Music Lover’s Field Companion

After twenty years of picking mushrooms, I tell myself that I’ll probably get bored looking for others. But each year, when I go back into the woods in Spring or Summer, I find new ones. It’s as exciting as the first time!

– John Cage, For the Birds, 1981

I am currently amending my thesis, which means I am going through a lot of texts, books and essays, and am happily once again closely reading John Cage’s wonderful essay Music Lover’s Field Companion. This is one of my very favourite essays ever written by Cage. Contrary, mischievious and playful, it is also a somewhat subversive text, which gently undermines the experimental music scene of Cage’s era and suggests that sometimes the musician or the composer is better off wandering in the forests or sitting quietly at home than going to electronic music concerts. In Music Lover’s Field Companion Cage asks why it is that we so massively value the designated precincts of MUSIC when in fact concerts of sound are happening all around us, wherever we are. As well as being a influential composer, John Cage was a keen mycologist, and for the purposes of his essay, he takes the forest as his preferred site of sound, and explores the idea of enjoying “his silent piece” during his many wanderings there, looking for mushrooms.

I agree with Cage that no matter how many times you go looking for mushrooms, it’s always amazing when you find one that you recognise at once. It is even more pleasing when you taste it and it tastes good, and your tongue doesn’t swell up or anything and you think to yourself that you probably have found a real Chicken of the Woods.

Chicken of the Woods – as its name suggests – prefers woodland to other kinds of environment, and so it is no surprise that we found it in a forest. The New Forest, to be specific… one of my favourite places to be in, and the last stretch of the Walk2012 route in need of clarification for Mark’s project planning purposes!

The New Forest is an incredible place and I love walking there. I love walking there because the trees soak up the sounds of traffic and you can walk for hours, with only the soughing of wind in the leaves above your head as a soundtrack to your conversation.

I love walking there because you hear so may different birds in the trees around you as you walk.

And I love walking there because in walking in The New Forest, you get to spend many hours in the company of the wild ponies which graze in the vast, unenclosed pastures which stretch between the many stands of trees.

Wild Ponies are completely unlike any other kind of animal we’ve encountered whilst out walking. They do not startle like the deer who also populate the forests, and they are not nervy like the cows. I love their rough coats which have not been polished or rubbed, and watching their herd behaviour. I have never seen a foal feeding from its Mare before, but in The New Forest, we saw this and other equine ways, and we became quite enamoured by the grace and power of these magnificent beasts.

I love the quietness of wild ponies; the feeling of being not so much watched as regarded by them, and the way in which they seem to materialise out of the shrubby heathlands which their rough, brown coats so closely resemble. I also love the noises of the ponies; their soft snorting, the incredible pounding of the earth which occurs when a big group of them move at speed across the land, and the deep, resonant power of their majestic neighs. When horses neigh in stables, it always sounds slightly nervous or panicked. But out in the open acres of The New Forest, it can seem variously to be an exuberant greeting, an assertion, an admonishment, a warning, or a roar.

I love to hear the wild ponies roaring.

There are quieter treats to be found, too… chance encounters with flowers.

…a diversion to a pub garden where chaffinches and sparrows are cleaning up the crumbs from lunches eaten out in the garden, at the picnic tables…

…and the delightful conversations that one can share whilst out walking, with one’s sweetheart.

…all of which are sonic enchantments which Cage would, I am sure, have enjoyed.

However THE RAIN which came early on Sunday morning and which continued all day soaking us to our skins and our pants and soaking pretty much everything we owned made me very happy that I did not have my sound-recording equipment with me to capture those sounds! Too, I have no evidence of the incredible spectacle of the rain, because I thought better of trying to take photographs in the deluge with Ned’s wondrous SLR.

But it was lovely to be in The New Forest on Saturday, and the horses, the rivers, the flowers and the trees shall all be glad of the rain – as am I – now that we’re no longer out walking in it, and now that I am returned to my desk and my writing.

Mark’s post about our walk is here, and can I just say that it totally made my day to see Chris Watson sharing his sounds on Springwatch Unsprung today? We chanced on the programme completely by accident and I loved all the discussions, the answering of letters, the stoat footage, and Watson’s discussion of the sounds of Orcas, underwater insect noises and the mating call of the male Cod. I was also gladdened to hear Chris Packham bigging up the sounds and exclaiming on how much more we can understand about the world we live in when we listen to it; this life – as John Cage put it – “which we are living, which is so excellent.”

That’s an academic position I can agree with.

4 Responses to Music Lover’s Field Companion

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Archive » Wareham to Wimborne

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