Innerviews, music without borders

Iva Bittová
Elemental expression
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2013 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

An Iva Bittová solo performance is unlike any other musical experience. It's an invocation of the spirit. It's a view into past perspectives filtered through the now. It's immersive, kinetic and confrontational in equal measures. And it's utterly unpredictable in its scope and presentation. The Czech singer, violinist and composer is mercurial in many ways. Her vocal range is acrobatic, with swooping, soothing and piercing elements. She's a virtuoso violinist, but she only uses technique to support what's required of the song in the moment. Bittová also engages in a unique physical poetry on stage in which every element of her body plays a role in her musical projection.

The audio portion of that experience is the focus of her self-titled album on ECM records, produced by label founder Manfred Eicher. The album captures an in-studio performance of recent solo works, but in a rather unconventional way. Bittová and Eicher chose to select portions of each piece and present them as 12 numbered "Fragments." The album showcases the diversity of her influences, including traditional Czech folk music, minimalism, opera, sacred music, and the avant-garde. If this description sounds daunting, it's because Bittová is a genre unto herself. Everything blends together seamlessly and organically. Describing her music requires effort. Appreciating it simply requires an open mind.

Bittová's other new album, Zvon, reflects another expansive universe. It's a large-scale orchestral disc, recorded with the Prague Philharmonia, that revisits many of her favorite and most famous pieces. The album finds her typically minimalist repertoire transformed into new arrangements by acclaimed Czech composers Petr Ostrouchov and Beata Hlavenková.

Zvon was created with support from the Czech Ministry of Culture and the City of Prague, which provides an indication of the esteem in which she's held in her home country. She's also an acclaimed actress there, having starred in Little Girl Blue and the Oscar-nominated Želary. In fact, Bittová is so well known in the Czech Republic that adoring crowds mob her on the street. It's a key reason she chose to relocate to upstate New York in recent years. Bittová has since also become a fixture in the U.S. and European avant scenes through her solo performances, as well as collaborations with the likes of Don Byron, Bang on a Can, Hamid Drake, Bill Frisell, Bobby McFerrin, and Marc Ribot.

Describe the process of choosing the fragments represented on the album.

Manfred Eicher invited me to record the album at Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, a studio in Lugano, Switzerland. I brought my new material that I play in my solo concerts. I played for a whole day in the studio and he picked the fragments of my performances he liked and that's mostly what you hear on the album, along with some improvisations. Some of the pieces don't reflect an exact beginning and ending, so that's why I decided to use numbers and the title "Fragment" for each. It's a very open album. Manfred chose the parts with the atmospheres he preferred. My music usually has a lot of dynamics and emotion, but ECM recordings are more alto and slower. That's his style. I changed the energy by lowering things into more alto tunings on my violin, because I knew Manfred likes that. I was open to his decisions and asked him what his preferences were. I was trying to understand him and his tastes. I listened to his senses and that's how this came together. I hope it's the beginning of our work together and exploring our ideas in a partnership. I understand Manfred much more after the experience of recording this album. What I'm hoping for the next album is to create more of a dialog and make an album that's about the two of us working as artists together, which will be beautiful. I hope that happens.

What journey do you feel these pieces reflect?

It's a journey that represents the second half of my life and music. I'm still going my own way and continue to search and discover new emotions, vibrations and sounds from the violin and my voice. I think there are a lot of female emotions and stories in this music, including the mother side within lullabies. I think Manfred succeeded in guiding me much deeper in these explorations. Sometimes I feel like my music is something that goes back 100 years to a more ancient time. In a way, I'm finding my own roots through the music. Usually, when I perform solo, you can see more expressions of me shouting and all different kinds of emotions. On the ECM album, it shows me going one way, but very far in that way. It's also about what I'm looking for as I'm getting a little bit older. The album captures a very special atmosphere. I really wanted to create dynamics, but from within, without being so noisy. Sometimes I feel like I'm crying or shouting inside, but nobody can hear it because I'm being very quiet. We can create huge noise inside of our bodies and minds.

What made you want this to be entirely a solo recording?

Most of my time during the day is spent by myself with the violin and voice. When I'm solo, my creative language in music is perhaps the strongest. Manfred also said "Iva, we have to first bring your solo language through violin and voice on this album." A lot of people who know my concerts will hear the ECM recording and understand it reflects one part of what I'm doing onstage, but it doesn't matter. It's really beautiful to have choices when you perform live. I can be crazy, I can have a sense of humor and I can perform with more virtuosity on violin. But it wasn't necessary at times when we made this record.

Give me some insight into your creative process.

Most of the time, it's important for me to really concentrate on practicing and training myself to play the violin in a classic way. Next, I find freedom within technique and start to improvise, which I do at home. Mostly, the music comes first. If I see a structure developing, I'll write down the whole piece. After that, I'll be looking to write lyrics which go together with the music. I travel a lot and sing in many different languages. Sometimes I'm singing in Czech and sometimes I'm singing in English. Some people can understand one language but not the other. But the real energy is in the music and listeners can quite easily understand what it is I'm singing about if they focus on that.

How do you capture ideas as they arrive?

I notate them with paper and pencil. I'm not really good at technical things, so I don't do any recording on my own. Maybe one day I'll learn how to do it. My youngest son studied composition at Bard College and is so open to new technologies. He really knows how to quickly set up a microphone and record on the computer, so he assists me in doing that sometimes. What I'm writing down is done in the right way, but there are also a lot of simple signs that I use for myself. If I have to show the music to others then I have to really sit down and rewrite it totally correctly. At the moment, I'm practicing violin a lot and I'm using a lot of scores and notation. I'm currently going back to Baroque and ancient music and trying to read the old paleography going back to the 15th century. It's so beautiful. It's similar to trying to learn another language.

Are you exploring Baroque and ancient music for a future project?

In the future, I'd like to perform something with old instruments with gut strings and tunings of those eras, which were lower tunings. I think lower tunings are more connected to nature. They lead more directly to your ears. These days, everything seems so much higher because of the digital style of life. I'm the opposite. I like to look to the past, but at the same time bring something forward by mixing it with my style of singing. The combination of voice and gut strings is something I'm curious about. Maybe I'll use it in my solo program.

You mentioned being inspired by nature. When you perform in solo mode, it almost feels like you're engaging in spiritual invocation.

It is that. I go deep into this directly because I can do it when I play solo. There are no rules when I perform solo. I really like to have this freedom, especially when I'm performing somewhere with really nice acoustics. Those places mean I can really play and walk around, changing the sound as I do. I can modify rhythms immediately or jump from one piece to another. I can also improvise whenever I want and say what I want to at exactly the right moment. It's also very important for me to be connected to the audience. I'm really happy that I can travel and bring part of my life to audiences through music. I try to have a dialog with every single person in the audience.

There seems to be a major connection with your outward physical projections and the music you're performing. When you're in the studio, are you as physical as you are on stage?

It depends on how creative the sound engineer is and how things are working acoustically. In Lugano, when I was making the new ECM album, I had to stay in one position. I was able to move with my hands and in my head. Typically, in a studio, you really cannot move around much. I was just in Santini's Church in Moravia in the Czech Republic, which is a beautiful place. I recently recorded songs from my new solo program there. I was working with a sound engineer who knows me. I had worked with him many, many times. So, he put many microphones into the space and I was able to do exactly what I'm doing during a live performance. I was walking as I sang and played. My voice would move around the space. After recording, we were able to mix in the studio and work on sound placement as we saw fit. I was so happy with this recording as it really captured the atmosphere of my live work. It will come out soon on Pavian Records in Bratislava.

What can you tell me about what you're experiencing during your very physical performances?

It's very simple. I think you have to feel the music in each part of your body in order to bring your entire humanity into the performance. It's very important to consider how you move on the stage and how you look. I think everything goes together. This is my vision of how artists can present themselves. It's about looking for information that comes from the artists on stage and the audience, and responding to it. How you walk is very important too. I always look at how people walk because I can read what kind of human being they are.

Was your performance style there from day one or did it evolve over time?

It was, but it was very difficult to do at the beginning because I was doing a lot more screaming. People were amazed that I would express myself that way, but the young people were laughing and enjoyed it. "What's she doing? She's crazy!" were the sorts of things I heard. [laughs] I practiced a lot at home to ensure that I was doing this in a way that communicated well. I became more confident after three or four years of doing it. I have two sons and I tell them that you have to do a lot of research to get quality results in anything you do. Success that comes in one day is too fast and isn't real. Taking the right amount of time to accomplish something is very important.

Describe how you went about adapting your work for the orchestral realm on the Zvon album.

We picked our favorite songs for Zvon, including "Periny" that has the alarm clock sound on it, which was one of my first songs that I did in the Pavel Fajt-Iva Bittová duo. We chose songs that would work in this format, because I have strange solo compositions that wouldn't benefit from orchestral arrangements. I've worked with philharmonic orchestras before. It's another process I enjoy.

I hope one day to do an orchestral project in which I have time to talk to each musician involved. Each of them has a routine. When I'm in the studio with them, I try to explain what I'd like to hear. Sometimes, I feel I speak in a completely different language which they can't understand, because they have a specific work approach in terms of how they create and perform as a huge orchestra. My goal is to move those people a little bit out of that comfort zone. We used the Prague Philharmonia for Zvon, which has many young people. Some of them really like my music and some don't. A few of them don't accept it because it's too experimental. But it always helps to play for them first and see if they are really open to trying to follow my expression. Unfortunately, to work with this huge ensemble means there isn't enough time to try to change everything and bring a completely new energy to how things are done. At the same time, I know they were inspired. I tried to give them the most of my creativity possible and the experience was beautiful. I feel there is a lot of joy in the music, which is very important to me.

My friends were involved in arranging it. Beata Hlavenková arranged half of my songs for orchestra and the second half was arranged by Petr Ostrouchov. I told them "Please, you have to keep the purity and intimacy of the songs." I said that because it's not easy to work with the material, which was written for a few instruments. When you have a chance to transfer them to an orchestra, often things become a little too kitschy. I said "Please don't make anything kitschy." I wanted there to be meaning in each instrument when it was specifically playing.

You revisit your most famous piece "Uspávanka" from Bílé Inferno on Zvon. In my opinion, it's one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Tell me what the song communicates.

It's music set to lovely poetry by Jan Skacel, who died a few years ago. It's a lullaby I worked on with the guitarist Vladimir Václavek. It translates into:

I'm a little hollow full of clean water
And a silver bed of stars
Deer so shyly come to drink
From my basin on hot nights

The little fountain never lies
For every human lie
Within the little fountain dies
Even those that reach the sky

The lyrics are so beautiful. We were so happy to include children's voices in that song. I like everything about it, including the bass line, the percussion and the other little touches on it.

How do you look back at what you achieved with Bílé Inferno?

Now, we have too many people asking me and Vladimir to do Bílé Inferno Volume 2. Do you know how difficult that would be? [laughs] I say that because when we made it, I broke up with my partner of 13 years. It was a difficult time in my life. It was just me and the kids. Emotionally, I had a lot of sadness. The music in my life has always helped me. My violin especially tells me what I need to hear, good and bad. Vladimir came to visit me during that time and said "Iva, let's go write some songs." And we wrote the album in two weeks. Can you imagine that? Tom Cora, one of my most important friends and a great musician, contributed some beautiful cello work to it. I have such great memories of making this album. I know a lot of people adore it. That's why I'm now talking to Vladimir about trying to create something related to it. We're trying to prepare some new songs.

Do you consider it a career highlight?

I don't know. Maybe it sounds silly, but I like most of my recordings. Making a recording is like drawing pictures of my life. But I don't listen to my own music. Making a recording represents the beginning and end of a certain period. I usually let the songs grow over two or three years, during which I perform them. At the end, I go to the studio and try to record them. Then I'm ready to turn the page and begin new stuff.

Your partnership with Vladimir Václavek has yielded some incredible work. What makes the chemistry work so well?

Vladimir is a very good friend of mine. I've known him from the beginning, when we were in Dunaj together. I'm amazed at how Vladimir has continued working on developing his character throughout his whole life. He has been building the pillars and ideas of his music through all this time, as well as himself as a human being. Now, he's very deep into shamanism. He's very sensitive and has very beautiful ideas. We have separate lives, but every time we create music together, there is something very similar in our creative direction or connection. We can work together without talking so much about what we're doing. The last song on Zvon, "Vetvicka," was done in two hours in the studio. Our chemistry allows us to open our imaginations in a special way.

Reflect on Elida, your collaborative album with Bang on a Can.

I love it. It was a huge experience for me. It was another chemistry with musicians who have such different experiences, styles of life and musical languages to me. I was talking to them about the fact that it's very, very difficult for me to record new music without live performances taking place beforehand, but we went directly into the studio to make Elida. After that, a few concerts happened. Most of the musicians realized the music was growing much stronger as we performed it. If we had a chance to record Elida once again, it would be a much better recording. But now, I'm working with Evan Ziporyn from Bang on a Can and Gyan Riley in a new group called EVIYAN. I'm so happy to follow the Bang on a Can Work with this. We're creating our own music now and it's wonderful to be working with them. It's the beginning of something new. We need time to play together. I feel there is really great chemistry developing. In one year, we'll find out exactly what EVIYAN will become.

Eviyan has also performed in an expanded quintet lineup with tabla player Sandeep Das and bassist Blake Newman. Tell me about this more Indian-influenced version of the group.

Sandeep is an amazing musician. Gyan is also very inspired by Indian music. People say I look like I have Gypsy blood or that I may be closer to Indian origin. It doesn't matter. I just know what it is to go deep into music. I'm always trying to go into the roots of music. Indian music is all about the roots and deep meaning. I think all musicians who are searching to go deeper are connected.

You have another recent album out, My Funny Lady, with the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble, in which you explore the work of Leos Janacek. You've focused on his work a lot over the years. What draws you to Janacek's repertoire so deeply?

Performing with a brass band is another experience I enjoy. These musicians are from Holland and asked me to work with them to do a live performance. I agreed because I like them and there is much power and energy onstage in this format. They're great and we just enjoy playing together. It was a very beautiful concert and the album captures the show. It's a mix of Janacek's music and other pieces, including "Elida." I love Janacek's music because it's very close to my compositions. We have the same Moravian blood.

Janacek is a composer who was really inspired by folk music. His compositions include some of the most beautiful harmonies and melodies. He was inspired by nature too. He also wrote with Béla Bartók, another of my favorite composers. Janacek's compositions are still very young and very modern. It's very sad that when he was alive, nobody was helping him or telling him he was a wonderful composer. After he died, most of his copyrights and royalties were claimed by people in Austria, not people in the Czech Republic.

I did his music as well with the Škampa Quartet on an album called Moravian Folk Poetry In Songs. My oldest son completely fell in love with Janacek's music when he heard it. It's so beautiful and includes such great melodies and harmonies.

In 2004, you put out an electronica record called The Party with a Czech DJ named Javas. It was a pretty significant detour for you. Tell me about the making of it.

This is one CD I'm not crazy about. I like to dance and I went to parties during that period because I like to move. One day someone asked me if I wanted to sing with this guy. I did a few techno parties in parks with him, but it was too noisy, too late and I wasn't young enough. [laughs] But I said we could record a few tracks. Unfortunately, I didn't pay too much attention to the work. Javas would bring music to me and I'd put my vocals onto it. If this were to happen again, I would be more involved in working on the music. Some little kids said they liked the album.

You've been living in America for awhile. Contrast working with Czech musicians versus American musicians.

What I've realized is U.S. musicians may have a lot of musical knowledge and be students of music, but they still enjoy playing on stage. It's different from my experiences in the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries nearby. Perhaps the earlier era of Communism has something to do with it. What I notice is in the Czech Republic, artists perform to show you how great they are. That's a difference. You have to be great, but you also have to enjoy what you're doing. It's much nicer for me to see artists that enjoy being musicians. As a result, they are more flexible. They aren't anxious in how they present their virtuosity. They are concerned about chemistry on stage.

What was it like for you to grow up under a Communist government when you first emerged as a musician?

I wasn't too much on the underground side in terms of political meaning in my lyrics. I was doing something really different, so the government couldn't figure out if there was something against it or really bad in their eyes. They just didn't understand what I was doing, so they allowed me to do what I want and perform in other countries. I was very lucky, somehow.

Were you considered a rebel or controversial when you started?

I never agreed with people who told me I had to do something in a certain way. This is what I do and this is my life. I'm interested in the simple things. I believe if people are unhappy about something, they have to say something, or they cannot change anything. I know life is not easy and has many faces. We have to observe and understand our differences.

You relocated to upstate New York partly because you became too famous in the Czech Republic. What drew you to living there?

That's true. I really like where I live now. I'm close to the woods and wild nature. It's so peaceful and inspiring. Now, when I come back to the Czech Republic, I have a nice feeling about things. I'm really happy to go back. It's really crazy. If someone has a career on the other side of the ocean, then they get such huge respect at home, and I finally got it. I've been in the U.S. for a few years, so people in the Czech Republic seem to think "It means she must be very good." [laughs] But I do what I always did here. I could be anywhere, whether it's India or Alaska. For me, every day of my life is like being in school. I'm constantly learning, observing and trying to understand different ways of life and communication.

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Iva Bittová