Wednesday, August 3, 2011

“Complaints Choir” (Fine & Mellow)

Complaints. We all have things to complain about, we all make complaints. They allow us to let off steam, to deal with our problems by sharing them with sympathetic friends, to shout out our frustrations on Facebook to a world that may or may not care. Or we can write them into songs and sing our complaints away. To be sure, this is not a new concept. It’s what the entire genre of music we call “blues” is all about, catharsis through the writing and singing of our complaints arranged as song lyrics. But now, here’s a new way to sing our troubles away - through a phenomenon called the “Complaints Choir”.

This documentary DVD with three accompanying CD’s will tell you most everything you need to know about Complaints Choirs. It turns out that there are several dozen such choirs throughout the world, the majority in Europe, but quite a few in North America as well. The film follows the originators of the Complaints Choir concept as they attempt to put together new choral groups in Chicago and Singapore. Though not a “how-to” instructional video, it will show you just what you need to do to put together your own Complaints Choir, and what not to do, particularly if you live in a repressive society such as Singapore.

The Complaints Choir concept is the brainchild of Finns Tellervo Kallleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, who are featured throughout the film. Their original concept had less to do with the aesthetics side of choral singing per se, but was instead a unique form of participatory performance art. When the pair decide to open a branch of their Complaints Choir concept in a new location, they put out the word through local media of what they intend to do, and when and where the first rehearsal will be. People may read it, find it to be of potential interest and show up. The Finns never know who will show up, how many will show up, or if indeed anyone will come at all. The first meeting isn’t actually a rehearsal as such. The Finns tell people to write down their complaints, anything that may bother them enough that they feel the need to turn it into creative energy. Certain particularly interesting complaints are collected, and a song lyric is formed from the combination of several such unconnected lines and sentences. A songwriter is then called in to set them to music, and the choir then rehearses the song for public performance.

What we see in the film is the entire process from start to finish. People talking about their lives and voicing complaints, the process of those complaints becoming son g lyrics, interviews with the melody writers/accompanists, choral rehearsals, public performance. We hear what people are frustrated about, what it is they hope to gain from their participation in this art project, how the Finns react to the process they set into motion, and what the audience reaction is like. This may sound straightforward enough, but occasionally there are definite complications. Things go very wrong in Singapore, where people are strongly discouraged from expressing any sort of complaint in public. Compromises with government officials are attempted, including a self-censorship attempt that ruled out certain topics, and a rather odd situation in which the government would allow the Singaporean natives to sing, but not the foreigners temporarily residing in Singapore as “guest workers”.

The film, by director Ada Bligaard Soby, gives the viewer a real feel for the pettiness under which repressive governments operate, and how it affects the lives of the innocent amateur performers who simply wish to participate in a novel art project-cum-choral performance. It also affordsa a fascinating glimpse at a creative process which is quite a bit less formal and less traditional than a more academically-oriented process of readying a recital or choral concert. It demonstrates quite effectively that, in the long run, the Finns do not control the entire process, but simply set it up, act as referees (one likens her role to that of “party host”), then let the process carry on in its own way, at its own pace. Thus, the results will be different wherever a Complains Choir is attempted. There are also a few scenes intercut into the film of a minster who has developed a totally different way to help members of his flock eliminate complaints from their lives. These segments are interesting enough, but they are not really relevant to what the Finns are doing, and could have been edited out of the film with no great loss.

The film is 56 minutes long. DVD bonus features include a trailer, clips of other Complaints Choirs, a discussion of the Finns’ philosophy behind their concept, and excerpts of a few of their other, very different art projects (mostly involving Tellervo by herself). The 3 CD’s include full-length performances by a number of Complaints Choirs, both official and “DIY” choirs, from many areas of the world, in a highly impressive variety of musical genres. The performances may range from rank amateurism to polished semi-professionalism, but the real point of these projects is more the artistic process rather than achieving an aesthetically pleasing result.

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