John Cage and the Music of Mushrooms

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Often I go into the woods thinking, after all these years, I ought finally to be bored with fungi,’ the avant garde musician John Cage wrote in his diary in the late 70s, ‘But coming upon just any mushroom in good condition, I lose my mind all over again.’

Those already out obsessively searching for porcini as the mushroom season begins, will know exactly what he was talking about. Cage ‘lost his mind’ over mushrooms early on in life – during the Great Depression he had nothing to eat and began foraging in the woods around his home in Carmel in California. ‘I knew that mushrooms were edible and that some of them are deadly,’ he later recalled. ‘So I picked one of the mushrooms and went in the public library and satisfied myself that it was not deadly, that it was edible. And I ate it and nothing else for a week.’

By the 50s Cage  had become almost as much celebrated for his knowledge of funghi as he was for his music – perhaps even more so, since even after the launch of his most notorious work, 4’33” performed at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, in 1952, he was still having to supplement his income by supplying mushrooms to several New York restaurants, including the Four Seasons. Prospective diners  were blissfully ignorant that he had once nearly killed himself and six other supper guests with a dish of poisonous hellebores having mistaken them for skunk cabbage. “Hellebore has pleated leaves, skunk cabbage does not” he noted afterwards.

By then, he had moved to an artists’ commune in rural New York State  where he began  conducting mushroom hunts, studying funghi identification, collecting different species and had been appointed vice-chairman of the eastern region of the People-to-People Committee on Funghi, a community programme created by the Eisenhower administration to educate people on the benefits of foraging for food.

Mushrooms and music seemed to have some strange symbiosis for Cage. In 1954, he wrote an article, The Music Lovers’ Field Companion, musing that  ‘I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom,’ For him, it seems, the experience of finding mushrooms, often hidden under grass or leaf matter, was similar to the experience of hearing quiet sounds that are typically eclipsed by the more demanding noise of crying babies or fire engines.

His passion for mushrooms is explored in John Cage: A Mycological Foray, an intriguing art book illustrated with photographs of Cage foraging; diary entries, notebooks and a selection of his collection of fungi-related ephemera – postcards, collages and guidebooks on the identification of mushroom species. He became adept at cooking mushrooms as well, inventing, amongst other recipes, a thick mushroom version of catsup that he called dogsup which takes a year to mature and Morels a la John Cage, a recipe requiring a bottle of champagne and a large quantity of cream.

John Cage’s Mushroom Dogsup
This can be done with any kind of edible mushroom and must be kept at least a year before being used

Ginger root
Bay leaf
Black pepper

Break the mushroom caps in small bits; slice the stem. Place in an earthenware jar with 1 tablespoon of salt for each pound of mushrooms. Let stand in a cool place for 3 days, stirring and mashing several times a day. On the third day, put over a low fire, in an enamel or Pyrex pan, until the juices flow freely. This takes about ½ hour. At that moment, a “catsup” is strained through a sieve; the ‘dogsup’ is just mashed. Simmer for 20 more minutes. Measure the mash, add to each half pint: 1 ounce ginger root, chopped or grated; a blade of mace; a bay leaf, broken up; a pinch of cayenne; 1 ounce each of black pepper and allspice. Boil down to half the quantity. Add, for each half pint, a teaspoon of the best brandy. Bottle, cork, and seal.

Morels à la John Cage
A bottle of flat champagne is the origin of this dish: John Cage suggested serving it either as an entrée with croutons, or with veau en cocotte with dill and fresh noodles. He explained: ‘In the States, morels grow plentifully in the Midwest, but we also find a few around New York. They need sand, apple trees, and seem to like to be around farmhouses. You can never eat enough morels, so the quantity you give each person depends on what you have hunted.’

For 1 pound mushrooms:
1/3 cup sweet butter
½ cup champagne
½ cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper

There is much sand in morels and they must be carefully cleaned with soft paper and a fruit knife.

Place the mushrooms and butter in a baking dish, cook in a moderate oven (350°–375° F) for 20 minutes. Add champagne and continue cooking for a quarter of an hour. Season, cover with cream, and put back in the oven until the cream is bubbling.

John Cage: A Mycological Foray is published by Atelier Editions (