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Iva Bittova: Knowing, Feeling...

Ian Patterson By

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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."


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