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Iva Bittova: Knowing, Feeling...

Ian Patterson By

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"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."


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