January 14, 2008

Complaints Choirs

Setting the world’s problems to music

The acoustics in my apartment are lousy. I have too many work deadlines. The dollar-to-euro exchange rate is depressing. It always rains when I want to go for a walk.

It’s not hard to come up with things to complain about, but who wants to listen to someone else complain? The surprising answer: just about everyone, as long as the complaints are set to music and delivered in four-part harmony by a choral ensemble. In the past few years, musical groups called complaints choirs have sprung up all over the world, drawing sell-out crowds (and Internet fans by the hundreds of thousands).

Let’s Give ‘Em Something to Complain About
The idea was the brainchild of a Finnish couple, performance artists Tellervo Kelleinen and Oliver Kochta Kalleinen. They were discussing the Finnish term Valituskuoro, which literally means “complaints choir” but refers to a situation in which numerous people are complaining about something at the same time. Tellervo and Oliver thought it would be interesting to make an actual choir of complainers. They circulated flyers and posters in Birmingham, England in 2005 and soon got together a small but enthusiastic group of participants. Each one contributed some random complaints, the list was set to music, and the resulting performance was an instant hit (both in Birmingham and around the world, thanks to YouTube).

The couple proceeded to organize similar choirs in numerous other cities, including Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, and Melbourne. In each locale, group participants create their own litany of complaints in their local language and with a unique vocal arrangement. Some complaints choirs are quite theatrical, while others stick to traditional choral performances in black gowns and suits. But the end result is invariably funny.

Grievances A-plenty
What do these musical complainers complain about? Anything and everything, ranging from the trivial to the profound. In fact, it’s the very randomness of the complaints that often makes the performances so funny. A few examples…

In Birmingham, the catchy chorus begins, “I want my money back. My job is like a cul-de-sac. And the bus is too infrequent at 6:30.” The St. Petersburg choir complains, “Yesterday the waitress was so rude to me.” “Shoe shops never sell size 35.” “My heart is so full but my wallet is empty. And anyway she wouldn’t love a poet like me.” In Chicago, the complaints include “I can’t stop thinking about sex,” “airport security took my mouthwash,” and “only tourists like deep-dish pizza.” The Jerusalem Complaints Choir sings, “”My bags don’t open and there’s passionfruit in everything.” “Bananas are never in the right state of ripeness.” And “football players only date models.” In Helsinki, they sing, “Old forests are cut down and turned into toilet paper, and still all the toilets are out of paper”; they also gripe that “our ancestors could have picked a sunnier place to be.” In addition, the Helsinki choir expresses my very favorite complaint: “Ringtones are all irritating,” sung several times in a row to the tune of that hideous default Nokia ringtone that we all know and hate.

If You’re Going to Complain, At Least Do It in Tune
The choirs organized so far have ranged in size from fewer than a dozen to nearly 100 members. In some cities the singers are all experienced and the compositions are top-notch. But in most cases, participants aren’t turned away for being tone-deaf as long as they have something to complain about. The Penn State group, for example, seemed to have an interesting concept but was just too painful for me to listen to. But hey, if I ever decide to start my own complaints choir, that’ll be the perfect thing to complain about. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Complaints Choirs…

The official Complaints Choirs Worldwide site lists complaints choirs around the globe, and includes instructions for starting your own.

YouTube has tons of videos of complaints choirs.

Among the many articles on the web about complaints choirs are these: