With music degrees spanning two continents and six albums under her belt, Sara Pajunen’s talents run deep. A violinist, vocalist, composer, improviser and audio-visual artist, she weaves both her Finnish and American roots together into multimedia projects that encourage listeners to reflect on history, power and identity.

She’s based in Minnesota, but is a familiar face in New England; she holds a Master’s degree in Music in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. Now, she’s making her return for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Music of the Midnight Sun festival. She’s kicking off the two-week-long celebration of Nordic music on Feb. 28 with a free performance and panel discussion. 

Pajunen joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss her art. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Arun Rath: Before we get into the festival, I want to talk more about your background. You were born in the U.S. but are of Finnish background. How much was that kind of music around for you when you were growing up?

Sara Pajunen: Quite a bit. I grew up playing Western classical music in northern Minnesota, but my violin teacher was from Finland, so I was pretty steeped in Finnish folk music as a child. My dad’s first language was Finnish, and there’s a very strong Finnish contingent in the area of the country where I’m from.

Rath: So, even though it was classical, it wasn’t all [Finnish composer Jean] Sibelius; it was a lot of folk music.

Pajunen: Yes, a lot of folk music. I traveled to Finland for the first time when I was eight and went pretty regularly after that to perform.

Rath: All I know of Finnish folk music is what’s been filtered through classical composers. What’s it actually like in the real world?

Pajunen: There are a couple of different Finnish folk music traditions. There’s an older tradition that’s pre-Christian and involves some of what we call archaic instruments, like the national instrument of Finland, the kantele, which is a plucked zither.

Then, we have the newer folk music that comes from the other Nordic countries and involves the accordion, fiddle and things like that. The music is community-based and used for ceremonies.

Rath: Your own music is thoroughly contemporary, progressive and experimental, but you use these ancestral roots—I’ve heard you say—with a kind of reverence.

Pajunen: Absolutely. I think the American story is one of a loss of roots, no matter what contingent of Americans we come from. It’s very important for me to connect back to my ancestry throughout generations and hundreds of years to feel really grounded and in place. I work a lot with landscapes and connections to Earth in my work, as well.

Rath: I’ve seen you use the term “ancestor worship” which seems to indicate a really deep reverence. Could you tell us what you mean?

Pajunen: I think cultures around the world traditionally really revere ancestors. It was a way of keeping connected with your lineage and connected to the Earth and keep us grounded. I felt that in the United States—especially in European-American culture in the United States—we’ve really lost that connection.

That was highlighted for me when I made a trip back to Finland a year or so ago and visited cemeteries where I found some of my relatives—even one accidentally—and saw how much reverence there still was for those who have come before us, in contrast to the cemeteries where my ancestors in the United States are buried.

Rath: I’ve actually spent some time in Finland; I’ve got an uncle who lives there and a Finnish cousin. One of the things that is so striking—and maybe we can talk about this in terms of the music at the Midnight Sun festival—especially in the far northern parts, people are really connected with the land. It seems like everybody and it’s a magical quality.

Pajunen: Yes, I agree. I lived in Finland for four years. I miss it a lot. I would call myself a forest person. I really love to be in the forest. I think that is inside of me through generations.

I come from an area of Minnesota that has been decimated by strip mining, an iron ore region, so that’s been a large part of my work over the past few years—exploring how the landscape around us changes our relationship with the earth.

Rath: Tell us about the music people will get to experience.

Pajunen: I’ve been invited here to perform some Finnish folk music tonight in conjunction with a panel discussion, titled “Light, Loneliness and Creativity.” Not only are we experiencing a lot of contemporary Nordic composers through the programming at BSO this week, but you’ll hear the folk element as well. They’re all connected.

Rath: How would you say this ties in with your past work that we’ve talked about?

Pajunen: I think that we’re all becoming more aware of our histories now in a post-COVID world. We’re paying much more attention to our connection with each other and to the land, and we’re being more honest about the stories we’ve told ourselves.