The catch-all term avant-garde is often used to describe singer/violinist Iva Bittová's music, but in truth her musical language—kaleidoscopic in color and unique in presentation—is essentially unclassifiable. A well-known actress, Bittová expanded her horizons to music in the early eighties, since when she's bounced from Bartok to experimental rock, and from folk-influenced jazz to her collaboration with innovative New York ensemble Bang on a Can. Bittová's eclecticism is evident on her debut as leader for ECM, an intimate solo performance where her voice blends with violin and kalimba in an intoxicating brew that is both ethereal and invigoratingly rootsy.
The dozen tunes—simply titled Fragments I-XII—cover broad impressionistic ground, and whether accompanied by kalimba or violin, or singing solo, Bittová's emotive language stems from the depths of the human soul. Violin colors the majority of the tracks, but more than an accompanying instrument, it's an extension of Bittová's voice and of her Moravian heritage, both classical and gypsy. This symbiosis is strongly felt on "Fragment III"—a strangely operatic poem—and on "Fragment V," a haunting lament where violin and voice sound as one. Plucked, reverberating strings provide minimalist but highly atmospheric support to Bittova's hypnotic, folksy vocals on "Fragment IX."
Bittová collaborated with Czech string quartet Škampa in interpretations of Moravian composer/folklorist Leoš Janáček's music—a source of inspiration too for Czech pianist Emil Viklicky and bassist George Mraz, with whom Bittova recorded Moravian Gems (Cube-Métier 2007), and the idiom is clearly close to her heart. Moravian folk may provide the common thread that unites these dozen pieces but Bittová's language is all her own, crafting a scarcely discernible line between incantation and lament, and between abstract and viscerally engaging moods. It's impossible to remain indifferent to Bittová's naked emotion.
The vocal-only numbers provide album highlights. "Fragment IV," "Fragment VI" and "Fragment X" seduce with their sacred quality. In Bittová's voice reside hints of Gregorian chant, early music and inescapable Eastern European flavors. There's universality in her gentle ululations, in her siren call as seductive as the call to prayer, and in her soothing balm for tired souls, as caressing as the morning sunlight. Equally striking is the violin solo number, "Fragment VIII," a short yet captivating hybrid between contemporary classical and timeless folk music.
Bittová trades violin for kalimba on "Fragment I" and "Fragment XII." Her voice skirts between lullaby and prayer over repeating kalimba motifs, on pieces that mirror each other closely. Greater dramatic narrative shapes the episodic "Fragment VII"—which passes between angular, half-spoken, half-sung poetry and urgent violin riff—and "Fragment XI," where swirling violin underpins Bittová's heady vocals. Violin and voice soar gracefully as one, like a bird darting and gliding on warm currents, an effect heightened by the bird effects courtesy of both voice and strings. Bittová's vocal improvisation here is strikingly original.
The allure of Bittová's music lies in her disregard for convention and in her all-encompassing musical vision. There's wicked beauty in the spells she casts.
Ian Patterson has covered jazz concerts and festivals the world over.