Artists Of The Year

We list the best of the best of 1997.

Amanda Ferguson is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

by Caroline Palmer

Ruth MacKenzie is responsible for the ancient Finnish tunes that still resonate in my head. Her original music-theater epic Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden played at the Southern Theater just long enough this summer to convert several hundred Twin Citians into fans of obscure Scandinavian and Finno-Ugrian vocal techniques. The phenom centered around MacKenzie's voice itself--a hearty instrument to say the least--and the performer's extraordinary collaborators, including choreographer-to-watch Wynn Fricke, Frank Theater artistic director Wendy Knox, singer Barbara Cohen of the trip-hop duo Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and several of the area's most versatile musicians.

Matt Adams

Kalevala is the retelling of a Finnish myth in which Aino, a young woman facing those timeless parental pressures to make something of herself, becomes a salmon to elude the scurrilous advances of a 900-year-old magician. In pre-Christian times, the salmon represented fire and truth, so Aino's transformation actually adds up to something more than the typical story of the one that got away.

MacKenzie, who traveled to Finland to study the demanding otherworldly techniques of itku virsi (cry singing), loitsu (spell singing), and kulning (animal calls), used her newfound talents to propel Aino's story onstage. Dressed in traditional garb reflecting the intersection of Estonian, Lapp, Asian, and Magyar influences present in Finnish culture, MacKenzie and her fellow singers confidently reproduced a singular vocal style that pierced the air like a call from a mountaintop. Meanwhile, Fricke, joined by Zenon company members Megan Flood and Christine Maginnis, brought the myth of Aino to life through dances whose energy seemed drawn from a primeval source. The combined effect was akin to time-traveling, except our destinations were fantastic locales that may never have existed, like Avalon or Atlantis.

Forget Minnesota Scandinavian kitsch. MacKenzie's Kalevala tapped into our collective contemporary fascination with prehistory to expose an aspect of Finland we might never have known existed but will now always remember.

Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

by Rob Nelson

In the year of Hong Kong's "handover" to China, directors John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai took opposite approaches to films about change. Woo's Face/Off and Wong's Happy Together import surrealism into classical Hollywood and subversion into the new Hong Kong, respectively; the former portrays two men who swap places, and the latter, two men who part ways. Woo ingeniously parlayed his clout from the anonymous Broken Arrow into regaining final cut and his former style; Wong boldly spurned the potential franchise of his Chungking Express by reaching for a new kind of one-on-one contact with his customers. Face/Off is an ultraviolent action epic with faint hints of the homoerotic; Happy Together (opening at Oak Street Cinema on April 10) is a gay love story in which the lovers spend most of their time fighting.

But the similarity is that no two films this year were as vividly imagined or energetically assembled, pushing the boundaries of genre while blowing away the head, the heart, and the gut. Neither film appears to deal with the handover, but their metaphors are undeniable. Face/Off isn't about trading faces so much as identity and appropriation in general: Mirroring the course of Woo's relationship to Hollywood (and Hong Kong's to China?), the hero has to pretend to be someone else in order to earn the right to be himself again. Happy Together is an HK film shot in Argentina and ironically subtitled A Film About Reunion: Like its lovers (and the new Hong Kong?), it seeks solace across the ocean but pines for home. Woo's idyllic final scene suggests that the house will look the same as when you left it. Wong, a more anarchic sort of optimist, can't help picturing Hong Kong upside-down--and getting a kick out of it.

Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.

by Kate Sullivan

I can't be profound about this. Anyway, it would be pretentious to try. This musician's death by drowning at age 30 didn't say anything in particular about our generation, about the music industry, about the state of American culture. It was, to all appearances, a stupid accident and an unadulterated, unsexy tragedy.

But Buckley's music is another matter entirely, and its importance is particularly apparent if you compare it to Nirvana's. What made Nirvana a great rock band was, mostly, the very thing Kurt Cobain could never forgive himself for: pure ambition in the form of testosterone-driven power-chord guitar godliness and hook-loving pop songcraft. Buckley's ambition was equally powerful, and he never apologized for it. But his was an emotional ambition: He wanted to express more than any sensible rock dude should. Grace dared to untangle a poetic snarl of emotional forces (somewhat like In Utero, or even Live Through This, actually); to prove that a guy could be both a little bit scary and swooningly romantic; to finger the recesses between violence and vulnerability. This is not just the job of the female rocker. The human heart is the most terrifying of all frontiers, and too few artists of either gender navigate it with any skill.

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