messy melody

The intersection of art, music and plenty of denim: Southern gets psychedelic at the Texas Longest Hammer Choir

The intersection of art, music and plenty of denim: Southern gets psychedelic at the Texas Longest Hammer Choir

Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_jules buck jones
Photo by Alexandra Valenti
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_hammers
Photo by Alexandra Valenti
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_andy rihn
Photo by Alexandra Valenti
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_gathering
Photo by Alexandra Valenti
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_denim
Photo by Alexandra Valenti
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_Photographer
Photo by Alexandra Valenti
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_jules buck jones
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_hammers
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_andy rihn
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_gathering
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_denim
Austin Photo Set: News_Ramona Flume_Texas Hammer Choir_Nov 2011_Photographer

It was high noon and I was dressed in all denim, wandering through fifty-foot high mounds of rubble, splintered wood, discarded cabinets and broken doors at JV Dirt, a “dirt farm” right off FM 973. I didn’t even know what a dirt farm was, but it looked like a tornado had blown through this expansive space, destroying everything in its path, but still had the courtesy to tidy up the wreckage in these massive piles before clearing out. I was here in this other worldly, pre-dirt dawn with hundreds of others to be part of something called the Texas Longest Hammer Choir.

The psychedelic art happening—described by director Andy Rihn as a “surreal visual experiment, a modern, psychedelic movement and a Texas legend—was set to start soon, and the event organizers had snaked two winding rows of the all-denim troops through the enormous piles, with an arms length space between each person, facing opposite their partners.

We looked like some sort of enchanted denim workforce straddling imaginary railroad tracks, everyone practicing the assigned hammer beat with their partner and gazing up at the rubble piles in awe—like little country kids staring up at skyscrapers for the first time. One of Rihn’s main inspirations for the Texas Longest Hammer Choir is a Jim Franklin comic book from the early 70s, featuring psychedelic images mixed with Lone Star imagery and armadillos. And Rihn’s choir has the same aspects of authentic Texas culture and a surreal, artistic vision.

Being here with hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds, dressed up in denim in this lonesome, wind-whipped dirt farm, laughing and smiling—most likely at the knowledge that no one on Earth was doing what they were doing—now or ever—was like being back in Texas during pioneer times, except maybe everyone’s done a little mescaline. The surreal surroundings made me feel as if I had stumbled onto the set of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. But I wasn't in that film. I was about to be in a completely new film.

A customized, golf cart--built up with rebar and covered in all denim--was about to pass through our line of hammers, playing the choir’s ballad and filming the undulating rows of denim and hammers from both ends. We’ve been told to start hammering our beat when we hear the sounds of the cart and music, but the line is so long and the piles of rubble are so tall that it takes a while for sounds to carry. Then, all of a sudden, we hear our cue in the wind and start beating in time. The slowly lilting, almost haunting music seems to be coming from the heaven--because it is. Travis Cooper, a local musician and friend of Rihn is perched on top of the cart, playing a melody entitled “Prelude to the All Night Dustbowl” on an antique Rhodes piano. (Cooper is covered head to toe in long strips of denim, like some sort of denim swamp creature. Another fitting creature in this alien landscape.) This melodious denim mobile slowly lumbers through the middle of our singing hammers, each pair separating as this denim dream floats by, and coming right back together after it passes.

All told, the legendary hammer choir—which Rihn and his team orchestrated with the help of an Idea Grant, the same arts endowments that funded Boozefox art collective’s Battleberg Ice installation on Ladybird Lake—only lasted two hours. But, throughout the day, I kept thinking how remarkably unprecedented the event really was. I couldn’t think of a single thing to compare it to. That same thought might have been the reason why the choir received almost no attention from the press, despite Rihn’s attempts to publicize. Rihn had contacted the Austin Chronicle and Texas Monthly before the event, even sending them a hand crafted, denim envelope, customized hammer and a homemade plate of biscuits. But, besides a small blurb buried in the Chronicle, there was no coverage.

“I didn’t know if they just didn’t understand what it was going to be or if it just seemed too absurd,” Rihn says. “But I just kept thinking, 'This is going to be beautiful!'

Regardless of media coverage, hundreds of people from the art and creative community showed up to support Rihn and be a part of this once in a lifetime event. The lack of publicity even seemed to make it feel even more like a legendary, Texas tall tale. It was a fleeting, happening that captured a distinct kind of mystic happiness, a snapshot of a modern-day, psychedelic Texas spirit, that only comes around once in the while in the form of something truly beautiful.

Gauging what qualifies as “legendary” is a highly subjective matter, but there is one notable book of record that the world recognizes. Rihn submitted an application to Guinness World Records for "the most amount of people hitting hammers together musically on abandoned railroad tracks, while wearing denim.” They emailed back in the next couple days saying there was no international competition for the event. “Well, hell, Rihn says. “It was fun.”

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Rihn hopes the choir participants left "feeling like they were part of something unforgettable.” The one thing they forgot? Take their hammers home. Rihn spent over $1,400 on customized hammers and wanted people to have them as souvenirs. So if you attended the event or are just interested in learning more about the Hammer Choir, stop by Andy Rihn’s studio at the Monfonus Press Compound and pick yours up. For more information about Rihn, his work, or where the Hammer Choir film will be exhibited, email oldmanjambox@gmail.com.