An Interview with Garrett Hongo

TRH: Garrett, your new book The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo is poised to come out as we conduct this interview, but I’ve been privileged to watch it grow for the past several years—from its initial impulse, which as I recall was going to be a lyrical history of the vacuum tube, to its final form, a much more encompassing and complex work. Our conversation here, naturally, will come out of the substance of The Perfect Sound, but will probably meander, as the book itself appears to do while always returning to its narrative core.

Let’s begin here: you are a poet and essayist, but also an audiophile and a prominent reviewer of high-end and cutting-edge stereo equipment: an unusual combination of vocations and avocations. I, on the other hand, am a poet and essayist, but also a constantly failing musician. I think it’s fair to say that audiophiles and musicians are the flip sides of one another. I have known quite a few audiophiles, but have rarely talked with them about music, because almost all of them have only wanted to talk about the gear. 

In musician-land, there is also an infinite amount of gear. Some become obsessed with perfecting the gear; others get by with whatever is available (think of Charlie Parker pawning his King Super 20 alto and then borrowing an inferior horn to play the gig). Some of the best watch in bemusement as certain of their colleagues buy and sell and trade, always looking for the axe that will translate their musical ideas more “perfectly” into actual sound. Musicians who are gear-oriented are said to suffer from GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome. 

Talk to me about your particular focus on the technology of music, about the quest for the “perfect sound” that drives it, about how this focus and this quest intersect with your poetry. 

GH: My quest for “the perfect sound” started fairly simply—I just wanted a stereo system that could play Italian operas, which had become a new passion of mine ever since attending a performance of La Bohème at La Scala in Milan in 2005. The music and especially Rodolfo’s and Mimí’s arias and duet in the first act so moved and thrilled me, I vowed to listen and learn about that music every day of my life thereafter, once I got back to the States. Well, fortuitously or calamitously, my CD changer broke down almost immediately and, once I set about trying to replace it, getting advice from an audiophile friend, I dropped down the rabbit hole of an entirely new universe of splendor and possibilities regarding not only the reproduction of recorded sound, but the gear to play it with. My friend sold me his own CD player, an old (by audiophile standards) machine that rocked my world. I’d never heard such fantastic stereo sound before. I played a Duke Ellington CD and it was like the orchestra was set up right in front of me—in miniature. A tromp l’oeil of the band left to right between my bookshelf speakers! But operas sounded like shit. The music would sail along—strings and woodwinds all sweetly singing—but then the tenor or soprano would crank up at the most dramatic moments of their arias, and their high notes would crackle and crumble like pyramids of ice doused with hot water poured from a kettle. It was awful. I discovered my little 25W amp just wasn’t powerful enough to sustain the current that my speakers needed to reproduce those sustained high notes. I got a bigger amp—or one with more watts. A solid state device made in Norway. The sound got better but not quite like I remembered the singing at La Scala—seamless beauty that shook me through to my spine. That was the standard I had—the live operatic event. Rodolfo’s “Ch’e gelida manina,” Mimí’s “Me chiamano Mimí,” their duet “O soave fanciulla.” Love like a sonic moon rising over rooftops of the Latin Quarter in Paris, and poetry like a scarf of clouds drifting in front of it.

I got bigger, floor-standing speakers that sounded like shit when I played opera. Twelve hundred bucks. Then I researched some more and identified an Italian company that made speakers they claimed were like wooden instruments. These were thousands of dollars, but I bought them. They sang like singers do, like real orchestral instruments played. I got back to that night at La Scala, finally. I got sound I could use.

But I started wondering about tube amps then—amps powered by vacuum tubes. Glass amps that were throwbacks to the days before transistors took over. Older technology like the amps my father made in our living room when I was a kid. Heathkit, Dynakit, Eico its do-it-yourself kits you got in the mail. I bought a glass amp made in China that had a retro look that I loved. My sound got even better, smoother, more liquidinous and luxurious. More natural, like singers. It caught all the mordents, glides and topnotes of opera singers. The crunch of electric guitars. The lusciousness of orchestral strings. And the grit and the bigass, lyric power of Coltrane’s tenor saxophone.

I started remembering my father and his own passionate quest to hear his music for the last time. As a survivor of scarlet fever in infancy, his hearing was always faint. And, as a survivor of WWII as a soldier, it just got steadily worse. When I was a kid, he started losing his hearing almost completely. But he wanted to hear big bands, Hawaiian music, swing tunes and slide guitars he loved when he was a teenager in Honolulu. It made me weep for the immensity of this peaceful wish, once I realized it one night while playing choral music from the Renaissance on my own stereo. I wrote a poem, honoring him, a man who came back from war simply wanting to re-create the moments of peace and pleasure that music had once given him.

So that’s the core—music and finding the gear that could perform faithfully its delicacy, power, and complexity; poetry and its acts of remembrance; and a personal homage to the goodwill built by my father in the patient way he assembled his stereo in pursuit of an honorable wish.

TRH: Your answer, as it should, limns an outline of The Perfect Sound, and it leads my thinking off in a variety of directions. I recently heard Pat Metheney (in a YouTube interview) talk about the necessity for soulfulness in musical composition and performance; he also observed that music is abstract and without the kind of content that language generally has, but that it nevertheless carries information. A good extended improvisation, in particular, he said, requires narrative, whatever that word means when applied to instrumental music.

I knew, of course, that your answer would come around to your father and his involvement with stereo equipment. Here’s a relatively concrete question that might illuminate matters: What does a person who is losing his or her hearing want a stereo to do?  Is the audiophile on the same quest to hear something that is vanishingly impossible?

GH: That’s a two-part question, isn’t it? Soul and my father’s plain wish to hear music compared to the audiophileʻs interminable quest?

Let me get to the second part first. Objectively speaking, I think my father heard baritone sounds best. As I say in the book, the race track announcer Harry Henson calling the stretch runs at Santa Anita, Vin Scully doing the play-by-play of Dodger games, trombones and tenor saxophones, bass and drums, rhythm and accents on or off the beat. He could sense the pulse of music, and he could hear vibraphones—perhaps not their top notes but their plosiveness and midrange shimmer. Though I wrote he loved Artie Shaw’s music, I don’t recall him playing it ever, the clarinet possibly outside of what he could hear. But he played Glenn Miller a lot, Tommy Dorsey, a lot of other big bands of that era. And Arthur Lyman, the vibraphonist who led a somewhat cheesy, “Trader Vic’s” type band in the Fifties and early Sixties. But I remember vividly the sound of Lymanʻs vibes flowing in waves like water around our living room, pulsing like waves overrunning the reef and rolling in soft curls through a lagoon. My father would grin at me then, irresistibly, feeling that his stereo had triumphed over whatever electronic obstacle had resisted how he wanted to hear. Subjectively, I think he wanted me to hear what he thought was there in the music he played, and when my ten-year old face betrayed wonderment, listening for him and relaying what I heard in pidgin English, he felt confirmed. It was a kind of romance, a quest he made with all that electronic gear in our living room, and music was the grail, man.

As for Metheny’s disquisition, its most salient point for me, with regard to poetry, has to do with his proposed “units of human achievement” that he uses to measure the relative levels of cultural value in the cultural practice of music, which we could then extend to poetry. A given piece of music requires its performer to have reached not only a certain level of skill with their instrument, but also with the repertoire of music for that instrument, and the performance skills and styles of accomplished predecessors who played that instrument. This piece of music, when performed, also requires something less definable, perhaps, what Metheny calls “human wisdom,” which I take to be a kind of expansiveness of mind and character reflecting that individual performer’s life experience coupled with musical experience that somehow translates into the abstraction that is music. In poetry, for me, this might be similar: the composition of a poem requires a knowledge of the wide expanse of poetry in human practice (Gary Snyder says a practice old as the Paleolithic), a knowledge of notable predecessors and models, and perhaps a knowledge of the place of these in human societies through time and in varied cultures. A poet would not only have to have chops—i.e. technical skills—but also cultural knowledge and a love for poetry of the past. Finally, a poet will bring his life experiences and feeling for past practices into the composition of the poem—their wisdom, as Metheny says.

What does this mean? As music isn’t just notes on a page or within an improvisatory passage, poems are not simply individual words on a page. They are collections and sequences of language that strike both familiarity–whether that be in meaning or a recognition of its form, its rhetorical scheme—and work a notable change or transformation of meaning and its scheme that defamiliarizes that which had been previously known, that makes it new, as Ezra Pound said poetry had to.

Insofar as a response to Metheny’s further claim that music is a language, I’ve written something similar myself.  In a chapter of The Perfect Sound, I recall being schooled to appreciate Walt Whitman, finally, but only after listening closely to John Coltrane’s “Equinox.” Coltrane’s scheme, his repeated iteration of a melodic head to the tune, then subsequently incorporating small changes and ornaments to the basic melody, even adjusting its timing, its rhythms, gave me an insight into Whitman’s anaphoric verse, a basic rhetorical structure that repeated but incorporated variations as well—like the jazz sentence in Coltrane’s “Equinox.”

And soul in music? Well, it’s the “ocean of life,” isn’t it? As Whitman himself said in “Song of Myself.” Metheny isn’t saying anything new.

TRH: The Perfect Sound is a sort of anatomy—a text made of many disparate elements which in sum seeks to be exhaustive. It’s part autobiography, part history, part music criticism (in a very broad sense), part technical manual, part biographical profile (when you write of other poets, other audiophiles, other profoundly meaningful friendships). And yet it feels completely of a piece. Can you describe the process of making that happen—where you started conceptually, what stages you went through in the book’s evolution, what it took to pull everything together?

GH: The process started over a decade ago when I was in Hawaiʻi with my wife and infant daughter. I did all the usual things—got up with the sea turtles, took my baby girl out to the small waves in the lagoon, dipping her a bit, warning her “Here comes a big one!” from time to time (6’-10” curls). She loved it. When I wasn’t cooking meals, I surfed the internet, dreaming about tube equipment and audio tubes themselves, thinking of the next step I’d take with my modest stereo system back in Oregon. I hit upon the KT88 tube—at the time, perhaps the most powerful output tube—and a vaunted Japanese amp that used four of them. Except I couldn’t afford it—$11,900 retail at the time. Then I hit upon the idea to propose a small book on my audio odyssey and search for equipment that could play the music I wanted to hear—operas and orchestral music—that my current system struggled with. It played Renaissance choral music, combo jazz, and classic rock fine. But it petered out in the midst of the most gorgeous passages in any given aria—Renée Fleming singing “Quando m’en vo,” Pavarotti belting out “Nessun Dorma,” Angela Gheorghiu on “Casta Diva.” Not to mention orchestral tutti. Both my 70W solid state amp and 45W tube amp couldn’t handle the drain these made on power. My amps were “clipping,” as is said among audiophiles, electronically wheezing and failing to turn out enough steady current as the impedance of my speakers shifted in the range of sustained operatic top notes and complex, fortissimo orchestral passages. So I thought of proposing a non-fiction book to my agent in order to get, right quick, the first installment of advance—about $7,500–to buy a used unit of the amp I wanted. I got the book contract and bought the amp, of course. It sang opera beautifully too.

I’d proposed a mixture of memoir and non-fiction. The memoir part would be about my audio quest—seeking gear to equal all the best music I wanted to hear, running through amp after amp, speaker pairs after speaker pairs, CD players, etc. And the non-fiction part would be about my informational quest to learn more about audio tubes and how they worked, why they sounded better with acoustic music and voices than solid state, why that sector of the market died away once transistors came in and why it was coming back.

It would also the problem of an appropriate language—discovering one to describe stereo sound, acoustic music, the varieties of audio experience. I wanted to create both a descriptive language and a narrative language that could account for the stumbling and triumphs of my quest. It had to be more supple and somewhat more transparent than the poetic language I’d developed for Volcano, my memoir of going back to live in the village and rainforest near Kīlauʻea on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi where I was born but left as an infant. That language had proven too rhetorically and imagistically dense, cadenced to poetic rhythms too slow for more general readers—“It’s not prose is it?” my editor said on first meeting over the manuscript. So I wanted something more neutral and journalistic, yet capable of lyric flights and imagistic passages when called upon—sort of like orchestral crescendi and tutti after passages of musical exposition. I had to teach myself how to do it. And it took years, alas. I practiced by writing audio reviews on stereo equipment. In those, you had to describe how the gear made the music sound, how the technology affected the fine qualities of tone, texture, and the individual timbral characters of different instruments, the dramatic scale of the music, the dynamic shifts that created musical drama. And you had to explain the technology. I like to think I got pretty good at it. So both a new descriptive and discursive language in addition to the language of memoiristic narrative.

But as the project grew, I discovered all these memories—memories of my father building his own stereo systems with DIY mail-order kits back in the early Sixties. And memories of how music had been my life’s accompaniment all along—from jukeboxes and Hawaiian bands during my childhood in Hawaiʻi to doo-wop 45s, Motown, and then British invasion blues in my teen years. To Joni Mitchell when I first fell in love with a girl in high school. To acid rock, Delta blues, Chicago blues, Beethoven quartets, Coltrane and Miles Davis, Mingus and Mahler symphonies during college and through my twenties. I found I could track my life with all the different kinds of music I was listening to at any given age—it’s nostalgia, something we all engage in casually listening to oldies on the car radio. But I found I could be very precise, creating another mnemonic system, as it were, of accounting for the bildungs of my life. “The Tracks of My Tears” and all that, meaning recording tracks and not lagrimas from my eyes. That’s when the memoir project gathered steam. And, naturally, I fell into stories about my poetic apprenticeship as well.

But I’d proposed writing a history of audio and the vacuum tube and and that was a harder task than pure memoir. It took research, mulling, creating an architecture for the writing that was different from the simple, somewhat chronological narrative of the memoir. Yet I had to find a way to make it personal, relate to the language and dynamics of the memoir sections, harmonize with them, if you will, be a secondary theme as in a symphony that was more than a divertissement, but an equal partner. At first, this was hard to do, the language I had too stiff and limited, reportage-like and separate from the character of the memoir. It was hard, but I kept working, writing without flair or much emotion, yet finding a few models—Yunte Huang’s Charlie Chan that was a quest to find out about the real Honolulu detective, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street about the history of Texas Hold ʻEm and his experience competing in the World Series of Poker, and Thad Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank—a book you suggested to me.

I once whined aloud about my troubles at dinner with Bruce Henderson, an accomplished historian of American wars.  Heʻs written several books on famous battles and combat divisions and military campaigns, using novelistic techniques like Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood. He advised to “let the memoir” in, to put myself into the histories and the reportage whenever it struck me and, more than that, whenever I could—authorial interjections, memoiristic digressions that interrupted long explanations and histories. Then I thought of writing stand-alone pieces that might imagine what I or a family member might be doing with that tech I was explaining, that vacuum tube I was describing, that Gramophone or Victrola. It animated my imagination for writing the non-fiction. In a history of vinyl and shellac records, I put my father in Vada, Italy in 1944 playing big band 78s on a generator-powered phonograph between battles during his bivouac. In a chronicle of the birth and rise of radio, I put my grandmother in Lā’ie, on the North Shore of Oʻahu, sitting in her parlor knitting while listening to Japanese enka emanating from a cathedral radio during the 1930s. In a section on acoustic amplification, within a chapter explaining the curious history of the Aeolian harp, I tell a story of how I fell asleep in Romantic literature class my sophomore year during a discussion of Coleridge’s famous poem, then ended the chapter about a moment I heard such a harp while working my summer job reading electric and water meters for LA’s Department of Water and Power.

TRH: It occurs to me that maybe audiophiles are looking for a point at which, after all the acquiring and matching of components and fiddling with this and that and buying vintage vacuum tubes and stylus cartridges, and perusing used vinyl record shops the way oenophiles scour wine cellars, that they arrive, at least for the moment, at the perfect combination of elements, such that, when the waves rush from the speakers, the system disappears, and the audiophile vanishes, and there is nothing but the music?

GH: It’s funny you ask this, as it’s the goal, of course, of any kind of listening, whether in an opera house, concert hall, or living or listening room with a stereo system. But audiophiles are forever concentrating on the gear—a new preamp subbed in for an older model, a fancier set of power cables, a particularly prized phono cartridge with a diamond cantilever as opposed to humbler cartridge with a boron one. I’d be lying if I told you I don’t do this a lot myself—particularly in my role as a reviewer of audio equipment when I’m called upon to make just these kinds of comparisons. But the gear does indeed “disappear” at times, as the stereo speakers “disappear” when set up right and the music seems simply to hang in the air and not emanate from the machinery at all. I’ve written about this in the book, actually, comparing the artificiality of stereo listening to viewing the puppets and master puppeteers in the Japanese Bunraku theater. At first, you see the marvel of two aged men manipulating these elaborate puppets, one man working the head, mouth, and right arm of one puppet, say the impoverished apprentice to a soy sauce brewer, another man manipulating its left arm and legs. Another pair of puppeteers handle a different puppet–the daughter of a poor carpenter. The two characters fall in love, decide to flee their constrained lives within the town, and take refuge near a shrine by a river where they determine to commit suicide rather than face a lifetime apart, as they must, given that their love cannot conquer their poor circumstances. Meanwhile, you get swept up in the story, the artful chanting of the narrator who sits beside the stage and sings the lyrical lines of the play, changing the register of his voice as he takes up the role of the man or the woman, chanting an emotive recitative as he narrates the flight of the lovers through the town, its adjoining forest, and across arching wooden bridges to the shrine of their destiny. You forget these are mere puppets, that there are handlers who are animating them, the artifice of it all receding in your consciousness as the emotions of the drama grab hold of you, the wail of the chanter penetrating your body to shake you through to your bones with pity and sorrow.

It’s the same at the opera. When I attended a performance of La Bohème at La Scala, I forgot all about the magnificent Zeffirelli set, the paper moon ascending over the stage flats of painted rooftops, and I simply wept at the romance of it all, the soaring notes of “O soave fanciulla!” sending shivers through my soul while Puccini’s music swept me up in a rising passion. I was Roldolfo taking Mimí’s arm in my own, sauntering through the lanes of the Latin Quarter in Paris on Christmas Eve, on our way to the celebration at Café Momus. The “as if” of art was transformed from mere likeness into pure being. That can happen with stereo listening too, when the music comes through so magnificently, you forget it’s a recording played back via electricity through a flotilla of sophisticated gear. It happens perhaps most often late at night, when juice from the grid is cleanest, when all the A/C units shut down, when people aren’t running their washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and hair dryers that throw grunge into grid, when the house is calm and the town is dark and about the only thing running citywide is your stereo, humming with pure and steady juice. You get beautiful sound then, you connect with Mozart’s “Requiem” more powerfully, Cream’s “White Room” shuddering through the air of your room, Victoria de Los Angeles singing the most angelically, completely without distortion or raggedness. In blues, I guess it’s called being “in the pocket,” the bass and drums locked in a steady rhythm you feel in your body.

I remember hearing the Mendelssohn Octet affecting me and Cid Corman that way in a coffee shop in Kyoto. We’d been blathering along when the music was so magnificent it quieted us through the entire allegro movement. It was the same when my brother first played me “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by the Allman Brothers on my cheap Zenith stereo in our shared bedroom back in Gardena when we were still in our teens. In the groove. And there are those moments of pure, transcendent joy when a poem spills out of you, complete in one sitting, the way Wordsworth said “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey” came rolling out of him all at once. You might say, when poems come whole cloth this way, the poet is merely “listening” and writing the words down as if taking dictation directly from their imagination, all the gear of life and poetic tradition receding from consciousness, disappearing behind the swells of pure imagination breaking in soft, glassy curls over our shoulders.

TRH: One of the most prominent strands of The Perfect Sound, to my mind, is a loose paralleling of discussions of music that had an indispensable role at certain points in your life with profiles of people—friends, mentors, lovers—who likewise did. I don’t recall that the paralleling is made overt at any point; you don’t discuss it explicitly. But reading the book, I felt it strongly: it seemed to me that certain musical performances (recordings, musical texts) and certain individuals made themselves mutually vivid and incisive to you due to having similar characters. Perhaps what I mean is that they harmonize. Can you elaborate on it?

GH: Absolutely—yes! As I kept writing, I got to feel very strongly that I could associate certain pieces of music with specific people in my life and vice-versa, as Yogi Berra said. For instance, with the magisterial poet Charles Wright, my teacher, I think of the time I housesat for him one summer and played Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations trying to figure out what Charles meant when he said he liked to think of his poetry as a combination of Gould’s performance of Bach’s demonstrations of counterpoint, using a simple melody, and Doc Watson’s guitar picking. He says this in an early interview for Field: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics that he gave when I was his student and it puzzled me—the wacky pairing of baroque piano played by a virtuoso and a flat-picked country guitar played by another kind of virtuoso. I hadn’t known either music that well, but I played some Doc Watson that summer too—a Vanguard or a Smithsonian recording he made with the Carter Family. I just couldn’t figure it out for about a month, but then it hit me like a flash of sunlight reflected off the ocean, “the silvery alphabet of the sea,” as Charles says. Simplicity in complexity, complexity based on simplicity, ease and vigor all at once, in one line, in one poem, in the sweep of one’s vision. Country and counterpoint together like bourbon and Coke.

When I write about Robert Hayden, another early mentor, I thought his message of peace and the beauty of his language quite like “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye. The song was around those days when I took lessons from Hayden (mostly how to read Keats aloud), and its message of peace and understanding (“Let’s get some understanding here today!”) was a lot like what I got from Hayden’s poetry, his stance on writing from suffering not to urge anger, but to encourage love. Hayden took a lot of shit for not being Black enough in those days and earlier and it pains me still he was so misunderstood and even denounced for his gentle manner, his love of traditional verse, his being a misfit in the days of Black power and the heyday of the Black Arts Movement, which I found intolerant of political and cultural diversity. Another early teacher of mine, Stanley Crouch, who defended Hayden, had the same take on “all that boo-shit,” as he called it. I found Gaye’s song anthemic but soothing, empowering peace, as it were, in the same way I found Hayden a guardian for peace, a kind of gawky and kind angel for amity among us. He wrote about the Middle Passage, runaway slaves, beatings, lynchings, figures like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X, for whom he used his Muslim name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. He never ignored Black history or the Black experience, but he transformed all that legacy of suffering into beautiful verse with its message one more of heroic sentience than defiant protest, defining his own experience as a problematic of relation rather than a justification for separation, arguing in the subtle yet powerful form of the lyric from his hard-won philosophy of inter-subjectivity rather come at you from an unreflected endorsement of cultural determinism. Whatʻs going on?  Tell me whatʻs going on!  Gaye and Hayden speak to me in duet this way and I joined them in my book.

Likewise Ellington’s “In My Solitude ” goes with the Japanese American jazz singer Pat Suzuki, whom I heard perform it impromptu in an apartment’s living room where Asian American actors and writers gathered in the evenings after play rehearsals on Melrose in LA during the Seventies. “Wild Horses” by the Stones goes with the year I lived in Kyoto with my girlfriend at that time, an architecture student at Kyōdai and Berkeley. “The Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians connects, for me, with a multi-ethnic group of us students of color who protested the University of Michigan’s cuts in financial aid to Black students. I never hear Archie Shaw’s version of “Moonglow” without imagining my parents at a USO dancing the foxtrot in Honolulu after the war.

It’s partly a kind of “soundtrack of my life,” even the lives of others, but much more a dual bildungs, if you will, my life coupled with pieces of music as co-equal experiences.

And, in terms of the actual composition of the book, having both “tracks,” as it were, gave me two themes to work with, as in musical composition, enabling me to switch from one theme to another as first completed its exposition, providing me with changes, modulations, divertissement, and alternative ways to conclude any particular passage.  I moved from the language of memoiristic narration or subject-driven non-fiction to the language of musical description, even reminiscences about music, then back again as the writing evolved and demanded.

TRH: A Memoir in Stereo is an accurate subtitle for this book—both for the obvious reason, but more interestingly because it is so descriptive of how the book works, coming to the reader, as it does, from more than one angle, thus allowing the reader to “hear” it in three (or four) dimensions. I know your original subtitle was “An Autobiography in Stereo” and your publisher asked you to change it to “Memoir.” My joke at the time was that if you have to call it “memoir,” it should be “A Memoir in Monaural,” just for the alliteration.  

Can you address, as a closing riff, the overall effect you want the book to offer the reader?

GH: I wanted to tell the story in two main “channels,” as it were–two main genres combined—autobiography (about my audio journey) and non-fiction about stereo gear and amplification, acoustic and electronic. I liked the subtitle “An Autobiography in Stereo” as it harked back to earlier works written by Henry Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass (sometimes entitled The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass), and Malcolm X. Yoked to the phrase “In Stereo,” I thought it made a kind of informed, literary joke and yet also acted as a winking homage to the entire genre. My editor and the staff at Pantheon just didn’t agree and thought it “old hat,” too stuffy and literary, and a clunker of a phrase, so they convinced me to change it.

I have to say, though, that as I floundered about trying to find the right track for writing all this material I had, I looked at the genre of confession as well, recalling Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Rousseau’s Confessions, and even Augustine’s. But the problem was what to confess? Audio as an addiction? Like Exley’s alcoholism and sublimating his life by obsessively going to pro football games? It seemed too dark an approach for me as there was no deep tragedy or psychological turning point, renunciation of a damaging path, or private sin or failing to attest to, then a conversion or complete fall. How could devotion to stereo sound be equal to William Styron’s account of his depression in Darkness Visible? Yet I briefly tried that tack as well, styling my pursuit of audio as the ruination of my adult life. You read the test chapter and were generous in response, but it seemed too much of a downer for part of my projected audience—fellow audiophiles—and I ditched it, though I might possibly come back to it in fiction someday.

What I returned to, gratefully, was the method of personal memoir, the chronicle and soundtrack of my life, twinned with non-fiction reportage about the birth of audio, vacuum tube technology, the invention of the phonograph, the advent of electronic recording and later the expanded tonal range of high fidelity, and also the invention of stereo sound by the British engineer who also had a hand in inventing radar for the RAF. Those seemed to “have legs” and I stuck with them for the entire book that’s being published now.

TRH: Garrett, on behalf of all gearheads and others everywhere, thanks for your time and your generous insight in this interview, and for all the soul-music-searching and intense labor that has resulted in the excellent and indispensable The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo, due from Pantheon in February 2022.

GH:  You bet.  Mahalo nui, Terry.

T.R. Hummer

T.R. Hummer

T.R. Hummer's chapbook, In These States appeared from Jacar Press in 2020. Otherwise, he has published fifteen books of poetry and essays, most recently After the Afterlife (Acre Books, 2018). Former editor-in-chief of The Kenyon Review, of New England Review, and of The Georgia Review, he lives in retirement in Cold Spring, NY, and never goes to meetings.
T.R. Hummer

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Author: T.R. Hummer

T.R. Hummer's chapbook, In These States appeared from Jacar Press in 2020. Otherwise, he has published fifteen books of poetry and essays, most recently After the Afterlife (Acre Books, 2018). Former editor-in-chief of The Kenyon Review, of New England Review, and of The Georgia Review, he lives in retirement in Cold Spring, NY, and never goes to meetings.