John Cage Had a Surprising Mushroom Obsession (Which Began with His Poverty in the Depression)

“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.

via Art­sy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the One Night Sun Ra & John Cage Played Togeth­er in Con­cert (1986)

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

The Curi­ous Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Com­po­si­tion 4’33”

How to Get Start­ed: John Cage’s Approach to Start­ing the Dif­fi­cult Cre­ative Process

Lis­ten to John Cage’s 5 Hour Art Piece: Diary: How To Improve The World (You Will Only Make Mat­ters Worse)

John Cage Unbound: A New Dig­i­tal Archive Pre­sent­ed by The New York Pub­lic Library

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.

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