Complaints Choir
The Tabloids Are Alive

Lo about twenty years ago now, I took a road trip through Utah’s canyon country with buddies Dave Stark and John Kottwitz.  As it was January, it got dark early every night so we played a lot of cards to fill the evenings.  And we did a lot of whining.  In fact, there was so much whining on that trip, and we got so good at it, that it seemed like we ought to write a book: Whining Works!

We never got around to writing that book, but we did see the stillborn project as part of a cultural watershed.  And as we have moved through the nineties and into the new century, our insight seems almost prescient.  The spoiled Western world, instead of becoming more and more content with our comforts and excess, has grown increasingly dissatisfied and easily annoyed.

Helsinki Complaints Choir

Apparently, Finnish artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen agreed with my buddies and me.  A unique idea occurred to the couple during an afternoon walk.  The official website explains:

Perhaps it was due to the coldness of the day that they ended up discussing the possibility of transforming the huge energy people put into complaining into something else. Perhaps not directly into heat – but into something powerful anyway.

In the Finnish vocabulary there is an expression “Valituskuoro”. It means “Complaints Choir” and it is used to describe situations where a lot of people are complaining simultaneously.  Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen thought: “Wouldn´t it be fantastic to take this expression literally and organise a real Complaints Choir!”

As complaining is a universal phenomenon the project could be organised in any city around the world. Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen offered the concept to different events where they were invited as artists – but it was only after Springhill Institute in Birmingham got excited about the idea that the First Complaints Choir became a reality.

Birmingham (to some known as the “arsehole of England”) was a perfect place to start the project. The participants – found through flyers and small posters – understood the concept instinctively.  Local musician Mike Hurley turned the complaints into a easy to learn song. Within two weeks time the song was rehearsed to perfection by the committed participants – despite the fact that only few were able to sing. A hit was born – with a chorus you can’t get out of your mind: “I want my money back…”

Thus began a long-standing project cum movement culminating in the release of the DVD/CD set Complaints Choir.  Included is a one-hour documentary about songs crafted specifically for and by complainers in Chicago and Singapore, plus three CDs of Complaints Choir originals from around the world.

The idea is funny enough and original enough and interesting enough that I just had to take a look.  This is a true Indie film project produced and released through Relativity Media.  Director Ada Bligaard Søby follows Tellervo and Oliver as they work with the originators of the complaints and local composers to turn complainers into activists.  As a pastor in the film remarks, it’s one thing to say, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that America bounced the check it gave to minorities; it’s quite another to turn that complaint into something positive like, “I have a dream!”

So… in the spirit of the project, let me offer a couple complaints and conclude with upbeat remarks.

First, I’m not quite sure what happened with distribution of this set.  Originally slated for a December 6 release, it’s not listed with the usual distribution clearing houses, and I can only find one place online to buy it: CD Universe, which lists the availability date as January 25.  Will you be able to actually find a place to buy this, if you’re interested?  Got me.

Second, the documentary is not all that compelling, even at 57 minutes.  Tellervo and her baby-toting mate are not muckraker-entertainers like Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, or Dan Merchant.  Instead, they’re kind of sweet-natured Finns who seem more wryly amused by turns of events than fired up about it all—and director Søby doesn’t seem to be able to raise the stakes at all, even when the Singapore project is completely shutdown by state censorship.  As one of my blogger friends might remark, “Is outrage!”  But all we get here is, “Shucks.”

Yet this is one finely packaged product.  The four-disc set comes packed like a CD, with a double-gatefold cardboard sleeve that maps the global scale of the project.  If you have the patience of Job and a funnybone that leans toward novelty, you can not only watch the documentary but plow through some sixty tunes compiled by the project.

I think productions like this are a hoot.  Will you?  Well, if you don’t, I know a couple folks who might turn your complaints into a song.

Complaints Choir is unrated.  But there are enough four-letter words here that you’d best leave the younguns with a neighbor.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Complaints Choir.