Magazine article The New Yorker

Mushroom Noises

Magazine article The New Yorker

Mushroom Noises

Article excerpt

As the sun descended over Hoboken one recent evening, Paul Sadowski, a sixty-year-old music publisher, and Emily Harris, a thirty-five-year-old Queens-based artist, sat on a wall along the Manhattan shore of the Hudson, peering at Sadowski's iPad. Both are members of the New York Mycological Society, and they were examining a list of places within the five boroughs where other members had found mushrooms.

"A stinkhorn came up near here," Sadowski, who looks like a white-haired Paul Giamatti, said. He was referring to Phallus rubicundus, an almost embarrassingly phallic-looking mushroom, which was not seen in New York until a decade ago but is now found wherever there are concrete planters. "The feeling is that it arrived in shipments of wood chips."

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the New York Mycological Society. It also happens to be the centenary of the birth of one of its founders, the composer John Cage--famous for his use of sounds derived from tin cans, automobile-brake drums, and flowerpots, and for his works incorporating silence. To celebrate, the Mycological Society is throwing a gala, "Roaming Urban Soundscapes," in Cage's honor at Cooper Union's Great Hall. The event, which begins this weekend, will include readings and displays on such mushroom-related subjects as psychoactivity and poisoning. Its centerpiece will be the performance of a seldom heard work of Cage's, "49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs for Performer(s) or Listener(s) or Record Maker(s)."

"49 Waltzes" was commissioned by Rolling Stone, in 1977, to commemorate the magazine's move from San Francisco to New York. It appeared in the magazine only as a piece of visual art: forty-nine multicolored triangles superimposed on a Hagstrom map of New York City. The triangles represented a cryptic score. They were a set of instructions for collecting random ambient sound at a hundred and forty-seven locations, which were organized into groups of three to make the forty-nine "waltzes."

Cage didn't specify how the sounds for "49 Waltzes" should be collected, but he was a lifelong mushroom hunter, so for this week's performance the Mycological Society decided to record sound wherever its members had found mushrooms. "The idea was to use the fruiting of mushrooms as the randomizing conceit," Sadowski said. …

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