Primal male choir roars it out
There is something very military about the spectacle. Thirty big men march onto the stage. All are wearing old-fashioned black suits, white shirts and rubber ties. Not a single man relaxes his stern expression even the slightest as he takes his accustomed place in the choral line-up.
All very normal so far, but the listeners, even those who have heard it all, are certain to be startled as soon as the men open their mouths. That is because they do not sing; they shout. Loudly and aggressively, but also in a disciplined, rhythmic manner.
From evergreens to children's songs
The songs have no actual melody, but contain all the more energy and attitude for that. Thus the numbers the choir presents can usually be recognised only by the lyrics. Some are patriotic Finnish ones, others folk songs from various countries. Every now and then the choir shouts an evergreen of classical music, or perhaps a children's song. The next item on the programme could well be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Thus the fact that the choir is called Mieskuoro Huutajat or Male Choir the Shouters does not come as much of a surprise. What is more remarkable is that it is probably the best-known Finnish choir on the international scene right now. At least it is the only one that has appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, the Salzburg Music Festival, the European Athletics Championship, a conference of EU trade and industry ministers and as a warm-up act for the Pet Shop Boys.
"I must say that I am positively surprised at how exactly the choir's message has been understood - even though it does not even have any unambiguous message at all," says the choir's leader Petri Sirviö.
The story of the choir began over a decade ago when a group of young men gathered around a table in a tavern in the northern city of Oulu. They got to talking about the Finnish tradition of male choirs and someone mooted the possibility of putting together one that would be very different from all the rest. Petri Sirviö took the idea so seriously that he decided to go ahead and form a choir.
The Shouters gave their first public performance in their home town on Independence Day (6 December) in 1987. They immediately became the darlings of the media, as reporters vied with each other to write articles studded with phrases like "primeval force from Oulu" and "Arctic hysteria". Thanks to the laudatory press coverage, invitations to perform were soon arriving from many other parts of Finland.
Ordinary men behind cult phenomenon
The media hullabaloo eventually died down, but not before the choir had established itself as a cult phenomenon all over Europe. In the 1990s it performed abroad more times than in Finland.
The choir usually does a couple of longer European tours each year. More travel than that is not possible, because Sirviö is the only full-time member. The other Shouters are ordinary Finnish men by day: husbands, fathers, students, rock musicians and doctors. About ten of them are founder-members.
"When new members join, they usually split evenly into three categories: the third who give up immediately, another third who stay on for two or three years, and the final third who are in for life," says Sirviö.
"The most important properties in a new member are an ability to shout and the right attitude. Over the longer term, the attitude aspect is probably the most important. I'm beginning to have so much experience of `shout pedagogics' that I can teach nearly anyone to shout," he adds.
A shout adds significance to content
Sirviö and the others around that tavern table had no idea then what their odd idea would lead to. Although the choir has become a more adult, more disciplined and more professional organisation over the years, it still operates according to the same basic idea as in the early days.
"I choose the lyrics for new songs in the same way as right at the beginning: they have to have some connection with a forthcoming tour or some other concrete event," says Sirviö.
That means in practice that if the choir is planning a visit to, say, Austria, he composes and arranges some numbers on Austrian themes. "We once performed in Vienna's Konzerthaus and practised the piece An der Donau for the occasion. It consisted of the names of the three best-known Viennese waltzes and of some of the capital cities along the Danube. In the setting where we performed it, the piece acquired a completely new significance," explains Sirviö.
"I generally look for pieces with a certain kind of content. A song should have something to which shouting gives a very special significance. A typical feature of national anthems, for example, is that the singer's emotional state and the contents of the lyrics often contradict each other. Likewise interesting are all kinds of surprises, such as the cruel features that children's songs contain or the quite amusing little details one hears in pompous battle songs."
Sirviö's words come to mind when one watches and listens to the choir. There is no doubt that their performance contains humour and irony, but there is also dignity and respect for the traditions of language and music.
In fact, the paradoxes that the choir reflects resemble those found in its home city. A gloomy and quiet industrial town, Oulu has become a leading centre of 21st-century information technology. The Shouters, in turn, is a loud, testosterone-oozing herd of men, whose music nevertheless has something quite refined and avant-garde about it.
As Sirviö puts it: "Someone has said that our expression is mimimalist, but every now and then we also have to be able to be maximalist."