Melodies of the mushrooms

SUN JOURNAL

Composer: In the Czech Republic, a man devotes his life to writing down the music he hears in forest fungi.

January 15, 2004|By Katka Krosnar | Katka Krosnar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic - Deep in the Klanovice forest just outside Prague in the heart of mushroom-mad Slavic Europe, Vaclav Halek stands above a small cluster of mushrooms, pen poised over a sheet of music paper.

Within seconds he is scribbling musical notes, stopping only to chuckle delightedly, his hand waving in the air as if conducting an orchestra. Ten minutes later he has completed a musical score, one he insists he hears from the Tubaria hiemalis below.

Half a mile along, it's the same again as Halek gently clears leaves from around his chosen specimen, stands back and calmly waits. This time, however, a single tiny Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca inspires a more serious composition.

It's this process that mushroom-devotee Halek, 66, has repeated for the past 20 years in forests around the Czech Republic, insisting that he has a special gift that allows him to tune in to the fungi and pick up their musical signals.

Slavs are well-known for their passion for mushrooms, usually expressed in hunting and eating them. So perhaps a mushroom composer is met with less skepticism here than he would be in parts of the world where wild mushrooms are considered more forbidding than lyrical.

"Each type of mushroom has a different melody; it's their way of expressing themselves. At first the music starts gently but then it grows stronger," he explains, smiling broadly.

Swinging his large basket containing a mushroom encyclopedia over one arm and clutching his pen and paper, Halek slowly makes his way through the forest. As he pauses and stands still above the cluster of mushrooms, lost in concentration, he attracts bemused stares from passers-by.

So far, says Halek, a composer by profession, he has documented the melodies of 1,700 different types of wild mushroom across the country.

Back in his Prague apartment, Halek sits down at his grand piano and immediately bashes out the melodies he has just composed in the forest. The first tune, "a wonderful, completely jokey piece of music," suitable for the violin; the second "a melody about enjoying freedom but knowing that it will end soon" for the flute.

His passion for mushrooms began as a young child when his parents and grandmother took him mushroom-picking in the forests in and around Prague. It wasn't until 1980 that he stumbled upon what he calls his gift.

"A microbiologist friend of mine took me on a field trip to photograph and document mushrooms. He asked me to look through the lens at a Tarzetta cupularis to see if everything was properly set up, and as I did so, suddenly I heard music as if a whole symphony orchestra was playing.

"At first I just couldn't understand what was happening, but then I realized it was the mushroom making the noise," he recalls. Halek rushed for musical paper, noted what he heard and hasn't looked back since.

His efforts over the past two decades have culminated in the publication of more than 40 of the compositions in a new hardback book, the Musical Atlas of Mushrooms, complete with color photographs, musical score and introduction on each type featured, as well as an accompanying CD.

One of the mushrooms featured, the Boletus junquilles, is so rare that Halek has seen it only once; the Boletus spinari hlav, only recently discovered, is so new that it has not yet been registered internationally.

As well as recording the individual melodies, Halek has composed two symphonies combining music from various fungi.

"One musician plays some of my work during his concerts, but the audience don't realize they are listening to music that was inspired by mushrooms and I'm not sure what they would think if they did know," he says.

Wild mushroom picking is one of the most popular pastimes in the country, a tradition stretching back many generations, but unlike most of his countrymen, Halek, a gentle and likable man, prefers not to take the samples home. He listens to them instead of eating them and says he has no particular favorite mushroom or melody.

"The great thing is that they are all different," he says.

Still, his talent is not limited to fungi. He has also written compositions based on the harmonies he says he hears from trees and flowers and also from people's voices.

"I once wrote a melody based on the harmonies I heard in a former Finnish president's speech shown on television. When I was invited to play it at the Finnish embassy in Prague, the ambassador asked me if I had ever been to Finland. When I replied that I hadn't, he told me that the music sounded just like traditional folk songs from the region where the politician was born," he recalls.

A free-lance composer all his working life, Halek was shunned by the communist regime when it came to awarding work because he was an openly practicing Catholic and, unlike most Czechs, wasn't afraid to attend church services, where he played the organ. In recent years he has written scores for two successful Czech and Slovak movies.

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