All Things Cage: John Cage reads "Mushrooms et Variationes"
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Hosted by Laura Kuhn, Executive Director of the John Cage Trust.
Mushrooms et variationes was written by John Cage in the fall of 1983. As he describes it in the introduction to its first publication in The guests go in to supper (Burning Books, 1986) and in his introduction to that which we’ll hear tonight, Cage had been invited by Ray Kass to Mountain Lake, Virginia to conduct a mushroom foray with “real” mycologists, Orson K. Miller, Jr. and his wife Hope H. Miller, referring to himself as “just an amateur.” This text, like Cage’s Themes and Variations written the previous year and published by Station Hill Press, takes the form of a “renga,” a Japanese poetic form traditionally written by a group of poets, who, as he puts it, “finding themselves of an evening together and having nothing better to do,” compose a piece. “Successive lines are written by different poets, each of whom tries to make his line as distant in possible meanings from the preceding line as he can take it.” Instead of using the names of persons of import in his life, as was his customary process, Cage used the Latin names of twelve mushrooms to serve as the strings for each of his mesostics, hence the partially Latin title of his piece, Mushrooms et variationes.
The text is to be read aloud, with timings given in the right margins. Stanzas are to be recited within a single breath. More time is given to mesostics on the name Craterellus cornucopioides than to the others because the lettrist events in them, as you’ll hear, are to be vocalized or pronounced using Sprechstimme.
The guests go in to supper was edited by Melody Sumner, Kathleen Burch, and Michael Sumner, and it includes writings by John Cage, Robert Ashley, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Charles Amirkhanian, Michael Peppe, and Kenneth Atchley, each of whom is (or was) a composer who used words as an integral part of their compositions. Each chapter includes a text in the form of a libretto or lyrics, often with complete score, but also included are interviews with each composer about their ideas on music, daily life, consciousness, the future, and possibilities. The guests go in to supper was designated by the NEA in 1987 as one of the "best independent press books of the year."
Mushrooms et variationes was republished in 2020 in John Cage: A Mycological Foray, a slipcase two-volume set put out by Atelier Éditions developed in close collaboration with the John Cage Trust. Its editors were Pascale Georgiev and Kingston Trinder, who also contributed a lengthy essay. This book has also received critical acclaim and has been extremely well received by mushroom and John Cage enthusiasts the world over. The guests go in to supper is long out of print, but John Cage: A Mycological Foray is readily available in a recent second printing. The piece as we’ll hear it is from an archival recording, read by Cage with a brief introduction, and it runs just shy of 87 minutes. We’ll listen tonight to as much as we can in our allotted time, roughly the first hour.
"All Things Cage" is a weekly program featuring conversations between Laura Kuhn, Director of the John Cage Trust, and Cage experts and enthusiasts from around the world. If you’d like to propose a guest or a topic for a future program, write directly to Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’d love to hear from you.
The late Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman once described his Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (Knopf, 2012) as the hardest book he’d ever written. This was because, as he put it, pick up any rock and there’s John Cage! Indeed, Cage was not only a world-renowned composer, numbering among his compositions the still notoriously tacet 4’33”, but a ground-breaking poet, a philosopher, a chess master who studied with Marcel Duchamp, a macrobiotic chef, a devotee of Zen Buddhism, a prolific visual artist, and an avid and pioneering mycologist. He was also life partner to the celebrated American choreographer, Merce Cunningham, for nearly half a century, and thus well known in the world of modern dance.
No wonder, then, that nearly everyone who encounters the man or his life’s work has something interesting to say about John Cage!
Photograph of John Cage ©John Fago, Courtesy of the Other Minds Archive.