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Sara Pajunen's 'Laatikko/Box' reveals immigrant stories through song

Sara Pajunen

Sara Pajunen Zolton Cohen

Want a reminder of what life's like through the eyes of a freshly settled immigrant? Take a listen to Sara Pajunen’s Laatikko/Box.

The Minneapolis violinist’s newest album is a half hour of storytelling over music she initially composed for a Cedar Cultural Center commission in 2013. For the project, Pajunen interviewed five recent immigrants. She then culled through hours and hours of recordings to gather a collection of tales -- some happy, some fearful, some angry, some sad -- but all a reflection of how humans confront change. Laatikko/Box plays out like a series of dreamy vignettes or a scattering of half-memories, both sonically and lyrically.

Ahead of her album release show Friday at the A-Mill Artist Lofts in Minneapolis, Pajunen (pronounced pa-you-nen) shares with City Pages the work that went into the album and her own ancestry.

City Pages: What's the story of how you began playing violin?

Sara Pajunen: I started playing piano when I was 5. All my older sisters had horses, but my parents moved into town [Hibbing, Minnesota] right after I was born, so I got music instead. However, I was too fidgety for a piano bench, and when my mom saw an advertisement for a violin teacher, I switched over.

CP: You were born in the U.S. but moved overseas for a bit to explore your heritage. What inspired that?

SP: The majority of my family comes from Finland, and Finnish was my father’s first language. But an even stronger influence in my connection with Finland is the fact that my first violin teacher was Finnish-born, and I grew up singing and playing Finnish folk music in a touring group. We traveled to Europe, Australia, performed at the White House and at the Olympics in Atlanta. It was the dominant activity in my childhood.

In my adult years, I lived in Helsinki for nearly four years, studying classical music. Now I have a duo with a Finnish accordion player, and we tour and perform in both the United States and Europe, meeting in one place or another!

CP: You began this project as a commission for the Cedar around 2013. How do you think the piece has evolved since then?

SP: The piece is multi-faceted, and began with my desire for personal evolution, but also with the desire to make a statement. The statement of the work hasn’t changed, but my person and artist evolved tremendously through the project. It has taken many different forms since the original Cedar show, including recording conversations at Iron Range libraries for inclusion in the piece. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is another live iteration following the release of the album.

CP: What does Laatikko/Box mean?

SP: Laatikko is the Finnish word for box, and also for hot dish. I chose the name because the genesis of the project was in the Finnish American Family History Collection at the [the University of Minnesota's] Immigration History Research Center while I was surrounded by archival boxes, reading journal entries, letters, documents from decades past.

CP: How many people did you interview for Laatikko/Box and what was the most eye-popping thing you learned about first-generation immigrants? Whose harmonies and singing do we hear on the recording?

SP: I interviewed five recent immigrants for the project, but also had been recording conversations with my 94-year-old great aunt Saima, whose voice is also included in the piece, as well as the library recordings mentioned. 

The harmonies and singing is me; I have sung quite a bit in my life and plan to increase that!
While interviewing immigrants, it was clear that they had various connections with their immigration story, different aspects they held onto, and what they wanted to share became more important. For some, sharing the story of their people, for others satisfaction in their successes, but despite differences, the emotions of leaving, arriving and assimilation were common to all.

CP: Were you concerned you would be handing the listener the stories behind the piece -- that the nuances of the music would be lost?

SP: Laatikko/Box was developed always as a whole, as a “sound piece” -- not as a narrative or story, and not as a musical work. The music and sound exist to enhance the listener’s experience, but also provided me a canvas on which to experiment.

The meditative and provocative qualities of the work are most important. The invitation to one’s own experience of change, and/or reflection on ideas of similarity through time and culture; this is what I want to get across.

CP: You have a lot of elements besides the music -- water, recordings of buses, people. How did you decide where each piece fit in Laatikko/Box?

SP: Oh, hours and hours and hours of listening, sliding around, walking while listening, lying down while listening, working on planes, in trains across Russia, in Airbnbs in Iceland, hotels in Finland, dog parks in Minneapolis, in my parents’ cabin, at an artist residency near the Canadian border ... Just hours and hours of work. The recording could have turned out in a many different ways, since it was composed from, mostly, improvised violin parts.

CP: What do you think is the most difficult part of being an immigrant? How do we, as Americans, bridge this gap?

SP: It seems the most difficult part of the immigration experience is loss of culture, and potentially loss of self -- until a new identity is formed. And even then, there is a split, a division. Laatikko/Box offers the idea that we are all immigrants in one way or another -- even if we haven’t left a country, haven’t we left a job, a city, a relationship, a way of being?

And by using this comparison, I hope it will allow us to get inside how it feels for those who really left the country of their childhood, a culture where everyone spoke the same language, had the same traditions, a culture where they felt understood. The majority of Americans haven’t traveled outside the U.S. How can we know what it feels like to be an outsider? America’s bubble needs to be broken.

CP: Have the recent political happenings put a new meaning to the work you did on this piece?

SP: More than three years ago, when I began working on Laatikko/Box, I couldn’t have anticipated how timely the release would be. The world works in mysterious and wonderful and complicated ways.

Although people have called Laatikko/Box a “political work,” and someone just ordered an album to be mailed to Melania Trump, I wouldn’t attach the word “political” because I want the work and its idea to exist beyond the duality of our political system. But if “political” means listening, thinking with our own brains and hearts, connecting with community, and getting involved in our own lives and destinies, then ... yes.

Sara Pajunen
Where: A-Mill Artist Lofts
When: 7 p.m. Fri., Feb. 3
Tickets: Free; more info here