John Cage: A Mycological Foray


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John Cage: A Mycological Foray

Audio featuring Mushrooms et Variationes is courtesy of the ©John Cage Trust.

Cage Foraging in Grenoble, France, 1971.

Photograph by James Klosty, courtesy of Atelier Éditions.

In today's show, we attempt to visit the mind of John Cage. A beloved artist and lesser known mycologist, John Cage created a variety of works with fungi as a central muse. Cage is famous for his musical compositions and performances, but today we are going spotlight his mycophilia and impact his devotion to mushrooms had on his creative and metaphysical senses.

We are joined by the two authors who compiled John Cage: A Mycological Foray , Pascale Georgiev and Kingston Trinder, to talk about Cage's related archives and works. 

Topics Covered:

  • Archival works of the Atelier Éditions Publishing House
  • John Cage as a cult figure and influence in contemporary music, performance, and citizen science
  • The famous 4'33" 
  • Anechoic chambers & Cage's search for silence
  • Events that speak to Cage's mycological experitise
  • Cage's mesostics titled Mushrooms et Variationes
  • Cage's collection of notes titled Indeterminacy 

Show Notes:

John Cage: A Mycological Foray:
Kingston Trinder's Website:
Pascale Georgiev's Website:
Scent Artist Sissel Tolaas:

Further reading:

Transcribed by ** Subject to error
John Cage 0:03
This is an introduction. In the fall of 1983 I was invited by red Cass to Mountain Lake in Virginia to conduct a mushroom foray with real mycologists. Our son Kamala Jr. and his wife hope Ah, I myself am just an amateur.

Alex 0:39
You're listening to the mushroom revival podcast.

Lera 0:48
This is one of my favorite songs

Alex 0:51
that beat that.

Lera 0:52
Okay, enough playing around. That was four point 33 seconds of john Cage's 433. Possibly his most famous work. And yes, it really is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

Alex 1:06
But what in the hell does this have to do with fungi? Well, john cage was an American composer, writer and philosopher. And also, you guessed it a mycologist. Truly a cult figure, but I'll bet some of his biggest fans had no idea. He was an avid mushroom forger, including me. Until recently, when john cage a myco logical foray was released by the etli, a publishing house, cage said himself, I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.

John Cage 1:45
One evening, I was to give a talk, bringing together my devotion to the arts, and my love of mushrooms. I decided to write a new text in the same way that I had written themes and variations.

Alex 2:01
This is a rare case where a renowned artist actively devotes himself to the fungal kingdom to learn more about their craft.

Lera 2:09
And today we have two of the three founders of the SLA publishing house who made this all possible Pascal shows you have an Kingston trender.

Pascale 2:18
So we've been working with the john cage trust for a few years now and have just put out this book called john cage and psychological foray in which we are exploring his different. I mean, I call them artworks with, you know, very big air quotes, because there's nuance between performance music and writings, but basically all of his musings and explorations with mushrooms as well as his personal collections. And so that's the way that we dove into the universe of john cage leads to his five

Lera 2:49
year old

Pascale 2:51
publishing house. So we're still quite young. And we tend to author about a third to half of the books that come out under our monikers. So we do work with other researchers as well. But this is an example of a book where Kingston and I were, we're knee deep in the research so we were really kind of the ones that that develop the project. So that's why we can let ourselves speak on the behalf of the beloved john cage in terms of mushrooms and

Kingston 3:18
the rest his interest and fascination with mycology in the way catalyzed our own.

Alex 3:22
Let's dive a little deeper. Who is john cage? Why is he so famous as a musical composer? And then how does it how does that weave into mushrooms

Pascale 3:30
John Cage's first and foremost known, I suppose, now as the man who made four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, and so to be a composer that was so prolific, and yet he's so known for a silent performance. And I think that to myself, that was always quite symbolic of him, because it's just the tip of the iceberg. But it's the fact that he challenged a lot of norms

Kingston 3:54
of thinking, that's why he sort of enjoyed in terms of importance, because he was, if you think of the sort of early and mid 20th century in the US, in terms of composition, he really loved the avant garde and really, you know, deconstructing and reconceptualizing what is the composition? Right? I mean, a lot of writing and thinking is around, not necessarily the structures of the composition, but the interrelationship between notes and sounds and the point of 433. And paraphrasing the enormous amounts of theory but as essentially, listeners and audiences to reconsider what a what is composition be, what's the relationship between sound and see what a sound itself. And so 433 simply allows a time period within which audiences can reconsider those things. It's a place to think from and think within, I think is why that pieces are important. But secondly, I think john cage is so important because he is and was and perhaps still does, in some ways, posthumously challenged all the conventions of composition but an extremely accessible, often very funny contagiously enthusiastic way.

Pascale 4:58
The word irreverent comes to mind And yet it's not the correct word. He just was very a man of the people. And there's something about progressively he went from this man that was always dapper and in a suit to someone who was wearing jeans everywhere blue jeans, because he wanted to always be ready to go out and forage. And it wasn't like an intentional progressive change of kind of the importance of how you appear. But it was more like the practicality of it. And really, that every day is really important for his process.

Kingston 5:27
I think to add to that one of the interesting things to think about junkets in his own in his work and his thinking is that he was a practitioner within so many fields and seemingly, really labored to break down the siloing between practices. You know, they're very good friends with people that Robert Rauschenberg for example, it's been a lot of time, you know, experimented with illustration, painting, composition, mycology, I mean, all these things, he spent a lot of time it's, it's, it feels it within this practice, attempt to create sort of a very holistic practice, in all senses.

Alex 5:58
I think there's, you know, such a strong correlation between, especially for 33, and mushrooms with Terence McKenna with you know, five grams and in silent darkness, and it's just really turned inward and look, what's what's arising when when you connect with the mushrooms, and that's similar with his performance of, you know, really tuning in, and I think he was an avid environmentalist and love to get out in the woods. And I think I read that someone asked him if he like magic mushrooms or psychedelics, and his response was like, they're all magic. Right? And, and that response, I think, is really comes from, you know, from Zen Buddhism background of just like, it's beyond the sheet of music, and, you know, everything is music. Yeah, a cough in the in the in the foreground is part of the experience, it's all part of the trip. It's all part of tuning into your environment,

Kingston 6:55
there is this amazing. And we discovered this working with john cage trust, and really sort of, you know, excavating cages over that there is enormous inherent tension between his adoration for mycology and fungi. And yet the inability to create sound from them all superimposition on an external point of that music and mushrooms having a relationship for him, totally dismiss that out of hand. And yet, there are dozens of compositions and writing exercises them in the Gnostic poems and, you know, all manner of compositions and illustrations that relate to mastery for clearly, it was a very core part of of being and self in practice. And

Pascale 7:32
yet, he had them on the mind, he had said that, you know, they live so close to in the dictionary or the encyclopedia, and yet they can't interact by you know, because the mushroom, you can rub it as much as you want, it won't make a sound in a way that he was able to create sounds out of other everyday objects. And but what I was going to say is, there's also that this notion of chance operation that's so in his way of composing and experimenting, and he, you know, and it's very linked to Zen Buddhism of like, foraging is a perfect example of how you don't know what you're going to find. Of course, you know, if it's morels season, your eat and you've got a spot, you're, you know, you're on the hunt for something very specific, but you don't know you might uncover something else. And you have to kind of stay open and stay observant and stay in silence and kind of absorb everything around you and become one with that space to really, really see. And I think that was where he really saw them as these parallel kind of universes that that could never connect in a direct way. He was also a founding member of the New York mycological society. He was a very invested amateur mycologist we'll put it that way, you know, because he always insisted on being an amateur.

Lera 8:46
One of his quotes is nothing is more sacred than any other thing. Right? So I can totally see this with his foraging. I think he saw each mushroom as individually just as astounding, and there's a parable I read, maybe it was one of your articles Kingston. He ate a poisonous mushroom and mistook it for something else and it sent him to the hospital and almost killed him. And he was barely fazed. I think he had some kind of backhanded comment, like, okay, that's, that's not that mushroom. That's the other one like back to work.

Kingston 9:19
It's funny, because there's a few things he sort of there is this kind of, I'm not sure whether it's intentional or not, whether it's this kind of flippancy about his own mortality. And one of the things yeah, you mentioned this near near fatal mushroom encounter at Lera. Which, yeah, which which did happen. But the other thing is sort of talks about the idea of foraging and chess both being games of chance with potentially fatal consequences. There is also this kind of parable where he talks about entering an anechoic chamber, which is a chamber where there's absolutely no noise whatsoever, I think, clean sound this chamber, and he had hoped to go and literally hear silence, and instead he heard his pulse enters his heart. The topic going back to thought of nothing being sacred, I think he looked for the sacrosanct in terms of audibility in a anechoic chamber, and came away reflecting on his own the audibility of his own mortality, but not necessarily mortality itself in the way. He's sort of, like interestingly flippant.

Lera 10:19
So anechoic means free from echo and an anechoic chamber is a room engineered to absorb all the detectable sound. I've been in a less extreme version of this room and for the first time in my life heard the blood pumping around my head.

Alex 10:55
You really have to appreciate the dedication of Pascal and Kingston to get into the mind of john cage. As an avant garde artist with an uncommon interest in mushrooms, there's a lot to unpack psychologically, let alone artistically, kh was a pioneer in non standard use of musical instruments. And while he claims his myco philia did not intersect with his music, the symbolism and the attitude that underpin many of his works like the 433 parallel is non standard affinity to fungi.

Kingston 11:27
I think that for a lot of people, mycology and fungi as it's a liminality like it's a liminal life form in the sense that it come from decomposition, obviously, but of course, it's a life form in a way. And I think for a lot of people, it's sort of you mentioned this uncomfortability and I think that's because people see the sort of threads to mortality and mortality is slightly the borders between those two worlds, if you will, is somewhat permeable to fungi. And that if you were to get to the uncomfortability is because it's it's a threshold of death and I think cage kind of maybe recognize parts of that resume and ego boundaries and life and so forth. There's also twined up in this

Alex 12:04
liminality any breaks the rules a lot if you ask any mycologist fungi just break every rule in the book, right and and I think as a mycologist he was seeing they're breaking the rules. Why does a piano have to be like a piano? Why can't I put things in the strings and change the rules, but just like fungi, er, there's a story of him listing 24 names of white sport Agaricus and he listed them in alphabetical order. What the story behind that

Pascale 12:36
that was on the

Kingston 12:38
Italian television program and the sort of late 50s was

Unknown Speaker 12:42
bad bad pronounces. laughs So era

Lera 12:45
via lunch when

Kingston 12:46
the base translates to the equivalent double or nothing. Yeah, or lose everything, win, win or lose everything. Yeah. And it was this television show. It's quite interesting. The format, basically, they would invite on experts in various fields. And john was invited on as the mycology expert. And the the premise of the show was each week you would answer a series of questions with the opportunity to either double your winnings or move to the next week's show or lose everything, if you answered him correctly. And so the host asks, contested john cage, you know, can you name the 25 varieties of American whitewater gags whatever. 3043 and he says, Yes, I can then alphabetically would you down successfully, he wins the money, you know, the kind of golden you know, the ceiling opens and, you know, trumpet and whatnot. And he took the money. We bought a Volkswagen bus and piano for his starting point.

Lera 13:43
Yeah, he bought it.

Pascale 13:44
So his his partner Merce Cunningham, they were together for what is it five decades. And so Merced is a very well known choreographer and dancer and needed a tour bus. And so yeah, he used the kind of funky obsession to fund an artist's lifestyle. And that's also kind of part of the beauty of it. So there's also this kind of community aspect to a lot of his approach.

Kingston 14:14
But something interesting about that moment on television is that he, john cage insisted on being an amateur mycologist right. And yet to kind of achieve stardom with clearly which with the knowledge, which is not, if not amateur, is certainly extremely well developed.

Pascale 14:30
There's a website kind of devoted to his Italian kind of adventures, especially to, to to this show and the person that kind of it's, it's a very elaborate blog, I suppose he keeps updating it with these articles and so forth. And I think it's done caged up, it is very easy to find. But basically, there's all this photography that this person has been searching for this whole time here.

Kingston 14:55
So the newspaper appeared on television,

Pascale 14:58
the original film Have that isn't archived, and in a way that has been found as a whole. And so a lot of people have been on this quest. So there's this like subculture of looking for, for cages time on origins for

Unknown Speaker 15:14

Pascale 15:15
thing. It's a whole you can really descend into universes with, with this and with the book I personally tried to stay on on the side of kind of organizing archival materials and keeping a perspective on the different, you know, artworks and writings that we were bringing in. But one thing we haven't really mentioned was his, his diaries and indeterminacy stories and all these kinds of extra excerpts that we bring in and sort of bring back this, this idea that he gave things ago and would write these little, these little pieces in various forms about many things, including mushrooms. So that's kind of how people got these little, these little snippets of his interest. And then having been on that game show, he kind of really showed a broader interest in it and a capacity to share Latin names.

Alex 16:09
So now for a little treat, we're going to read a segment from indeterminacy, a collection of stories that consisted of, quote, things that happened that stuck in my mind,

Lera 16:20
music and mushrooms to words next to one another and many dictionaries. Where did he write the Threepenny Opera. Now he's buried below the grass at the foot of the high tour. Once the season changes from summer to fall, given sufficient rain, or just the mysterious deadness that's in the earth, mushrooms grow they're carrying on, I am sure, his business of working with sounds that we have no ears to hear the music the sports shoot off from the city of Munich obliges us to busy ourselves microphonic Lee,

Pascale 16:52
at the beginning of our research, we ended up meeting with his script, scribe scribe, um, who had been immersed in the world of mushrooms because he was working so closely with with cage and cage you know, as one of the founding members of the this kind of second iteration of the New York mycological society that came from at came to life in the 1960s ski founded it with a dear friend and also an artist but a visual artist named Lois long with whom he did a couple of artists book explorations as well, including mushroom book which is in in our volume, and he was experiencing foraging and having outings and travels and all these things with different musicians to really paraphrase the way that Laura coonan described it, it's like it's this thing that he was interested in and they'd be on a tour bus and he'd run out and go get the mushrooms but obviously if you were with him, you were going to eat them and experience that love and that enthusiasm, but the consumer side of things where you have the pleasure of being fed things that have you know, the, the the wild Herbes and the mushrooms that somebody is gathered for you. The john

Alex 18:00
cage psychological foray consists of three major parts. The first is a collection of essays and excerpts by an about john cage. The second part of the volume is a full transcript of his performance mushrooms at very Sean's a performance piece based on Latin names for a variety of mushrooms.

Lera 18:18
The third part the second book is called mushroom book, and it is a complete reproduction of the mushroom book by john cage and Lewis long, it features handwritten notes and life size to stunningly beautiful lithographs. This segment was a collaboration with the botanist and illustrator Alexander Smith. And there are so many hidden messages and unexpected elements of this part. You have to turn the pages in ways you wouldn't expect. The don'ts are hard to read and they're aged and scribbled over and faded. Kingston commented that one might say the tactility of exploring the mushroom book parallels a true myco logical foray. And finally, there's

Alex 18:55
a fourth supplemental element called every mushroom is a good mushroom, a collection of artists postcards, which is unbelievably beautiful. We don't want to give away too much. But we have to shout out the Norwegian artists sisal toe loss who made a scented Amanita postcard. She's a chemist and a scent artist.

Lera 19:18
So it says please touch the card service to activate the smell.

Alex 19:26
Well, that is super fungal.

Lera 19:30
It smells fresh and wet. Very much like an Amanita

Alex 19:33
does you know Santa Claus actually keeps this bad boy in his wallet if he forgets his mushrooms at home? Yeah, we need we need Scratch and sniff stickers with all the different species so the awesome or a an ID book Exactly. Every every different mushroom in ID book. You can you can see.

Lera 19:52
Yeah, it'd be very weird with a taste sample to be the best thing.

Unknown Speaker 19:57
Yeah, I

Unknown Speaker 19:57
love it. I love chew a little bit. And there's

Lera 20:00
a texture for portions here. Yeah,

Unknown Speaker 20:03

Alex 20:05
All right, y'all final question. The entire show was kind of about this. But to wrap it up, I asked if john cage could speak for the mushrooms. What would he say?

Kingston 20:16
I think if I could be so bold, I think that john cage would the machines would say, and john cage would probably agree that one of the most enormous pleasures about mushrooms and mycology is they're kind of esoteric in accessibility, they are this mysterious entity there. There's threshold between life and death, the threshold between maternal mortality there there's kind of bizarre moment space of permeability between known and unknown worlds between lives themselves and ego and non ego, whatever else. And I think he would champion preserving that esoteric nature in the sense that I think he would feel that pursuing mushrooms and all their pleasures is wonderful, but he would want you to know them, but not to know them in their entirety that he would like they're kind of a mystery, the mystery and the capacity is just as much of a pleasure as pursuing their clarity.

Lera 21:14
That was beautifully said.

Alex 21:19
As an aspiring musician, when I was younger, I learned all about john cage in music theory class and was totally inspired by his avant garde approach to what music can be, and even musical instruments and just reframing our current narratives of music and the instruments that we play better yet now with mycology experience under my belt this weaves a whole other symphonic lens on the world around us. Our mission with this podcast was to bridge the gap between You are beautiful listeners and the wonderful and more importantly, boldly wacky world of fungi. I believe john cage does a beautiful job opening those curtains.

Lera 22:02
And if you would like to experience a john cage psychological foray for yourself by going to add to the year links in the show notes for that

Alex 22:10
you can support the show and keep content like this coming by visiting our website mushroom revival, calm and purchasing any of our functional mushroom products for health and wellness podcast listeners get a special discount for 10% off just enter em our podcast, all capital letters again that's m r podcast at checkout.

Lera 22:31
It would mean the world to us we want to keep giving you weekly reports on all things fungi and using the coupon code helps us track our listener support and will ensure that the mushroom revival podcast continues

Alex 22:42
Forever. And as always, much love and may the spores be with you.

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Alex Dorr is the founder and CEO of Mushroom Revival. He launched Mushroom Revival with a mission to revive health with the power of mushrooms.

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