At a party, John Cage was once overheard saying, “I compose music but mostly I’m a mushroom identifier.” Composing, for Cage, was an act of collecting the detritus of everyday sounds. He foraged for the otherwise overlooked, treating music as a search for awareness rather than coherence. Hunting for mushrooms was a way of nourishing this search: it allowed the senses to stay open to chance. Identifying fungi was also a means of savoring a kinship with decomposition. Cage renewed buried tones with fresh life, just as he deconstructed older, decaying structures of writing into raw sound. His process was fungal by nature.
As a book, John Cage: A Mycological Foray—Variations on Mushrooms embodies the artist’s devotion to foraging, in terms of mushrooms and his broader practice. It meanders across compositions, photographs, contemplations, drawings, and essays, rousing multiple senses as it goes. The text spans two volumes — the first contains mycological stories from Indeterminacy (his record with David Tudor), excerpts from Diary, and the full transcript from his 1983 performance of MUSHROOMS et Variationes. The second volume reproduces the tender Mushroom Book, a 1972 portfolio of mycological texts Cage wrote with botanist Alexander Smith, illustrated by Lois Long. Neither volume possesses a uniform structure. Materials grow over one another, with diary excerpts poking through essays that also contain mycological stories. Each reading attracts the eye to a new encounter — an unexpected connection spurred by sharpened alertness.
It is the book’s singular mix of tactile, aural, and visual elements that induces the sensory acuity Cage relished. Volume one’s mesostic poem, “MUSHROOMS et Variationes,” emphasizes the three simultaneously. The text tumbles down in tight stanzas, forming the names of mycological species in bold letters down the middle. White space presses in from the sides, as the poem sways like a series of lone stalks in the field. In the margins, Cage specifies timing for individual sections. His calculations cement the boundaries of performing the text. Only a breath is allocated to each stanza and over the course of its 72 pages, the words oscillate between sonorous fluidity and mouthfuls of garbled mush.
The final element of the work’s physicality is the material of its pages. Inspired by Cage’s 1990 Edible Drawings series, the section uses paper made from Cartamela, a product of recycled apple processing waste. This puts touch in direct contact with the process of renewal — organic potential exists tangibly against the skin. In MUSHROOMS et Variationes, letters are chewed, hands hold rebirth, and vision sways and tumbles. Together, this forms a foray: an awareness for chance encounters.
Cage’s struggles to extricate his work from the conceptual grip of logical structure are evident in his treatment of mushrooms. In the mesostic poem, though he strives to defy logic, the core contains the precise spellings of Latin names. The parameters of its reading are equally rigid. In Volume two’s Mushroom Book, Long’s drawings and the texts of Cage and Smith overlay one another, allowing the eye to pluck ideas at will. Yet Cage (and the editor) still obsesses over concrete data, dedicating pages to lucid texts of measurements, observations, and species background.
These clashes typify the artist’s creative approach. However, Cage’s passion for mushrooms comes from the fact that the organisms never surrender to manmade compositions. In an excerpt from Indeterminacy, he quickly learns the lethalness of erudition’s hubris. A hellebore flower poisons him, after Cage’s insistence on its identity as a skunk cabbage. He writes, “The more you know them, the less sure you feel about identifying them. Each one is itself. Each mushroom is what it is — its own centre.” Chance prevails. When knowledge decays, what remains is an acute awareness of the senses in that moment.
Each reading of John Cage: A Mycological Foray acts similarly. The text calls on an inner alertness and shifts what it means to learn. No matter how much one knows about Cage or mycology, the book surprises with its unique sensuality, as well as its ode to continuous wonder.
John Cage: A Mycological Foray—Variations on Mushrooms (Atelier Editions, 2020), edited by Ananda Pellerin, with texts by Kingston Trinder and Isabelle Bucklow, is now available on Bookshop.