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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

10. John Cage's
Mushroom Music


Most of us know Cage's 4' 33" - I for one have heard it so often that I reach for the off-switch as soon as it is announced! - but how many are aware of an equally radical work written in the same year - Mushroom Music for prepared piano? In this fascinating piece, Cage brings together the many strands of his eclectic character: musician, philosopher, prepared piano-player and mycologist. He even includes a quotation from 4' 33", albeit a brief 20-second extract. But it is particularly the fungal side of his personality that surfaces here, and it is no exaggeration to say that the piece is completely determined by the dictates of mushrooms. If ever there was a 'green piece', this is it!

In characteristic fashion, Cage leaves most of the composition to the performer. There is no score as such, simply half an A4 sheet of DIY instructions, from which I quote the salient points:

  1. Go out into the fields and woods and choose yourself a mushroom.
  2. Bring it back to your kitchen, into which you have previously moved your piano.
  3. Place the mushroom on a chopping-board and detach cap from stalk.
  4. Count the gills under the cap - or in the case of a boletus, the holes. The number of these will determine the number of bars in the piece.
  5. Next, measure the length of the stalk in centimetres. This will determine the metre of the piece. If the number is divisible by three, then it will be triple time; if by two, duple. (If both, then the choice is up to you.)
  6. All other parameters of the music are left to the performer.
  7. Finally, prepare the mushroom for cooking in your oven over a low heat (Gas Mark 1/Electricity 100°C).
  8. As soon as the mushroom starts to cook, begin playing.

The 'performance' should end, according to the composer, with the pianist eating the cooked mushroom. However, a word of warning: make sure that you have an identification book with you when you gather your mushroom. The world première of Mushroom Music almost ended in disaster owing to the fact that the pianist, David Tudor, had inadvertently chosen a Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) for his 'performance'. Fortunately, after a period in intense care, he made a complete recovery. It is significant, though, that he refused to accept the dedication of the piece and has never tried to play it since.


Copyright © 27 January 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


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