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'Tis the Season to Complain: It's the Complaints Choir

Plastic is in the ocean. Internet too slow. So these choristers are having a harmonious moan…

The Helsinki Complaints Choir created by Finnish artists

Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen.

As Christmas choirs take the streets by storm, the Complaints Choir pipes up about all the injustices of our day-to-day lives. While the Complaints Choir has battled subway systems and pesky neighbours since 2005, they now move into a new territory – diplomatic missions.

This March, the troupe of melodious moaners is visiting an IDP (internally displaced persons) settlement near Gori, Georgia in cooperation with the Swiss Foundation for Art in Regions of Conflict. Just as the beautifully conducted Cairo choir helped give voice to a group of youth right before the Arab Spring, the choir in Hong Kong was used as a peaceful protest.


The Complaints Choir in Cairo: “All sense of justice is gone, I’m a stranger in my own country, my rights are trampled on.”

The Complaints Choir was co-founded by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen in Helsinki, where the duo literally took the Finnish term ‘valituskuoro’ (meaning ‘complaints choir’) and made it reality. They created the first choir in Birmingham—noted as the "ass-crack of England"—and soon after, choirs popped up in Helsinki, Hamburg, and St. Petersburg, with more requests for complaint choirs all over. It soon became open source so anyone could start their own choir and now there are roughly 70 choirs worldwide, from Alaska to Tokyo (Sweden is the country with the most complaint choirs).

You don’t have to be an expert singer and any group can start one. One (or more) musician holds together the songs and everyone’s complaint each gets a mention. Recently, at the Complaints Choir performance in Berlin for the Nordwind Festival had city-dwellers sang about the lack of sufficient funding for an over-abundance of culture the city has to offer, as well as protests against the developments of the local airport. Of course, there were the usual complaints, as well, like "Nobody loves me!"

As Kochta-Kalleinen gears up for launching the Complaints Choir in Georgia, he spoke to us about the latest crop of complaints and the art of controversy.

Noisey: What was the recent complaint like in Berlin?
Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen: I counted that so far I have listened to and read roughly 40,000 complaints during the project, so it will get harder to find new complaints. Berlin complaints were quite similar to other big cities: noisy neighbors, dog shit, construction work on the U8 subway line, the BVG [public transport] in general. What were more specific for Berlin were complaints about the building plans for the Tempelhofer Freiheit. Also, I had not heard about this one: a lot of old furniture on the streets; it is true, I see it now everywhere. Then: 1 Euro Jobs and many complaints about rents getting so much higher that people have to leave their hood. I also liked this one: "I am fourteen years old, female and frustrated." This one was nice too: "Soon I am dust." That was a new one.


How does the music side work?
In the first sessions, we just worked on the text, and then a local musician comes in, in the Berlin case Catriona Shaw, better known as Miss Le Bomb. The musician has quite a free hand; we hope for a song that is kind of uplifting. The song shouldn’t be too complicated, since anybody even total non-singers are invited to join, but also it should be a little bit of a challenge to start with a bunch of complaints and after four weeks to have a choir song and street shows.

I understand it is not a political protest. But in what cases were the choir complaining about something political?
I would say that straightforward political complaints are only about 10-15%: Our taxes pay for war; malfunction android in power, our president is a cowboy, gentrification, etc. But if you look a bit closer at the more personal complaints, many of them also contain something political, like "I am too fat."

Is the Complaints Choir therapeutic? Does it motivate people to take action?
Yes, it is therapeutic (for a while).

Where has it been successful?
In Cairo, the choir was formed just before Arab spring, there young people saw Complaints Choir as a tool to express their dissatisfaction in a peaceful yet powerful way. After the Tahir square experience, the same people made also the Utopia Choir. In Hong Kong Complaints Choir was used also as a tool of peaceful protest; it was mainly students, I think they wrote a couple of songs, and then even a Symphony of Complaints (a 45 minutes piece). In a similar way, the Hope Institute in South Korea understood the Choir as a tool to get local communities to air their dissatisfaction and discuss about it and find solutions. The institute had set up a complaints hotline, because they understood complaining as an important form of civic engagement; but nobody called since complaining was frowned upon. But Koreans love to sing Karaoke, so the Hope Institute rightly understood that the complaints choir provided the missing link; within the setting of the project complaining became not a purpose in itself, but a fun way to share your annoyance, laugh about them, discuss and in some cases also take action.

What are you going to complain about next?
We will go to a camp for internally displaced people in Georgia to arrange a choir there. It is for a Swiss NGO that sends artists in crisis areas on sort of diplomatic missions.

What are you going to do for the upcoming Georgian Complaints Choir?
We will be there in March. We will mainly go to two IDP settlements and villages near Gori: Shavshebi and Khurvaleti. This is a new situation for us; the Singapore Complaints Choir got also another political dimension when it was banned from public performance (because we had foreigners in the choir that are not entitled to complain about Singaporean internal affairs.) They discussed this ban later controversially in Parliament. We are a bit proud of that…

We've never known Nadja to complain! Happy holidays Nadja! Follow her on Twitter - @NadjaSayej.