Complaints choirs sing their woes

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      Despite having invented the stiff upper lip, the English are a nation of world-class whiners. Perennial rains, two-week summers, the rigid class system, and the death of empire have all given the island kingdom something to whinge about, yet the bulldog spirit still sometimes shines through.

      Consider, for instance, the Complaints Choir. First encountered in the grimy industrial city of Birmingham, this vocal innovation elevates grumbling into the realm of art. The idea—and it’s a good one—is that the powers that be pay little attention to caustic e-mails, testy letters to the editor, or surly pub grousing. If people really want to be heard, choir organizers suggest, they’d be better off taking to the streets and singing their grievances.

      The notion has taken root. As documented on the Complaints Choirs Worldwide Web site (, dozens of kvetching choirs have sprung up all over the world, with the latest now taking shape right here in Vancouver. And this one’s being driven by an unlikely source: Vancouver New Music.

      But why not? What once was a decidedly elitist organization has engaged in a number of innovative community-outreach programs, inspired by artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi’s belief that music is too important to be the exclusive province of specialists.

      “The Complaints Choir project sounded very interesting, both as a community project in our region and as a political project in itself,” says the Italian-born composer, conductor, and sound artist, reached at home on the Sunshine Coast.

      “It’s a wonderful idea, to make music and bring your voice onto the street, engaging regular people, regular citizens, in the wonderful activity of singing a song, but at the same time being outspoken about your concerns and complaints.”

      Magnanensi adds that many avant-garde musicians feel that it’s essential to engage directly with the public, citing the Marxist composer Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra—a mix of trained and untrained musicians who performed rough versions of symphonic classics—as an inspiration.

      “I come from that kind of a political background myself, even though I don’t necessarily practise it, ideologically,” he says. “But I lived in that kind of an environment when I was in Europe, so there’s definitely a lineage, for me, from that direction.”

      To help make the Complaints Choir a reality, Magnanensi has enlisted the help of a dozen untrained singers, plus Sunshine Coast singer-songwriter Steve Wright, who’s penned the music for the ensemble’s first extended plaint. The new work will be unveiled on Saturday (September 27), with performances at Waterfront Station (2 p.m.), the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch (3 p.m.), and the Vancouver Art Gallery (4 p.m.).

      Unsurprisingly, it includes digs at Stephen Harper’s hair, global warming, Vancouver drivers, e-mail spam, smelly buses, nosy neighbours, and the CBC’s recent ghettoization of classical music. And then there’s the weather.

      “There is actually a complaint about the rain,” Magnanensi confesses. “And there’s also a counter-complaint about people complaining about the rain all the time, this being a rain-forest country.”




      Feb 18, 2010 at 6:59pm