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Interpreters of grief

by Amanda Kauranne

Can music engender sorrow or comfort? Is there (a) space for grief? Emmi Kuittinen, who delves into the world of traditional laments and folk poetry for inspiration, and musician/scholar Astrid Swan, who studies grief as a personal and a transgenerational phenomenon, make music out of grief that is not as sad as one might expect.

“I’ve had a terminal illness for nine years, so I’m well placed for research into grief,” says singer-songwriter and scholar Astrid Swan. She received a cancer diagnosis nearly ten years ago, and her two most recent albums are about grief. “At the moment, grief is a scarlet thread in my life and in my work. It attracts me, bringing up new lines of inquiry and new questions all the time.”  

Alongside her career as a songwriter-musician, in August 2023 Swan became Postdoctoral Fellow in Arts at the Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Study, an independent research institution within the University of Helsinki.

“It is meaningful for me to be able to combine art and scholarship at this point in my life. I’m interested in how knowledge manifests itself in art and how the artistic production of information can be part of academic epistemologies. I wouldn’t wish my suffering on anyone, but since it’s happened and I’m still here, it feels important to study grief.”

Music is a good tool for processing emotions, as it penetrates the cortex directly, while speech takes a more complicated route, explains Emmi Kuittinen – a folk musician, music educator, community musician and specialist in laments who also deals with grief from a variety of perspectives in her work. Her album Surun synty [Sorrow’s birth] was released in autumn 2023.

“Grief is a peculiar thing in our society,” she says. “Finns are very forthcoming about how they’re doing and what has happened to them, but grief is something that people don’t really talk about. I feel that we need music to express it.”

Indeed, many people unconsciously use music to manage their emotions, whether to reinforce their current mood or to dispel it.

“I remember that even as a child there were songs that touched me and opened up worlds that I was unable to describe in words,” Kuittinen recalls.


Connections of music and grief

“In order to understand the connection between music and emotional experiences, I can approach grief through the theory of affects – not just as an emotion but as a broader mental phenomenon”, Swan explains.

“Grief is often mistakenly treated as an emotion, a form of sadness, but it is more complex than that. Therefore, Brené Brown considers that grief includes at least the components of loss, longing and feeling lost and the emotions prompted by these experiences. Grief can be analysed through the theory of affects.” 

An affect is a sensory experience and an interpretation of it, heavily governed by cultural categorisation. In an affect, part of the experience is converted into feelings and expressions of emotion, but another part falls between the cracks of a person’s linguistic and expressive capabilities. This excess of affect is precisely what music can reach.

“Grief is an experience that manifests itself in multiple ways, and its temporal dimension is also quite different from what we stereotypically imagine it to be. There’s the age-old theory of the five stages of grief, and the notion is that once you’ve gone through those, the whole thing is done and dusted. But longing for someone or something can be a life-long companion. In many cases, our culture simply doesn’t have the words or socially acceptable ways of expressing these less acknowledged aspects of grief. We may call this disenfranchised grief.” 

Swan says that she is unsure whether it is possible to create grief with music. She does consider, however, that music may latch onto an existing feeling of grief in a listener and resonate.

“Perhaps the comfort that we may feel in music emerges in the same way, if we feel that we are understood or heard in some way. This isn’t a property of the music itself; it’s a strange sort of thing that happens between the music and the listener. Not all songs prompt this reaction in us, even if all the elements for doing so are there.”


Astrid Swan. Photo by Tekla Vály.

A space for grief

“For me, also as a listener, conveying emotions in music is important. If a musical performance is just a technical performance, it doesn’t inspire me,” says Kuittinen, who needs the ability to convey emotions in her work not only as a musician but as a community musician. 

As a specialist in the lament tradition, she knows that music such as those laments used to play a vital role in the experience of grief. In Finland, the tradition of laments derives from the traditions of Karelia and Ingria and the worldview in those cultures.

“It’s also important to understand that laments were considered speech addressed to the hereafter. Lamenting was an important ritual function, and laments were of huge importance in processing grief and loss in the community, because it was not permissible to talk about negative emotions. I can well imagine that laments served as an outlet for grief not just related to the immediate ritual situation at hand,” Kuittinen notes. 

“I became interested in this genre – traditional laments – when I read the book Inkerin itkuvirret - Ingrian Laments by Aili Nenola. I had imagined that I wouldn't be able to understand the world of laments, but with wedding laments I realised that the most overwhelming emotion in them is love, and this gave me a way to relate to them.”

Swan, for her part, notes that at least in Finland there is no longer a coherent cultural template for dealing with grief in everyday life. Because people avoid it, we have not learned a way for grieving. 

“Rituals are of huge importance for emotional experiences and for grieving. They set up a place, a time and a space for the big picture of grief – perhaps for perceiving family relations with both past and present generations. As an academic and an artist, I am also interested in ‘a space for grief’ understood as a concrete location. How does our experience of grief or grieving change depending on whether we are in a cemetery or in an art museum? If we had places for and ways of grieving, we might have more space for other things,” Swan concludes.


The many faces of grief 

We are faced with sad and troubling things in this world. Kuittinen says she hopes she could make people feel at least a bit better about their worries through laments.

“I have a strong sense of empathy, but I also know how to maintain boundaries. I can commiserate with other people without being burdened myself. The older I become, the more often I have to encounter grief myself. This lends depth to my laments, but my motive in performing them is not to have an outlet for my own grief; instead, my focus is on compassion and community. When I perform in public, I try to make my laments such that as many people as possible can identify with them.”

The song is a place for sadness, so that you can live with everything,” Swan writes of the music video to the song In the Woods. She has made writing music a ritual for herself that allows access to a place where she can feel emotions and where she can place her grief. 

“I can return to that place every time I perform or listen to songs and observe how my relationship to that place changes over time,” she says.

“On the album From the Bed and Beyond, I dealt with the grief caused by the crisis of falling ill, but on the album D/other I took a more intellectual approach to grief as a generational experience. For instance, grief is an essential component of parenthood, but this is rarely talked about. We grieve simultaneously for the disappearance of our own parents and for our own disappearance from the family chain of our children. Comfort comes from the image of the next generation reaching out to the future and our mortal selves living on through them.”

Swan tackles heavy topics in her music, but instead of depressing her listeners, her songs lend empowerment and good feeling.

“I may have been pigeon-holed as a music maker whose topics are so intense that people don’t even dare play my stuff! But if you listen to the songs, you’ll realise that that’s not true. I’ve found comfort in the creative process – and perhaps that resonates as an uplifting mood in the music. My chosen vehicle, the pop aesthetic, is very familiar, and as such a safety blanket for the listener,” she says with amusement. 

Nevertheless, dealing with grief in our society makes one vulnerable, even as an artist.

“Although these days there’s more plurality in how we see ourselves, our everyday lives nevertheless exist in a world governed by gender as binary, heteronormativity, whiteness, middle classes and the norms of late capitalism. All this involves multiple types of grief. Marginalised people often create art on their own terms, and this is variously received with encouragement or with appreciation that doesn’t translate into pay or security. There are real concrete risks involved when you begin to explore grief in art.”

Emmi Kuittinen using itkuliina, a traditional cloth to wipe the tears when lamenting. Photo by Sini Suomi.


On the origin of grief 

Kuittinen’s album Surun synty [Sorrow’s birth] explores grief from a variety of perspectives. 

“I’d released the album Itken ja laulan [I weep and sing], where every track was linked to lament tradition. I didn’t want to make another one like that, but I was not done dealing with grief as a topic. The title track of the new album came from my desire to create a modern application of the tradition of origin spell. In Finnish and Karelian folk traditions, you have to know and declare the origin of a thing in order to control it. This prompted the thought of whether it would be possible to control grief if I wrote an incantation about its origin,” she explains. 

Joining Kuittinen on the album are wind musician and pump organist Mimmi Laaksonen, vocalist, ukulele player and cellist Antti Rask and violinist and jouhikko player Kirsi Vinkki. Working with these trusted musicians brought Kuittinen joy in the music-making despite the downbeat topic. The album draws on stories from Kuittinen’s family and on traditional sources; there are old schlagers and lament songs (itkulaulu). How are these different from traditional laments (itkuvirsi)? 

“There’s no established definition for this, but for me a ‘traditional lament’ is a performance that follows the tradition closely, while a ‘lament song’ is a freer interpretation of the genre. I think of traditional laments as unaccompanied solo performances where the text follows specific poetic means of expression. The melody has a narrow compass, and the performance practice incorporates features of genuine grief. Lament songs, meanwhile, are songs assimilating elements of the lament tradition.”

Kuittinen wrote an original song setting an ancient Ingrian lament text, Kurja kyynelikko [Miserable and in tears]. The new composition severed the otherworldly connection, so to speak, dispelling the power of the traditional lament. 

“By comparison, I wrote the lyrics for Kaiho [Longing] in Viena Karelian, emulating the ancient lament tradition, and I collaborated with wind musician Mimmi Laaksonen in developing a melody reflecting the aesthetics of traditional laments. The lyrics specifically focus on communicating with the world beyond. We recorded the track in a forest because the lyrics also speak of birds.”


Transgenerational and societal grief 

For the tracks on the Surun synty album, Kuittinen selected traditional texts from the homeland of her family in Karelia and also lyrics based on family stories, as with the opening track ‘Hyvä ol’’, a tune from Kirvu, and the song ‘Marja Leena’.

“Despite the autobiographical element, I hope that listeners will allow the songs to resonate freely. I can’t know what feelings this album, my baby, will prompt in listeners, but it would be wonderful if someone were to find comfort in it.” 

Swan is also exploring her family roots as part of her research.

“We carry layers of grief across generations, just like other things are passed on. I’ve now begun researching my great-grandfather, who was a violinist and a Polish Jew. Some of his family perished in the Holocaust. This links me to a kind of grief that is of historical significance but also ties in with the unspoken history of my family.” 

Swan considers that distance in time works to her advantage in this. It is possible to look at things differently from a generation or two later.

“I might have not been able to undertake this research while my grandfather was alive. He never met his father, and his grandmother raised him, possibly because he was born out of wedlock,” says Swan.

There is another kind of unspoken history in the family too – queer grief – having to do with the life of pianist Astrid Joutseno, who died in 1963.

“She created a significant international career as an educator and a musician together with her life partner violinist Kerttu Vanne. My family never talked about her, and her story has largely been neglected in the history of Finnish music as well.”

Swan finds further significant societal dimensions in grief.

“Avoiding grief is not just a contemporary phenomenon. It is bound up with the ideals of progress and capitalism in Western society. Grief is not productive, it is thought, and thus it has no merit. Yet things and affects exist even if we don’t talk about them or don’t even have words for them. It’s just that we can’t meet each other to share grief when this is the case.”

Indeed, Swan proposes that socially shared grief would be healing at this time. Coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, society at large has had an experience of grief. Swan sees this state of vulnerability as an opportunity.

“My music reflects what I have discovered in grief. If we dare to venture into what we consider deep waters – things that are difficult, things that we avoid – we find an uplifting experience. When you dare to go there, you might not find discord but pop hooks and wonderful chord progressions!”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo: Loviisa Pihlakoski