“You know that my hobby is hunting wild mushrooms,” says John Cage in the 1990 reading at Harvard University you can hear above. “I was sure there was a haiku poem — Japanese — that would have to do with mushrooms, because haikus are related to the seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter, and fall is the period for mushrooms.” Having found a suitably autumnal piece of verse by seventeenth-century poet-saint Matsuo Bashō featuring a mushroom and a leaf, Cage first reads the Japanese-language original, then offers translations, his favorite being this loose interpretation: “What leaf? What mushroom?” Perhaps we’d expect that from a more-zen-than-zen avant-garde composer best known for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without music.
But Cage’s mushroom hobby may come as more of a surprise, let alone the fact that it turns out to have gone much deeper than a hobby. “He won a mushroom quiz contest in 1958 on Italian television,” writes the New York Times‘ Edward Rothstein in a review of For the Birds, Cage’s book of conversations with philosopher Daniel Charles. “In the 1960s he supplied a New York restaurant with edible fungi. He led mushroom outings at the New School. He knows a Lactarius Piperatus burns the tongue when raw but is delicious when cooked. He has even had his stomach pumped. As Marcel Duchamp wrote, inscribing a chess book for his cagey friend, ‘Dear John look out: yet another poisonous mushroom.'”
Cage happened upon mushrooms, quite literally, while living in Carmel during the Depression. “I didn’t have anything to eat,” he tells composer and filmmaker Henning Lohner in a conversation collected in Writings through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art. But he knew from “tradition” that “mushrooms were edible and that some of them are deadly. So I picked one of the mushrooms and went in the public library and satisfied myself that it was not deadly, that it was edible, and I ate nothing else for a week.” So began his journey to the status he called “amateur mushroom hunter,” albeit one with a professional breadth of working mycological knowledge.
“Fascinated by their haphazard growth, the artist went on mushroom hunts, studied fungi identification, and even collected them,” writes Artsy’s Sarah Gottesman. He “crystallized his mushroom obsession by co-founding the New York Mycological Society, along with some of his students from the New School,” and even “made a living by regularly supplying New York restaurants like the Four Seasons with the pickings from his mushroom hunts.” His Mushroom Book, a collaboration with mycologist Alexander H. Smith and artist Lois Long, came out in 1972, the year after he gifted his fungi collection to the University of California, Santa Cruz.
And yet in his beloved mushrooms, Cage found the same escape from the pre-cast strictures of logic and reason that he did in sound (or indeed in the brief burst of sense impression distilled in haiku): “It’s useless to pretend to know mushrooms,” he says to Charles in For the Birds. ”They escape your erudition.” Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier, in a piece on the Horticultural Society of New York exhibition of his work as a naturalist, also sees the possibility of “parallels between his free-thinking music and the unstructured way mushrooms sprout up haphazardly,” but points out that, in images of “Cage frolicking with his mushroom basket” or “the playful wind of words in the Mushroom Book,” we see that “this really was a passion in its own right” — and one, like his passion for music, that could produce unpredictably delicious results.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.