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Complaining in Song

I recently paid a visit to the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens that, through the summer, has hosted an exhibit entitled Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland.  As a native Finn, I generally consider it my patriotic duty to demonstrate interest whenever anything Finnish makes it across the Atlantic, but this time my interest was also fueled by the exhibit's title itself. How would the stubbornly internal, dreamlike madness of the Nordic winter translate in the self-conscious and status-driven city of New York?

Between a stuffed rabbit staring into a pool of water and a video segment of a semi-nude woman boxing, the exhibit's visuals would certainly cater to a visual arts junkie, but I wasn't sure which part of Arctic Hysteria would feel relatable to local visitors.

While each of the featured artists certainly deserved this showcase, there was only one work that I immediately found to be universally relatable. One segment of this video installation took place in Singapore, the other in Chicago, and both featured a group of locals singing about their dissatisfaction with their city. Conceived by Finns Tellervo Kalleinen & Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen in 2005, the so-called Complains Choir concept has since spread from Helsinki to Budapest, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg, and an assortment of other cities worldwide.

At each location, organizers have issued an open invitation for locals to gather and vent, after which a composer has assembled the complaints into one, cohesive lament. Although singing skill is not a participation requirement, the relatively simple melodies and a sense of bona fide enthusiasm have made most of the projects sound quite enjoyable.

The New York Complaints' Choir was initiated in early June, in conjunction with the P.S. 1 exhibit. A group has gathered several times for rehearsals throughout the summer—one in mid-August was covered by The Village Voice. The official Complaints Choir web site hasn’t yet made note of a performance date, but I encourage checking back in for more information. Video segments of past performances can be viewed at P.S.1 until September 15th, and on the Complaints Choir web site.

Steven Kaplan who blogs for The Thing, a Manhattan-based cultural nonprofit, attended the choir's first rehearsal in June. His description of the resulting music itself sounded ideally suited for a New York crowd:

"The music is very Noo Yawk, very old school rock and roll, with a call and response structure and rhyme reminiscent of 1950's Doo Wop. A little Carole King, a little Dion and the Belmonts, the declamation of "Runaround Sue" and Italian-American outer borough stoop singing combined with the lilt of "Under the Boardwalk," he wrote.

You can read a preliminary draft of the lyrics in Kaplan's post here. Times Square, JFK, hipsters, Whole Foods and Giuliani all receive a wag of the finger, as expected.