The serious business of shouting
by Samuli Knuuti :: 2003
Thirty guys and at least a hundred decibels. The Men's Choir Shouters (Mieskuoro Huutajat) has been shouting far and wide, at dozens of music festivals and even on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. But why shout? Just a joke? Performance art? Rock? A brand-new yet age-old means of self-expression? Or a mixture of all these?
The basic concept is quite clear. As its name suggests, this is a men’s choir (of thirty to forty members, depending on the occasion) and they SHOUT, at the top of their voices, their ties neatly knotted, in smart black suits. The experience is frightening and comic, serious and crazy, authoritarian and anarchistic.
You may come across the Shouters just about anywhere: at a rock concert, a folk-music festival, a chamber music recital, the Venice Biennale, the Salzburg Music Festival, the Paris Museum of Modern Art or the Brooklyn Music Academy. If you have not sought their company, they may seek yours, at a metro station, a parish festival, a building site – wherever unsuspecting citizens happen to congregate.
Little effort, big noise
“Shouting is a very natural way of expressing yourself; it’s much more natural than, say, singing. Shouting is the easiest way to make as much noise as possible.”
So says 41-year-old Petri Sirviö. He himself does not shout, but the Shouters would not exist without him. He is the choir's Artistic Director, the man who makes the big decisions and handles the practical arrangements. Seated in a tavern in Espoo, he could be mistaken for Gary Oldman playing Joukahainen, the young hot-head in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.
The Shouters are not a student joke, he is quick to point out (but with a devilish twinkle in his eye). Nor are they just a nine-days' wonder. They are an ensemble or choir, an artistic project to be taken seriously.
The Men's Choir Shouters made their debut at a student gala at the University of Oulu on Finland's 70th Independence Day in 1987. For some twenty minutes or so a choir of twenty shouted their heads off before an unsullied student audience in a programme of patriotic classics. The audience's reaction? Applause, cheers, and open acceptance. By the time he left the platform Sirviö was certain of two things: One, the project had to go on, no doubt about that. Two, they would need at least ten more shouters.
Sixteen years later, at least 170 men have passed through the shouting ranks. With the passing of the years, the age range has widened and nowadays spans two generations.
No secret society
“Shouters do not need to be musically gifted,” Sirviö insists. “And I don't look for any particular vocal qualities, though I could sometimes do with some more natural basses. I talk to my new shouters as a teacher would to a new class of infants: I tell them all I want is for them to behave themselves and not play truant. I want the Shouters to be an open community and not a secret society that only accepts recommended members. And I actually find something appealing in the fact that the members do not necessarily all know each other.”
On stage, the Shouters dress in black, the Western male uniform. It is both dressy and anonymous, and every Finnish man has a dark suit in his wardrobe. This almost monolithic official look adds extra spice to the repertoire: folk songs, patriotic songs, ancient poems, passages from the Bible, texts taken out of context and hence surrealistic.
The repertoire is often dictated by the occasion. When the Shouters appeared in Oulu Cathedral, Sirviö did a shout arrangement of Paul's letter to the Corinthians about love. Then for the Haapavesi Folk Festival he chose the local council's business development strategy for 2000–2005.
“It was a splendid text,” he says with a grin. “A fine example of a positive vision of the future in a field where positive visions are somewhat thin on the ground. A little country town takes off in a big way and its businesses go international!”
Shouting introduces new shades
“Shouting brings out shades in texts that people would not otherwise notice. National anthems, for example, are always sung in a particular frame of mind, but when you shout them, you notice some brutal statements, excruciating banalities and verbal botches that are rather touching in their clumsiness. It's my job to arrange the texts for the choir to shout; to find the rhythm in the words. Or rather than arranging, perhaps I should say composing, because often there is no existing composition, or then I simply throw it overboard, because you don't shout on any given note.”
Faced with a new text, Sirviö first breaks it down into various roles and moods, which he then assigns to the four registers traditionally found in male choirs. The outlines must be clear; he cannot leave any room for improvisation. Or as he puts it: 30 amateurs all improvising cannot be called art.
The Shouters really have to be seen in the flesh. True, they have released three CD-EPs and one concert album, but as documents, Sirviö reckons these are no more colourful than a black-and-white photo.
The idea of a choir of men all shouting caught on so fast that marketing was no problem. Having bombarded the home market and made sorties across the eastern border, they decided the time was ripe for a European campaign.
On putting out feelers abroad, Sirviö found he had no difficulty selling an ice-hockey-sized team of shouting hunks to rock clubs interested in underground culture. The choir's first gig in Western Europe was in 1991, at the legendary Paradiso Club in Amsterdam, but soon the Shouters were spreading into other domains, too. Nowadays they no longer need to market themselves; the invitations simply flow in.
Sometimes the Shouters just show up even though they have not been invited. One performance they will never forget was when they gate-crashed the Leningrad State Museum of History of Religions and Atheism just as the Soviet Union was falling apart.
“There was some sort of rally for candidates for the semi-free parliamentary elections,” Sirviö recalls. “Each candidate was allowed to make a speech in Hyde Park style, so we went along and shouted the Soviet hymn – and absolutely stole the show. Admittedly it was a bit scary and provocative with all the militia swarming round with their black Kalashnikovs. We'd crossed the border on visas obtained through a building contractor that said we were all fitters.”
Performance and serious art
Although Sirviö and many of the other founding members come from a rock background, the Shouters have, as the project has expanded, become somewhat estranged from their rock beginnings under the dual banner of performance and serious modern art. Sirviö regrets that rock is nowadays either the stomping ground of men approaching middle age or a playing field that has lost all contact with other genres of culture. Like Finnish long-distance running and skiing, Finnish rock has passed its best-before date.
“I just don't understand the way art is classified these days,” he says. “Black metal counts as light music, but Kaija Saariaho does not, though her music may be very light, in a very positive sense. The general consensus in Nordic cultures seems to be that it's impossible to be light and profound at the same time, though the comic element, if anything, is what gives art a sense of proportion. There is of course humourless art that's deep-felt and restrained, but it's rare. In most cases the most superficial of all is art that denies the possibility of humour.”
New shouters in batches
But to get back to what the Men's Choir Shouters is all about: shouting. That's where it always begins and ends. Now while some may be forgiven for imagining that anyone can shout, it in fact requires some training. The choir therefore admits new shouters in batches of about ten at a time and at approximately two-year intervals. It can then teach technique and voice training to a dozen instead of one at a time.
Shouting is not easy, because it is not as straightforward as one might think. It can be used to express very disparate moods, from rage to rapture.
“A shout piece is built up of very different emotional layers, one on top of the other,” says Sirviö. “The moods expressed in shouting are to me what colours are to a painter; putting them together requires a certain technique. As a rule, of course, a shout is a spontaneous, solitary event, so when you get ten guys all shouting their heads off together, the atmosphere tends to get a bit turbulent.
“Shouting has become an abstract instrument for me. This is what happens in art. Take, for example, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", written so that the singer has to belt it out in a painfully high register. This is how the Viennese Classicists regarded the height of joy: total physical pain.”
As good as a work-out
Now shouting cannot be said to cause the vocalist any physical pain – on the contrary: by the time he goes off-stage the shouter feels as worked-out and as blissful as a runner after a strenuous but rewarding race. The motives for joining the Shouters thus vary from artistic to social or subjective.
“Most of all I like shouting patriotic Finnish songs,” says Heikki Raudaskoski, now an information technologist with a PhD in literature. “It gives you a feeling of buoyancy, because in shouting the songs you are not continuing the national project but nor are you parodying it either. The result is far more than either.”
“You work off any pent-up feelings in shouting your ass off,” adds Marko Kauppinen, in real life a special needs assistant working with children with intellectual disabilities.
For Petri Sirviö, the choir is not only an artistic project but also a way of earning a living. For the past nine years he has been working with it full-time. Maybe this explains why he wishes it carried a little more prestige – not for the sake of fame or money, but simply to make running the show easier.
“Our rehearsal hall has just been pulled down,” he sighs as he drains his glass. “Our thirteenth already. It's crazy for us to be performing in international arenas highly rated by professional artists and meanwhile having to practise without a roof over our heads.”
Text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 4/2003
Translation © Susan Sinisalo