Listen Traditional Finnish -- Metsakukkia (Forest Flowers)
Sep 12, 2016
Listen Pajunen -- Amass
Sep 12, 2016
Like many people from the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, Sara Pajunen (Pie-YOU-nen) has a strong connection to her Finnish heritage. Her father grew up with his Finnish-speaking grandparents and her violin teacher was from Finland. Pajunen took classical violin from this teacher, but also learned Finnish folk music and dances as a participant in a children's performing touring group that toured nationally and internationally. As a high school student, when her family moved to the Twin Cities, Sara took Finnish as PSEO at the University of Minnesota. She lived in Finland for four years and sees living in Finland again as something in her future. She loves to sing in Finnish and has a duo with a Finnish accordionist, called Aallotar. Needless to say, her Finnish ancestry and playing violin have been a big part of shaping who Pajunen is.
Pajunen wanted to share her love of violin and its capabilities with the students who participated in the Class Notes Artist program. The violin has become a key instrument of not only classical music, but many different strains of folk music from all over the western world. It's probably one of the few instruments that first comes to mind when someone is asked to name a classical instrument or a western folk instrument (guitar, percussion and flute are probably the others).
The physics of the violin and its larger siblings is fascinating, but actually pretty logical and easy to understand. Sound itself, of course, is just vibrations through air and vibrations from the violin strings whether bowed or plucked vibrate inside the body of the instrument before they emerge as sound. The hair on the wooden bow is from the tail of a horse — it doesn't hurt the horse to remove it, it's like getting a haircut. Horsehair has little microscopic hooks on it that when sticky with rosin catch on the metal strings as the bow is pulled. This vibrates the string and said vibrations are caught on the wooden bridge and through that sent inside the hollow body of the violin. The sound bounces around and comes out the f-holes on the top/front of the instrument that project the sound. If you want to tune the instrument, you adjust the pegs to tighten or loosen the strings, which changes the pitch. Pajunen actually re-tuned the instrument for one particular piece from G-D-A-E to A-E-A-E because it actually creates more resonance. Interestingly, Pajunen has been the sole owner of the violin that she currently plays (it was made in 2004).
Pajunen has a very interactive teaching style. The students were encouraged to ask questions, and hypothesize answers to Sara's questions. They participated in exercises to learn the importance of keeping time, and counting beats. Student volunteers had the opportunity to be dynamics masters; standing up in front of the group and raising and lowering their hand to indicate forte and piano dynamics as Pajunen played. Pajunen asked that the students listen with their eyes closed while she walked among them with her violin. She too closes her eyes a lot when she plays; it makes her seem fully immersed in her playing.
Pajunen has been playing violin for 29 years and in the last few years she has ventured into the world of composition. For the students, she played her work Amass, which was constructed on and off over a period of about a year and has really special significance to her growth as a musician. We chatted for a while about this piece and the meaning behind it. In our conversation, Pajunen told me that Amass has two different meanings.
Sara Pajunen: "It's the first time that I've written a solo violin piece that feels like a complete conglomeration of all the music I've played in my violin life of 29 years and so it's amassing all that together"
Pajunen is also interested in the idea and power of sound as "presence."
"When we take just one sense — listening for example — and get rid of all the other ones, it can slow down our brain and lead us to a more open place. I grew up Catholic and you know a lot of mysticism in Catholicism also has those sensory ideas of the incense or the prayer, the repetition and so Amass come from that. I hope that it's a short five-minute bit where people can focus in on the sound and feel some sort of peace and movement within them, and leave feeling more open and more hopeful and more aware and more present."
Influenced by her childhood in Iron Range and Finnish heritage, Pajunen feels most at home out in nature, amongst woods and lakes. Much of Amass was composed on her parents' deck at their cabin (what she considers her childhood home) in northern Minnesota overlooking a lake. She likes to walk around or sway when composing. Her composition is a stream of consciousness process, that involves improvisation and allowing whatever sounds want to come out to come out. What does come cannot be defined by genre and Pajunen is totally okay with that.
Sara Pajunen: "I wouldn't really want to pinpoint what genres you hear in [Amass] because the point is that they all just exist inside of me through all the influences that I've taken in and all the music that I've played. So I think people might try to describe it in terms of genre, but it feels very much like me at this moment in my musical development, having collected and amassed everything that I have in my life, and then looking towards the future of my violin playing and my composition."
Pajunen believes that music has the power to bring people together and that dissolve genre barriers is akin to dissolving barriers between people of different backgrounds and cultures.
"I was raised playing classical music and folk music and it's just about dissolving those genre barriers and creating what reflects where we've come from both in our own lives and then historically throughout generations and culture and what we are looking forward towards in trying to be more unified. I like to think of things in metaphors, so when we unify parts of ourselves and we integrate, then maybe that has an effect on the way we operate in the world and that can help dissolve barriers that we're having trouble with in societies."
Pajunen's philosophy on breaking down barriers and sharing peace by sharing the importance of both music and heritage makes her a great role model for young students. Her open-mindedness about music and culture and her respect for her instrument hopefully rubbed off on them a little even if they don't quite realize it.