Musical Cards

the magician 07 (gaian tarot)
The Magician (Gaian Tarot)
One of the things that strikes me as interesting is that we rely solely in our visual sense in order to read cards. We see something, something that sparks a memory, an idea, a keyword. We have, however, other senses that can also trigger ideas, feelings, memories. We have hearing, taste and smell and touch. In its way, each one of them is capable of transmitting information to us. Information that we can then use to build our understanding of the reality that surrounds us.

It would, then, be interesting to build a library of sounds, smells, tastes and feelings. Something that we could also use in relation with the cards and provide us with new approaches in the way we use them.

With this in mind, I set out to study how could we translate the cards into sounds, flavors and sensations. What aromas could one choose to represent the Temperance card? Maybe vanilla: something pleasant, but not that vibrant. Something that might let us clean our palates and face whatever’s coming next. Or how would the World card feel like? Maybe like an apotheosis, an orgasm. Everything is building up to it: this moment of completion. It’s now or never. Time to enjoy the fruits of our labor and move on to another story. Or perhaps you’re wondering how the Hanged Man would sound like. Maybe you’re hearing a sobbing, or perhaps, a call for help…

If you do want to go down this venue, the easiest way to start is with sounds. Amber Jayanti gave us, in her Tarot for Dummies book, a correspondence of musical scales with each of the Major Arcana:

Fool = E
Magician = E
High Priestess = G#
Empress = F#
Emperor = middle C
Hierophant = C#
Lovers = D
Chariot = D#
Strength = E
Hermit = F
Wheel of Fortune = A#
Justice = F#
Hanged Man = G#
Death = G
Temperance = G#
Devil = A
Tower = middle C
Star = A
Moon = B
Sun = D
Judgement = middle C
World = A

Even though she didn’t explain why she settled with this correspondence, she does tells us that she was taught this specific correspondence by Paul Foster Case, noted american occultist and tarotist.

However, it might prove more rewarding to start to look at musics and try to see which music or musics would trigger an image of each of the tarot cards. My first exercise was to start looking at musics not a particular set of sounds and lyrics, but as an approach to tarot. In a recent post, I’ve already mentioned how I envisioned Diamanda Galás music as appropriate to the Tower card. Now I would expand upon this, and try to connect each card to a particular music. More than trying to be objective, I was going to be subjective. To establish a personal set of sounds and musics and feels that I could also bring to the table when reading them. In time, I ended up creating a different play-list for each of the tarot cards, as I kept discovering new angles, new sounds, new musics that I could somehow relate to the cards. 

So, instead of bombarding you with all of these lists, I wanted to invite you to find a song for each of your card. Any music that you might connect with a particular card. As an example, here is one of my 22-Major Arcana tarot lists:

00 – THE FOOL: “A Fool for Love”, Sandy Rogers

01 – THE MAGICIAN: “It’s a Kind of Magic”, Queen

02 – THE HIGH PRIESTESS: “Long Black Veil”, Jonnhy Cash

03 – THE EMPRESS: “Ordena Que Te Ame”, Mundo Cão

04 – THE EMPEROR: “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands”, Nina Simone

05 – THE POPE: “Die Propheten”, Das Ich

06 – THE LOVERS: “I Never Talk to Strangers”, Tom Waits and Bette Midler

Oh, Que Será”, Chico Buarque and Omara Portuondo

07 – THE CHARIOT: “Go West”, Pet Shop Boys

08 – STRENGTH: “A Culpa É da Vontade”, Humanos

09 – THE HERMIT: “Lonely Can Be Sweet”, Ursula Rucker

10 – WHEEL OF FORTUNE: “Change”, Lou Reed

11 – JUSTICE: “The Trial”, Roger Waters (with Albert Finney, Tim Curry, Marianne Faithfull, Ute Lemper, Thomas Dolby, Rundfunk Orchestra & Choir) … and can you spot who is who?? 🙂

12 – THE HANGED MAN: “Dear God, Please Help Me”, Marianne Faithfull

13 – DEATH: “Death Is Not The End”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

14 – TEMPERANCE: “Amarcord Theme”, Nino Rota

15 – THE DEVIL: “I Put A Spell On You”, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

(or you might want to check this version by Diamanda Galás, which I find really puts a spin on things)

16 – THE TOWER: “Heaven Have Mercy”, Diamanda Galás

17 – THE STAR: “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”, Nina Simone

18 – THE MOON: “Fallen Down Moon”, The Walkabouts

19 – THE SUN: “Here Comes The Sun”, Nina Simone

20 – JUDGEMENT: “Angel Highbury”, Alan Moore and Tim Perkins

21 – THE WORLD: “Never Ending Story”, Liamahl

An Additional Degree of Freedom

Musical street art...

In music, you have someone, a composer, who writes a certain combination of sounds on paper. In this paper, he will also include information about tempo (the speed at which this combination has to be reproduced), rhythm (used to differentiate the strong and weak elements), how sounds and silence combine and an assorted number of information regarding how each sound should be played and its connection with the previous sound (or silence) and the next. When it is finished, he obtains something which can be seen as an instruction manual (for lack of a better expression) on how to reproduce this particular composition; this particular piece of work. He has written a music and he has left us the means to reproduce it, should we so desire.

But there is something interesting about music. No matter how detailed this instruction book is, everyone who addresses it and plays what is written, will play it in a different way. It is still recognizable, but there are subtle nuances that makes each iteration, each version different from all the others. This is particularly true with classical music, where there are hundreds of different versions from the favorite works of the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Debussy, Schummann, Haydn, Händel, Tchaikovsky, Mahler,  and countless others. More to the point, not only there exist countless recordings of the same work (a brief search on Amazon on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons gives back more than 10 000 results!!!!), but there are still people interested in recording their own version. To bring forth a new point of view, no matter how similar it might be to the already existing ones.

And if you’re wondering how can this be, the answer is quite simple. The composer, in his strict guidebook, which every musician knows should be followed very very closely, didn’t account for one thing and one thing only: how the reading and the consequent reproduction of the musical score is made. In other words, how the specific reality-tunnel of the musician (his likes and dislikes; his particular sensitivity, its physical proneness to execute what its written; his own feelings, …) shape the music into something familiar, but slightly different.

In Jazz, the musician has an additional degree of freedom when addressing a musical score: after the theme is played, which is to say, after the written score is played, the musician can then improvise upon the theme. He can play whatever he wants, as long as he follows a set of specific harmonic rules and he connects his improvisation with what was written. In the end, as if to reinforce the importance of the theme, the musician will reprise the same score he initially played.

But what does any of this to do with tarot?

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that even though we see different representations of the same card from deck to deck that most people would insist in applying a general set of meanings that they’ve learned and disregard everything else. Here’s the thing: just like there are uncountable versions of the same music, there probably exists the same number of tarot decks. And even though most decks bear quite proudly its influences to the Holy Trinity of Decks, each deck presents a personal view of what that particular image should show.

As an example, here’s the images for the Devil Card from a few decks. In the first image, we have the cards from Marseille, Rider Waite Smith and the Toth Decks. In the second, the Hanson-Roberts, Tarot of the Crone, Peanuts Tarot, Tarot de St. Croix, William Blake Tarot and the Swiss 1JJ Decks.

Slide1 Slide2

In these nine cards, and it could be any other card depicted there, you can find some similar images (Marseille, RWS, St. Croix, Hanson-Roberts and… let’s include the Peanuts card) and some images which portray different aspects of the card. Even in the images with the same elements, you can see differences in colors, in shapes, in the positions of the characters, in the secondary elements that compose the card. All in all, even though we have some images with similar views, it is probably safe to admit that these nine examples transmit different feelings and different sensations.

As a test, I took the three devil representations from Marseille, RWS and Toth to the streets and asked people their opinion of the images. Was there an image that was particularly frightening? Or appealing? Or did they respond equally to the same images?

Most people responded in a more negative way to the RWS card, and one can see why: there’s a black background, the devil has some very “ugly” features, like the prominent bat wings, the long beard, the huge horns; the chains are very visible, the fire of the torch is pointing down, as if the devil wanted to burn something, etc, etc. There probably isn’t a positive element in this card. But the most interesting results came after: The Marseille card had a neutral to positive reaction even though it is basically the same representation. Factors pointed out include a greater variety of colors (some people even considered it a psychedelic version of the RWS card), a white background and a lighter expression of all the characters when compared with the RWS. And, not surprising, the Crowley card came as the most appealing card, with its pink background, its non-aggressive elements and the dancing figures all equally contributing to the overall effect.

When I asked the same type of questions over at Tarot Professionals (a Facebook group of… you guessed it!!) most all the answers I got were in the sense of acknowledging the differences between the cards, but not taking that as an important influence in the reading. There might be some tendency towards a specific response to one or the other, but people would respond that that didn’t consciously influence their reading. The thread then evolved into a left hand/right hand discussion, which didn’t say much beyond personal opinions are personal and should be left at that.

Aesthetics aside, working with a particular tarot deck should mean working with that particular point of view and the way that point of view interacts with our own reality-tunnel. This means that even though different decks might have the same images, the same keywords, there are different nuances, different shades to each card that should make a difference. In returning to the three Devil Cards of the questionnaire, I would read the RWS in a more gloomy/negative way than the others. Or the Toth Devil more as an expression of  a primal energy than the RWS or the Marseille. I would then adapt this impression into the keywords, if appropriate, to devise the meaning in a reading. On a similar note, even though the 1JJ and the St. Croix decks portray the same feeling of hopelessness, the simple fact that in the 1JJ Deck the Demon is standing and seems to be walking around tantalizing the hopeless woman makes, for me, a more negative impression than the St. Croix card, which portrays the demon as sitting on a pillar/bench.

In fact, one could argue that one of the most interesting things about all the different decks  is the fact that they provide different points of view; different perspectives on the same matter. Why then don’t we take then into account when reading the cards? Routine obviously plays a part in this. As do our own thought processes, already wired into a particular mind set. Obviously, working with different decks would imply to alter our own mind-set, to not have it crystallized and used regardless of what we see. One could also argue that each and every reading is personal and, as such, already dependent of the reality-tunnel the reader is at the moment. So, why not allow an extra degree of freedom and actually let the image influence the reading? Why not allow these little differences to actually make the difference between a standardized reading and a personal one? Even if we get back to the standard, like a good jazz musician would do, we already did something different. Something unique. Something personal. And our reading came much the better for it.

Breaking Free from the Iron Prison

The other day, I was playing with the wonderful Tarot of the Crone, by the great Ellen Lorenzi-Prince , when I realized something quite interesting. It was one of those findings that are so evident, you’re really surprised you never noticed it before. In this case, it was how common it is to picture the Tower card with a tower tumbling down.

torre 01 (marseille)_400pix torre 02 (rider waite)_400pix torre 03 (crowley)_400pix

Of course that image, as related to the “Tower of Babel” story, one of the fundamental meanings of the card, is appropriate. However, some artists do tend to choose other ways to depict all the violence and mayhem and disorientation that the card is supposed to convey. Case in point, Ellen’s choice for the Tower card:


Here we have an old woman (a crone) shouting so hard, the entire image shatters. There’s a profound sense of pain and revolt, like there’s so much bad things in her life, she just can’t handle them anymore and simply has to scream. A scream so strong and painful it ends up shattering the very idea we have from her. We can see the violence, the pain and the frustration this woman feels. But, at the same time, we also get a sense of release, of liberation. Like she’s finally releasing herself from all that excess baggage and can move forth.

As Ellen puts it in her description of the card,

I am the Mother of Madness

When I speak
I scream

When I scream
things shatter

I scream
Because these things are wrong

And I cannot have it so

Now this set my mind racing and the first stop was at greek-descendent american singer, Diamanda Galás. Diamanda’s work has focused on such issues as AIDS, the armenian massacre, injustice, mental illness and, more recently, love songs. Armed with a three-and-a-half octave voice (which, for those of you who doesn’t know means she can reproduce more or less 50% of all the sounds you can get from a piano), she was known by saying,

“My voice was given to me as an instrument of inspiration for my friends, and a tool of torture and destruction to my enemies. An instrument of truth.”

Now compare this with the description Ellen gave. Diamanda is known to have a voice that can shatter the usual conventions of musicality. And with albums such as “Wild Women With Stake Knives”, or “Schrei X” she does exactly that.

But there was a particular song of her that I wanted to address: the Cri d’Aveugle, based on the poem by Tristan Corbière, which was released in the Saint of the Pit album (as part of the Masque of Red Death Trilogy). The music, speaks about a blind man and his desperation about being blind. His eyes were just poked with a spike, by someone like an inquisitor. There’s pain and hurt and he feels there’s no reason left to live, as everything he believed is now gone, along with his eyes. Diamanda even goes as far as incorporating the classical phrase Jesus Christ said on the cross “Eli, Eli, Lamma lamma sabacthani” (My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?). It’s a very powerful text and one that fits like a glove on the ambience of the Tower card:

L’oeil tué n’est pas mort
Un coin le fend encor
Encloué je suis sans cercueil
On m’a planté le clou dans l’oeil
L’oeil cloué n’est pas mort
Et le coin entre encor

Deus misericors
Deus misericors
Le marteau bat ma tête en bois
Le marteau qui ferra la croix
Deus misericors
Deus misericors

Les oiseaux croque-morts
Ont donc peur à mon corps
Mon Golgotha n’est pas fini
Lamma lamma sabacthani
Colombes de la Mort
Soiffez après mon corps

Rouge comme un sabord
La plaie est sur le bord
Comme la gencive bavant
D’une vieille qui rit sans dent
La plaie est sur le bord
Rouge comme un sabord

Je vois des cercles d’or
Le soleil blanc me mord
J’ai deux trous percés par un fer
Rougi dans la forge d’enfer
Je vois un cercle d’or
Le feu d’en haut me mord

Dans la moelle se tord
Une larme qui sort
Je vois dedans le paradis
Miserere, De profundis
Dans mon crâne se tord
Du soufre en pleur qui sort

Bienheureux le bon mort
Le mort sauvé qui dort
Heureux les martyrs, les élus
Avec la Vierge et son Jésus
O bienheureux le mort
Le mort jugé qui dort

Un Chevalier dehors
Repose sans remords
Dans le cimetière bénit
Dans sa sieste de granit
L’homme en pierre dehors
A deux yeux sans remords

Ho je vous sens encor
Landes jaunes d’Armor
Je sens mon rosaire à mes doigts
Et le Christ en os sur le bois
A toi je baye encor
O ciel défunt d’Armor

Pardon de prier fort
Seigneur si c’est le sort
Mes yeux, deux bénitiers ardents
Le diable a mis ses doigts dedans
Pardon de crier fort
Seigneur contre le sort

J’entends le vent du nord
Qui bugle comme un cor
C’est l’hallali des trépassés
J’aboie après mon tour assez
J’entends le vent du nord
J’entends le glas du cor
Dios, porque me has condendado?
mavpes apakvuthes!
lamma sabacthani!
Esta es mi sangre
Este es mi cuerpo
Estas son mis venas
Estoy siego
Dios, no puedo ver!
mavpes apakvuthes!
lamma sabacthani!
Aves de la muerte
Quiten me la vida!
lamma lamma

Hopelessness. Darkness. Fear. Pain. Anguish. Punishment. Concepts that keep coming to mind when confronted by the XVIth Major Arcana. However, there’s another part of the story. Something that’s subtly represented by the common image of the falling tower, which tells us of the possibility of release. If everything we’ve built tumbles down, we’re free to start over. We’re free from previous obligations and baggage. Free to come along.

In the Tarot of the Crone image, we see this as the shattering of the Crone image. A light so strong that actually pierces through all the dark things in her life. A scream just like you hear in any of Diamanda’s songs, that seems like it’s gutting our entrails with a stake knife, but can also be cathartic. There’s darkness in the Tower card, but in some way or another, there’s also light. Or the prospect of light. In two of the three Tower cards from “Holy Trinity” of tarot decks (Marseille, Rider-Waite Smith and Toth deck), you get to feel this darkness that’s imbedded on the card. Even though the actual towers are colored Grey (RWS) and orange (Toth), there’s no escaping all that blackness that permeates the whole card. The absence of light, with the exception of the light brought forth by the Divine Punishment.

We know that when the Tower card appears we can expect the destruction of everything that’s unbalanced or unstable or just simply has to go. We are expected to break free from  everything the Tower represents. This Dark Prison. And go forth into the pathway of the light, as symbolized by the triad Star-Moon-Sun, the dark night of the soul almost over.

Philip K. Dick (PKD) was an american writer who, in the midst of a breakdown due to depression, drugs, a paranoid mind and whatever else was going on, had a revelation. In March 1974, a pink ray descended from the sky, more specifically, from God. Or aliens. Or a Vast Active Living Organism (also known as V.A.L.I.S.) and rewired his entire brain. This experience is described at length in his Valis novel and in his Exegesis writings. There’s also plenty of papers discussing his experience, including an academic thesis. Of interest here is a term he coined, The Black Iron Prison, which was meant to signify every government, every school, every institution, every political force that enforced an oppressive control on people and society. This would be symbolized by the Roman Empire, that paragon of everything that went wrong with the use of power. According to him, “The Empire Never Ended” (people who think the Matrix movies, or even the Star Wars trilogies or its simulacra brought forth in terms of original ideas and concepts should really pay more attention to what was being put forth by people like PKD and Jack Kirby and others from the 50s onwards…).

This notion was put forth in his Tractates Crytptica Scriptura, a part of his Exegesis that he worked into the VALIS novel. According to him, liberation was only possible by Divine Intervention. By a “ray of information” that would come forth from the Divinity itself (or aliens; or VALIS) and would allow us to break free from this Iron Prison. Also according to him, this bringing forth of information occurred in August 1974 (paragraph #17 of the Tractates Cryptica Scriptura), when we entered the Age of Gold, symbolized by a Palm Tree garden (hopefully, the same Palm Tree garden we find on the RWS’s High Priestess card…).

A ray of information such as the one seen on the Tower cards of the RWS, the Toth deck, the Marseille or even, the inner light that comes forth from the depths of the Crone woman. Divine intervention designed not really to punish ourselves, but to give us the necessary tools to effectively break out from the Iron Prison and escape the oppression of the Empire. Whether it exists outside of us in every social construct that employs what Foucault calls the “technology of power” or, perhaps, inside of us, in the very mechanisms we’ve built to sustain ourselves and cope what life brings forth.