John Cage on music and mushrooms

“I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously, we looked at Maxine Hong Kingston’s dance with self-discipline.

John Cage (1912–1992)

Last week I learned of John Cage: A Mycological Foray, a new book from Atelier Editions that collects the experimental composer’s writings and findings about mushrooms. Though I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the two-volume monograph (it’s currently on backorder), reading about it prompted me to do some further digging into Cage’s hobbies and habits.

First, more on Cage’s history with fungi: As Max Pearl writes in Art in America, it began during the Great Depression, when Cage was a broke and hungry music student in California who would forage for mushrooms to supplement his meager diet. Later it became a hobby, as well as an unlikely source of income. Pearl writes:

In February 1959, John Cage appeared on the Italian television program “Lascia o Raddoppio” (Double or Nothing), a popular game show on which contestants had to answer obscure trivia questions about a subject of their choice: in Cage’s case, not music or art, but mushrooms. In the final round, he was asked to list the twenty-four white-spored agarics contained in the field guide Studies of American Fungi. Not only did Cage name all twenty-four correctly, he named them in alphabetical order, taking home a prize of five million lire (around eight thousand dollars). With the winnings, he purchased a Volkswagen bus for his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and a piano for his home in Stony Point, New York.

Once, at a party, Cage was overheard telling someone, “I compose music but mostly I’m a mushroom identifier.” In fact, the two activities weren’t necessarily separate. “You can stay with music while you’re hunting mushrooms,” Cage said in 1976. “It’s a curious idea perhaps, but a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it’s fresh it’s like coming across a sound which also lives a short time.”

“I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.” John Cage in Stony Point, New York, 1967. Photo (detail) by William Gedney via

Though mushroom hunting was one way Cage processed musical ideas, the more formative method was talk. In 1950, Cage befriended the fellow composer Morton Feldman, and the two began a daily dialogue that they carried on for years. Every evening they would meet at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village to chat with each other and with the network of artists who gathered at the nondescript tavern, which served 15-cent beers and one-dollar plates of spaghetti. “John and I would drop in at the Cedar Bar at six in the afternoon and talk with artist friends until three in the morning, when it closed,” Feldman later wrote. “I can say without exaggeration that we did this every day for five years of our lives.”

As for Cage’s actual composing work, that mostly occurred at home. (Cage grew up watching his inventor father work from home, a powerful influence: “I had the example every day of a person in the house inventing.”) Like so many artists, he spent more or less all his time working. “What do you do for leisure?” an interviewer asked him in 1982. “I don’t have any leisure,” Cage replied.

It’s not that I have my nose to the grindstone. I enjoy my work. Nothing entertains me more than to do it. That’s why I do it. So I have no need for entertainment. And my work is not really fatiguing, so that I don’t need to relax. Merce’s work is physically tiring, so he likes to look at television. But I don’t so much enjoy that.

In a 1988 interview, Cunningham said that Cage’s most marked characteristic was his laserlike focus. “John is someone who pays total attention to whatever he’s doing at the moment he’s doing it,” he said. “He has the uncanny ability to really concentrate, whether it’s playing with the cat, working with the computer or writing his music. He’s amazing, totally amazing!” (For his part, Cage attributed his energy to his adoption of a macrobiotic diet: “I always had a great deal of energy, but now it is extraordinary.”)

John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s loft in New York, photographed for the November 1988 issue of Architectural Digest

In another interview, Cage elaborated on his working method:

I take my work with me wherever I go, so that if I, for instance, have a doctor’s appointment I take it with me and use the time in the doctor’s office. I also work at home, of course, so I’m prepared to work at the drop of a hat. I learned to do that because of my long association with dancers, who in the course of rehearsals frequently leave gaps of time that can be filled up with one’s own work. I’ve made that a habit through the years; otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten all the things done that I have done. Even people who are not very familiar with my work generally comment on the volume of it.

Cage avoided lunch dates as overly interruptive: “I never particularly like to have lunch . . . because it breaks into the day, and you can’t get anything done!” But when his work was interrupted, he adopted a Zen attitude about it (appropriately, given that Cage was a longtime devotee of Zen Buddhism). He said in 1976:

I work a great deal and enjoy working, but life is so complicated—circumstances arise and we’re not always able to do the work we think is the proper work for us to do. It is precisely being able to accept those interruptions, to be able, temporarily, to let the work go and do the thing that comes and asks to be done.

This attitude seems particularly relevant now, when so many of us are struggling with how to do our work against a backdrop of omnipresent anxiety and indignation. For my own part, I resolve to adopt a more Cage-ian approach going forward: Rather than berating myself for not doing what I think I ought to (my usual approach), I aspire to do a better job attending to “the thing that comes and asks to be done.”

John Cage: A Mycological Foray is out now from Atelier Editions.


Having mentioned Morton Feldman above, I can’t resist unearthing a few of the composer’s choice quotes about the creative process:

My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical conditions that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.

Schoenberg once wrote in a letter that some days he gets up in the morning, and he can’t even do a simple little exercise. Composing is so difficult. To write something lousy is so difficult.

I work every day, more in terms of feeling that I have done a good day’s work. . . . By day’s work I don't mean, you know, seven hours, it could be any time. Sometimes a day’s work is waiting.

Morton Feldman in 1976



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