Iva Bittová voilin, voice, kalimba
Recorded February 2012, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Characterizing the music of Iva Bittová as resistant to definition both describes it perfectly and does it a disservice. The former, because her minimal tools of violin and voice elicit a museum’s worth of colors, moods, and brushstrokes. The latter, because every listener will emerge from that museum with a unique image in mind that is anything but indefinable. Despite her many creative personalities—which encompass acting, performing, and composing—she has achieved notoriety by no small feats of expression. Still, don’t be mistaken: this is no “avant-garde” artist. She’s not upsetting paradigms, but deepening their self-awareness.
“The violin accompanies me all the time,” says Bittová of an instrument that has centered her musical life since the early 1980s. “It is a mirror reflecting my dreams and imagination.” Yet she is, above all, a singer. Whether through vocal folds, bow, or physical gesture, her voice strikes flint to stone and blows a tangle of weed until it glows. So potent is said voice that it inspired fellow Czech composer Vladimír Godár’s Mater (documented most recently in a 2007 release for ECM New Series), a multilayered cantata on women-centered texts of which Bittová is both sun and satellite.
This self-titled solo album finds Bittová in her element in a series of 12 numbered “Fragments,” and because fragments imply a whole, it makes sense to speak of the album as such. Like a work of masterful anamorphosis, its image emerges only by submitting oneself to its perspective. Twelve is, of course, a mystical number. It defines the modern clock, marks the end of childhood, numbers the Bibical apostles, and zodiacally divides the heavens. Here it is a riddle that harbors many more.
The album begins and ends with her voice slaloming through the delicate signposts of a kalimba. Here and throughout there is harmony and tension, starlight and soil. At one moment, her voice and bow may unify. At another, her feet go their separate ways, divorced from body and destination. Pizzicato gestures seem to pluck hairs from the scalp of the night, while arco gestures get lost in mazes even as Bittová draws them. Sometimes: her voice alone, spoken and then sung, so that incantation becomes chant becomes lullaby in one fluid swing. Sometimes: the violin alone, crossing every bridge without ever touching feet to plank. Sometimes: a river’s flow through black forest, hints of love and travel.
To be sure, ghosts of a Slovakian heritage breach the fabric of time that veils her, but the freshness of her storytelling makes it all feel uncharted. For while she does adapt the music of Joaquín Rodrigo in Fragment VI and sings texts by Gertrude Stein and, notably, Chris Cutler in others (III and VII, respectively), she renders these sources personal and organic through her crafting. Words like “gypsy,” “folk,” and “tradition,” then, might as well be gusts of air, so intangible are they in her sound-world. That being said, her art is certainly rooted in a worldly sense of time and plays with that notion as would a hummingbird flirt with a backyard feeder. Her sound is resilient to climatic damage, for it has already absorbed so much of the oxidation that gives it character, and her tone is never brittle, even at its thinnest. In fact, the album’s strongest moments are to be found in her unaccompanied singing. From gentle cuckoo to shaman’s possession, her voice cycles through many (after)lives and makes this world of social details begin to feel other-cultural.
Here is an artist whose sense of architecture is wholly translucent, whose persona is her crucible, and whose music is an embodied practice, a mimesis personified to the point of healing.