hit the C, then hit it again… and again… and listen… keep listening…

The one piece of analysis that impressed me the most during my time as a sociology student was Ulrich Oevermann’s analysis in ‘Zur Sache’ of the evening news in which he spent pages and pages on laying out the implications and contradictions of the opening line Guten Abend meine Damen und Herren (‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen’). It since has struck me again and again how productive such attention to inconspicuous detail can be and how distracting the rush to go through as much material as possible (and as fast as possible, too). Yet the bad conscience of having too few interviewees or not being able to keep them talking for long enough or not going through enough transcripts never left me. So probably it is an act of mental hygiene to remind myself of the value of the singular in analysing the general.

I am currently reading Richard Powers’ Orfeo – and this contains a memory of a composer that drives home that point in a rather brilliant way. The protagonist recalls composition classes with his elderly professor in 1963. He comes in with some elaborate piece, a

‘chromatic phrase, packed with every one of Western music’s twelve available notes, twice over.’

The professor commands the protagonist to the piano and makes him hit one single note (it’s a C) over and over again, and then just listen to that one note – until he begins to hear all the overtones swinging with that on C

‘Audible or not, they’re all present: every pitch in the chromatic scale. Sweet stability and crashing discord, the palette for everything from sultry seduction to funeral mass, and Peter has gone his whole life hearing nothing but the fundamental.’

Having made his point the professor scolds him:

‘How many busy little notes do you need to play at once. Use a single C and be done with it.’

I admire the persistence of the fictional professor. I would like to be able to be equally tenacious when telling students to stick to their observations and dwell on them until they have exhausted the last bit of meaning, the last implication, contradiction, reference, etc. and only then move on to broader categories, further cases, theoretical frameworks. I am trying – but may not be the best of role models myself here. But then, the signpost never walks the way…

Oevermann, Ulrich (1983): ‘Zur Sache. Die Bedeutung von Adornos methodologischem Selbstverständnis für die Begründung einer materialen soziologischen Strukturanalyse’, in Ludwig v. Friedeburg/Jürgen Habermas (eds.): Adorno-Konferenz, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, pp.234-89.

Powers, Richard (2014): Orfeo, London: Atlantic Books.

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