Site Search

Other Resources
News Archive

Blog » Tap the Knot - Stephen Soderberg

9 May  

My apologies for the laziness of posting someone else's words (!), but I want far more people to be aware of Steve Soderberg's extremely acute insights into where we’ve come from, where we are, and the perils of where I fear we may be heading on the path of so-called serious music, art music, contemporary classical music, or however it is characterized these days.

Steve is Senior Specialist for Contemporary Music in the Music Division of the Library of Congress where he plans and coordinates internet, concert and collections-related projects focused on American contemporary classical music. He is also an authority on compositional and mathematical music theory as well as a prodigious thinker and commentator on new music in general and is a very significant figure in the contemporary American music landscape.

He runs 2 fascinating blogs very well worth visiting on a regular basis: Tap the Knot ( and Logogriffin (

By way of introduction I want to paste his post ‘Prelude’ from Tap the Knot: a beautifully concise meditation on the perversities (or if you are of the brother/sisterhood, the glories) of being a C20th/C21st century composer.


It was thirteen or fourteen years ago that I wrote a short essay, "Riemannian Variations on a Theme by Milton Babbitt." The "theme" running through this essay was something I called a "Babbittian question" which I defined as a problem whose solution is likely to result in further questions. Nowadays I think of it even more cryptically as a question whose only correct answer is another question. Much more on this idea in later posts. But for now just try to hold this odd thought when reading the following re-edited paragraphs from the same essay:

Around 1900, give or take a quarter century, Western music's Common Practice died. But the hole it left was almost immediately filled with a different kind of commonality that survives with a vengeance  to this day.

Here's the situation.

On the one hand it is nearly impossible to imagine Mozart sitting down before a blank sheet of manuscript paper and asking himself, "How shall I arrange the twelve notes this time?" On the other hand it is equally difficult to imagine any composer of our present age sitting down in front of a blank sheet of virtual manuscript paper and not asking some version of that very question. Even the "neo-tonalist," simply trying (intuitively?) to write some of that good music left to be written in C major, at least feels its ominous presence.

Our current language points to the problem. If we were to utter words like "precompositional design" or "compositional algorithm" to Mozart, he would no doubt stare blankly at us. And if we were to mention "compositional theory" he might respond, "What other kind is there?" Borrowing a phrase from Michael Colgrass, "Instead he just wrote music. Poor soul."

So here it is. Laid bare.  The truly radical core of the twentieth-century revolution in music.  The single thing binding together the most  antagonistically disparate minds.

We have become self-conscious.

Now, after the Great Demise, we must think about it -- theorize if you will -- before we compose.  Whether this is a one-time event beginning our career or a re-evaluation mid-career or, literally, every time we sit down to make a new piece of music.

Whether we want to be serialists, atonalists, diatonicists, minimalists, maximalists, spectralists, microtonalists, fractalists, quasi-anarchists (even John Cage chose to use the I Ching), or proud naifs ...

before we get down to work -- before we can create --  before we can compose, perform, listen, judge and bloviate -- there are decisions to be made and questions to be answered.

But what questions?

And do they have a common source or thread?

Perhaps they are all models of the same quest-


39768 Page Views
Jim Aitchison's C:T Profile:  Jim Aitchison
Jim Aitchison's Personal Website


 ruska02 commenting on Tap the Knot - Stephen Soderberg:
10 May 2010 at 00:01

"Steve is Senior Specialist for Contemporary Music in the Music Division of the Library of Congress where he plans and coordinates internet, concert and collections-related projects focused on American contemporary classical music."

Once again this is the real problem American Contemporary Classical Music : so ?
No real European Composer, and not critic or scholar because they are the ones that talk because they do not how to play and write, would even dare to write or think something like this. From Palestrina to Nono, from Lasso to Furrer, from Ockegem to Haas we are all always thinking only writing music and than finding a way to make it "last" in time and space use different means (as they were) but the same tradition...they ones without knowledge of it must worry, indeed!

Prof Roberto Rusconi

 Jim Aitchison commenting on Tap the Knot - Stephen Soderberg:
10 May 2010 at 09:51

If I may be so bold, you are making an awful lot of assumptions by both presuming to speak for all composers throughout music history, a huge generalization in castigating everyone who has an opinion on music who is not a practicing composer (granted, there are problems in musicology, but if you read Steve’s work you would see that he’s perfectly aware of these), as well as a lot of further assumptions about Steve, who I presume you do not know. It's a little disingenuous, though a well used debating technique, to completely smash a subtly expressed opinion through an extreme contrary proposition.

 Steve commenting on Tap the Knot - Stephen Soderberg:
10 May 2010 at 13:54

"Discipline must be sought in freedom, and not within the formulas of an outworn philosophy only fit for the feeble-minded. Give ear to no man's counsel; but listen to the wind which tells in passing the history of the world."
Claude Debussy ("Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater")

Prof. Rusconi, this may make you even angrier, but I'm on YOUR side, whether you want me there or not.


Steve Soderberg

PS: I'm afraid I have to admit to being not-European but you really shouldn't assume I'm not a composer.

 scott_good commenting on Tap the Knot - Stephen Soderberg:
05 June 2010 at 04:03


I meant to make a comment before on this.

I have a few questions.

Why isn't "pre-composition" just called "composition"?

And, might it also be a bit presumptuous to think that Bach and Mozart never "pre-composed"? Even within the system of functional harmony and classical form, there is room for great complexity. It is hard for me to imagine that The Art of Fugue, or the Pathetique, or, The Ring were composed by just sitting down and writing note #1, then #2 etc.



Comment on this post

To comment on this post please become a member or Login