Iva Bittova: Knowing, Feeling...

Ian Patterson By

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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.
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