Not only could Cage prepare a piano, he could also whip up a mean fungal ragout.
While penning some of the 20th century’s most notable avant-garde works, American composer John Cage harboured a deep-seated love of mushrooms. His interest began in the early 1950s when living in an artists’ commune in rural New York State. Taking long walks in the surrounding forests, he was amazed at the sudden appearance of mushroom growths dotting the forest floor. Documenting the characteristics of each variety, his keen observations paved the way for a long-held obsession for collecting and studying field fungi.
Upon his return to New York City, Cage wasted little time in founding the New York Mycological Society and began holding regular mushroom hunts and identification days around the city’s parks and nature reserves. Quickly making a name for himself as an avid expert and collector, it wasn’t long before news of his mushroom obsession reached Europe. In 1959, while visiting composer Luciano Berio in Milan, Cage was selected to take part in the well-known Italian game show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing), for which he chose mushrooms as his specialty subject.
Across a week-long stint on the show, Cage answered a multitude of mushroom-themed questions, while premiering works including Sound of Venice and Water Works. Although Italian audiences received Cage’s compositions with lukewarm enthusiasm, the composer’s consummate knowledge of mushrooms proved undeniable and he went on to win the game-show’s top prize of $10,000. No video footage of Cage on Lascia o Raddoppia has survived, however there does exist an audio tape in which the final episode’s dialogue between Cage and host Mike Bongiorno has been transcribed, including the mushroom Q&A as well as a good-humoured exchange where Bongiorno encourages Cage to spend more time in Italy without his music. Returning to New York, Cage used his prize money to buy a new piano along with a Volkswagen Microbus to aid his partner Merce Cunningham’s fledgling dance company.
Throughout the 1960s, Cage’s love of mushrooms only intensified and he began regularly supplying New York restaurants with choice pickings from his mushroom hunts. Indeed, such was the continued significance of mushrooms in the composer’s life that he even credited them as inspiring several of his later musical compositions. Writing in 1975 he declared: “I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.”