Iva Bittová stormed into the European avant-garde musical scene in the mid-1980s. Born into a musical family with mixed Gypsy and Slavic roots, she incorporated elements of central and eastern European cultures into her repertoire without ever falling into the clichés of the so-called world music. Trained in Brno as a violinist and singer, she developed a unique, conversational style that somehow appealed to the international improvisational scene on the eve of the political changes in Czechoslovakia.
Armed with an arsenal of various vocal, violin and viola techniques, Bittová often betrays her theatrical tendencies. Her music achieved an artistic peak during the period of collaboration with Vladimir Václavek, a gifted musical narrator whose sensual guitar-based songbooks only recently have attracted acclaim for their earthy authenticity.
In this memorable duet, Bittová and Václavek often draw on influences from folkloristic dances and bucolic balladry. They achieve astounding, complex textures and organic unity despite a narrowly scoped orchestration. It is in the simplicity of “Bílé inferno” that lies its immortality.
At the very outset, a disconsolate, Euclidean viola strikes us with its plaintive weeping until acoustic guitar dashes to its succor. Soon after, Iva Bittová’s muscular vocalizing invites us to a jig lifted from Breughel’s village paintings. The carnevalesque ambiance is further enhanced by jocular violin pizzicato and Václavek’s wordless accompaniment. He then begins a lilting recitation, supported by a guitar stripped down to its harmonic and rhythmic role. Even his congenial vocal, always in key register, carries only scraps of melody. The refrain relies entirely on Bittová’s intrepid violin playing and her agile voice. When the duo picks up pace, Ida Kelarová joins the increasingly bold chorus and tambourine. In a more musing, calmer setting of pizzicato and unadulterated guitar, Václavek recites the final stanza of this “Souvenir”.
After several guitar chords one can recognize Václavek’s signature style. Iva Bittová vocalizes here, accompanied by contextual shakers. A five member-girls’ chorus produces a silvery, luminous echo. Bittová sings and the girls reciprocate with youthful sparkle. With its minimal instrumentation, this song evokes European students’ monochord bonfire incantations. The percussion is restrained to the body of acoustic guitar and shakers, and yet, the isometric progression is vibrant and jumpy. Some of the stanzas are acknowledged by Bittová and the pre-puberty chorus. Then Jaromir Honzak appears on acoustic bass and the late Tom Cora on cello. Their bowless duo will support the acoustic guitar chords till the end.
Sirka v louži
The ceramic, humble filigree begins with Bittová on tinkling kalimba and Václavek on bony guitar. This time her singing reminds us of an apparition from a fairy tale. Although she eschews Gilli Smyth’s vocal equilibristic, Bittová’s cornucopia of fanciful, theatrical effects is impressive. Chromatic violin and sparse percussion accompany the torrent of her excited, breathy polysyllabism.
To an 8-bar figure on acoustic guitar, Iva Bittová whispers, clicks, and betrays her talents of variegated interpretation. Her fiddle imitates blackbird calls and her onomatopoeic vocal covers a wider range than in previous songs. When So Pakju’s text is finished, a frenetic village jitterbug emerges from a crafty, cliché-free interplay of guitar, percussion, fiddle, kazoo, bugle (Frantisek Kucera) and acoustic bass (Jaromir Honzak).
Instead of a chord intro, the highest string plucked delicately. The pattern is kinetically repetitive, minimalistic, almost autistic. Frantisek Kucera accentuates the hollow walking line on Indian ghatam and Bittová’s delivers her extensive narrative with hushed, abstemious voice. This burgeoning structure is overlaid with beige strokes from Turkish saz, but Václavek dodges any temptation to engage in simplistic Anatolian references. His saz graces the listener with jangly, clipped resonance. As in most compositions on the record, an eventual turn has to come. Here it happens courtesy intrusive cello trills from Tom Cora.
An exquisite vignette for piano and vocal from Ida Kelarová. The heartfelt, exuberant melody line is based on a traditional folk song from Slovakia or Western Ukraine. Kelarová and Bittová sing in unison with some assistance from girls’ chorus. When Honzak’s joins on oily, metamorphic bass, the airy song is instantly brought down to jazzy (under)ground. Although Bittová’s vocalizing will append it with a more familiar, vanguard element, the piano and a male vocalist (is it Honzak?) add an unexpectedly Karnatic hue to this oddity. In the end, Kelarová and Bittová will repeat the entire folk song, solving the transitory puzzle in the process.
The lyrics of this song (“the Fly”) lent the title to the entire CD. It begins with obsessive mandolin tremolos and a viola mistreated by some terrorist who decided to saw the miserable instrument, instead of bowing it. Still, the mandolin relentlessly advances, unaffected by the grim vocal and viola tortures in the background. This out-of-tune intro will be closed by a scat worthy of an old Urszula Dudziak record. Having changed the decorum, Bittová’s excellent diction will deliver the stanzas. Her pitch ratio is well controlled and her voice is occasionally multitracked, with some polyphonic humming buttressed by the viola. Her story-telling sanguine and elegant, supported by Václavek’s guitar which provides a reliable, comfortable backbone.
After a short, classical sounding violin, the ambiance is warmed by westerlies from a slide guitar. Tom Cora’s ascetic cello is dramatic, almost redemptive. So is Bittová’s vocal manner, punctuated by frightening whiplashes from castanets. Frantisek Kucera sustains some lines with an eerie conch shell before the band collapses into a sonic exploration of tone colorings, using deep echo, and tiny percussive effects. When the theme returns, Bittová’s vocal again plunges into pain and agony. Castanets fly around an aura of tragedy which contrasts with the metaphoric text. “The sea is a beautiful face”, we hear. It all ends with conch shell.
One of Václavek’s solo classics with instantly recognizable acoustic guitar phrasing. His sober, approachable baritone tells us a story of an old windmill. It is striking how much emotion he can extract from an unsophisticated chord progression and such minimal instrumental code. Contrite shakers and cryptic finger rattling on the guitar are the only sources of diversification here.
In a more exotic setting, Iva Bittová’s magical whispers are met by sonorous tingling from listless African bow harp. The tar-shaded, wooden atmosphere is mysterious and occult. Impenetrable doors crackle nightmarishly. This is not world music. It is spine-chilling underworld music.
The longest composition on this record begins as duo of acoustic guitar and viola. The novelty here is in Bittová’s spiccato – allowing for the bow to bounce naturally of the strings. But the effect is muted and void as if this was a ping pong ball bouncing (a technique known from flat guitar explorations). Either way, this fragment is masterfully arranged – rustling, breezy, good-humored. Václavek murmurs as Bittová hesitates between wordless singing and whispering. After this lengthy introduction, Václavek’s warm guitar finally intones the song proper. “Get Up Johanka” alerts Bittová. Kucera joins with his flugelhorn watercolors, softening somewhat the violin’s edge. When the text ends, the “spiccato” strokes recur…
“The Bell” begins slowly as if to illustrate ponderous movements of the clapper. The guitar’s notes emulate the sequence of a handbell group, with individual sounds allowed to die out, rather than damped. Bittová appears with her sour viola and her opening vowels evoke again Indian, nasal singing style. As she recounts the bell’s daily chore, Václavek and the choir girls echo back a heart-warming “bim-bam”. When Kucera’s granulated trumpet joins, the texture becomes more condensed in a fascinating show of mutually stimulating harmonies.
Mordechaj Gebirtig’s classic text is reproduced here by Bittová in original Yiddish. The unsettling text reminds the young to enjoy the youth as the winter will soon set in… Although Bittová and Václavek’s music evades klezmer touches, it fits perfectly the long lost world of crowded central European streets. A thunderous drum and assorted percussion provide a pivotal build up for unstable violin and predatory vocalizing.
“Bile inferno” has remained a one-off. No other position in either artist’s discography has quite lived up to the intensity achieved there. Still, Václavek’s poetic canticles should not be missed. In particular RALE’s “Twilight/Soumrak” is an absolute must for those who enjoyed “Bílé inferno”.
RICHARD-FUKUSHIMA-VÁCLAVEK-BIELER WENDT: “Arminius“ (1993)
RALE: “Ah zahrmi“ (1997)
RALE: “Twilight/Soumrak“ (2000)
Vladimir VÁCLAVEK: “Pisne nepisne“ (2003)
Vladimir VÁCLAVEK: “Jsem hlina, jsem strom, jsem stroj“ (1991, 1993, 2005)
Vladimir VÁCLAVEK: “Ingwe“ (2005)
Vladimir VÁCLAVEK & Milos DVORACEK: “Zivot je pulsujice pisen“ (2007)
Iva Bittová’s unquestionable talent did not always find the appropriate format. Her first duet with Pavel Fajt was a revelation, but the harsh remix of most of the same songs on the second LP lost some of the charm of the debut. From her later output, I particularly recommend “Ne nehledej” – a more lyrical chronicle performed in a style often bordering on Indian vocalizing. In the recent years, she returned to film acting and her recording career in the US has been less prolific.
The discography below is limited to the records I know.
Iva BITTOVÁ & Pavel FAJT: “Bittová & Fajt” (1987)
Iva BITTOVÁ & Pavel FAJT: “Svatba” (1987)
Iva BITTOVÁ & DUNAJ: “Dunaj” (1988)
Iva BITTOVÁ: “Iva Bittová” (1990, 1994)
Iva BITTOVÁ: “Ne nehledej” (1994)
Iva BITTOVÁ – DUNAJ – Pavel FAJT: “Pustit musis” (1995)
Iva BITTOVÁ & Vladimir VÁCLAVEK: “Bílé inferno” (1997)
Iva BITTOVÁ: “Classic” (1998)
Iva BITTOVÁ & NEDERLANDS BLAZERS ENSEMBLE: “Ples upiru” (2000)
Iva BITTOVÁ: “Cikori” (2001)
Iva BITTOVÁ & BANG ON ALL CAN STARS: “Elida” (2005)
Bittová appeared on many other compilations, not least on Fred FRITH’s famed “Step Across the Border” LP and the documentary film under the same title. Some other performances have been captured on “Haikus urbains”, with Pavel FAJT on “Ré Records Quarterly Vol.2 No.1” and “Festival MIMI 88”, with Tom CORA on “Hallelujah Anyway”, with TARAF DE HAIDOUKS on “The Man Who Cried”. In 1989, Frith dedicated his first String Quartet (entitled “Lelekovice”) to Iva Bittová. It can be found on his “Quartets” (1992).
Vladimir Václavek’s DUNAJ mostly performed and recorded without Bittová. These documents, often supported by Pavel Fajt, are taut, aggressive affairs for post-punk ears. The bands E and KLAR propose an update on this format.
DUNAJ: “Rosol” (1990)
E: “Live” (1990)
DUNAJ: “Dudlay” (1993)
DUNAJ: “IV” (1994)
E: “I Adore Nothing” (1994)
KLAR: “Motten” (1995)
DUNAJ: “La La Lai” (1996)
KLAR: “Live CZ 97” (1997)
KLAR: “Between Coma and Consciousness” (2002)