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Philadelphia Inquirer
September 24, 2008

By Natalie Pompilio


On a recent afternoon on the streets near City Hall, a cabdriver kvetched about commuters blocking intersections. An elderly man denounced the mayor and the governor for "working for organized crime." A 22-year-old city woman bellyached that she often detects that distinct "SEPTA smell" long before approaching the station entrances.

The Complaint Collectors wrote everything down, sometimes nodding sympathetically. Now they'll turn those miserable mumblings into melodious music.
Philadelphia is getting its first "Complaint Choir," a group of citizens who will come together to sing out gripes both universal and unique, from "I hate waiting for the train" to "I'm waiting to borrow my friend's car and she's two hours late"; from "I need a date" to "My roommate leaves wadded-up napkins around our apartment and it's gross."

"The concept is, if you can laugh at something and make art of it, it really makes it that much easier to deal with," said Shelley Spector of SPECTOR Projects, which is collaborating with First Person Arts on the project. "It's unifying, a bonding experience."
Anyone interested in performing - or simply grousing - is invited to the choir's first meeting tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St. The group will rehearse through October and perform one song, approximately seven minutes long, formally at the Painted Bride and informally on the streets of Philadelphia in November during the First Person Festival.

The original music is being written by Evan Solot, chairman of the composition department at the University of the Arts' School of Music. He's tentatively imagining a final song that's "mock classical," with a catchy chorus. He and Spector hope to present ideas for music and lyrics at tomorrow's meeting.

Two Finnish artists conceived of such a singing group while walking on a cold winter day in Helsinki and wondering what would happen if they could take all the energy people spent complaining and turn it into something else. (Heat was foremost in their minds at the time.) They took the idea to England and the first "Complaints Choir" opened in Birmingham in 2005. (Depending on the city and group, the word complaint is sometimes pluralized.)
"People like to complain and people like to sing. Why not do it at the same time?" Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, one of the creators, said in an e-mail. "In our eyes, the most amazing experience is for people . . . to start with a list of complaints, then go through a rehearsal process, then end with a grand performance in front of a large crowd. You start with individual complaints that are turned into a collective experience."

Kochta-Kalleinen and partner Tellervo Kalleinen created a template for starting a choir that they posted on their Web site, www.complaintschoir.org. Since then, such groups have sprung up around the world, from Germany to Jerusalem, Pittsburgh to St. Petersburg. Many other places have expressed interest and sometimes vie for the title of "Complaints Capital" in e-mails to the Web site, said Kochta-Kalleinen, noting that Hungarians claim squawking superiority.

Spector saw videos of such choirs, ranging from 15 to more than 50 songsters, and felt inspired to bring the idea to Philadelphia. Although some gripes were very city- or country- specific - the Finns grumped that when they buy furniture, they get only planks of wood in a box, while the Brits groused that they live on cul-de-sacs - others had mass appeal.

"They're halfway around the world and they're saying these things I totally understand," she said. "They performed with earnest passion. They could have been praying or singing some 17th-century opera and here it was about toilet paper."

There's no doubt that Philadelphians have plenty to gripe about: taxes, traffic, dirty streets, and sports teams that haven't clinched a championship in a generation. Since Complaint Collectors have been out, certain themes have emerged, said Nick Forrest, First Person Arts' administrative coordinator. Among the themes: SEPTA is bad, bicyclists don't like car drivers and vice versa, and bringing a casino to the city is a poor idea. Of course, not every complaint will make the cut - there is, after all, only seven minutes, not seven days, of song to work with.

"A lot of people say, 'I've already registered,' " Forrest said, referring to the way people brush past him, assuming he's an election worker. "One person said, 'I'm sick of all these people standing around with clipboards.' "

Working near City Hall on a rainy day this month, Forrest and his fellow collectors found most people eager to rush past or at most complain about the weather.

Still, some seemed to relish the outlet. Two female coworkers with career complaints held onto a clipboard for 10 minutes, egging each other on to write more.

"Stupid supervisors who think they know it all, a cross between a donkey and a mule," one woman said as the other nodded, scribbled it down, and added, "Spineless. Sends everyone e-mails instead of telling them something to their face."

"This is therapy," the writer said. Both women declined to give their names, fearing reprisals on the job. "Although we hate it, we still need to keep it," one said with a laugh.

And maybe things aren't so bad in Philadelphia after all. More than one person said they had no complaints, and one man put it more precisely: "I'm happy. I'm breathing. I got love.


City Paper
November 5, 2008

By Shaun Brady


Chips seem to be a natural fit on Philadelphians' shoulders. No matter the topic, somebody in the city will find something to bitch about.

Hell, in the days before Game One, Shelley Spector is complaining about the Phils making it into the World Series — precisely because it means we can't complain about them losing the pennant.

Complaining is Spector's business these days. The artist and curator of SPECTOR Projects has teamed up with First Person Arts to set Philly's petty grievances to music, adapting the international phenomenon of the Complaint Choir to our own particular pet peeves. Here in Philly, an all-volunteer choir has gathered to vent, in song, its collective frustrations over these perennial hassles: SEPTA, casinos, horse and buggies and especially New Jersey drivers.

"Complaining is a national pastime and a bonding experience," says Spector. "People really unite through negative energy."

The idea belongs to a pair of Finnish artists who gathered the first Complaint Choir in Birmingham, England, in 2005. Since then, the concept has spread around the globe, with Choirs popping up in Helsinki, Chicago, Singapore, Budapest, Jerusalem — there's even a version consisting of orange-jumpsuited Penn State students whining about classes over a medley of pop tunes. The originating artists have given their blessing to these offshoots, with a set of guidelines on their Web site, which then hosts a video of the final product.

Spector first encountered the Complaint Choirs during a trip to New York last summer, where the MOMA satellite gallery P.S.1 hosted an exhibition of Finnish artists. "I wandered into this room and there were four videos playing Complaint Choirs from different parts of the world," she recalls. "I didn't know what I was watching at the time, but I eventually realized what was going on and came back to Philadelphia really wanting to figure out how we could have one here."
Around the same time, Spector was introduced to First Person Arts founder Vicki Solot and thought the project and her organization would be a perfect fit. But with a festival less than three months away, Solot resisted at first. "Then I was standing in the shower thinking, 'How can we pass up this opportunity?'" Solot says. "And I jealously thought, 'What if somebody else jumps on it?'"

The two parties came to the project from different perspectives. Spector originally ran a gallery for emerging Philadelphia artists and has since moved on to a more project-based approach including Art Jaw, a Web site collecting stories from the local art community. She sees the Complaint Choir as an extension of that work.

"A project like this is whimsical on top, but with really hard underpinnings to anthropology," she says. "It tells a lot about the people who made it and when they made it and where they made it. That's really interesting to me."

Whereas Spector approaches the choir from a visual arts perspective, with the final video in mind, First Person Arts' organizers see it as more of a performance piece. "For us," says Solot, "it's a way of getting people engaged so they recognize that their feelings and thoughts and ideas are shared by others. We all have specific, individual stories, but there's also a collective story about Philadelphia and the things that we all share."

Beginning in early September, a team of Complaint Collectors began canvassing the city, and First Person Arts hosted a "citywide gripe session" at the Gershman Y to begin drafting singers (and game non-singers) for the chorus. In a series of rehearsals over the ensuing month, the choir steadily grew to more than 50.

"The people who are here," says Spector, "are here because they like to sing or they like to complain, or they like to sing and they like to complain. So it's been very high-spirited."

Looking to make the song distinctly Philadelphia, composer (and Vicki's husband) Evan Solot gave the piece a Philly soul feel, albeit with a few diversions along the way — such as the litany of automated phone responses ("Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed/ Your call will be answered in the order it was received") in four-part harmony, or the lovely "Bach chorale-style" refrain, which spells out "dog poop."

The end result is a catchy harangue against everything from the government's response to global warming to pot-smoking roommates to gas pain. "We wanted to find a balance of stuff that was really personal and quirky, stuff that was indigenous to Philadelphia, and stuff that was international, that everybody would know and understand," explains Spector.

In the days leading up to their official First Person Arts concert, the chorus will perform a series of public shows in Rittenhouse Square, Suburban Station and other locations, including Love Park. As Spector points out, "It's so wonderful that we're going to be standing in front of the LOVE sculpture singing about things that we hate. That's very Philly."