A few days ago I wrote an article about Iva Bittova’s self-titled album released this year under the prestigious ECM label. While researching the record, I wanted to see what the artist has been up to lately, so I checked out her tour dates as well. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Iva was going to hold a concert at one of the synagogues in my city just a little over one week later. Now, I had never seen the inside of a synagogue before but, most importantly, I had never seen Iva Bittova perform live before. As I wrote in my article, I enjoyed the record and her distinctive brand of music so I was more than curious to see what a live performance would involve especially since what I had seen on Youtube was very promising.
Let me just state this from the get-go: a recording does not do Iva Bittova justice! Her live performance was out of this world, a unique experience I will not soon forget. But let’s start with the beginning: I got there a few minutes early and I immediately spotted Iva walking around. Many people did not seem to know who she was. Since the concert was part of the SoundCzech music festival, promoting Czech music and culture perhaps some people just came because of that, not necessarily knowing who would be performing. This also brings me to my only major gripe with the concert, one that does not have anything to do with the performance itself. I’ve noticed many young girls and boys attending and it didn’t take me long to figure out that they were schoolkids more or less forced to be there by what I can only assume was their music teacher. It also didn’t take them long to become a complete nuisance, constantly giggling, talking and probably wishing they were at home listening to One Direction. They bothered me to the point where I had to switch seats. That turned out to be to my advantage though because I got closer to the artist and thus able to better appreciate her quirky stage presence. But the presence of those hapless teenagers does prove my point that you cannot force-feed art and good taste. The teacher who came up with this little field trip, though well-intended, should definitely rethink his or her teaching methods.
Anyway, on to the performance itself (but without leaving the aforementioned teenagers behind just yet): Some people representing the festival took the stage and said something barely audible in the rather big synagogue. Meanwhile Iva Bittova had appeared completely unnoticed from somewhere close to the back rows and near the entrance. She stopped right next to my row. I think I was one of the few people (if not the only one) who noticed her and…what, you don’t believe me? Fine, here’s a picture:
Anyway, when she started singing, in typical Iva fashion she scared the bejesus out of the aforementioned teens much to my amusement. The humoros moment as well as the mild commotion caused by Iva’s ghost-like appearance quickly dissipated and within a few moments the entire synagogue grew silent in amazement with Iva’s voice. I believe she started off with “Fragment X” but I’m not entirely sure.
I mentioned before that the record does not do her justice. The first thing you notice upon listening to her live is just how incredibly powerful and versatile her voice is, an aspect of her music that is perhaps a bit underplayed in her latest album. You could already tell in the recording that she has a lovely voice and I believe I wrote “make no mistake; hers is a powerful and educated voice that the singer purposefully chooses not to flaunt and instead, to use only as much as a certain song requires.” Well, that powerful and educate voice really shined last night in a manner that left me completely impressed. It is not uncommon for capable singers to sound much better live than on a record but I’ve never before experienced such an enormous difference. The reason for that I believe has as much to do with the subjective experience of her performance as it does with the incredible accoustics of a place of worship.
Again, that is not to say that Iva’s voice does not sound good on the album, it most certainly does, but I think there is a dynamic aspect to the way she delivers her vocals that just cannot be captured on audio. Iva sings, not only with her voice, but with her entire body, her face, her hands and her feet. Also, the way in which she interacts with the crowd, often making eye-contact, smiling like Alanis Morisette when she played God in the movie Dogma, seeming to sing directly to and for some random member of the crowd becomes such an integral part of her art that – I can now state -, you can feel its absence from the record. Mostly, it is the facial expressions of the very expressive singer that help convey the message of her music and the humor, that I mentioned also in the CD review, is an even larger part of her work than I expected. Her voice often changes registry, she stops singing abruptly, then starts again in a higher-pitched tone, switching gears like Jeremy Clarkson on crystal meth (sorry, I’ve recently seen the ending of Breaking Bad) all the while walking back and forth in the synagogue so that the sound of her voice and violin move with her like sentient entities and she occasionally stomps, swivels and claps her hands, all part of her act. Many (avant-garde) singers like to brag that they are doing something different but in the case of Iva Bittova that is undoubtedly true. I don’t even think there is a name for what she does yet.
A few days before the event I had sent the talented lady an e-mail asking for the opportunity to conduct an interview. My e-mail sadly never got answered but that does not mean that I didn’t get the opportunity to catch a small glimpse into her worldview. Shortly after the first couple of songs Iva started talking to the audience and more or less warning them expect an open and dynamic performance, referring to the many shrieks, wails, hums and bird sounds produced not only by her voice but her violin as well, a very emotional spectacle. As Iva herself so wonderfully put it “Everything is music!”
Then, as if predicting my never-asked questions she started explaining how, unsure of her violin-playing ability, she began using her voice to stregthen her playing, thus creating a musical symbiosis that works incredibly.
Not that she would have any reason to worry about her violin-playing as her masterful control of the instrument provided a powerful backbone for her performance.
To conclude: if you have the opportunity go see this talented and intelligent artist live! Also, if you have the time, read my prior article and then this one again for a pertinent picture of the difference between experiencing music on a record and in a live performance.