Thursday, November 25, 2010

Complaints Choir

Just watched the DVD of Complaints Choir, a project initiated by Finnish artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen. Starting in Birmingham, England, the two traveled around the world, inviting local folks to submit their complaints and participate in the performances (regardless of their singing ability), using local musician-composers to create musical settings for the complaints which the choirs would then learn and perform, and documenting the results on film.

The documentary director Ada Bligaard Soby created from the resultant footage focuses on choirs the Kalleinens facilitated in Chicago and Singapore. Released on Smog Veil, a label heretofore known for documenting the proto-through-post-punk Cleveland music scene, the DVD comes with three CDs' worth of performances by choirs both artist-initiated and "DIY." (If you want to try your hand at it yourself, there are instructions here; the artists ask only that you let them know what you're doing, credit them appropriately, and provide a link to their site.)

What comes through the most in the documentary is the Kalleinens' humility; they seem more genuinely committed to creating an expressive medium for the participants than in promoting themselves or their artistic vision. The contrast between the American and Singaporean choirs is striking. The Chicago performance is juxtaposed with the followers of a Midwestern preacher who advocates repressing the urge to complain. In Singapore, repression comes via a government that prohibits its citizens from complaining in public, allows them "free" speech at a sanctioned "speaker's corner" only if they register with the police and permit their speeches to be filmed and archived for seven years, and bans non-citizens from speaking publicly at all. In the event, the Singaporean choir (which included a half-dozen non-citizens, including its composer-conductor) was banned from public performance; the choir members' bland on-camera response is heartbreaking to witness.

The audio recordings are somewhat less compelling than the doco, particularly when the complaints are sung in languages I can't understand, although the ones I can understand are a hoot. (A very few selected lyrics are provided in PDF format on one of the CDs.) It's not that the urge to complain isn't universal; it's just that in the context of this art project, the process is more interesting to observe than the product.


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