John Cage’s contributions as an artist cover an incredible range: he was a pioneer of percussion music, the inventor of prepared piano, a radical experimenter with chance, indeterminacy and graphic notation, a challenging and fascinating writer and a visual artist who produced watercolors and prints. He was also an avid mushroom hunter and student of Zen Buddhism. In the spirit of the sort of “purposeless play” Cage celebrated with his characteristic mix of good humor and deep seriousness, I pay homage with three Japanese haiku about mushrooms.
The large first movement is a setting of a haiku by Matsue Basho, which Cage discussed in a lecture in New York in 1972. Cage gives the Japanese original, an English translation, his Japanese friend’s preferred translation, and finally two witty and profound versions of his own. The second movement is a brief setting of a playful poem by Kobayashi Issa, and the final haiku by Den Sutejo is a reflection on time and death. The ensemble consists of double reeds and wood percussion instruments, which seemed like the perfect medium for mushroom songs—I imagine the listener, perhaps while hunting mushrooms, happens upon this woodland orchestra and eavesdrops on their strange concert.