Portland Chamber Orchestra Portland Oregon

Garrett Hongo’s ‘The Perfect Sound’ finds poetry in music

Excerpt: The Eugene author, poet and teacher’s new memoir reveals a life continually inspired by the music that accompanied his journey.

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Editor’s Note: Garrett Hongo is not only one of Oregon’s — and America’s — finest poets. He’s also a renowned essayist, memoirist, Pulitzer Prize finalist and recipient of honors including the Oregon Book Award for nonfiction and Fulbright, Rockefeller Foundation and Guggenheim fellowships. The founder and longtime pillar of the University of Oregons Creative Writing Program, Hongo is also one of the most enlightening teachers I was ever lucky enough to encounter, in graduate school at the UO. If as Walter Pater famously claimed, “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” Hongo’s acclaimed new memoir, The Perfect Sound, shows why his own resonant writing so often achieves it. Hongo reads from the book and chats with Greg Sutherland at Eugene’s House of Records, 258 East 13th Ave., at 5:30 pm Tuesday, March 8. Here’s an excerpt, republished with permission. –Brett Campbell


By GARRETT HONGO


Preludio

From here in my stereo room, in my day basement ten steps down from my entry hallway, much can seem perfect if I close my eyes and just listen. I’ve all my gear arranged in front of me, across the immaculate, midnight-blue Chinese carpet and against the acoustic-paneled wall opposite where I sit in my leather club chair—an acquisition from Pottery Barn during my middle-aged bachelor days. So much born of savings and sacrifice, but I hardly care, since the sound here is so gorgeous it lifts me out of things into a pure fabric of wonderment, adrift amidst all the sublime wel­ter of notes. I start with piano music in the morning, Mozart or Beethoven concertos performed by the likes of Alfred Brendel or Claudio Arrau, their right-hand runs so liquidinous across the key­board it’s as though a clear water of crystalline singing were run­ning over a streambed of orchestral accompaniment. I glance at the gleaming enameling on my speakers, brows-high, piano-black tow­ers that mirror the inset ceiling lights when I switch them on, and I begin to want to flutter my hands like seabirds barely aloft over a dance line of shorebreak waves and indulge myself in this rapturous sequestration with music all around me.

Oregon poet Garrett Hongo. Photo: © Steve Varni

During the days, mostly all my own because of my university teaching job (I teach classes once or twice a week), I switch among genres all the time, playing fifties combo jazz when I tire of classi­cal, classic blues-rock when I want to stir things up (Cream, San­tana, or the Allman Brothers), or even an opera if I have two hours together before an errand or a duty calls me away. I don’t like inter­rupting the drama of an opera, its outsize grandiosity command­ing a kind of narrowed attention, otherwise the spell of its fiction would collapse from the recognition of its absurdity. You live in its concocted, sauced-up emotions and situations as much as in its music, so you can’t just break a spell once it’s been cast. You have to give in to its supreme fiction, mad scenes, murders, and suicides, its love-on-a-tubercular-shoestring plot, or else it dies as egregious caricature compared to the sedate, suburban lives most of us lead.

My equipment has been painstakingly selected and then fre­quently changed over the years as I’ve evolved in the audio hobby. Fifteen years ago, I started out simply wanting a good CD player, then was captivated once I heard what it could do, and off I went down the rabbit hole into this new universe, just listening to music all the time, every day, all the day long. For two or three years, I spent way too much time browsing audio mags and the Internet, lusting after new and better equipment, auditioning and acquiring it, and then quickly moving on to something else. Now my gear list is a little exotic, and, I’m willing to say, it has gotten com­pletely ridiculous. I’ve a German-made turntable, weighing forty-five pounds and sporting two tonearms for which I have numerous phono cartridges, both mono and stereo. I’ve a Japanese SACD player (with the appropriate brand name “Esoteric”) that weighs thirty-one pounds, has a sculpted frontal look, can play SACDs and also upsample Red Book CDs (a mere 16/44.1 kHz in resolution) through five additional PCM settings on up to DSD64. Got that? Through its USB inputs, it can even accept and convert digital files stored on an external hard drive and sent through a computer. It’s three years old, perhaps twice a lifetime in digital electronics, but it’s also very good, and I like it for its warmth and smoothness, espe­cially with orchestral violins and operatic voices, which I’ve found the most challenging sounds for a digital source to reproduce well. Oh, I’ve an up-to-date Wi-Fi streaming device as well, Chinese-made in Beijing (bless the New World Order), that can capture digital signals transmitted wirelessly. The device has access to a half a universe’s worth of files stored in the cloud somewhere by Apple, Tidal, Qobuz, or Spot-the-Fly. So you can all relax. Despite my fondness for vinyl, I’ve not been left behind as things have shifted over to computer-and network-sourced audio. My tubed preamp and tubed stereo power amp, made by a sedulous boutique designer in Osaka, a quiet though intense man who named his company, quite cleverly, after the millennium-old pronunciation for the ideo­grams of his sixteenth-century name, morphing the familiar into the recondite, transforming Yamada into Zanden. His gear has vac­uum tubes all over it. The myth is that sound gets increasingly better as technologies improve, and maybe so, but a lot of us in this hobby just don’t buy it. We’ve gone backward to old audio tubes no longer manufactured (we find them at estate sales and through commercial dealers who dig them up in military surplus dumps, warehouses in Eastern Europe, and from old collectors) and hand-wound electri­cal transformers, heavily lacquered wood-bodied phono cartridges, mono LPs from the fifties and sixties, and even to 78s from earlier than that. In a lovely, modern home amidst deciduous woods on Long Island near Dix Hills, where John Coltrane lived, I once heard brand-new, two-way speakers fashioned after old Western Electric movie-theater speakers from the 1930s. But my own speakers, I have to confess, derive from more recent German technologies and are fairly complicated affairs. I won’t go into it now, but take my word, there’s some meticulous engineering involved. They’re each as big as a human being, weighing 265 pounds apiece. And from them I get a sound that, as Sam Cooke used to say, sends me.

My listening room takes up just over half of a twenty-eight-foot-by-twelve-foot space in the finished basement in an attrac­tive three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath trilevel, built in 1979, the deed told me—the first house on my particular street in the South Hills of Eugene, before the subdivision of McMansions on the top of the hill at the edge of town, before the other nondescript, thin-walled dwellings filled in all the cul-de-sacs and lots between us super-peons and the sub-one-percenters above. When the house was shown to me—by my real estate agent, a handsome and enthu­siastic fifty-something fellow from Ashland (or Baja Oregon, as we call it)—my future stereo space was a TV room with a sofa and chairs and walls painted the color of blighted temple moss. But I immediately puffed my chest out and thought, Here is my dedicated listening room, finally, in my mind throwing up the IKEA cabinets for LPs that would divide it from the other end of the room, where I’d install my study and bookcases for my poetry library (Loeb classics, Everyman’s editions of the Renaissance and Metaphysical poets, and Atheneum and Knopf contemporaries).

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I am a poet. It’s odd to say it, but that’s what I’ve done for most of my adult life—study poetry, teach it at universities, and write it. It’s more than unusual, but it was such a passion of mine since my undergraduate days, when poets galore would visit my college, read from their thin but elegantly printed books, and captivate all of us with lyrics about a bucolic childhood on an Irish farm, working as a punch-press operator in a Detroit automobile factory, or sitting zazen in a Japanese Buddhist monastery. They gave such meaning to humble things and experiences, such homespun familiarity to the most arcane of esoteric wisdom literatures. I even remember a man in a medical gown reading from a hospital bed that stagehands wheeled into the pit of our amphitheater classroom, where I’d lis­tened to lectures on Shakespeare’s comedies. The poet said he was a pacifist and read aloud, paging through a loose-leaf manuscript and a leather-bound notebook, poems against the war in Vietnam, his voice quavering at times with weakness or passion. In each case, no matter who the poet was or what they wrote about, I heard an unmistakable ring of eloquence and sincerity in their words, a syntactical music that seemed to empower their willingness to speak their minds, a kind of bravery, and I wanted to be that. It was a feeling from within my chest, stirrings like a forest of seedlings suddenly sprouting through the litter of withered leaves and veining grasses on the broken asphalt that was my unformed identity, bat­tered from the start in poor, urban public schools.

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Excerpted with permission from The Perfect Sound by Garrett Hongo. Copyright © 2022 by Garrett Hongo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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