Over the years, mushrooms and music have been closely connectedKalle Gustafsson

For about 50 years now, rock bands have claimed that mushrooms inspired their music. Usually they tell an anecdote in which they find a field near the recording studio, eat some of the mushrooms growing there, have a psychedelic trip and record the result, which eventually becomes one of their most popular songs. This trite anecdote is less interesting than the claims made by the Czech composer Václav Hálek, who said: “I record music that mushrooms sing to me.” In other words, Hálek recorded the music before he ate the mushrooms.

Like the rock bands, he found the mushrooms in the woods, but instead of eating them there he picked them, took them home, and listened to their music. Believing that each mushroom has a specific idea which is expressed in a melody, he carefully listened to the music coming from the mushroom and constantly checked his transcription to make sure it was right. He recorded his findings in a book called The Musical Atlas of Mushrooms: How Mushrooms Sing, which includes the scores of forty-two mushroom-inspired songs and a CD, and mushrooms inspired the melodies which make up his Second Symphony, called Mycocosmos, from the ancient Greek words for mushroom (μύκης) and order or universe (κόσμος).

Hálek wasn’t the only mushroom-manic composer of the twentieth century; the experimental composer John Cage had a huge fungi collection, won a mushroom quiz on Italian television, and revived the New York Mycological Society in the 1960s. Although he wrote poems about mushrooms, Cage was uninterested in exploring any musical potential they might have. In 1981 he told the New York Times: “I am not interested in the relationships between sounds and mushrooms any more than I am in those between sounds and other sounds.” This statement from Cage raises the question: does music develop on its own, or only as a result from something outside it?

This question caused a debate in the late nineteenth century between the followers of Wagner and the followers of Brahms. The Wagnerites believed that the fixed structures of classical music – such as the symphony and the sonata – had been worn out and henceforth music must develop along dramatic lines, either by following a text or something else extra-musical, while the Brahmsians argued the opposite. Concert programmes have muddled the controversy: Wagner’s “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde is now a famous example of “absolute” music (music which makes no reference to a text or programme) and is often performed as a standalone piece. John Cage took the idea of “absolute” music to its logical conclusion and produced a composition which has no reference to its composer: his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 2) is a composition for twelve radios all tuned to different frequencies so as to not be coordinated. About this piece he commented: “It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and “traditions” of the art. The sounds enter the time-space [...] centred within themselves, unimpeded by service to abstraction.”


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With Imaginary Landscape No. 4, Cage was trying to create music which did not depend on the intentions of the composer and its attendant musical tradition; however, it is this tradition which makes music out of sound and gives it meaning. Music is organised sound, and this organisation can carry meaning only in a culture which has given resonance and meaning to diatonic notes and triads over a period of many hundreds of years. Roger Scruton has argued that if a composer inserts something extra –such as a bird – in his composition, he intends it to be heard as uncomposed sound, as “a sound which enters the music from outside, rather than as an organic part of it.” The composer who wants to abandon all tradition will have to create an audience which hasn’t heard any music composed in the last half-millennium; he will be a loner on a desert island, hunting his food with sharpened sticks, warming himself with stones and prayers, mending his clothes with leaves and vines, and playing his compositions to mushrooms who do not sing along.

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