John Cage: A Mycological Foray: Variations on Mushrooms

John Cage: A Mycological Foray: Variations on Mushrooms

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John Cage began foraging for mushrooms during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thus began a lifelong study into the relationship between mushrooms and sound and between sound and life for one of the 20th centuries most revered, multi-hyphenate composers and philosophers. What a quiet pleasure it is then, to behold the two-volume series John Cage: A Mycological Foray: Variations on mushrooms composed of Cage’s own photographs, illustrations, diary entries, essays and transcripts. Best known for his experimental 4’33” that set out to redefine the taxonomy of sound, the John Cage in A Mycological Foray is at his most intimate. Far from the towering, impenetrable figure of the post-war avant garde, John’s essays are an intimate exegesis into the mind of a visionary artist and thinker.

The mushroom has long been considered a harbinger of the renewal that follows devastation. “The uncontrolled lives of mushrooms are a gift — and a guide — when the controlled world we thought we had fails” writes anthropologist Anna Tsing. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of Siberians ran to the woods to collect mushrooms. Likewise, when the H-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the first living thing to emerge from the ruins was a Matsutake mushroom. 

It comes as no surprise then, that in the precarious times in which we live, mushroom elixirs, home-growing kits, wild foraging courses and adaptogen capsules have surged in popularity. Is our renewed interest in mycological accoutrements just a passing fad — a by-product of the health-food industrial complex? Or do our preferences belie a deep-seated fear, lodged within our collective psyche, of environmental and social collapse? Mushrooms have been marketed as a panacea for the modern-day, alienated subject. There are mushrooms to enhance brain function, mushrooms to promote cellular regeneration and mushrooms that claim to fight free radical damage and promote longevity. Cage writes that “a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it’s fresh it’s like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time.” Perhaps it is wiser to take heed of Cage’s mushroom philosophy: rather than an elixir for eternal youth, the mushroom is a symbol of our impermanence; of the miracle of life that appears like a sustained musical note before fading into obscurity. 

Words by: Kasumi Borczyk
Image by: Sonia Rentsch