John Cage Remembers Alan Chadwick
John Cage (1912-1992) was a well-known musician, composer, innovative sound artist, and highly respected mycologist. During the sixties and seventies he achieved much notoriety for his avant guard musical explorations that avoided conventional notions of form, rhythm, and harmony.
Cage’s musical work was extensive and highly influential. I remember attending one of his “concerts,” performed at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in 1968. Being young and inexperienced, I had a hard time relating to his unconventional approach to music; since then I have developed a great appreciation for his style (see especially Ryoanji, below).
In addition to his musical work, John Cage had become an authority on mushrooms. His personal library on the subject was one of the most comprehensive in the world.
Cage’s lifelong obsession with mushrooms began during the Great Depression. Without sufficient money for food, the artist picked the mushrooms growing around his home in Carmel, California, and took one to the public library for further research. He discovered the fungi were edible, and ate them exclusively for about a week. In the early 1950s, Cage began foraging for mushrooms once again while living on an artist commune in rural New York State. Fascinated by their haphazard growth, the artist went on mushroom hunts, studied fungi identification, and even collected them. (The composer’s extensive fungi collection is now housed at the University of California, Santa Cruz.) (1)
Alan Chadwick was also an avid mushroom hunter and he was skilled at distinguishing the edible species from the poisonous varieties. From time to time he would lead us apprentices on mushroom foraging adventures when he knew that the season, the weather, and the moon were in the right configuration. I remember one brisk autumn day following him to a place he knew in the lower fields where hundreds of agaricus mushrooms had just come up early that morning or the night before. I personally filled a large basket (approx. one bushel) and the others who were with us filled their baskets as well. Alan showed us how to identify the deadly amanita, which lurks among the agaricus and looks a lot like it. His name for the edible agaricus was champignon. Apparently others call it simply meadow mushroom.
Cage was invited to a meeting at UCSC in 1968 to help design a meaningful curriculum for the developing Arts Department. While there, he visited with his friend and former colleague, Norman O. Brown, who was teaching at Cowell College. “Nobby” as Brown was called by his friends (from his initials N.O.B.), suggested that he meet Alan Chadwick. Paul Lee organized a mushroom hunt where the two could meet. Paul writes:
Cage’s mushroom stories were some of my favorites, so when he visited Santa Cruz I organized a mushroom hunt with Chadwick so he could meet the wizard and see him in action. Robert Duncan, the Bay Area poet of renown, accompanied us, as did a couple of Chadwick apprentices. It was a memorable day. Chadwick was in great form, gamboling across the pastures, jumping in the air and clicking his heels. Cage was charmed. (2)
When the diary of John Cage was published many years later, the following entry appeared in it:
CXXXIV. Chadwick, gardener at Santa Cruz.
Nobby’d said, “You must meet our wizard.” (Chadwick’s back, Nobby told me, had been injured in war, but when we went mushrooming with his student-helpers, Chadwick, half-naked, leapt and ran like a pony. Catching up with him, it was joy and poetry I heard him speak. But while I listened he noticed some distant goal across and down the fields and, shouting something I couldn’t understand because he’d already turned away, he was gone.) Students had defected from the university or had come especially from afar to work with him like slaves. They slept unsheltered in the woods. After the morning’s hunt with him and them, I thought: These people live; others haven’t even been born.
Chadwick described magnetic effect of moon on tides, on germination of seeds. “Moon inclining draws mushrooms out of Earth.” We talked of current disturbance of ecology, agreed man’s works no matter how great pygmy compared with those of nature. Nature, pressed, will respond with grand and shocking adjustment of creation. Out of ourselves with a little o, into ourselves with a big O. My mushroom books and pamphlets (over three hundred items) will go soon to Chadwick (gardener who knows how to hunt and who is surrounded by youth he’s inspired.) (3)
Mention here of Alan’s injured back refers to an incident that occurred during the Second World War. Another ship had broken loose and was being pushed by the tide onto the rocks. Alan was captain of a mine sweeper, and when he saw what was happening, ordered his crew to throw them a line. Against the fierce tide, Alan attempted to pull them away from danger. Unfortunately, the opposing tide was too strong, and the cable snapped. The recoil hit Alan on the bridge and knocked him overboard, fracturing his back in three places. This injury plagued him for the rest of his life. Usually he was fine, but from time to time, always unexpectedly, it would flare up and he would writhe in agony for several minutes until the episode passed.
As a result of the favorable impression that Chadwick made on him, John Cage determined to donate his famous collection of mycology books to UCSC but with specific instructions that they were to be housed in Alan’s garden chalet.
Cage declared that his experience on the UC Santa Cruz campus was one of the most wonderful days of his life. Further, Cage was so overwhelmed by this land experiment and the campus that he vowed to donate his mushroom materials to the campus and in particular to Chadwick and his garden chalet that was in the process of being built.
Although Watts and Brown were an important impetus for Cage’s and Cunningham’s visit to UC Santa Cruz in 1968, it was the innovation of Chadwick and his students who inspired Cage to donate his mushroom collection to the university. (4)
Although John Cage had stipulated that his book collection should be housed at the garden chalet, this condition was not honored. These valuable books were (and still are) held in the library, many of them under conditions of highly restricted access in direct conflict with the terms of the gift.
An interesting note is that David Arora, “widely noted as the ‘high priest of mycology’ in international circles of mycophiliacs” (5), himself a former student at UCSC, used the Cage book collection intensively in his early training in mycology. Arora also corresponded with John Cage on the subject of gaining access to his collection and was able to mediate a working compromise between the library and Cage regarding the accessibility of the books.
“There are two things that don't have to mean anything, one is music and the other is laughter” --Immanuel Kant, quoted by John Cage
“Everything we do is Music.” - John Cage.
The following are audio reproductions of the musical work of John Cage available on the internet. (Copy and paste the URL into a new browser window to listen):
John Cage -- Ryoanji
John Cage – Dream (1948)
John Cage -- Sonata V (from Sonatas and Interludes)
John Cage -- Sonatas n. 1, 2, 3, 5 for prepared piano
John Cage -- Living Room Music
John Cage performing “Water Walk”
John Cage -- Comments on a haiku poem about a matsutake mushroom.
A Documentary about John Cage
1. Sarah Gottesman, Why Experimental Artist John Cage Was Obsessed with Mushrooms, January 3, 2017, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-experimental-artist-john-cage-obsessed-mushrooms
2. Paul A. Lee, There is a Garden in the Mind: A memoir of Alan Chadwick and the Organic Movement in California, 37.
3. From: Cage, John. “Diary, How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1969 (Part V).” In M: Writings ‘62––’72, 70. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1974. The selection here is quoted from Paul A. Lee, There is a Garden in the Mind, see above (2).
4. Joseph Finkel, Project at UCSC Library, https://scalar.usc.edu/works/john-cages-mycology-collection/ethnography-of-the-collection-1.
5. Field Guides and Fungus Lore, Foraging in Special Collections, UCSC Library, https://silo.tips/download/field-guides-fungus-lore-foraging-in-special-collections
Contributed by Greg Haynes, February 2022