John Cage: I see no link between music and mushrooms

From a review of a new book on Cage’s passion for mycology.

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.” 

Read on here.


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  • His “music” has no link with anything. In any other field, he’d been arrested for fraud. All that academic blather B.S. alone can convict.

  • This does not come as a surprise. When you eat a certain type of mushroom, any relationship dissolves in a happy nothingness.

  • There is a strong link between John Cage and mushrooms.
    There is no apparent link between mushrooms and classical music.
    There is an apparent link between mushrooms and certain other kinds of music.
    There is no link between John Cage and music.

  • From a Cagean perspective, a cactus is more useable as sound-producing means than a mushroom. Squeezing a microphone on a cactus produces a Cagean sound. As far as I know he did not perform on mushrooms in that way.

  • What’s really interesting is his saying he is not interested in the relationships between “sounds and other sounds.”
    I’d read the article in the NYT, but hadn’t picked that up.
    It’s also how Merce composed dances, with movements that were determined by chance, therefore with no transition between gesture and the next — sometimes very difficult to execute.

    • Difficult, maybe, but very beautiful.

      Cage’s “music,” on the other hand, was just an intellectual exercise — probably from a mushroomed brain.

  • John Cage’s most famous work, 4′33″, was originally envisioned to be performed in an outdoor rustic theatre where the exquisite sounds of nature would take sway, following the pathway of his hero, Henry David Thoreau, who heard music in the elemental aural art of nature, this being another term for God, also echoed by Ravi Shankar: “I hear music in the waves, the breeze, the rain and even in the rustle of the leaves.”

    • There is a difference between the sounds of nature and their transformation into music. Composers like Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler and Debussy let themselves be inspired by what Ravi Shankar said, expressing the experience of hearing nature sounds, transforming them into art. Very different from lazy cranks.

      • What John Cage was really getting at was the elemental conditions allowing not only creative pursuits such as music composition, but life itself. We take our planet for granted, not respecting how fragile it truly is, and must be wiser about this so that quality of life moving forward improves and doesn’t get worse. Cage was also saying he was dissatisfied with the state of music composition, and wished to wipe the blackboard clean and begin again. And this is essentially what the minimalists did, though I feel they generally went too far in the opposite direction from the opposing cliff of serialism, which is understandable given the extremes of what they were escaping from.

        • If someone wants to say meaningful things about life, she/he should do so. If someone wants to be a composer, she/he should have musical talent and work on them. These are different things.

          Wiping the blackboard clean because of dissatisfaction with the state of music composition, is a very primitive idea – is there really nothing in the existing musical art which could be useful? Hundreds of years of sophistication? Only in a silly juvenile ignorant head such an idea can bubble-up and then be taken seriously. Much better to focus on mushrooms.

          • “If someone wants to say meaningful things about life, she/he should do so. If someone wants to be a composer, she/he should have musical talent and work on them. These are different things.” This is incorrect. There is no separation between music and life for great composers and musicians. Dissatisfaction with the state of music composition came from having American jazz supersede Western classical music expressively, intellectually, spiritually, and technically roughly between the time of early Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, while Indian classical music did the same, coming to our attention in the West largely through Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, and The Doors. And rock and pop did the same, too, beginning around the time of the Beatles. The expression “wiping the blackboard clean”, while obviously not intended to mean dismissing past influences from Western classical music masters, does recognize the truth of recalibrating what is real in music for those not interested in copying styles of the past.

          • Real music is always a personal treatment of existing material, combining things in unexpected ways. And then, entertainment music has nothing to do with what happens in art music, because it is entertainment. Delete distinctions, and you end up with mushrooms and Cage.

          • Woefully ignorant and intellectually impoverished how you denigrate American jazz, Indian classical music, and the finest rock and pop, especially when you have little to no apparent knowledge and experience with these forms created by African Americans (the primary improvisers of jazz with notable exceptions); Jewish Americans (the primary composers and lyricists of the songs used for improvisation in jazz standards from the Swing and Modern periods also with notable exceptions); South Asians (representing the unparalleled artistic colossus of Indian classical music); and again the central influence of African Americans and other Americans upon rock and pop mixing with British influences. As previously stated, American jazz, Indian classical music, and various forms of rock and pop, superseded Western classical music of the time in terms of artistic invention and substance, an opinion shared by myriad others who actually value substance over all other considerations, and your feeble attempt to dismiss the essential contributions of this cumulative cultural genius as “entertainment” rather than “true music” and “art” is based upon an unfortunately narrow musical awareness. Would be willing to help introduce you to these musical forms in a beneficial manner, not enjoying at all the contentious tone that has arisen while originally attempting to defend John Cage among a sea of what I believed to be misdirected ridicule. In any event, thank you for a spirited debate spanning continents that has even led to new insights regarding Cage, who was a remarkably kind and generous person. From time to time while passing by close to his teenage home adjacent to Eagle Rock, I park near that rugged craftsman structure with bracing mountain views, get out of my car, and reflect for a few moments upon his origins and contributions, which for myself are mostly philosophical while being essentially germane in a catalytical sense to the extraordinarily varied, surprising, and ongoing evolution of music on earth.

          • I know, it’s all quite difficult to understand. And there is so much of it. And the idea that there exists something like a distinction between high art and low art, is indeed deeply offensive, and can only be explained by bigotry and grave mental limitations… If I love jazz, it must be high art, I could not possibly love something that is mere entertainment. Etc. etc…. I know, the confusions of the world and especially of the field of culture can be quite disruptive, if there is no awareness of cultural value. For the untrained mind, culture is a dangerous abyss.

            A couple of points which may help a beginning:

            Indian classical music is not entertainment but religious ritual. While fundamentally different from Western classical music, it is closer to it than to entertainment, because it is serious and spiritual.

            Jazz is entertainment, in spite of certain forms which aspire to serious art, that is only a small part. There is nothing wrong with entertainment if it moves within the restrictions of the law.

            There is nothing against entertainment music, but we expect something more from art music, which is supposed to cover so many more types of inner experience.

            The ignorant trope that the idea of high art is meant to exclude people and to lay down a very limited idea for others so that they will feel inferior, is one of the signs of an entirely misunderstood democracy. It is the cancer of the egalitarian view of society, which destroys all life in the cultural field, all achievement, all attempts to raise above the farm animal level where hatred of the mind runs amok. It is trumpian populism, and can never contribute something of value to any discussion about culture.

          • You would be first to agree that “primitive” ideas are not necessarily bad ideas, just like “progressive” ideas are not necessarily good ideas.

      • I believe what Henry David Thoreau, John Cage, and Ravi Shankar were all saying in agreement, at different times in history, is that there is no human music surpassing the glorious sounds of nature, another word for God, these being fantastically beautiful, mysterious, and utterly authentic at once. Thus, the sounds John calculated to emerge at the outdoor theater for his 4′ 33” would be at least as beautiful as any human music if not more so, not to mention that most of us are extremely discriminating in our musical tastes, preferring not hearing most human music. Personally, the most amazing music I’ve heard in Los Angeles are the ever-changing utterances of mockingbirds, mostly at night, their melodic, timbral and rhythmic invention being simply astounding (and putting to shame any attempts to emulate them musically). It is enormously arrogant to assume human music is superior to the sounds of nature. I will agree the two are DIFFERENT, and probably impossible to compare. After the premiere of 4′ 33”, my sense is that Cage expanded his original thought to include sounds divorced from nature, though humans and their machines and such making inadvertent sounds are linked, of course; this subsequent refocus suggesting we climb off the merry-go-round of convention to reexamine what we are doing musically done to the bare bones. Like a chess grandmaster with an innovative move in a familiar opening like the Sicilian Defense, or an actual new opening like the Larson Opening, John Cage’s MUSIC move was profoundly SIMPLE and confounding at once even many years after it was first unveiled. And there really is no way to checkmate him since he aligned himself with nature, this again being another word for God whether he used that term himself or not, suspecting the latter.

      • The whole thing is nonsense, of course, and is exploited by nitwits for the use of nitwits. It’s like conceptual art.

        • Lucrative nonsense. The estate of J.C. sues any composer using any appreciably long silent passage in a work as plagiarism.

      • Lots of hours, in fact. First of all, one must prepare for the right mindset, find the appropriate setting, select an enlightened crowd, read several commentaries on the work’s profundity, etc. Compared to 4’33” Liszt Transcendental Etudes, Paganini Caprices, Strauss tone poems or Mahler symphonies — all absolute pieces of cake, as well as put to shame musically.

    • Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Falla, Scriabine, Szymanowski, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Martinu, Britten, were all very much alive and kicking post 1900.

        • Hard to believe, actually. I’ve always found most of Boulez’s output incredibly boring, especially the vocal works. I don’t mind Eclats/Multiples and Messagesquisse. Still, it will never reach the heights of Strauss’s music.

          • Because PB wrote sound art, which restricts itself to pure acoustic patternmaking. It is therefore mostly decorative. In comparison with music, quite poor indeed. But some sound art has great beauty – as sound patterns – as can be heard in the works of Morton Feldman:


          • I agree. I also feel it is music that comes strictly from the intellect, and in this sense soulless. It may be well crafted, but it just doesn’t speak to people, whereas Strauss clearly does and always will. It’s almost as if any sort of emotion had been expunged from it. For most tonal composers, it’s almost unthinkable to remove emotion out of the equation of the very fact of being a composer. Only a fugue or a contrapuntal piece might achieve similar results, but even then it’s still a challenge. Even the Art of Fugue or the Musical Offering still convey some emotion, although admittedly not on the same level as a Bach cantata.

          • True – the Art of Fugue has its dull parts, but the best parts are still aiming at an emotional response, which is to the curves of the melodic lines and the interplay of the tonal relationships and that is different from the pattern making in sonic art. The lines of Bach counterpoint are expressive curves in themselves, as Debussy already pointed out – D’s interest was in the expressive qualities of the ‘arabesque’, as also can be heard in Palestrina and Lassus.

          • Yes, I believe the point is that these tonal relationships, no matter how dry, still appeal to our sense of intelligibility, whereas this sense is no longer in play when listening to most atonal music, so that we find ourselves somehow unable to fully make sense of it. It would be a little bit like certain natural objects, such as snowflakes, beehives, or a nautilus shell, which despite being “natural” are in fact regulated by an astonishing order, to such a degree that “beauty” seems to be inscribed in their very being, as opposed to an external quality that would need to be created artificially. I personally believe there is something of the same order, almost “natural,” in a similar sense, in tonality.

          • I think all that is just very true. What humans call ‘beauty’ and ‘order’, is simply part of nature.

            Our mind developed as part of general, natural evolution, so it is normal that the order which can be seen in how nature is structured, is also part of our being, both physically and mentally/emotionally. We recognize something as beautiful and ordered because that also lives in us, it relates us to the world. And can be found in all the different art forms, if they are really good.

            The American architect Steven Semes calls this the holistic nature of human perception:


  • Could someone compose a piano sonata based on the 4 note motif C-A-G-E? It should end with a fugue based on the notes B-(R)-(I)-C-(K).

    • I love it! Nothing is so calming and reassuring as words finally emptied of meaning, it’s so tiring to have to deal with words all the time, they mean this and that, sometimes even more than one thing in the same time, how can one keep pace with all of that? With all the miscommunication between people all the time? Look at the news! And with email writing and filing and contracts and stuff??! Drives me crazy. So: take a seat with Cage and get your head empty, nothing is so satisfying as nothingness. If everybody would just sit down and do what Cage does, there would finally be peace in the world!


  • Nice article in The Guardian today (Sunday, 23 Aug.)on a young man whose passion is the scientific study of mushrooms, and how it all began for him.

  • Please do me a favor – I mean this seriously. Please listen to John Cage’s “Dream” as arranged for an ensemble of violas by the wonderful violist Karen Philllips (on the old Finnadar LP she played all the parts overdubbed).

    The original is for piano. Anyone who could write this beautifully was a real musician and sensitive artist.

    • This is a very minor, undeveloped little piece, like a student exercise, and written in 1948, so before Cage began on his ‘avantgarde’ route. Obviously, he saw no possibility to further develop his musical ideas. Whatever charm the little thing may have is due to the instrumental sound of the violas.

      • There’s actually some good works. Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (I recommend Yuji Takahashi’s version) is quite good. A little piece for piano called “In a Landscape” is almost Satie-like and quite beautiful. The problem is that an overwhelming majority of his output is sheer charlatanism. I wonder if most of his work might just be a product of opportunism and whether he realized he might remain in obscurity unless he created this charismatic persona and pulled these publicity stunts. Of course, this was also the time when the media became more and more prevalent in people’s lives, and in any other time in history he would have remained in total obscurity. He truly is a product of what Guy Debord appropriately named the “Society of the Spectacle” and succeeded in giving his persona a cultish quality attracting many gullible people in need of adulation and sycophancy. In a sense, he is a perfect paradigm for Stanley Milgram’s experiments on human obedience, where only a tiny minority dare truly speak their mind and not follow the norm. Yet, to take him seriously as a composer is a true insult to the many composers throughout history who sadly remained in relative obscurity despite their incredible craft, especially starting around the 19th century. Neglected names such as Jean Cras, Egon Wellesz, Jean Huré, Federico Mompou, Wolf-Ferrari, André Caplet, Alphons Diepenbrock, Lili Boulanger, Jean Francaix, Germaine Tailleferre, Franz Schmidt, Jean-Louis Florentz (an immense composer, in my opinion) and just too many others to mention here who are worthy of being performed by the best players in the world, because their output truly deserves it. I’ve always thought a major orchestra in the world should take the initiative and dedicate an entire programming season of works by unknown and neglected composers — not a single Mahler, not a single Beethoven — only works unknown to the general public. This would truly open people’s eyes and ears; it would also be a true gesture of stewardship. There is so much music already written that sadly will never be enjoyed, because it somehow failed to attract the spotlight. Compared to such names, John Cage simply does not measure up as a composer — rather, he could be described as a charming media figure with an incredible cool factor, albeit with scarce musical value.

        • Perhaps Arnold Schoenberg put it best when he described his student, John Cage, as “an inventor of genius.” Characterizing John as a charlatan is misguided because you are evaluating him by irrelevant criteria, the salient features of his work passing over your head. For myself, the value of Cage has been mostly philosophical, recognizing his essential catalytic effect on the extraordinarily varied, surprising, and ongoing evolution of music on earth.

          • You continue to confuse philosophy and funny meaningless ideas with music. It seems that you have not quite realized what music is, like Cage.

            As philosophy, Cage was an amateur, had no idea of what philosophy is (as can be seen in his idea of Eastern thought, like his use of the I Ching).

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