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The Mushroom Whisperer

In 1980 Václav Hálek heard a mushroom sing. Since then, the 70-year-old has been obsessively listening to them and transcribing their music into theatrical scores for symphonic orchestras.

It was 1980 when Václav Hálek first heard a mushroom sing. Since then, the 70-year-old has been obsessively listening to them and transcribing their music into theatrical scores for symphonic orchestras. He currently has about 5,000 mushroom songs, and every day he adds at least one new entry—if it’s the mushroom season, that is. I respect him because the possibility of a mushroom singing fills me with humility and wonder.


DOWNLOAD: Václav Hálek Symphony VICE: How come you can hear mushrooms?
Václav Hálek: In the late 70s I started travelling with a mycologist [a specialist in the study of fungi] in Prague to photograph and document wild mushrooms. One day, we found this one mushroom called the zvoneček sadní and he asked me to take a look through the lens at it. When I did, I heard this music, like a whole symphony orchestra. It started with strings piccicato, then a flute.

Did you freak out?
No, I ran for the manuscript paper and wrote down everything I heard. I knew I’d found something very unique. Later that day we found another mushroom. It was a houževnatec, and again the music began. It gave me a vision of the neverending cosmos, like you can see in the deep space pictures taken by the Hubble telescope. When I got back home, I realized that I wanted to compose a whole symphony about people, the cosmos, nature, and wild mushrooms. So I did. I'm not certain I actually understand the connection between mushrooms and your compositions. Do you actually think mushrooms are concious, singing entities?
They have the same sort of capacity for non-verbal communication as, say, flowers or animals or trees.

Oh, right.
Whenever I connect with a mushroom I always have essentially the same two feelings. The first is that the mushroom is pleased that I have noticed it and then it wants to show me what it is and why it is in this world. Then a composition arises. Sometimes I give them a wink when I hear the music.


Do different species of mushrooms speak to you in different languages?
No, no. But I have noticed unusual things several times. When I have musicalized a group, three or four specimens for example, I tend to have a feeling that they are moving around together. Like they are dancing, almost as if they were at a ball. But do different types of mushroom play different melodies?
Yes, it's subtle, but because I have been composing like this for 20 years I know their songs and I can hear the traits of certain types. So the mushrooms have different racial traits?
That I don't know. I see it differently. Each type certainly has its own specific mission, but each type also has its own specific secret, for there is nothing on this Earth without a secret. So whenever I write, I have touched that secret in a way. How many compositions have you actually put together up?
Well, I’ve got almost 2,000 mushroom types done right now. Some have about 20 compositions, some only one. Let’s take the lepista saeva, it’s got more than 60 songs, because it keeps on growing even if no other mushroom does. Overall, I have about 4,500 songs for the violin, 200 for viola, 200 for violoncello, and then there are a lot of duets. And people don’t laugh at you?
No, not at all. Mostly they just come over to tell me that my music makes them very calm.

This year you recorded a song for the pope, right? Was this some kind of holy message from the mushrooms to the pope?
No it wasn’t. These were compositions based on the pope’s voice. I’m still not sure if he's ever heard them, but a friend of mine, a bishop, promised that he’d pass it on to him. If I were the Pope, I'd want to hear a duet between me and some mushrooms. When is the best time to compose?
Early morning. See, I can’t really sleep that well any more, so I wake up and start praying. Then I pull out some mushroom that I’ve found and I start praying even harder, out of gratitude. I think that if a person is capable of showing gratitude then it's more likely that they are capable of being astonished by something. That's what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to recreate that first feeling of wonder and astonishment. Like when a little boy sees the ocean for the first time. It feels like a revelation. And now I’m trying to find revelation through my art. Every time I compose it’s like a tiny revelation from God.