The great American composer John Cage wanted his music to be an exploration of sound (and silence) rather than a means of expression. To negate the usual subjectivity of composition, he used chance operations. This resulted in beautiful, strange pieces such as Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, exuberant events such as MusicCircus, and the most radical piece of the twentieth century, 4’33’’, for piano, in which the pianist is instructed to open the piano and then not play it. The audience is therefore obliged (and encouraged) to listen to the random sounds that happen to be in the room, or come from outside – air conditioning, coughing, bird song, aeroplanes.
This is either pretentious nonsense, or a kind of genius, depending on your viewpoint. When Cage visited Italy in 1962, the Italian public were generally in the pretentious nonsense camp, but they loved Cage when he appeared on the game show Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Quits), answering questions on mushrooms. Cage was a brilliant contestant, and won the top prize of $10,000, which he used to buy a van for his partner Merce Cunningham’s dance company.
Cage said: ‘I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.’ What fascinated him about wild mushrooms was their elusive quality, the result of a complex web of chance events. Hunting mushrooms, for him, required a particular kind of attention: attention to the here and now of the encounter, in all its contingencies and surprises. This quality he tried to achieve in his music.
In her book The Mushroom At The End Of The World, Anna Tsing describes the pine forests of Oregon, and the complex process by which the matsutake mushrooms from these forests end up in Japan, where they are so highly prized for their ‘autumn aroma’ (which to a Western nose is pretty bloody odd) that they have become the most valuable mushrooms in the world.
At the turn of the twentieth century, these Oregon forests consisted exclusively of ponderosa pines, enormously tall and ramrod straight, grown to supply a massively successful logging industry. Fires were proscribed, which allowed a different kind of pine to thrive underneath the ponderosas: the smaller lodgepole. The lodgepoles eventually replaced the ponderosas, creating a scruffy forest considerably less good for logging, but very hospitable to matsutake.
For the lodgepoles and the matsutake have a thriving symbiotic relationship. Matsutake, like other mushrooms, are the fruiting bodies of fungi. These fungi spread out into fans and tangle into cords in the soil. In order to break down their food into nutrients, they excrete digestive acids outside their bodies. They siphon off some of the tree’s carbohydrates, but at the same time they make the nutrients of their extracellular digestion available to the tree. Trees get calcium, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and other minerals from fungi. Forests only exist because of fungi.
At about the same time, the 1970s, as the lodgepoles were taking over the Oregon forests, and matsutake were making an appearance, the domestic Japanese production was dwindling as some pine forests were converted to cedar and cypress, and others were destroyed by an invasive nematode worm. But Japan was in the middle of an economic boom, and matsutake were in demand as status-enhancing gifts. The price of Japanese matsutake skyrocketed. It became obvious that there was an export opportunity for the Oregon version, even though, mostly for reasons of snobbery and tradition, it was not as valued as the domestic version.
Tsing describes the picking of the Oregon matsutake by a diverse foraging crew of outsiders: Laotian, Mien, Hmong, Camobodian and Japanese immigrants, Native Americans, Latinos, hippies, Vietnam vets. You don’t look for the mushrooms, because good mushrooms are underground. They move the ground slightly as they grow, and you’re looking for the evidence of that subtle movement, not so much a bump as a heave. You mustn’t go too fast, but you have to be on high alert, to search with all your senses. You’re looking for life lines. For example, candy cane takes sugars from matsutake to make chlorophyll for itself, so you’re looking out for traces of candy cane which could lead you to the mushrooms.
The matsutake make their way to Japan by a bizarrely complex supply chain: pickers to independent buyers to bulkers’ field agents to bulkers to exporters who sell and ship, at last, to importers in Japan. Even then it’s not over: from importers to government-licensed wholesalers to intermediate wholesalers, who act like art dealers, matching the matsutake to the buyers. The matsutake, strange fruit, emerge from their hiding places to become trophies for the pickers, are sold and sold and sold on as commodities, and finally become gifts.
Tsing’s thesis is that this trade, the result of finding value in the ruins of a failed capitalist venture – Oregon logging – is a pointer to the possibilities of making the best of capitalism’s damaged landscapes. Matsutake, mysterious, elusive, impossible to cultivate, become a surprisingly reliable instrument of collaborative survival.
Cage struggled to find a good translation of a haiku by Basho: ‘matsutake ya shiranu ki no ha no hebari tsuku’, classically translated as: ‘Matsutake; and on it stuck the leaf of some unknown tree.’ The composer Toru Takemitsu suggested: ‘Mushroom does not know that leaf is sticking to it.’ Cage went away, came back with: ‘That that’s unknown brings mushroom and leaf together.’ He knew it was too heavy-handed. Finally he came up with: ‘What mushroom? What leaf?’
Words by Orlando Gough