words + playlist: Zoë Madonna
SHUFFLE is back, cats and kittens! I’ve been moving house and hilariously busy at my day job, but I’m finally mostly settled in. Time to take on the first card in the Major Arcana that consistently gives me trouble: the Emperor.
For the first year or so of my Tarot practice, I was never really sure how to connect with this card. For many practitioners, this and the Hierophant (the next card) are cards of The Patriarchy. But the Emperor, like every card, has a lot of lessons to teach us, and I didn’t want to completely write it off.
The Emperor represents form, structure, and discipline. Laws are the domain of the Emperor, as is putting a stable presence into the world. There’s a lot of sexist BS that’s easy to associate with the Emperor - the Emperors get to be the knowledgeable and disciplined rulers, the Empresses the nurturers? Don’t think so. Let’s try something different.
My first instrument was the piano. I stuck with it for years. My second was the violin. I gave it up after two because I thought my teacher was mean.
Try this with me. Sing a note, any note. Now slide your voice upwards, and downwards. Pitch isn’t a series, it’s a spectrum. Stringed instruments can slide through that spectrum. Wind instruments can do it. But most keyboard instruments can’t. They have to stay on the staircase of pitches that the keys provide them..
Ever heard a third grader practicing the violin? Compare that with a third grader practicing the piano. Little Zoe at the piano hit some keys that weren’t in her piece, but the wrong notes she could hit were limited to the notes that come out when she pressed the keys. And there’s a reason that those keys on the piano sound at the points along the pitch spectrum that they are; it’s so the piano can play in any key without sounding dissonant with itself. If you’re interested in learning more about the particulars of this, the writer Jan Swafford (who has written one of the most engaging intro to classical music books I’ve ever read) has an article for you over at Slate.
The ratio of 2 to 1 is perfect. If you sound a note, then sound that same note exactly an octave higher, that higher note will be vibrating exactly twice as quickly as the lower. But the in-betweens get a little messier. A circle of mathematically perfect fifths (ratio: 3 to 2) won’t come back around to the same pitch. So we invented tuning systems to compensate. Those tuning systems are human inventions, not invented by the laws of the universe. Under the equal tuning system (dividing the octave into 12 equal steps) that most Western instruments use, there are no mathematically perfect intervals except the octave.
I play mostly accordion these days, and in my band, I’m the only instrument that can’t tune myself, so everyone has to tune to me and my tuning system. We can’t play around with widening or narrowing intervals between notes, because my instrument can’t do that. The cellist, the guitarist, and the whistle player have to stay on my staircase.
If the Empress’s sound is the full range of the human voice; the Emperor’s sound is a piano. Playing within the piano’s tuning system allows instruments to more easily work together, in some ways. But it also eliminates so much spontaneity and possibility. A whole world of options opens up, and at the same time, entire universes close off. It gets rid of opportunities to make certain mistakes, but also eliminates the richness that can ensue from exploring those mistakes. Working within a form often means compromise.
So here is a playlist of music for keyboard, in many forms. Some organ from the Doors, synthesizers from King Crimson, and piano from Fiona Apple.
Something exciting for me: I get to put on my classical music hat for this one! I chose a piece by Bach, whose music always seems to be organized and structured as if ruled by some divine law. A movement of the “Emperor” piano concerto by Beethoven, because how could I not, and because this piece is one of those that I play for friends who want to get into classical music. A fiery polonaise by Chopin, Debussy’s spaced-out “The Sunken Cathedral,” and a tender movement of a sonata by Clara Schumann.
Because The Patriarchy is awful, and most of the music in the classical repertoire that’s commonly performed and recorded is by dead white men (that’s four out of five here), I chose recordings by some of my favorite female pianists. If you like them, look them up.