Iva Bittova: A Voice in the Wilderness | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Iva Bittova: A Voice in the Wilderness 

  • Fionn Reilly

The invitation in the e-mail was curious. "If you don't mind, I can invite you to come to our little house in the woods," it read. "Tuesday around 2pm is fine." Having yet to actually speak with Iva Bittova but knowing she hails from the Czech Republic, one could almost hear the accent, and the image of a cozy, Slavic-folk-tale cottage in the forest with a smoking chimney came instantly to mind. The rural roads leading to the home proved challenging to your music editor's low-grade GPS. But, after a few wrong turns, he eventually made it. Turns out, it's a raised ranch in Rhinebeck. Still, cozy it is, and here we sit at Bittova's dining room table. "I still also have my 'nest' in [Czech region] Moravia; it's beautiful and green there as well, but also more noisy," says the violinist and vocalist, who cites "total silence and an absolutely positive atmosphere" as key inspirations for her highly haunting art. "In quiet and beauty and being close to nature," she explains, "I can find easily the good energy for my music."

Permeated with impressionistic elements of classical, experimental rock, opera, jazz, and the folk styles of her Eastern European heritage, Bittova's intoxicating approach has made her one of the leading figures of the contemporary Czech avant-garde, and one of the few to make a mark abroad. An actor as well, she has appeared in several feature films, most notably 2003's Oscar-nominated Zelary. Music, however, came first for Bittova, who was born in 1958 in the town of Bruntal. Her father, Koloman Bitto (her own surname is the feminine form), was a well-known composer and multi-instrumentalist of Hungarian-Romany extraction, while her mother, Ludmila Bittova, was a professional choral singer. "My father played many different instruments [including double bass, trumpet, cimbalom, and guitar] and was not completely crazy about any one genre of music; he would listen to classical and jazz or folk and gypsy music," says Bittova, who began ballet and violin lessons at around age seven and played child roles in theatrical productions. "I think it was my parents' dream for me to be a concert violinist, but for me then at that age it was too difficult. I was still trying to figure out what I should do. So when I was about 13 or 14 I stopped music to study acting."

The family moved to the city of Brno, where Bittova studied drama at the celebrated Brno Conservatory (founded, perhaps ironically given that she would later perform his music, by famed composer Leos Janacek) and for the next decade made her name in predemocratic Czechoslovakia as a prominent film, television, and radio actress. But despite her success in that medium things didn't sit quite right for the creatively restless artist. "I never really liked acting so much," says Bittova, who does still occasionally take film roles. "By the early 1980s I was beginning to feel that music was a better way for me to communicate and express myself." After having studied voice as part of her drama curriculum, she returned to studying violin and began to develop her distinctive method of vocalizing in a detached, incantatory, and sometimes spoken-word style above the keening, meditative drones of her instrument. "When I first began to sing and play it was very hard for people, they were very confused," she recalls. "They said, 'Who is this crazy woman with her screaming violin?' It was hard, and they didn't understand."

But there were, however, some who did. Despite the attempts of the country's Iron Curtain government to stamp it out, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s a boldly dissenting arts subculture thrived in the hidden shadows of Czechoslovakia. Dubbed the Czech underground and centered in Prague (the movement is also referred to as the Prague underground), it began as a reaction to the Soviet-backed suppression that arrived during the Prague Spring invasion of 1968 and included politically outspoken experimental and psychedelic rock bands like Plastic People of the Universe and DG 307 and writers like Vaclav Havel, whose forbidden works were circulated covertly as hand-copied samizdats. The scene culminated in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution that saw Havel elected as the newly independent country's president, but under the old regime many of its artist-participants were put on trial, imprisoned, or simply denied the state-mandated permits needed to perform. With her adventurous sound and progressive views Bittova fit right in with her underground comrades, although the abstract, not directly political nature of her music kept the befuddled censors at bay. "When I would play my works for [government permit-granting boards], they would just say, 'We don't understand at all what you are doing, so we guess it's okay,'" she says, laughing. "And so they would just let me go ahead with it."

During her underground tenure Bittova met percussionist Pavel Fajt, with whom she recorded a well-received collaborative album and co-founded the alternative rock band Dunaj. (The pair were partners for 13 years and have two sons; Matous, who still lives in the Czech Republic, and Tony, a music composition student at Bard College.) Bittova and Fajt's second duo album, 1987's Svatba (The Wedding) (Review Records), caught the ears of drummer Chris Cutler and guitarist Fred Frith, both solo artists and former members of the influential British avant rock band Henry Cow. The Englishmen's fascination with the Czechs' music led to the latter's appearance in Step Across the Border, a 1990 documentary about Frith, and early '90s collaborative performances in New York and Western Europe that also included the late cellist Tom Cora. "[Bittova's music] was very fresh, an arresting combination of classical sound, traditional singing, and rock energy," Frith says. "And more than anything, she had theatrical flair, she owned the stage and held the audience seemingly without effort. She once came to Paris for a concert with me and we rehearsed some songs during the afternoon. Over dinner I broke it to her that actually this was going to be a completely improvised concert. She just laughed and said, 'Fine!' Completely unfazed and able to let go. There's no one else like her, and her music is beyond restrictive categories. It just is."

After a pair of EPs, Bittova made her self-titled solo debut in 1991 on the Pavian label; River of Milk (EVA Records) arrived later that year and was followed by a string of albums on BMG and Nonesuch that raised her profile significantly outside her homeland. Some of her key collaborations over the years have included 44 Dueta pro Dvoje Housle (1997, Rachot Behemot Records), an album of Bela Bartok violin duets with Dorothea Kellerova, and projects with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, the Prague Philharmonia, jazz bassist George Mraz, ambient composer and DJ Susumu Yokota, and 2006's Mater (Pavian Records), a cantata by composer Vladimir Godar. The latter, a solemn meditation on motherhood recorded with orchestral players and the Bratislava Conservatory Choir, led to a deal with the boundary-shattering label ECM Records, which reissued the disc and last year released Iva Bittova (not to be confused with the earlier, similarly named album cited above). A set of stark "Fragments" for violin, voice, and kalimba, it profoundly captures the essence of her technique.

In 2003 Bittova performed in an adaptation of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at Bard College for its annual SummerScape festival and was instantly enchanted by the area. "I said to Tony, 'Wouldn't it be nice to try to live here for one year?'" she says. "I was ready for a change, so in 2007 we moved. I came here with just two pieces of luggage." Since making her American inroads Bittova has worked with a Who's Who of inventive US musicians that includes Don Byron, Hamid Drake, Bill Frisell, Bobby McFerrin, and Marc Ribot. She also has a lengthy history with contemporary classical collective Bang on a Can, recording Elida (Indies Records) with the organization in 2006 and composing music for its offshoot group, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Among her Bang on a Can cohorts are clarinetist Evan Ziporyn and pianist Gyan Riley (the son of composer Terry Riley), with whom she recently formed the trio Eviyan. "I've wanted to work with Iva from the first moment I heard her, which was almost 20 years ago," says Ziporyn. "With her background she's very theatrical and has the control of an opera singer, but she's also a very 'in the moment' performer—very adventurous in the way that, say, Bjork or Meredith Monk are. Within 10 minutes of playing together, we all knew it just felt right." Last year, Eviyan performed at Canada's prestigious Festival Musique Actuel and recorded an album, set for release late this year or early 2015.

Bittova's newest offering is Entwine (2014, Pavian). Recorded in the acoustically divine 16th-century Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk at Zelena Hora in the city of Zd'ar nad Sazavou, the album amply displays her scraping bow, spellbinding violin flights, and soaring, chirping, cackling, and recitative vocals on texts by Gertrude Stein. "It's not easy at all to sing and play violin at the same time," says Bittova. "But my father always told me, 'It's not good to just make a copy of somebody else. Try instead to be yourself and see if you can do something a little bit different.' So I'm been happy that I've been able to do that."

Entwine is out now on Pavian Records. Eviyan will perform at the Hudson Opera House on April 5 at 7pm. Tickets are $20 ($18 for members). Hudsonoperahouse.org. Bittova.com.

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