March 24, 2013 at Le Poisson Rouge
Words by Christian Carey
Photos by Claire Stefani
NEW YORK – Czech vocalist, violinist, and improviser Iva Bittová recently performed a vibrant and varied set at the downtown performance venue Le Poisson Rouge. She was celebrating the release of a new self-titled ECM album, her first solo outing for the imprint. From the stage Bittová freely admitted that she would follow an improvisatory muse rather than a pre-planned set order. Still, even reordered and interspersed with ample amounts of improvisatory passages, one could identify a number of the pieces from the CD. Titled Fragments I-XII, these are anything but diffuse creations (one of the pieces is a Rodrigo snippet: the rest are originals). Rather, I like to think that the notion of them as fragmentary acknowledges their modular ordering as a “set,” abetted by the disparate stylistic terrain and range of demeanors they cover.
What holds the music together? Both on the recording and even more so in a live setting, it is Bittová’s striking musicality. Her kalimba (thumb piano) playing served to frame the beginning and ending of the sets in entrancing fashion. She uses the violin primarily as an accompanying instrument, but is capable of fireworks on the instrument too. At LPR, there were several displays of noise-based improvised flurries and folksy fiddle shredding. However, rather than virtuosity for its own sake, Bittová is after creating timbre and delineating form with the various string techniques she employs. One particularly notices the deft selection of pizzicato punctuations, glassy harmonics, minimal riffs, and chordal multi-stops.
Similarly, Bittová’s voice is adroitly deployed with a number of approaches, referencing a host of traditions. She possesses an extraordinary range, which reaches down to growling sub-tones and tenor register chest notes and upwards well into soprano territory and, in whistle tones, even beyond. What’s more, there is a chameleon quality to its timbre. One moment, Bittová coos faerie like, fluttering imaginary wings. The next she seems to pounce, uttering a full blown fervid howl. In between, there are so many varieties of melisma. These vocal runs draw upon, of course, Eastern folk music, but also folk music from many other locales (Greece, China, Mongolia, Israel – I lost count!). Her approach also includes throat singing and microtonal inflections, with neoclassical passagework, jazz solos, and imitations of her own violin playing thrown in for good measure. Indeed, in trying to summarize such an expertly wrought musical mélange, one can only diminish it through sins of omission. It’s probably better to suggest that you listen to it on the disc, and, sometime if you’re lucky, live.
Sorry for a bit of a delay posting this one. Thanks to Claire Stefani for allowing us to use her beautiful photos with the article.