How About Augmented Sevenths?

The immortal quote from Alvin Curran’s New York Times blog today:

Elliott Carter told us the first day of composition class, “You can bring anything in here you want, except octaves.”

Alvin continues: “Octaves are in essence sandwiches with nothing inside, and I love them.” (I seem to recall that Carter’s Piano Sonata, one of the best pieces he ever wrote, starts with a multiple-octave B.)


  1. says

    Yes, that Carter Piano sonata is an extraordinary piece,one of my favorites, but from 1948-9 when Carter had not yet fallen out with octaves, in favor of the Augmented Octave which signed in Carters love affair with permanent dissident disonnance

  2. says

    The biggest irony in the whole no-octaves-allowed business is that there are actually good reasons to avoid octaves within certain technical contexts. If you’re trying to write thorny, dissonant counterpoint that remains relatively uniformly dissonant, as in much serial music, and octave steals away one of your lines and can dramatically reduce the complexity of the texture. It’s like the prohibition against parallel fifths in traditional harmony and the prohibition against parallel fifths and parallel octaves in 17th century counterpoint.
    So either Carter actally meant “You can bring anything in here you want as long as it’s relentlessly dissonant and contrapuntal,” or he’s so blinded by ideology that he can’t see that the anti-octave doctrine is only appropriate to certain kinds of music. I’m really not sure which of those options to bet on. . .

  3. says

    All’ Ottava
    Mel Powell used to say that the major seventh is the “contemporary music octave”. I think what he meant was that, for composers of a certain late twentieth century music stylistic disposition, an octave was anathema, so when such a composer would really like to write one, the major seventh was the only viable alternative, and that interval became, actually, a cliché.
    But it is not clear to me from these blog entries if we are talking about the octave as a melodic/linear interval, or octaves in the vertical (sorry, not familiar with the cited Carter example, I am pleased to say, being as I am a huge non-fan of Carter. The one time I met him, in Ojai, he asked me if I play his music. I said “No. Amy does”. But that’s another story).
    Anyway, I find the octave doubling of a line to be an incredibly powerful thing. There is the obvious example from the Quartet for the Umpteenth Time, but more importantly, for me, is a lot of Zappa stuff. When a whole bunch of people are playing the same line in unison or octaves, and it’s rhythmically complelx and related to a steady pulse, you can really hear and experience the beauty and complexity of what is happening, because a lot of people are doing it together. If only one voice has that line, you can’t possibly know if it’s accurate, or grasp its entire meaning. I think there is a lot to be said, on many levels, for octaves.
    They thicken the timbral soup, while clarifying the rhythmic ideas.
    I like ’em!
    Otto DaFaye

  4. says

    So only pure sine and square waves and metallophones were permitted in the class?
    Milk comes from cows, not from bottles.
    It seems that Carter is going on a century now, that’s great! He was already over 80 when I went to one of his masterclasses, and he seemed like an unusually friendly and cheerful guy. The grad student doing metric modulations on the timpani was superb, I could even follow the score.
    Carter’s music seems cheerful and friendly but not terribly interesting to me, different strokes for different folks.

  5. Jon Szanto says

    I’m trying to imagine Rzewski’s “Le Mouton de Panurge” without octaves.
    I can’t. Carter loses.