Titled after a phrase in Richard Meltzer's writings to do with an eternal sense of perseverance through sound,The Hand As Dealt is dedicated to Terry Riley, Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, and Egyptian singer Umm Khoultoum (lesser known in the West, but the incomparable and legendary "Orient Star‚Äù and ‚ÄúThe Fourth Pyramid‚Äù in the East). Inspired by the notion that through profound adversity there is a higher reason to play, inherent in the sound itself, Derek Monypeny plays this hand, simply and brilliantly. With his guitar tuned to DADGAD, and an indian instrument called the shahi baaja tuned somewhere in the region of D major, he also, in terms of equipment and technique, pays mind to a path trod by Riley, Reich, Oliveros, Fripp, and Eno.
This album has a clear flow, running East to West and back again, at times fierce and frantic, at others, gentle, stretched out, and unhurried. By some standards, most of these pieces are very long, but time is relative and cultural. For instance, it was not unusual for Umm Kulthum to perform three songs over two hours. The music retains a raw magic, even as Monypeny uses a lot of e-bow and a myriad of different effect pedals. For example, a key song "South Van Ness Vickie‚Äù is gentle and cosmic: as a loop of a little guitar figure runs throughout the song, and he improvises over that using a Mellotron simulator pedal (the EHX Mel9), a time lag accumulator*, amp reverb, and e-bow. The combination sparkles with a spontaneous, almost-sensuous quality. His use of the shahi baaja is not the superficial embrace of a traditionally Eastern instrument, as attempted by countless groups whipping out a sitar in the name of psychedelia. If anything, on The Hand As Dealt the differences between the (Western) guitar and (Eastern) shahi baaji are more or less erased, bringing them closer together.
This music itself is ample reward, but I also learned of Umm Kulthum, and of my ignorance about effects pedals and in particular how well-named they can be. For drones, Monypeny uses the EHX Superego pedal, and for the frantic, alarming, hypnotic (to Western ears) screech needed throughout "Tamarisk" he has the Moogerfooger Cluster Flux. There has even been a pedal named The 4‚Äô33", with one button to silence all inputs for exactly that length of time, "released" one April Fools Day. The Hand As Dealt also relies on loopers and phasers, the aforementioned e-bow, and post-production space-echo added to the shahi baaja on "(You Are Just) Playing In The Entranceway" and a lot of restraint and skill has been applied to keep the album both exciting and subtle. Monypeny‚Äôs playing is well-informed by his travels and knowledge of other "desert guitarists", and he is aided by both Mark Gergis who mastered the first two sides and Charlie Stavish, who recorded the last two sides at his Clock Tower Recorder.
It is a record to stick on and listen from start to finish, with some challenging sections amid plenty of beauty. I have also returned to just the title track, which shimmers for ages like heat reflections on an archetypal desert, where power lines are humming as eerie or forlorn as if someone found The Wichita Lineman dead on the wires before he could send that message about needing and wanting for all time. The mellotron simulator pedal is used again here, before the Moogerefooger Cluster Flux returns for the swirling sound storm that is the noisier final quarter (of an 18 minute track). I like the timelessness and non-dualistic power of the whole album, a power which makes very apt the dedication to Umm Khoultoum - and her orchestra. Her voice, as a 12 year old, was so powerful that her father dressed her as a boy. At age 70 she still stood three or four feet from the microphone when singing.
Naturally, I got on the scent of this "hand as dealt" business, and read Richard Meltzer's Autumn Rhythm. In this suitably full-throttle rant about getting old and dying, Meltzer says he would reject the hypothetical chance to go back to a youthful hotter, cooler, dumber, state: "if innocence, or non-belief, emotional benightedness, whatever, be the key ingredient in getting off on a full range of hands-as-dealt, well, that's completely, totally objectionable." In bigger picture terms, he compares the dreaded Orwellian 1984, with what happened, the "something far more weasely and malevolent" which we were dealt. "Big Mean Uncle certainly did watch you", he argues, "but more than that you were watching him (his 8-ring circuses, his news and commercials, his Master Program), addictedly, on a monitor YOU paid for. (More effective and cost-effective.) And the year itself, diggit: Reagan had to be Prez; the Olympics had to be staged in L.A. (Vegas wasn't ready yet). There was no irony left in the world." I might add that we're still dealing with that hand. At one point Meltzer bemoans being forced to switch from writing on a typewriter to a computer. I read that around the same time as discovering that the shahi baaja is a sort of electric zither to which typewriter keys have been added. Meltzer also describes how he always removes worms from roads and pavements, away from the danger of being stepped on or baked by the sun, to safe havens of dirt, grass, or an oasis of wet newspaper. "For as long as I can remember I've done this, and I'm confident I always will." Equally,The Hand As Dealt makes sense of it's own existence: it is out there in the desert with it's feet up, going with the flow, playing along with sounds drifting in from the past and across the starry night from distant eternal campfires where Group Doueh are plucking strings and Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo is hitting that long lunar note and letting it float.
Anyone with a mind to let their wallets flop out or to open their purses can grab the limited bonus 7-inch single of Sun City Girls songs, (Vinegar Stroke/My Painted Tomb) played on the shahi baaja, available with the album. The single raises money for the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund. Derek Monypeny has since released Unjust Intonation, consisting of 4 short sections of guitar playing run through a digital time-stretching effect, pulling the sections into a variety of long-duration forms.
*The Time Lag Accumulator was pioneered in 1963 for Terry Riley‚Äôs Music For The Gift.