The Complaints Choir set for performance at 2013 Edinburgh Art Festival
The campaigning singing group idea that went global
This article is from 2013.
The Complaints Choir is preparing for a right old moan in Edinburgh. After speaking to one of the concept’s pioneers, Niki Boyle clears his throat and vents some fury of his own
I want my money back
My job’s like a cul-de-sac
And the bus is too infrequent at 6.30
Why don’t they pay me more?
Life was good before
And I am thirsty …
So goes the chorus of ‘I Want My Money Back’, the debut song from the Complaints Choir of Birmingham. It was uploaded to YouTube in 2006 where – following its selection as one of the site’s recommended videos – it went viral. That was all the encouragement creators Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen needed: they set up complaintschoir.org and let the phenomenon grow.
‘We co-produced and facilitated nine choirs, then we consulted about 50, and another 60 or so are done independently,’ says Kochta-Kalleinen. Choirs have been established all over the world, from Melbourne to Jerusalem and Seoul to Chicago, and there’ll be one in Scotland soon, as the Complaints Choir visits the Edinburgh Art Festival.
Inspired by the Finnish phrase ‘valituskuoro’ (the closest English equivalent is ‘a chorus of complaints’), the Complaints Choir was set up to allow the general populace of any given city to vent their grievances about daily life. Once enough people sign up, the group is partnered with local musicians (in Edinburgh’s case, Daniel Padden and Peter Nicholson of The One Ensemble) to decide on lyrics and consider how it’s all going to sound. Then it’s a case of assembling the troops and staging some guerrilla performances. A great singing voice is optional.
‘In a choir you just find a place beside a good singer and try to do the same,’ says Kochta-Kalleinen. ‘I was traumatised by my music education in East Germany: we had to sing workers’ songs in front of the class alone and everybody was laughing at me. I never wanted to sing in public, but then the Complaints Choir of Birmingham was so much fun.’
Common gripes highlighted on complaintschoir.org include issues about self-perception (‘I am fat and lazy and half-old’), other people (‘my neighbour makes weird animal sounds’) and the proliferation of advertising, from oversized billboards to spam emails. Some of the weirder complaints include: ‘my neighbour organises Hungarian folk dance classes above my bedroom’ and ‘my grandmother is racist’.
‘I complain about my wife,’ admits Kochta-Kalleinen. ‘She leaves everything open: cupboards, drawers, jars, pens, doors, toothpaste, bags … ’ He can no doubt look forward to hearing some voluble muttering about trams in the near future.
The Complaints Choir of Edinburgh, various venues, 0131 226 6558, 1 Aug–1 Sep, free. To take part, visit edinburghartfestival.com/commissions/complaintschoir
A Hypothetical Edinburgh Complaint Song
It’s meant to be summer, so why am I soaked?
That mouldy wee venue just gave me the boak
This pint cost four quid and it’s already flat
The wind just took off with my waterproof hat
I’m getting snowed under with too many flyers
Those five-star reviews are all written by liars
There’s too many tourists, the High Street is mobbed
I wish all these jugglers would just get a job
I’m tired and hungover, my overdraft’s looking distressed
But it’s only for August, so let’s give a cheer for the Fest
(Lyrics: N Boyle)