‘John Cage picking mushrooms in the woods’ and ‘John Cage sitting at a table looking at mushrooms,’ William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
In the words of avant garde musician and avid mushroom hunter John Cage, “much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.”
Cage may be best known for his composition 4’33”—a performance of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. His reasoning was that there is no such thing as silence; every iteration of the piece produced a different result. The sounds of breathing, toe-tapping, airplanes, shuffles, coughs, and traffic stood in for the expected notes of music. Alongside his prolific career as an experimental composer, Cage’s forays into mycology—the study and collection of mushrooms—are well-documented. In 1959, Cage taught courses at the New School in New York about mushroom identification and experimental music composition simultaneously. His writings about music were often footnoted with anecdotes about mushrooms. In 1972, Cage collaborated with Lois Long and Alexander Smith to produce the folio Mushroom Book, a collection of poetry, abstract expressionist print art, and scientific illustrations. It is no surprise that Cage, a composer whose music relied on silence and chance, would become enthralled with the danger and excitement of amateur mycology.
Like the sounds of “silence” that Cage toyed with in 4’33”, mushrooms are often hidden in plain sight. Mushroom hunters must look beyond the apparent landscape to capture many of their prizes. The easily identifiable edible Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus) and deadly poisonous Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushrooms are like the rock and roll of fungi, loudly painted in reds, oranges, and neons. Yet many edible species—including prized porcinis and morels—are the human pulse or rushing water, blending into the oak bark and pine needle carpets of the forest. There are no rules to determining the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms other than knowledge of individual species. Mushroom hunting always comes with an element of chance.
Chicken of the Woods (left), Fly agaric (right)
Cage stated later in his career in a New York Times interview in 1981 that “I am not interested in the relationships between sounds and mushrooms any more than I am in those between sounds and other sounds.” Even so, it is exactly this dissonance—when two seemingly like things are not necessarily connected—where mushrooms can teach us something about music. The assumption that one mushroom might be connected to another—when one could be delicious and the other deathly poisonous—forces us to question our expectation that one sound must be connected to another. And with mushrooms and sounds, you can never quite expect when you will come upon a fascinating one.
Read John Cage’s 1981 interview “Sounds and Mushrooms”
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