A mushroom-related brush with mortality: how John Cage fell for fungi

In February 1959, while on a visit to fellow composer Luciano Berio in Milan, John Cage appeared five times on a popular Italian television quiz show called Lascia o Raddoppia? (Double or Nothing). Cage performed several new sound pieces at the beginning of each programme, much to the bemusement of the studio audience. He then answered questions on his specialist subject which, surprisingly, was not musical composition, but mushrooms.

Over consecutive evenings, Cage progressed to the final, answering every question correctly and doubling his prize money each time. In the final episode, with 5m lire at stake (the historical equivalent of about $8,000 or £3,000), he was asked to list the 24 names of the white-spored Agaricus as identified in GF Atkinson’s Studies of American Fungi. He named them all in alphabetical order, prompting sustained applause from the audience. “Mr Cage has proved he’s a real mushroom expert,” the host concluded. “He hasn’t just been an odd character performing strange music on the stage…”

Cage’s brief brush with mainstream celebrity is recounted in John Cage: A Mycological Foray, an elegant art book that delves deep into the composer’s lifelong fascination with mushrooms. Volume one includes various mushroom-oriented anecdotes from Indeterminacy, Cage’s collection of one-minute-long stories, reflections and jokes, as well as a complete transcript of a 1983 spoken performance, Mushrooms et Variationes. It is illustrated by photographs of Cage foraging; diary entries, notebooks and essay excerpts related to his passion as well as an often surreal selection of his vast collection of fungi-related ephemera – postcards, collages and various well-thumbed guidebooks on the identification of mushroom species. Volume 2 is a reproduction of Mushroom Book, a 1972 collaboration with artist Lois Long and scientist Alexander Smith, president of the Mycological Society of America.

“From the early 1950s onwards, mycology was an enduring aspect of Cage’s life,” elaborates Kingston Trinder, who has written the book’s illuminating central essay. “It was certainly much more than a hobby. He also, it has to be said, resisted all efforts to connect his interest in mycology to his musical practice.”

Put simply, for Cage, music was music and mushrooms were mushrooms. In a light-hearted essay from 1954 entitled Music Lovers’ Field Companion, he wrote, “I would like to emphasise that I am not interested in the relationships between sounds and mushrooms any more than I am in those between sounds and other sounds.” Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine the composer, as Trinder puts it, “wandering in nature and silence and not thinking esoterically and creatively”.

Cage’s obsession with mushrooms began in the 1930s during the Great Depression, when out of necessity he began foraging in the woods around his home in Carmel on the Monterey Peninsula in California. “I didn’t have anything to eat, and I knew that mushrooms were edible and that some of them are deadly,” he later recalled. “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 it and nothing else for a week.”

So began a lifelong pursuit of the edible and exotic that was not without its moments of high drama. In 1954, after foraging in the woods around the Stony Point artists’ colony in upstate New York, Cage began to feel unwell after eating poisonous hellebore, which he had mistaken for the similar skunk cabbage. After his blood pressure dropped dramatically and he became violently ill, he was rushed to the nearby Spring Valley hospital, where his stomach was pumped. Afterwards, he was told that, had he not been treated within 15 minutes of his admission, he would have died. Cage recounted the incident matter-of-factly in one of the short anecdotes in Indeterminacy, noting that “hellebore has pleated leaves, skunk cabbage does not”.

This mushroom-related brush with mortality did little to dent Cage’s enthusiasm for all things mycological. In the mid-1950s, his expertise was such that he was appointed vice-chairman of the eastern region of the wonderfully named People-to-People Committee on Fungi, a community programme created by the Eisenhower administration to educate people on the benefits of foraging for food.

By then, Cage had become the name to drop in American avant garde circles courtesy of his breakout moment, the premiere of his most famous piece, 4’33”, at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, on 29 August 1952. For the performance, his collaborator David Tudor sat at the piano in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds save for three moments when he closed and opened the piano lid to signal the end of each movement. Despite his notoriety, Cage was still living hand-to-mouth and, to supplement his income, he made several hundred dollars supplying mushrooms to several renowned New York restaurants, including the Four Seasons, which specialised in seasonal fare.

In 1959, the same year he appeared on Italian TV, Cage began teaching a class on experimental composition at the New School for Social Research in New York. Soon afterwards he and botanist Guy Nearing introduced a new course to the curriculum: mushroom identification. On weekends, Cage and Nearing would lead groups of 30 students on mushroom foraging field trips in the woods of upstate New York. In September 1962, they helped resurrect the New York Mycological Society, which continues to this day.

“There are several surprising aspects to Cage’s life,” says Trinder, “and many of them are not really synonymous with his reputation as a pioneer of the avant garde. He was a polymath who had this extraordinary enthusiasm for everything he embraced, whether experimental composition or mycology or eastern thought. And as many of his collaborators and students often noted, his enthusiasm was utterly contagious.”

Cage’s love for mushrooms endured throughout his life, even after encroaching arthritis led him to give up his beloved French cuisine for a macrobiotic diet in the early 1970s. He continued to serve his beloved oysters, chanterelles and morels to his guests, “sautéing them in a little sesame oil, and occasionally adding tamari”.

Unlike many of his creative contemporaries, Cage had no interest in mushrooms of the hallucinogenic variety and little time for those who considered them sacred fodder. “Nothing is more sacred than any other thing,” he once said, deftly summing up his democratic aesthetic. “We should wash our dishes and brush our teeth, and forget about one thing being sacred and another not.”

Among the many highlights of John Cage: A Mycological Foray are William Gedney’s candid photographs of Cage on a foraging expedition in the woods around Stony Point in 1967. Gedney, a master of quiet photography, captures Cage’s rapt attentiveness to the job at hand, whether prowling in the undergrowth or intently scrutinising the underside of a large, round field mushroom. He seems transported throughout. Once, when asked why he composed music, Cage replied: “I do not deal in purposes; I deal with sounds. I make them just as well by sitting quite still looking for mushrooms.”