Bard hosts second annual John Cage Mycology Weekend

Color lithograph by Lois Long from Mushroom Book, Plate VIII (1972), 22 1/2 x 15, Edition 51/75 (© John Cage Trust at Bard College)

Besides being among the most revolutionary of 20th-century classical composers, John Cage was also an avid amateur mycologist. His interest in mushrooms was literally born out of hunger during the Depression, when he would take the specimens he’d foraged near his home in Carmel, California to the local library to see if they were edible. He spent much of the rest of his life collecting and studying fungi, even supplying upscale New York restaurants such as the Four Seasons with mushrooms he gathered in the local (reachable by subway) wild.

In 1959, Cage taught a course on mushroom identification at the New School; some of the Fluxus artists were among his students. Some of that group, under Cage’s leadership, founded the New York Mycological Society. On a European trip that same year, Cage somehow ended up a contestant on a notoriously difficult Italian game show and picked mushrooms as his topic of special expertise. By being able to rattle off the names of 24 species of white-spored Agaricus, he won the top prize of five million lire (then about $10,000). With his winnings he bought a new piano for himself and a Volkswagen bus for the dance company just being started by his artistic collaborator and Significant Other, Merce Cunningham.

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It was through Cunningham’s role as executor of the composer’s estate that much of his archives ended up at Bard College as the John Cage Trust. (His Mushroom Book, a 1972 collaboration with mycologist Alexander H. Smith and artist Lois Long, is now in the hands of the Museum of Modern Art, and his fungi collection at the University of California at Santa Cruz.) But Cage had plenty of other connections to the Hudson Valley, including the Woodstock premiere of his most notorious composition, 4’ 33”, and a long residence at Stony Point in Rockland County. The Mid-Hudson Mycology Association, our local affiliate of the New York Mycological Society, keeps Cage’s mycophilic legacy alive by naming its annual conference the John Cage Mycology Weekend.

This year’s gathering is happening at Bard College on October 19 and 20. Saturday’s schedule includes a Morning Mushroom Foray at 9:30 a.m. at Montgomery Place, led by David and Susan Rose and Tim Graham. There will be a catered picnic lunch at noon, and a sociable mushroom identification session beginning at 1 p.m. A more formal symposium takes place at Bard Hall on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The presentations include Mary Bereschka and Lia Friedman on “Hyphal Connections & Fruiting Bodies: Lessons from the Fungal Queendom,” David Rose on “The Mushrooms of Violetta White Delafield,” Seth Chrisman on “Mutualism and (De)Composition,” Kathie Hodge on “Seeing Fungi” and former club president John Michelotti on “Medicinal Mushrooms: Healing the Planet and People.”

E-mail Emily Martin at emartin@johncage.org for more details about this gathering.

John Cage Mycology Weekend, Saturday/Sunday, Oct. 19/20, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, emartin@johncage.org