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Czech Republic: Fanfare For The Common Fungus -- Musician Makes Mushrooms His Muse

  • Jeremy Bransten

Vaclav Halek is one of the Czech Republic's leading modern composers. He is also an avid mushroom collector. How to reconcile the two passions? Simple. Halek sets mushrooms to music. Since composing his first symphony for fungi in 1981, Halek has written over 2,000 musical pieces, all inspired by mushrooms. For Halek, every walk in the woods turns into a concert.

Prague, 31 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There's an old proverb in Czech that says: "Every Czech is a musician" ("Co Cech, to muzikant").

It dates back to the time a century ago when the region gave birth to world-known composers like Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana.

While not every Czech today can tell their Martinu from their Janacek -- to name two other renowned native composers -- almost everyone knows their morels from their toadstools. For, like their other Central European neighbors, Czechs are avid mushroom gatherers. At this time of year the forests teem with weekend hunters, wicker baskets in hand, on the prowl for the slippery delicacies. Most of the fungi, once picked, end up unceremoniously in the evening's soup.

But for one man, mushrooms are far more than dinner. For composer Vaclav Halek, these forest fruits sing.

Halek could be called the ultimate Czech -- an avid mushroom collector and composer in one. But his talent also makes him unique. An example is Halek's short composition for the porcini mushroom (boletus edulis/Czech: hrib smrkovy).

The 66-year-old Halek has been gathering fungi all his life. But it wasn't until one day in 1981, with a distinguished career as a composer already well established, that the mushroom muse sang to Halek.

"I was on a field trip with Mr. Baier, who is a famous Czech mycologist," Halek said. "We were in the forest, in summer, and he was taking pictures of a particular mushroom type called [the tarzetta] (geopyxis catinus/Czech: zvonecek sadni). Just before he pressed the shutter he called me over and said: 'Come have a look and tell me if I've got the picture framed correctly,' And imagine, when I looked through the camera's viewfinder, at that very moment, I heard, clear as a bell...music."

Halek at first couldn't believe his ears. He stepped back for a minute, then looked through the viewfinder again. The forest was alive with music: "It was an entire orchestra. I heard the flute, the oboe, violins, the double bass, the cello, and so on. So I wrote down what I heard. And at that moment I knew I had discovered, or rather that I had been endowed with, a strange...gift."

Halek's fellow mushroom pickers, endowed with a more practical proclivity, were puzzled -- to say the least -- by his trance-like state and his hasty scribbling of musical notation. But Halek says he was experiencing a life-changing moment. The melodies of mushrooms have accompanied him ever since: "They thought I'd gone insane, because that's what it looked like! Because they didn't know, of course, what I was hearing. They couldn't know. When I came home I looked at what I'd written and discovered that I had a beautiful theme for a symphony, for a large orchestra and that it would make a perfect second movement, at the beginning. So I started composing. It's my second symphony and it carries the name: mykocosmic. Myko means mushrooms and the cosmos is the universe."

For the past two decades, Halek has set to music nearly every known mushroom that grows in Central Europe -- 2,600 compositions in all. His lyrical pieces have been featured in films, performed in concerts and most recently in a "Musical Atlas of Mushrooms" (Hudebni Atlas Hub), released earlier this year by the Czech Republic's Fontana publishing house. The book presents 42 mushroom types, photographed in loving detail, along with the music they inspired, printed in sheet music form and played on an accompanying CD. Just one example is Halek's composition for the variegated boletus (suillus variegatus/Czech: hrib strakos).

Unlike most mushroom-pickers, Halek finds sustenance -- of the spiritual kind, that is -- in both edible and poisonous varieties. Each kind produces its own melody. And as is sometimes the case with people, the most poisonous types mask their true nature with sweet music.

"It's the same," he said. "For instance, the death cap (amanita phalloides/Czech: muchomurka zelena) is a very pleasing mushroom even though it's extremely poisonous. I think it's just its natural quality. And it sounds the same as other mushrooms, even though it is really the most poisonous mushroom."

Another example is Halek's composition for the lethal Satan's boletus (boletus satanoides/Czech: hrib satanovity).

This year has been a particularly difficult one for mushroom pickers in Central Europe. As a result of an unusually hot and dry summer, the autumn's pickings have been slim. But Halek is still hunting, hoping Bohemia's forests will yield more uncatalogued varieties that he can set to music.

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