John Cage: mushrooms, silence, and chance operation
Fungi are connected intimately to the work and life of artist and composer John Cage. In the 1930s, Cage studied musical composition under Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. Later, Cage found he was more attracted to Asian ideas of music and philosophy. In the early 1950s Cage met Japanese thinker Daisetz T. Suzuki and attended Suzuki’s lectures on Zen Buddhism at Columbia University in New York. Cage was attuned in particular to a session on ego and the outside world, which he used to solidify many of his early notions of noise and chance-based compositions (Larson 2012).
In the summer of 1954, Cage moved to a cooperative community in Stony Point, New York, where he began to traverse the woods surrounding his new home. The area was flush with mushrooms and located near a well-known mycologist named Guy Nearing. Nearing became Cage’s ‘mushroom guru’ as he honed an interest in mycology. In 1956 Cage began to teach an experimental composition class at the New School for Social Research. After teaching this course for several years, Cage made a request to offer a class on mushroom identification, framed as a series of five mushroom hunting field trips with Nearing as co-instructor:
This summer I’m going to give a class in mushroom identification at the New School for Social Research. Actually, it’s five field trips, not really a class at all. However, when I proposed it to Dean Clara Mayer, though she was delighted with the idea, she said, ‘I’ll have to let you know later whether or not we’ll give it.’ So she spoke to the president who couldn’t see why there should be a class in mushrooms at the New School. Next she spoke to Professor MacIvor who lives in Piermont. She said, ‘What do you think about our having a mushroom class at the New School?’ He said, ‘Fine idea. Nothing more than mushroom identification develops the powers of observation.’ (Cage and Tudor 1959)
While Cage’s mushroom identification course was never a permanent fixture at the New School, it prompted the founding of the New York Mycological Society, which Cage led for a short time. The course was not expressly concerned with music or composition; however, critics like Edward Rothstein (1981) speculate that Cage’s love of mushrooms may have played some role in ‘avant-garde’ art movements like Fluxus. It’s rumoured for instance that Cage met Allan Kaprow on a mushroom hunt with George Brecht in 1957. Kaprow would later enrol in Cage’s composition course, where he began to develop ideas for performance-based works later known as happenings (Beaven 2012).
In a 1954 article originally written for the Paris Review entitled ‘Music Lovers’ Field Companion’, Cage (1961) begins to describe his parallel interest in both mycology and music. He writes, ‘I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom (ibid.: 274). The text itself is a humorous commentary on classical music, in which Cage uses mushrooms as a metaphor to remark on the seasonal variation of both fungi and concert hall performance. What is interesting is that Cage begins to relate mushroom hunting to a kind of phenomenological experience of both presence and silence in his practice. He says:
I have spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece transcriptions, that is, for an audience of myself, since they were much longer than the popular length which I have had published. At one performance, I passed the first movement by attempting the identification of a mushroom which remained successfully unidentified. The second movement was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium. (Cage 1961: 276)
Later in his career, Cage visited the Mountain Lake Workshop, a series of collaborative artist workshops and symposia in Giles County, Virginia. Cage co-led a mycological foray with Orson Miller and participated in workshops with photographer Marie Cosindas and painter Robert Berlind. Ray Kass, founder of the Mountain Lake programmes, reflects on this experience, describing his initial doubt in the foray. He later notes how Cage’s use of chance operation and mushroom hunting both demand a unique kind of observational prowess and presence. Kass explains, ‘Cage used chance operations in his compositions to encourage the audience to pay closer attention to the world around them. A mycological foray required just such disciplined attention; without it, it was simply impossible to see mushrooms in the midst of foliage and other objects on the forest floor’ (as quoted in Risatti 1996: 4).
Cage also developed a collection of mesostic poems, writings, and a folio of drawings called The Mushroom Book, released in 1972 (text included in Cage 1973). The book compiles lithographic prints by Lois Long, classifications from mycologist Alexander H. Smith, and handwritten/typed texts hidden throughout the book by Cage, inviting the reader to hunt for meaning. Cage also created a poetic text in 1985, Mushrooms et Variationes, that was read at Diane Brown Gallery and eventually turned into a recording and film. The New York Times notes the texts were inspired by Cage’s interest in mycology and explored a number of themes related to mushrooms, art, nature, and cooking (Holden 1986).
Still yet, many of Cage’s collaborators and friends note mushroom hunting was a separate interest and passion for Cage. In Peter Dickinson’s (2006) book CageTalk, several interviews indicate that Cage was drawn more to the scientific systems and taxonomy of mushroom identification and did not necessarily use mycology as a means to produce compositions or music. Fungi were more of an ontological guide, a way of being with the land that allowed Cage to contemplate radical notions of silence and presence. Even so, writers such as Allison Meier (2014: para. 5) suggest Cage ‘didn’t keep it totally separate from art, and left these curious trails of words and art to scavenge through like a forest’.
The use of the I Ching or the Book of Changes is perhaps a more direct influence on Cage’s work with musical composition. Cage used the I Ching, an ancient Chinese system of divination, in much of his work from the early 1950s onward to create systems for composing music. Each I Ching fortune is represented by a hexagram character, which contains a corresponding numerical value and textual interpretation. Initially, Cage would toss coins to generate a series of hexagrams and numbers that he would then use to inform the elements of a composition such as duration, tempo, silences, and so on. The process was quite methodical, which Cage distinguished from the concept of improvisation, using the term ‘chance operation’. Marshall (2000: para. 4) explains Cage used this method, among others, ‘to filter out his own intention for the joy of seeing what would arise’. The I Ching in this sense served as a means to develop a direction for a composition, uninhibited by Cage’s own judgements or desires, and in so doing unfolds as something free and unexpected.
While there is some discrepancy in how Cage used mushrooms to inform his art practice, it is clear that Cage found a deep fascination and value in mycology. The act of mushroom hunting, identification, of moving through the forest was as much a meditative experience as it was a poetic and pedagogical device for Cage. This kept Cage coming back to the forest floor, careening down to find another mushroom, another sound, and perhaps another moment of chance.