Music that’s good enough to moan along to

A new complaints choir is part of an international movement that is giving voice to our gripes

Did you get out of the wrong side of the bed this morning? Are you hacked off with the weather? Are last night's dirty dishes still in the sink? Well if you want to hear some really good whinging, check with the Bealtaine Festival on May 1st when Ireland's first ever Complaints Choir will be moaning on and on and on – to music.

It started in 2005 when a couple of Finns thought it would be great to get people to convert the energy they put into whining into music. Other groups followed and now there are Complaints Choirs from Copenhagen to Chicago.

Dominic Campbell, artistic director for the Bealtaine Festival, had a word with Deborah Kelleher, director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM), who had a word with composer and pianist Conor Linehan, who took on board the huge collection of complaints sent to him and turned them into a Gospel-feel Complaints song.

Bealtaine choirs from all over Ireland are learning the four-part arrangement, which is a bit of a challenge for people who can't read music. Anne Woodworth, former head of the Waterford School of Music and conductor of the Waterford Complaints Choir, even has people in her choir who can't sing – or maybe that should be non-singers because, as she says, everyone can sing.


“I remember the days when non-singers were told to keep quiet and just to open and close their mouths. But with us, non-singers are singing after three or four weeks,” she says.

And if they can’t read music? “I tell them to look at the sheet music. Are the notes going up or are they going down? That’s all they need to know.”

The Waterford choir – with an average age of 75 and with one member in their 80s – are working away on their singing and have added a complaint of their own: men who wear string vests to display their tattoos.

Across in Co Galway, Liz Keane is working on the complaints song with Loughrea's Cathedral Choir, where she also plays the organ. (By day she works as a librarian in Galway city.)

The choir members are mostly retired and are aged from 36 to 85. Will they be singing in Bealtaine’s dawn chorus? “It could come to that. We’re hiring a coach to go to Dublin for the rehearsal so we’ll be leaving at the crack of dawn. Maybe we’ll sing on the coach.”

And because this is all about complaints, the Loughrea crew have a whole raft of them: the cathedral where they rehearse is too cold, the metal seats are too noisy, the soprano part is far too high and, Keane's own one: "I've only two hands. As a conductor, I need three."

New experience
The exciting thing about this is that it's a first for everyone, but especially for the RIAM which, founded in 1848, is Ireland's oldest music institution. "And it's particularly pleasing that it's happening during Ireland's EU presidency," says Deborah Kelleher, who persuaded Conor Lenihan to compose the music. So how does he feel about it? "Having a deadline always helps. That brings on a bright glow of productivity."

The international choirs all add their own flavour to their complaints. My favourite is a Chicago one: “No one ever throws the ball to me.” You been there? Me too.

As for Irish complaints: bankers and bondholders are up there with the Ryanair bugle (too noisy); wee Daniel (too cloying); Brian O'Driscoll (for getting old); and Mass (for getting too long.)

As Dominic Campbell says: “Irish people are supposed to be world class at complaining. Here’s the chance to prove it.”