Skyscraper Magazine » Complaints Choir
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Dir. Ada Bligaard Søby
Fine & Mellow / Kinotar / Smog Veil
Format: DVD+3CD
Release Date: December 6, 2010
By Doug Simpson February 18, 2011

Nearly everyone complains about something. It is universal whether someone is American or Algerian, a 10-year-old Poughkeepsie boy or a 60-year-old Pakistani grandmother. In 2004 Tellervo Kalleinen from Finland and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen from Germany – a husband-and-wife performance art duo – developed the idea of the Complaints Choir, based on a Finnish expression, valituskuoro, which describes situations where many people come together to complain simultaneously. The couple’s original performance art project was a simple design that caught worldwide interest and resulted in Complaints Choirs being formed from Alaska to Japan and from New Zealand to Russia.

The DVD plus triple-CD Smog Veil Complaints Choir compilation – housed in a gatefold plastic-free digipak – assembles several Complaints Choir efforts. Ada Bliggard Søby’s one-hour documentary film, also titled Complaints Choir, poignantly captures the transformative attempts of three choruses’ journey from conception to culmination as German, Chicago, and Singapore groups tried to follow the necessary nine steps to a finished achievement. While the stages were not too difficult, the momentum proved problematic for some participants. The Singapore gathering discovered considerable governmental resistance to the undertaking. They managed to get through most of the steps – the invitation for people to complain; finding a musician to act as conductor and shape the song; organizing the many complaints into a cohesive list; creating the lyrics; producing a song and rehearsing; preparing for the performance. For the Singaporeans there was no final realization and no grand performance; both singing collectively in a public space, and videotaping or filming the completed endeavor for posterity, faced insurmountable roadblocks. Due to bureaucratic red tape and courteous but stern censorship that had segregated immigration restrictions (immigrants with worker visas were blocked from being choir members) the best laid plans were fractured. Conceivably the lyrics that reflected truthful minds were also a consideration:

I’m stuck with my parents till I’m 35 ‘cause I can’t apply for HDB.
We don’t recycle any plastic bags but we purify our pee.
What’s wrong with Singapore?
My, oh my Singapore
What exactly are we voting for?
What’s not expressly permitted is prohibited.

The Chicago assemblage’s song includes some peculiarly humorous lines that provide insight to the Windy City members’ point of view:

The amateur Jethro Tull cover band practicing around the block will never rock.
People text, eat and do their make up while driving in the bike lane.
The more efficient I am the more work they pile on me.
I am drowning in student loans.
And my gums are receding.

Throughout the film, Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen explain how and why their art-oriented creation germinated and spread. As viewers learn about the artists, each group’s identity and specific character are also dramatically revealed through interviews and interaction. An underemployed pumpkin seller and a housewife, students and retired people all gather as one unit, despite societal, cultural, sexual and economic divisions. In the end, after all, almost everyone has something to complain about.

The Smog Veil package also compiles three CDs under distinct groupings. The first disc includes the documentary soundtrack – with contributions from The Analog Girl, Stitch, and Lamburgh Tony, although oddly none from the documentary’s primary composer Trentemøller – as well as the songs done by artist-initiated choirs from Chicago, Singapore, Hamburg, Tokyo and more. The second disc has DIY (do-it-yourself) choirs that formed spontaneously in New York City, Budapest, Hong Kong and other locales, as well as PDF files that share the perceptive and often personal lyrics. The Dostoevsky-esque Petersburg text confirms some conditions have never withered away, “Petersburg – I’m not ready to die yet, to drown in the waves of your river Neva,” which is a close reference to scenes from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, as are the feelings inherent in another line from the same song, “Why is this painfully familiar city causing only migraine and boredom?”

The third disc collects more of the DIY choirs from far-flung places such as Gabriola Island in British Columbia, Canada; a Juneau, Alaska choir who aptly sing a skunk cabbage complaint chorale (anyone from Southeast Alaska will appreciate the joke); and other choirs from the Baltic Sea area of Aland and Melbourne, Australia. Each choir’s contribution provides unique and location-specific details that sometimes exhibit common appeal and other times offer items only locals might understand.

The Complaints Choir DVD+CD set is an absorbing look and listen at what coworkers, friends, family and strangers grumble and criticize about and demonstrates that a straightforward notion can have an enormous impact all over the world. Of course the DVD and CDs represent only a small part of the ongoing process. The Complaints Choir Worldwide website, as well as YouTube (type in Complaints Choir) attests to the fact that people from all sections of the globe – from Manila to Spain – are continually partaking. Even a cursory glance or search makes a fascinating visit.

Visit: Complaint's Choir | Smog Veil
Purchase: Insound | Amazon