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Iva Bittova: Knowing, Feeling...


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Iva Bittová is one of the most important figures in the history of Czech music. I can't think of anybody on her level, with her power
—Vladimir Václavek
[Note: This article was first published in Music & Literature, a North American magazine dedicated to promoting artists worthy of wider attention]

Iva Bittová is a rare talent. She has developed a personal idiom and vocabulary that is almost entirely her own. Her sound, her very personal language, forged from the union of violin and voice, cannot be categorized yet is immediately recognizable. Bittová is, quite simply, inimitable.

Though she is not the first artist to create a hybrid language that draws from different roots, nobody has forged quite the same path as Bittová. Her artistic idiosyncrasies and virtuosity as a singer often draw comparison to Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk, though Norwegian Sami singer Mari Boine and Portuguese singer Maria Joao may also serve as references to some degree.

Bittová's innovative techniques with both voice and violin, her attraction to minimalism, and her multi-disciplinary career perhaps draw closest comparison to another all-rounder, Meredith Monk. However, it is unknown whether Monk has ever used a ping-pong ball as an objet trouvé to alter her voice, as Bittová has done on occasion.

In the end, these comparisons hardly matter. Bittová's performances, whether solo or accompanied, contain a dramaturgy that is every bit as natural as her improvisations. It is impossible to separate the actor from the musician, the entertainer from the artist. "In the language of an actor, to know is synonymous with to feel," notes Russian actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski, and feeling is at the core of Bittová's expression, whatever setting she may find herself in.

Clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, who first played with Bittová when she collaborated with the celebrated New York ensemble Bang on a Can in 2000, observes: "When Iva first appeared in the U.S., I think there was some sense that here was this deeply Eastern European music, but I don't think it's that; she's a cosmopolitan person. She was very much in the center of Czech urban culture. She was a film star and kind of a pop star. She knows jazz, she knows rock 'n' roll, she knows classical music—she knows Janáček and she knows Mozart. Hers is an honest hybrid music that just reflects all of her musical experiences. She's not putting up any boundaries. She just responds to the whole sonic fabric of the moment."

Responding to the sonic fabric of the moment comes close to capturing Bittová's unique gift. One need only watch Bittová's original interpretation of the jazz standard "My Funny Valentine" at the Isole Che Parlano festival in Sardinia, 2011 (available on YouTube), to gain a sense of the in-the moment essence of Bittová's art. The megalithic, Bronze-Age Tomba dei Giganti provides the ideal setting for the singer's performance. Bittová seems to draw energy and inspiration from the silence that enfolds her and that frames her almost Shakespearean drama. Bittová conveys her feeling for Richard Rogers' tune and Lorenzo Hart's lyrics in gesticulations and body language that exude balletic grace and theatrical magnetism. Her voice runs a gamut of emotions, from susurrus, lullaby-delivery to the ululations and cries of a tortured soul. It's a performance that transcends genre.

The small crowd, mere feet away, is spellbound by the singer's seductive and sometimes startling idiom. Bittová's improvisations would no doubt have been a bit too avant-garde for the crowds who flocked to see the 1937 musical "Babes in Arms," which introduced "My Funny Valentine" to the world. In Europe, in another century, her performance might have brought forward accusations of demonic possession. But at the Tomba dei Giganti her performance inspires wonder. To borrow from Meredith Monk, Bittová's voice dances and her body sings.

Even in the early twenty-first century, however, Bittová's more outré music may initially dissuade people more used to mainstream music, but Ziporyn, who also currently plays with Bittová and guitarist Giyan Riley in the trio Eviyan, has seen Bittová's powers of musical persuasion firsthand: "The thing about Iva is that what she's doing is so transparent and so real that everybody gets it. I've performed with her in front of classical audiences, avant-garde audiences, and indie rock audiences. Everybody understands what she's doing because it's deeply personal; it's connected to the core values of music.

"Everybody understands, and it's true folk music in that sense. As a result, she can take people to places that normally they don't believe they are willing to go. Because Iva's music is rooted in this simple, earthy style, she can suddenly do things that are completely avant-garde and experimental, and people will go with her, and vice versa. You can get a very hard core audience that wants to be wowed and because there is that side of her that's so intense, once she gets very simple and personal that audience will also go with her there."

Both of Bittová's parents were musicians. Her father, Koloman Bitto, was a well-known bassist and multi-instrumentalist versed in classical and Slovakian folk music. Bittová took violin and ballet lessons as a child but dropped the violin when her family moved to Brno in 1971. She later graduated from Brno's Conservatory in drama and music and throughout the 1970s she acted in films and television. Much of her future inspiration was gained from formative music and acting experiences in Brno's experimental Goose on a String Theater.

Enter the album name hereBittová returned to music in 1981, quickly developing a very personal style, with the violin serving as an extension of her voice. She soon came to the attention of percussionist Pavel Fajt, who invited her to join the rock band Kolektiv (later Dunaj). Bittová also collaborated with Fajt to record two albums in 1987 on the Panton label, Bittová + Fajt and Svatba. The intimacy captured in these musical vignettes reflects the deep connection between Bittová and Fajt, and the sparse arrangements serve to accentuate their songwriting craft.

Bittová's panoramic vocal articulations and her emotive violin voiced a new-age soundtrack to a timeless Moravian fable. Fajt's percussive accents accentuate the drama. This was progressive folk music, sometimes tremendously lyrical (as in the beautiful "Morning Song"), at other times veering towards post-punk dissonance ("Trifonov").

Their second album found the ears of former Henry Cow percussionist Chris Cutler, who re-released Bittová +Fajt on his label Recommended Records. Cutler's former Henry Cow colleague and improvising partner, the guitarist Fred Frith, filmed Bittová and Fajt performing as part of his documentary film Step Across the Border (1990). The two releases were key in introducing Bittová and Fajt to an international audience.

That Bittová and Fajt's unconventional yet arresting idiom should appeal to Cutler and Frith is unsurprising; the music's eclectic roots and contrasting textures, the spontaneity that is a Bittová trademark, were all elements to be found in the progressive Henry Cow. Bittová and Fajt's duo recordings came out a year before the debut Dunaj release, but in the meantime the six-piece band continued to carve a fearlessly personal musical path.

At the distance of over a quarter of a century it can be difficult to fully appreciate the originality of Dunaj and the impact it had on the Czechoslovakian music scene during the dark years of Communist oppression. Dunaj's bassist Vladimir Václavek recalls those times: "When we started it was our intention not to copy any style of music. We were uncompromising. We really wanted to make our music something new. We went our way as far as was possible at that time. Our music never touched politics, but it wasn't easy during Communism because there was no freedom."

Fajt concurs that Dunaj had no overt political agenda: "Dunaj was never about making political statements. We had no obviously political lyrics. But everybody who listened to Dunaj and heard the expression we put in to this music and those abstract lyrics was sure how much we hated the political situation in our country."

The censorship and travel restrictions of those times meant that it was impossible for Dunaj to tour abroad. Fajt and Bittová, however, did manage it as a duo. In fact, the duo's second album, Svetba, was recorded in Konstanz, Germany, in Hubl Greiner's studio. The duo's proposed tour to Germany didn't go without a hitch. Fajt explains: "You have to imagine the preparation before that first tour. We had to play before the commission from Pragokoncert—the state artistic agency—and the only one that could provide visas and police papers for us to cross the border. I think we succeeded because we pretended to be a strange folkloric duo; also, maybe because they took half our fee!"

The papers, however, did not come in time and the German organizers had to cancel the tour. A rescheduled tour went ahead, initiated by Herbert Jugel of the Exquisite Music Agency and managed by Greiner. Fajt is quick to acknowledge Greiner's role in making the tour happen: "The tour was a great success, largely thanks to Hubl Greiner's extraordinary help. Probably nobody expected such avant-garde music, and such warm music from behind the Iron Curtain. It was a rare privilege to cross the border two years before it crashed."

Feeling, warmth, and freedom are themes that recur frequently when Bittová's musical collaborators talk about her: "The freedom in her music has always touched me," says Václavek. "She was a very important part of Dunaj. She would never do a song the same way twice. She always transmitted a very special kind of feeling. I would say this feeling is connected with the heart—it's something very alive. It was always fascinating to see and it was something that I was learning myself. I love the first Dunaj album. The music we made with Pavel and Iva was superb. There were several bands that were part of a special scene but somehow Dunaj became legendary in the Czech Republic and beyond. With Dunaj, we started a new style, a new musical language for the Czech Republic. From these roots there is now some kind of scene, an alternative scene."

Fajt too, points to Bittová's part in the band's success:"Iva was unique. There were other woman singers at this time, like Dáša Andrtová-Voňková, maybe some others, but they were more like folk singers than performers. Iva's own musical language was already very developed. She had this huge artistic background from avant-garde theater and films. All the time she mixed together her acting and playing music. I think that this was the strongest part of her." As for Bittová's significance on the Czech music scene, Fajt states: "I think that for a certain artistic movement her influence has been pretty fundamental."

Bittová left Dunaj in 1990, returning briefly in 1995/6 to record on the album Pustit Musíš and reuniting once more in 2002 for a series of concerts in tribute to vocalist Jiří Kolšovský, who died in 1998. Bittová's post-Dunaj career falls broadly into two categories: her solo career, which yielded six albums between 1991 and 1997, and her collaborative projects, dating roughly from 1997, when Bittová began to consciously expand her talents musically.

Her eponymous debut on Nonesuch (1997) already carried many of the hallmarks of her later solo work; music whose rootsy minimalism defies conventional contours, with her voice and violin now inseparable. It was an impressive debut, plaintive and lulling, in turn urgent and soaring. Bittová's Romani-tinged songs dance in the shadows between folk and modern classical music. Blessed with an arresting voice of great purity, Bittová's vocal improvisations swing between visceral and comic. Her violin playing—a mixture of lyricism and rhythmic pulse—is soft as spring rain one moment, and rages like a storm the next.

Enter the album name hereSome of Bittová's most outstanding work pitches these elements in collaborative settings, beginning with the striking duo recordings with Fajt. In 1997, Bittová once again aligned with former Dunaj co-member Vladimír Václavek to produce what many consider to be the real gem in her discography, Bílé Inferno (Indies Records). For Václavek, the record holds a special place: "For me, it's one of the best, if not the best record I made in my life. In music, you can never plan that something will turn out so good. The spirits helped us with this."

As Václavek recalls, the double album took about ten days to record: "It was very fluent and easy. I had some guitar motifs and some ideas. Iva worked on her parts and we built something very nice together." Guest musicians such as cellist Tom Cora, trumpeter František Kučera, double bassist Jaromír Honzák, and pianist Ida Kelarová add subtle textures. A children's choir works a little magic into the seams, particularly on the epic "Uspávanka." An inspired Bittová, who has rarely sounded so relaxed— though there are flashes of her fire—plays kalimba, viola, African lyre, and that most ethereal-sounding of instruments, the waterphone.

Surprisngly, Bittová's violin is only heard on a few tracks, throwing the spotlight more on her voice: "I think Iva felt freer as a singer on this record," says Václavek. "She didn't need to use violin so much because my guitar brought a harmonic environment to the music. She could feel free to use only her voice. There was more space; it was not so full like our [earlier] music."

Certainly, the unforgettable melodic motifs are framed by beautifully sparse arrangements. The magic of this album lies in the chemistry between Bittová and Václavek. It is no surprise that it sold well in the Czech Republic, gaining gold status: "Yes, it was very successful," says Václavek. "Whenever I play concerts people come up to me and tell me how Bílé Inferno touched them in some period of their lives."

The success of Bílé Inferno led Bittová and Václavek to form the band Čikori with Kučera, Honzák, and drummer Miloš Dvořáček. An album simply titled Čikori (Indies Records, 2001) followed. Though the record can be seen in some ways as a natural extension of Bílé Inferno, the music is quite distinct: "The spirit and feeling were already different, because we tried to build a band," says Václavek. "But, yes, it was like a follow up to Bílé Inferno."

The music on Čikori is more urgent and has a darker soul than Bílé inferno, and ranks as one of Bittová's most striking works. For non-Czech speakers, Bittová's music can be frustratingly inaccessible, since the meaning of her lyrics is lost: "The lyrics are very important in our music," says Václavek. "They're not just to fill out the music. But if you are sensitive to music then somehow it's complete even if you do not understand the words."

After Čikori, some years passed without any further collaboration between Bittová and Václavek, as the singer embraced new musical challenges. Václavek has watched Bittová's progress with interest and is no way surprised by her versatility and success: "Iva Bittová is one of the most important figures in the history of Czech music. I can't think of anybody on her level, with her power. In Czech today, people follow styles; they play like somebody. Iva's way is really original and she follows her way with complete conviction."

Three decades after first playing together in Dunaj, Bittová and Václavek continue to play duo concerts and have recently reactivated Čikori, with a new album planned for 2014.

The range and diversity of music that Bittová has turned to over the years is remarkable. Her chameleon-like musical persona increasingly defines Bittová as an artist. She has recorded an enchanting collection of children's songs with child musicians, Kolednice (BMG, 1995), which includes a delightful re-interpretation of "Ave Maria." With Dorothea Kellerová, she gave a stunning performance of Béla Bartók's 44 Duets for Two Violins (Rachot Behemot, 1997), leading to international tours. Bittová's album Classic (Supraphon, 1998) saw her interpret the music of Czech composer Leoš Janáček alongside the internationally renowned Škampa Quartet, with whom Bittová would further explore Janáček's catalog, six years later, with Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs (Supraphon, 2004).

Enter the album name hereThe distinguished Slovak composer Vladimir Godár contributed special string arrangements for the Škampa Quartet on Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs. It was a reunion of sorts, since Godár had composed the music for the film "Tenderness," which featured Bittová as its lead actress. Bittová and Godár solidified their working partnership in another standout performance of Bittová's career, on Godár's modern classical masterpiece, Mater (ECM, 2007). The sixty-minute suite, based on religious and secular texts, was almost stillborn before it began. Godár explains: "For a long time I had been dreaming of setting the text of Stabat Mater to music. However, when I heard Arvo Part's Stabat Mater, I gave up the idea, as this piece appeared to me so impeccable—there was nothing more to say."

The inspiration finally arrived while Godár was working with Bittová on the music for the film Landscape: "I started once again to occupy myself with Stabat Mater, as the juncture of the voice and violin embodied in one person inspired me. I chose the old, Slavonic church translation for my Stabat Mater, and I wrote it for Iva. At the premiere, Iva was singing and simultaneously playing the solo violin, but for the recording I divided these two tasks between two performers. Thus, my Stabat Mater was inspired by her musicality joining string and vocal renditions, her intonation and the emotion with which she performed the music. The whole of Mater was later based on the knowledge of her extraordinary musical skills."

The Mater project assembled the talents of violinist Miloš Valent, the chamber ensemble Solamente Naturali, conducted by Marek Štryncl, and the Bratislava Conservatory Choir, led by choirmaster Dušan Bill. The live premiere took place at the Bratislava Music Festival in 2003. To see Bittová bring life to his compositions was clearly an edifying experience for Godár: "This concert was an immensely moving event for me. It fulfilled many of my long-held contemplations as well as actual expectations."

Three years later, the recording of Mater was released on Manfred Eicher's legendary ECM label to widespread critical acclaim, bringing global attention to Godár and Bittová. For Godár, this release held special significance: "I have to admit that this was one of my age-long dreams. ECM has released music of many composers who were always very close to me and who were very important for my own development. I was very happy to find myself among the people who I have related to for a long time already."

In a nice piece of symmetry, Bittová also joined the prestigious label when her solo ECM debut, simply titled Iva Bittová was released in 2013.

For many years, Bittová has enjoyed a degree of fame throughout much of Europe, but it wasn't until her first American release on Nonesuch Records in 1997 that she began to make major inroads into the country that would later become her home. The record was a combination of songs from Bittová's first solo recording and Ne nehledej (BMG, 1994). The CD came to the attention of Evan Ziporyn, the innovative American clarinetist who has collaborated with the likes of Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Nik Bärtsch, and Don Byron.

Of Bittová's early music, Ziporyn recalls: "I connected with it immediately. I felt I understood what she was doing on a very intuitive level. There was something very natural about the way she approached her music—the combination of how simple it was and how avant-garde at the same time. It didn't seem to be forced or artificial in any way. I immediately felt like I knew her, or understood her."

Ziporyn had been closely involved with the famously genre-bending New York ensemble Bang on a Can since 1987, and the group asked Bittová if she would be interested in a collaborative project. The music she subsequently wrote, inspired by a poem by Czech poet Vera Chase, debuted on the recording Elida, a beguiling work which marks a highpoint in Bittová and BOAC's respective discographies.

Live dates followed the recording. Recalls Ziporyn: "The music morphed, at least for some of us, in a more improvisational direction. We were all just getting to know each other, and with Iva it's all about personal connection and intimacy. To me, that's the essence of her music and playing with her. That's how she connects to the audience and that's how she connects to the other players. That, frankly, is what draws me to working with her, because it's very important to me also. When you feel that way of making music it's very hard to not want to do more of it. I find working with her incredibly pleasurable and stimulating and part of that is always being challenged. She just makes you want to play better."

Ziporyn began doing side projects with Bittová (as did BOAC's pianist Lisa Moore) and arranged some of her pieces for the group. Around this time, Zipory had met guitarist Giyan Riley (son of minimalist composer Terry Riley) and an idea began to ferment in his head: "I felt a similar connection to Giyan that I felt to Iva, so I just asked the two of them to meet with me. I just felt this was going to be a really nice combination, or at least a combination that I would want to be in. So we all went to Iva's house in upstate New York and spent a day together, but really within about an hour we knew we had a band."

The three began writing, rehearsing, and gigging. The trio's name, Eviyan, is an amalgam of their names, a simple but effective metaphor for the close symmetry at play within their music as well as the confluence of influences that makes the music impossible to hang a name on. "What draws us together is that all three of us are somewhere between genres," says Ziporyn. "You can't really call it jazz, you can't really call it New Music, you can't really call it World Music. It's somewhere in between all those things."

Eviyan is quietly making waves. It has played at the Lincoln Center and the Festival of Experimental Music in Quebec. Summer festivals and European tours are lined up and public and critical acclaim has been glowing: "Our live sets are a combination of composed and improvised music," Ziporyn explains, "but there's fluidity between those things and sometimes I think it's hard for a listener to tell which is which, and that's the way I think we all like it. It's all about the spontaneity."

Bittová is the perfect fit for Eviyan's fluid idiom, one that embraces discipline and freedom, but for Ziporyn she is much more than just an intuitive playing partner: "What I like about playing with Iva is that she reminds me to be absolutely present and absolutely honest. When I'm playing with her, I never think about anything other than wanting to make the sounds we make together really amazing. I don't think "this is how the tune will go" or "what will the audience think of this?" The strength of her musical persona reminds me what music is all about."

Given Bittová's virtuosity, her improvisational flair, and her openness to all music, it's somewhat surprising that she hasn't often ventured into—or been more courted by—the world of jazz. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Czech jazz pianist Emil Viklicky recruited Bittová to record a program of jazz arrangements of Moravian folk tunes with bassist George Mraz and drummer Laco Tropp. Viklický, dubbed in some quarters as the "Janáček of Jazz" for his adaption of folk melodies, had previously given the jazz treatment to Morava with Mraz, drummer Billy Hart, and vocalist Zuzana Lapčíková.

The success of that album led to a proposal for a follow up several years later. Viklický wrote new arrangements, but unfortunately Lapčíková was unavailable to record. Viklický then was asked if he could find a suitable replacement. Viklický knew Bittová from a recording session over fifteen years previously: "I recorded two CDs from one session in 1986 with [bassist] František Uhlíř and [drummer] Cyril Zeleňák. One was called Homage to Juan Miró (Supraphon, 1989), and the other, which came out in 1990, was called Beyond the Mountains, Beyond the Woods (Supraphon). A year before, in 1989, I added one song with Iva. It was a version of "Beyond the Mountains, Beyond the Woods." I asked Iva to do the folkish melody with me in a different style. She did it fantastically, her emotions were so strong. She did all that experimental stuff with Pavel Fajt and rarely did any traditional folk, but it's inherent in her."

Bittová provided a new challenge for Viklický: "It wasn't all that easy for me because all the material I had already prepared for Zuzana. I had to change to different keys because Iva has a different voice. Iva is more emotional and has a greater range. Zuzana is fantastic, very soft, very mellow, but it's missing that emotional outburst which Iva exemplifies."

Bittová's lack of hands-on familiarity with the jazz idiom was no obstacle during the session, and Viklický now laughs at the memory of how she sailed through the material that became Moravian Gems (Cube-Métier, 2007) in her inimitable style: "She comes from folk, not jazz, so she doesn't improvise on changes. But that doesn't really matter because she's a natural improviser. The classic example is on "A Little Bird Flew By..." She doesn't know the changes. She improvised and it sounds like she knows the changes. Her level of musicality is so high that we didn't even talk about the changes or how the harmony goes. We didn't even talk about the forms and yet she fulfilled all the forms. She would look at me and I would signal with an expression, with my eyes, and that was enough. That's what she has inside. It's natural, you know."

The quartet played a handful of concerts in America and some festivals in Europe to widespread acclaim. One particularly memorable performance took place at a giant rock festival in Slovakia: "We came on stage at midnight," recalls Viklický. "There were thousands of people there. It was Iva's fiftieth birthday. Václav Havel, our former President, came on stage to greet Iva on her birthday."

Viklický remembers too Bittová's penchant for theater wedded to her music: "We played a church in Ostrava at the Colours of Ostrava festival in 2008. Some people collapsed because it was totally packed. The concert started with me, George, and Laco playing jazz, a fast song called "Austerlitz," about Napoleon. We played for four or five minutes before, all of sudden, from the back, Iva came into the church and started walking between the people and singing, crying, without a mic. She used the natural acoustics of the church. She walked slowly through the crowd and got on stage. The people were absolutely flabbergasted. They were open-mouthed. It was fascinating to watch."

Bittová has been grabbing audiences and collaborators alike for thirty years. The twelve pieces on Iva Bittová (2013) are titled "Fragments" I-XII, reflecting somehow the deceptive simplicity and the mystery that their music contains. This is arguably Bittová's finest solo recording to date, for while all her signature sounds are present, there's a depth in her voice that comes from all these years of knowing, all these years of feeling.

What is this primal music that soothes one moment and makes the hair stand on end the next? What name to attribute to Bittová, this guardian of Janáček's spirit and a thousand years of Romani folklore, this classical Siren? Somehow the term "avant-garde" seems inadequate to describe a musician whom composer Vladimir Godár describes as "totally unparalleled." Perhaps Gertrude Stein's poetry, which Bittová incorporated into song on "Fragment III" provide as good a description as any of a musician who recognizes no boundaries other than the limits of nature: "Listen to me, I am I."

Photo Credit
Page 3: Dave Kaufman
Page 6: Patrick Mareck
All other photos courtesy of Iva Bittova

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