Plymouth Complaints Choir

Angry enough to sing. Behind the scenes with Plymouth Complaints Choir

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As part of The Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow in January 2010, Plymouth hosted a Complaints Choir. Heather Smith went behind the scenes

Plymouth Complaints Choir

Well, you wouldn’t believe the trouble I had getting to Plymouth Arts Centre. First it started to tip down just as I left the house and then my umbrella, (that I’d only bought two weeks ago), broke and then the driver grunted at me when I said that I had nothing smaller….

Seems that life is full of these little grievances. So it was just as well that I was going to just the right place to air them – the penultimate rehearsal for the Plymouth Complaints Choir at Plymouth Arts Centre.

The Complaints Choir, named after the Finnish word ‘Valituskuoro’, which describes a situation where many people are complaining together, is a project started in 2005 by artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen. Following a nine-step plan, organisers invite people to contribute and sing their gripes out loud with, the website says, the intention of ‘transforming the huge energy people put into complaining into something else’.

From the formation of the first Complaints Choir in Birmingham, the project is now a worldwide phenomenon with groups in cities from St Petersburg to Tokyo. The Plymouth-based choir was selected by Paula Orrell (Plymouth Arts Centre curator) and Maria Abramovic (commission curator/performance artist) to form part of the performance art event: The Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow, held at the Royal William Yard, Plymouth, in January 2010.

I was met at the door to the arts centre in Looe Street by the very non-grumpy producer Lucy Walker, who introduced me to the choir. The posters, emails and radio appearances asking for volunteers had attracted 30 participants from all over Devon and beyond.

Several nationalities were represented with singers from North and South America and Europe. Surprisingly, for someone who expected a room full of budding Victor Meldrews, there was a wide range of ages in the choir – it seems that our ability to moan binds us together.

Also at the rehearsal was Devon musician Nick Grew, who had sifted through more than 60 complaints and put together the finished song: A Good Ole Whinge, a selection of 16 moans, in double-quick time.

Planning for the Complaints Choir had started in October, with the first workshop taking place in December. Ironically the weather, a subject much beloved of British complainers had created most problems for Lucy and Nick. Snow had hampered journeys to rehearsals although, as Lucy told me: ‘The participants were amazing – if they could make it, then they would come on foot or bus.’ Recordings of music were also sent to those who had to miss practices, allowing them to sing-along at home.

After splitting people into ‘lows’, ‘mediums’ and ‘highs’ the rehearsals began. The song, fittingly for the area, is based on a sea shanty, the call and answer form fitting the complaints particularly well.

I stood next to Susan, who had traveled from Bodmin. In common with most of the choir members, she had never sung in public before. ‘I wanted to do something in the dark months of winter, to be part of a community project,’ she said.

Soon the room was filled with the sound of people singing in three-part harmonies about untidy children and neighbours who pee in their herbaceous borders, the choir members affirming the artists’ assertion that ‘it does not matter how you sing if you sing loud.’ There was plenty of laughter. It soon became clear that I was listening to a kind of musical alchemy – the choir changing the negatively-charged words into a positive, shared experience.

As well as the sense of community a Complaints Choir generates – offering audiences the reassurance that we all share the same gripes and niggles – allowing grievances to be aired gives choir members and those listening a sense of power, however fleeting. Moans about cold callers and unfriendly cashiers set to music also help to put petty annoyances into perspective, helping to refocus people on things that really matter.

It seems that the Complaints Choir will carry on bringing people together. Asked if she sees it continuing after the Plymouth event Lucy said: ‘Definitely… we want to keep things going.’

Being part of the project for a few hours almost made me forget about my broken umbrella disappointment. But then my bus was late and the noise emanating from my fellow passenger’s ‘personal’ music player all the way home just about made my blood boil…

This is an article from our Plymouth ArtsCulture magazine, which you can read for free online, or buy your own copy to cherish and hold.

Heather Smith

After years in denial, Heather Smith has finally conceded that she is a writer, willing to exchange the products of many hours of blood, sweat and crossing-out for the chance of being published.In addition to PRSD and Art+Culture she has written for Art Cornwall, iwalkdevon and Behind the Spin. She also blogged about her life as a mature student on Later Study. In her spare time she enjoys watching her bantams think up new ways of destroying her veg patch, camera-less photography and making jewellery with found objects. Her ambition is to become a mad old woman and own an alpaca called Gerald.