute that actually teaches people to compose for films. It’s a real specialized area. So in the One Thousand Pieces we have, other than the Dracula, but we do have “Cassandra’s Dream” and “The Illusionist”, are film scores that would have been recorded by an orchestra. That would be players called to play recording session, and they sit down on their chairs and they just pop the music in front of them and then the players record.


MA: Yeah, is that for confidentiality reasons? Why do they do it that way?


MB: Music is generally, I understand the last thing that’s added to a film. So it’s just is the way it happens. Traditionally, you don’t ever get to see that. And sometimes it’s being written as you’re recording. In a recording session. “Here’s the new piece.” Christina does a lot of that too.


Christina Siemens (Principal Company Pianist): I only recently heard of one director that was inspired that he chose the music before the film, which is so unusual and it was that movie Roma. Yeah, he was really influenced by the music he heard in his childhood and music of that culture. But that almost never happens.


MB:  That’s why it’s so interesting. This One Thousand Pieces, there’s like a little bit of everything. The piano concerto which is much more complex, and somebody would be getting the parts ahead of time and practicing them, to “The Illusionist” and “Cassandra’s Dream” which would have been sight read by the orchestra in a recording session.


MA: Yeah. Interesting. How many players are there in the PNB Orchestra?


MB: We have a core contracted membership of I think about 55 – I’d have to check – 54-55 players. And then if we need more for instance, when we did Cinderella, we usually just have two of each of the woodwinds, and that called for three – calls for not only two flutes but Piccolo, two oboes plus English horn, two clarinets plus bass clarinet, two bassoons plus contrabassoon, then we have to hire extra players to come in and specialists for that.


MA: Yeah. Is that a regular practice that happens?


MB: It just depends on the orchestration. It’s just unique to each piece. The One Thousand Pieces will just take one of each of the woodwinds, so we’ll actually some of our core players won’t be playing that – that happens sometimes too. But usually we, you know, Giselle will be a regular size orchestra. It’s just pretty standard doubles of the woodwinds and then we have about 34 string players.


So we’re pretty standard, like classical sized orchestra. So 34 strings and pairs of woodwinds and four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, two percussion, and often a pianist or a cellist, but often our company pianists step into the orchestra for that.


MA: So I imagine that being in the orchestra for a ballet company, you probably need other jobs.


MB: Yeah it’s not a full time job. Many of us do different things. So my other thing is, I used to play pretty much full time playing but with little tots around the house, I wanted something I could bring home so I, that’s when I took on the Music Librarian position.


Some of the cool things; our principal French horn is our personnel manager and he’s in charge of hiring so Roger Burnett. His colleague in the horn section, Richard Reid, is a fabulous mechanic and he owns and runs Maestro Motors over in West Seattle. A little shameless plug there. And everybody loves Richard, he’s our go-to orchestra mechanic.


CS: You can tell when a run has just ended because we normally have the Monday after a full run off. Because there is a line of cars around the block at Richard’s.


MB: And our wonderful we have our, one of our trumpet players and our principal trombonists have a computer consulting company. And so they do the computers for the whole orchestra. A lot of our players also teach. They teach at Seattle Pacific University, they teach at the University of Washington, they teach at University of Puget Sound. Many of them teach high school. I also teach I teach at Northshore High School up in Bothell.


MA: You teach music there?


MB: I’m the bassoon coach there. So I have I have six bassoonists up there that I teach one a week. So that’s kind of fun.


MA: That’s really fun.


MB:  Yeah, so teach one day a week. And so a lot of us sort of have this crazy quilt of things that we do some connected with our music, some people choose to just do something completely different.


MA: I was expecting more music related things.


MB: Many people have chamber music groups that are pretty active. So they do that too. Or they play recording sessions because there’s quite a bit of recording that goes on in this city. So yeah it’s pretty individual for each person.


MA: Pretty standard for working artists.


MB: Well, we really are so grateful, because the PNB decided in 1989 that they wanted their own orchestra. Many of us really just wanted a part time job. I mean, they’re highly, highly qualified, but we have some people are teaching and they, you know, if you’re playing full time in the symphony, it’s really hard to fit in teaching or doing something else that’s, you know, using other talents that you have; related talents or something completely different. So that’s actually that’s been attractive to really highly qualified musicians in our orchestra. A lot of our players are very busy freelancers, and some of our players play The Fifth Avenue Theatre, with Seattle Symphony, Village Theatre, some of the theater orchestras as well.


MA: Just do the rotation.


MB: Yeah it’s kind of a unique thing for each one of us.


MA: Yeah. Great. I want to be mindful of your time. So is there anything you’d like to close with? Anything we didn’t quite touch on that you’d like to share?


MB: Well, I think we covered a lot of it. I’m trying to think if there’s anything coming up that’s unusual or interesting. I know that when we did the Giselle that was kind of fun because turns out I have a counterpart in the Royal Ballet or find out the exact name of that in England. Royal Ballet.


English National Ballet. Yes, I think it’s the English National Ballet. So it turns out [Lars Payne]’s got my job over there. His wife is a dancer who speaks French. So he’s done all of this research into the like, Coppélia and Giselle and created beautiful orchestra parts because she’s done all the translation of all the French terms. And so I partnered with him when we did the new Giselle to get those parts. And then also Doug Fullington is working on a brand new edition of Giselle. We were hoping it would be available coming up this year, but next time we’ll use Doug’s. But it’s that’s been really, really interesting. That’s my geeky, geekier moments.


But there’s such a variety – people set asked me, you know, well, what is it that you do? It all depends on the piece at the moment. Every time I do something it’s completely different. Yes. It’s kind of cool.


MA: That’s fun! Keeps your job interesting.


MB: But then we all come together and we get it ready. And part of one of the reasons why I became a music librarian is I was very fussy about how my parts look. So I’d always fix my parts just so. And also because our rehearsal time is so precious, that there’s nothing more frustrating for an orchestra to have problems with parts and spend valuable precious rehearsal time fixing parts. So they go, one of my friends says, “You never want to take a copyist problem and make it a musician problem.” So one of my goals is to make sure that the scores and parts we use don’t create problems. We just want to make music we don’t want to have to worry about, “I’m missing two bars of rest.”


MA: Well, that’s also part of the respect thing. Yeah, these you’re trying to respect the time of the musicians. And especially like you’re saying with such short rehearsal times.


MB: It has to be really efficient. Yeah, very precious time. But if everybody prepares well, it’s enough. We’d always like to have more but you know, again, just making sure everything’s set up ahead of time, then yeah, we can focus on making music.


MA: Yeah. That’s great. Well, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me today.


MB: Thank you.