What I did immediately after the opening night of ISCM 2010….

I ran as fast as my comfortable but still high-heel shoes could take me back to the [wickedly expensive] car park down the road from the Sydney Conservatorium. Another audience member was heading the same way, but as he was much lankier of leg than I, and unencumbered by impractical footwear, we made about the same progress, he no doubt wondering what was motivating the lunatic clickclacking her way down Macquarie St to be doing so quite so very hot on his heels.

If he’d only known: I had to make it over to Dockside at Cockle Bay before the mains were served at the Walkley Press Freedom Dinner.

The parking gods were on my side, and I powerwalked my way across one of Sydney’s least attractive pedestrian overpasses and through the usual crowd milling outside Chinta Ria, past the name tag desk out the front of Dockside (my handwritten name tag suggesting my husband had forgotten my name when accepting the invitation), weaving my way through groups of women in cocktail and evening dress and super-clean cut young media types to table 13 to join the Qantas and former and current Radio 2UE breakfast show hosts, who’d already been availing themselves of the hospitality for 90 minutes prior to my arrival.

And they’d been availing themselves of the hospitality for good reason, it turned out. Wendy Harmer was the MC.

The entirety of Wendy Harmer’s career has passed me by, somehow or other, and while I’ve known who she was the entire time I’ve resided in Sydney (some 21 years now) but I’d never really had a chance to understand why.

After the Walkley Press Freedom dinner I found I was no wiser as to why I should have any idea who Wendy Harmer was is, although I had developed a profound understanding as to why maybe I should not. The newspapers politely reported that she effed her way through her duties, and that doesn’t even cover half of it. Every new foray at the microphone began with derogatory comments about and to the audience, ending with suggestions at to how we should all behave, this done mercifully without reference to the ‘c’ word, but Ms Harmer made full use of the rest of the alphabet throughout her various rants and imprecations.

Yes, folks, I had gone from the #ISCM sublime to the media pack ridiculous.

Of course, as any primary school teacher knows, this approach to crowd control is one of diminishing returns, and by the time I arrived c.8.35pm those returns had diminished to nil. No one was listening to a single colourful word she uttered.

On the bright side, as the main was being served we were introduced to the speaker for the evening. And the evening was, after all, about Press Freedom, with the images and stories of journalists who had been killed, imprisoned or ‘disappeared’ because of their work displayed on screens on either side of the podium throughout the night. So the dinner was all about some rather serious stuff.

But after nearly 2 hours of harassment by Wendy Harmer it was rather hard to take the guest speaker very seriously. It was like Billy Graham having Catherine Deveny, say, as his warm-up act.

No matter how dire the content of the speech it was hard to care terribly much. Speeches that tell of meeting wicked dictators who don’t keep their word seem rather unremarkable in 2010. Don’t we know that there will be no peace in our time? And am I being crazily naive to think that in Australia journalists understand/accept/believe a genuinely independent media is a good thing for society? It was preaching to converted who had already gotten pissed, so it must have been a tough gig for the imported dignitary.

Maybe not as tough for him as it was for the ‘entertainment’ that followed.

[Keep in mind that I’d already experienced 6 new music performances over at the Music Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium at the opening night of the International Society for New Music World New Music Days. Yep, it was already seeming like a distant memory to me too, and this was only about 55 minutes after the conclusion of the ISCM concert.]

Queenie van de Zant is a singer/songwriter/cabaret performer I last saw in a one woman show at the Ensemble Theatre at the start of 2007. Her show was called “I Get the Music in You” and was a funny, very light entertainment based on a character who conducts music therapy classes. Queenie channelled a lot of characters in course of the show [music therapy class members], and as is usually the case the overall effect was impressive even if some characters were more convincing than others. But most importantly, Queenie sang very well indeed. So I pretty much knew what we were in for at the Walkley Press Freedom dinner.

Well, actually, that’s not true at all.

Turns out Queenie (whether in real life or simply because she thought it would be funny to say so in her introduction) doesn’t follow the news all that much, is not really keen on current affairs or politics, and certainly hasn’t opened a newspaper in more than a decade.

At this point (irrespective of whether it was true or a fictional conceit) the entire room stopped listening to her.

Which was just as well, because she had two songs for us that evening. The first, a version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, where Queenie sang to/about (hard to tell which) her marijuana-smoking grandmother. Yep, so the lyrics were altered. Note to cabaret artists: don’t change the lyrics to Somewhere Over the Rainbow and then sing them. All the audience is thinking is “you’re no Judy Garland”.

The second song was worse. As a result of not following the news too closely Queenie van de Sant decided to favour us with a song about economic tough times. It was called “After the Crash”. That would be the crash of 1987. For an industry which makes true the dictum “a week is a long time in politics” it may as well have been a song about the demise of the dinosaurs. A song about a current affairs issue from 22.5 years ago? Absolutely everyone on the planet has moved on (and on, and on again, some many times over), excepting our hapless performer. Add to that the fact that most journalists old enough to remember 1987 got retrenched by Fairfax some 18 months ago…. and, well, it was almost a relief to have Wendy Harmer back.

Of course, the real entertainment was to be found at our table. Witty, charming and ever-so-slightly naughty conversationalists make for a great evening, no matter what the official entertainment might be. And I love a good political story, so the only thing that tore us away before the auction end of the evening was that we couldn’t keep the babysitter sitting all night.

So by 11.15pm I was back at home with my [thankfully sleeping] toddler, thinking through the two very deeply incompatible experiences I’d had that night; musical, interpersonal, sartorial, digestive. There were so many more ideas present at the first event, so very little passion evident at the second. Between the silent auction and other fundraising aspects to the evening I’m sure the dinner raised a sum approaching or equal to the whole ISCM/Aurora Festival budget, but oh my goodness, at what a price….

3 thoughts on “What I did immediately after the opening night of ISCM 2010….

  1. Elissa, you were kind enough to visit me at my blog, and I am overdue in returning the compliment.

    I find we are destined to bump into one another, for it was I – yes, I! – who wrote “Before the Crash”, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the 1980s, which (I say with all humility) usually goes over very well with audiences.

    Clearly not on this night. Corporate gigs are f*ckin’ awful, as Wendy Harmer would say. All performers wake the next morning, see the money on the dresser, and wonder if we’ll ever feel clean again.

    • Oh how FUNNY! It’s a hilarious song (I’ve heard it before and love it) – but as in any cabaret performance it needs the right lead in, sadly not delivered on that night!!! Seriously – Queenie told the mob of journos and media corporates that she had no interest in the news, and then went on to sing this number…. hmmm……

      By the same token, having had a crash of our own in the past few years I suspect that your wonderful tribute to all things greedy and not good about the 80s might have, sadly, had its day…. Let’s organise someone to commission a GFC tribute from you!!

      And corporate gigs aren’t all bad – they do keep rent and things sorted, and while performers may not feel clean the next morning, at least the water is still hot….

      • My favourite remark of yours was “most journalists old enough to remember 1987 got retrenched by Fairfax some 18 months ago”.

        In contrast, most cabaret artists old enough to remember 1987 are still using that year’s headshot.

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