Iva Bittová has long been one of contemporary music’s great originals – and her work has always resisted neat idiomatic definition: as she says herself, “deciding on a name for my style of music is far from over yet”. “Describing what she does is difficult” wrote Sharon Mesmer in the Brooklyn Rail, “like describing music to someone who’s never heard it. She shifts between speaking, incantation, and singing, and the sounds are given intuitive colorations that move perceived meanings up and down a trajectory of joy and sadness”.
Bittová has contributed to projects in many genres, from jazz to opera, worked with musicians in experimental rock and classical music, and was last heard on ECM flanked by the chamber orchestra Solamente Naturali and the Bratislava Conservatory Choir, singing Vladimir Godar’s cantata “Mater” (ECM New Series 1985), a work in fact inspired by Bittová’s vocal art, by its energy, discipline, and intuitive and emotional power.
All those qualities are in evidence on the present disc, her first for ECM under her own name. Recorded in Lugano last February, with Manfred Eicher producing, its modestly-titled “Fragments I-XII” explore the relationship and the resonance between the voice and violin which are central to Iva’s solo work.
“The violin accompanies me all the time. It is a mirror reflecting my dreams and imagination.” The exchanges and the counterpoint between voice and instrument are often uncanny. In the flow of things, in Bittová´s personal folklore, meticulously-realized pieces and spontaneous stream-of-consciousness improvisations may blur into each other, and the serious and the playful go hand in hand. The album is bookended by pieces for voice and kalimba. The gentle modulation of the thumb-piano, one of mankind’s oldest instruments and accompaniment of choice for the wandering griot, establishes an emotional and atmospheric climate that invites us to enter Bittová’s world of reveries, memories and revelations. Bittová draws on the sounds of her native Moravia and her lineage in the rich traditions of Slovakia and the Roma people. Her vocal palette merges these age-old practices with a sensibility attuned also to the demands of art music and the extended techniques of the avant-garde. Yet the transitions in her work never appear forced: a text by Getrude Stein, sung by Bittová (see “Fragment III”) can seem as natural as folk song. Her violin-playing is as versatile as her voice can be, by turns, austere, earthy, romantic, a tool for sonic exploration and emotional expression.
Iva Bittová was born into a musical family in Bruntál in Northern Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1958. Her father played trumpet, guitar, cimbalom and bass in both classical and folk music contexts, influencing Iva’s broad vision of music from the outset. She played violin from an early age and graduated in music and drama from the Brno Music Conservatory, and subsequently working as an actress in radio plays, television dramas and movies. In 1982 she began studying with Rudolf Šťastný, first violinist of the Moravian String Quartet. Since then, the violin has been the central emphasis of her musical life.
After living for many years in the countryside outside Brno, Iva Bittová moved in 2007 to upstate New York. Her new ECM album is launched with a concert at New York City’s Poisson Rouge club on March 24.