"Music and mushrooms: two words
next to one another in many dictionaries"

John Cage - A Year from Monday, p. 34

Compositie met champignons
(Composing with mushrooms)

december 19, 2010.

The Anarchy of Silence, is the title of an exhibition dedicated to John Cage's work and its impact on contemporary art. It was originally put together for the MACBA in Barcelona (October 23rd, 2009 - January 10th, 2010), from where it moved on to the Henie Onstad Art Centre in Høvikodden (February 25th - May 30th, 2010). schunckcage The exhibition had its third and final installment (September 4th, 2010 - November 28th, 2010) in the southern Dutch town of Heerlen, in the Glaspaleis (Glass Palace), built in 1935 as a fashion house and department store, Modehuis Schunck. As part of the Cage months in Heerlen, Schunck issued an open call for projects and works inspired by Cage, to be realized in and around Schunck during the months of the expo. Among the 'lucky winners' was Jan - J.K. - Harsman, which, as some of you will know, is a moniker that I use, especially for writing fiction (in Dutch or in English).
Jan Harsman's proposal involved three keywords that are central to John Cage's work and biography: music, mushrooms and chance.
It was thus that in the early afternoon of the 10th of November I found myself in Schunck's cellar, sawing, screwing and gluing a large wooden tray.


I then took the tray from all the way down to all the way up, to the fifth floor. That's where you find Schunck's restaurant, which - very appropriately - is called Restaurant 5.0. For it was the case that the mushrooms in Harsman's proposal had caught the special attention of taste artist Jeffrey Kuckelkorn, 5.0's chef and Schunck's food curator. I could not have wished for a better place for the 'Composing with Mushrooms' to happen.

Across the tray I stretched 4 groups of five black woolen threads, in such a way that, seen from above, they were like staves, and the whole thing looked like a big empty sheet of music paper.

The tray was placed at the entrance of Restaurant 5.0. I made it wobbly, by putting it on pieces of foam rubber, one in each of its corners.

schuncc age

Now here is what happened: from November 10th onwards, visitors of the Schunck restaurant could throw mushrooms into the tray, and wiggle the tray in order to distribute them over the 'music paper'. The mushrooms then, of course, are the notes, that could be added or removed by adding or removing mushrooms from the tray, and distributed by shaking the tray, until one had enough, or was pleased with the result. Or one could just leave it all up to chance. It looked a bit like a sjoelbak, a friend rightly observed. I had asked for a webcam to be installed, which regularly would take a picture of the current 'mushroom constellation' and upload it to a webpage. For some reason or another, though, that did not come about. But Jeffrey and others at Schunck regularly took pictures of the mushroom scores.

mushroom score mushroom score
mushroom score mushroom score

Like Cage used the star charts in the Atlas Eclipticalis 1950.0 of the Czech astronomer Antonín Becvár as a guide for the composition of his Atlas Eclipticalis (1961/62), I took all the photographs that I had received from Heerlen, and used these Restaurant 5.0 mushroom charts to score a 7'09" piece for 5 wind instruments: B flat clarinet, E flat clarinet, C trumpet, Trombone and C Tuba. I finished the score in somewhat more than two 16 hour days, between November 18th and November 20th. It had been quite a while since I last wrote a full & detailed score for a performance. And I absolutely loved it... For the writing I used musescore, a free WYSIWYG music notation program, that - at least for this task - totally lived up to its promises. I actually learned to use the software while writing the score, which worked like a charm.

Of course it would have been possible to devise a method that would have permitted a very precise translation of the pictures into a performance score. This, however, would have taken up far more than the time that was available. The piece was programmed for performance at November 28th, and obviously the musicians wanted to have access to the score way before that date. Therefore I let the mushroom pictures provide the broad framework for the piece, but took large degrees of freedom in filling in many of the details. It was precisely that which made working on the piece such an interesting experience... Here are images of four of the twenty pages of the 'musescore' for the piece, in 6 parts with time-signature 7/4:


You can see, and download/print the full score via this link.

Mushroom Music (Compositie met champignons) was performed at the Restaurant 5.0, on the evening of the grand final of the Cage exhibition at Schunck's in Heerlen, Saturday November 28th.

The southern parts of the Netherlands, and especially the villages, have a long-standing tradition of harmonieorkesten, the community bands. Jeffrey suggested we'd ask musicians from such Limburg community bands to perform Compositie met champignons. That, I thought, was a most excellent idea. It then was Charlotte Wetzels, who herself plays the clarinet in such a community band, who took it upon her to get an ad hoc ensemble together for the evening. Modulo transposition of some of the parts, a baritone for a tuba and a B flat clarinet for a trumpet, she succeeded indeed, and on a very short notice.

The five fine musicians that on Saturday November 28th made their way to Schunck in Heerlen were very courageous indeed. For theirs was not an easy task at all.

Here are some photo's I took during their rehearsal of the piece at Schunck's, a mere hour or so before the performance.


From left to right there are Arjan Kaubo on trombone, Charlotte Wetzels on B flat clarinet, Mariëlle Wetzelaer on E flat clarinet, Ludo Bloemen on B flat clarinet and Manon Smeets on baritone. They play in community bands from the Limburg communities of Bleijerheide and Vijlen.

The performance took place in Restaurant 5.0 around 20h, amidst all those that had chosen to wine and dine while overlooking Heerlen roof tops and its city lights that Saturday evening. Harsman's Mushroom Music very much fitted this scenery. Given the complexity of some of its parts and the but little preparation, it was quite understandable that the execution was not without flaws. But the feet tapping to keep up with the 7/4, the shimmer of sweaty beads on the players' foreheads, the concentration, the asynchronies, hesitations, the occasional swivels and flutters and the almost hit notes, gave this performance of Mushroom Music at times the Porthsmouthian charm that I - secretly - had hoped for.


So, applause bitte, for these brave musicians and their music! Many thanks are due to Schunck's curator food Jeffrey Kuckelkorn and music curator Ad Maarschalkerweerd, for making Compositie met champignons possible. Special thanks to Charlotte Wetzels for getting the musicians together.

As music should continue to sound, I will be on the outlook for other occasions to have Jan Harsman's Mushroom Music performed. If you're in an ensemble yourself and would like to try this, contact me. And, as said, I enjoyed writing this music too much to just leave it at this. More scores to come next year(s).

tags: John Cage, Heerlen, mushrooms

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