A canvas of chaos – John Zorn’s Bagatelles live at Porgy & Bess, Vienna

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In January 2012 I accidentally fell off my bed and landed on the lower part of my spine. The impact jolted my brain and I had a seizure. I was taken to the ER and was eventually hooked up to an EEG device to monitor my brain’s electrical activity. Though the technician carrying out the procedure did not have the authority to set a diagnosis, she just couldn’t refrain from giving me her personal opinion: “It’s epilepsy.”

It absolutely wasn’t epilepsy. I haven’t had a seizure before or since. It was merely a very unfortunate accident coupled with what seems to be an all-around peculiar brain.

The neurologist who studied the results concluded that I’m fine. It’s just that my brain activity is slightly unusual – something she called “being a bit cuckoo”. She would be in a unique position to know since she also happens to be my mother-in-law.

This little story from 2012 will be relevant towards the end of the article but, for now, let’s focus on 2016.

A few weeks ago, I accidentally came across a Facebook post promoting a John Zorn marathon at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival. The prolific composer would be presenting his new opus, the Book of Bagatelles.

This project for live performance consists of three hundred short, atonal, improv-minded compositions meant for what Zorn often calls his “community” – a legion of long-time collaborators and young prodigies that excite the fiercely selective musician.

The lineup for the Sarajevo marathon was incredible, with eleven acts slated to perform for roughly twenty-five minutes each. Among them were such legendary projects as the Masada Quartet, the Nova (Express) Quartet and Asmodeus, but also exciting new bands and collaborations like the hard rock trio Trigger and the acoustic guitar duo of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. That’s about eighty percent of my bucket list gigs in one single show, including people like John Medeski, Craig Taborn, Trevor Dunn, Joey Baron and freakin’ Marc Ribot.

Unfortunately, the show was scheduled on a Friday evening and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to Sarajevo in time.

Desperately, I started looking at Zorn’s other tour dates only to discover that he was taking his Bagatelles Marathon to Vienna the very next day for a weekend-long show at the legendary Porgy & Bess. It seemed only fitting to hold an event of such magnitude at the distinguished venue located right in the heart of the European capital of music. One six hour drive later, I found myself staring at the familiar picture of my favorite songwriter as the queue was slowly moving forward towards what would become one of the defining musical experiences of my life.

When John Zorn hit the stage, he seemed delighted by the enthusiastic reception he received from the knowledgeable Porgy & Bess audience, who were asked not to photograph or record the performance.

The Bagatelles are designed for a concert experience. It’s an openly constructed, freely evolving manifestation of music which would lose its mystique and its very raison d’etre in a recording of any form.

“This music is meant for you,” the avant-garde mastermind explained. “It will never exist in the same form again.”

He went on to add that taping the show would not only diminish the audience’s intimate relationship with this music but also influence the musicians’ performance. “Musicians play differently when they know they’re being filmed,” Zorn confessed. To their credit, the audience respectfully complied.

This argument for a personal relationship with the music predicted a raw, intimate exhibition. What followed was perhaps one of the most spectacularly dynamic and narratively diverse performances an aficionado of serious music can experience today.

The evening started with the Masada Quartet, fronted by Zorn himself on alto saxophone and Dave Douglas on trumpet and backed by the incredible duo of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron on bass and drums respectively. It took me a while to fully comprehend that I’m actually getting to hear  this legendary project live.

Wasting no time with formalities, the band went full throttle from the first note. Instead of inviting the listener to join them on their musical journey, the veterans opted instead to grab the audience by the throat and hurl them straight into a loud, dissonant soundscape of schizophrenic intensity and boundless complexity. There was less klezmer and more free jazz than in other Masada gigs, with the Bagatelles feeling less like a series of melodic anchor points for improvisation and more like a canvas of chaos on which the inventive musicians sometimes deviated from action painting to coordinate their brushes for brief glimpses of expressionism. It was an improv enthusiast’s dream and, in my opinion, the perfect choice for an opening act because it already raised the bar for the upcoming bands.

At this point, I have to take a moment to commend Greg Cohen’s impeccable playing. If the bass has a tendency to be underrated on Masada records, somewhat obscured by the boisterous brass and Joey Baron’s frantic drums, in the live performance I couldn’t look (or listen) away from Cohen’s dexterous delivery.

Next off was the acoustic tandem of Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. On the flyer, they were promoted as a “delicate guitar duo that sets the standard for what the bagatelles is all about” and even when Zorn was introducing them you could tell he was extremely excited about this collaboration.

I was too, partly because I was dying to see how these bagatelles would translate to this particular arrangement but mostly because when something gets John Zorn this amped, you know you are in for an exceptional time.

I was familiar with Julian Lage from his work with Gary Burton and Jorge Roeder, so I already knew the depth of this young man’s talent. I was happy to discover that Gyan Riley matched him in skill and elegance.

Needless to say, their set was spectacular, a veritable celebration of timing and instinct as the expertly handled instruments succeeded in capturing the mysterious, almost metaphysical nature of these compositions. The touching chemistry shared by the young musicians translated into a moment that was wild, yet delicate. Judging by the audience’s reaction it was also the highlight of the evening. Zorn himself did not miss an opportunity to praise their work afterwards.

The third act was the Nova Quarter (of Nova Express fame), an all-star ensemble built around vibraphone wildman Kenny Wollesen, with John Medeski on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass and, once again, Joey Baron on drums. The most conventionally melodious (read: least discordant) of the projects, Wollesen and co. delivered a pensive and graceful set and perhaps the most cohesive interplay of the evening.

They were followed by violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who’d worked with Zorn in duo form on Masada Recital and Malphas: Book of Angels Volume 3, and whose personal eccentricities on their respective instruments sounded like a perfect fit for Zorn’s idiosyncratic vision.

The result was a dark and spectral meditation on the traditional musicality of piano/violin duets which, in my opinion, brought out the best in these bagatelles. From Feldman’s wailing banshee moments to Courvoisier’s downright abusive treatment of her instrument, this performance was a delight from start to finish. It was the one I was looking forward to the most and, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire evening.

The show was supposed to end with the proverbial bang courtesy of the hard rock meltdown of Will Greene (guitar), Simon Hanes (bass) and Aaaron Edgcomb (drums) – collectively known as Trigger. However, Zorn urged us to stick around for a special guest appearance by Craig Taborn afterwards. I’m a big fan of Taborn’s playing, so I was extremely excited. He’d been on the Sarajevo roster, but wasn’t promoted for Vienna.

Before the  remarkable pianist could take the stage, it was time for the three “young twenty-something punks” to do their thing.

After a couple of minutes of technical difficulties, during which Zorn assured us that these kids can “play the shit out of their instruments”, the trio exploded into a powerful, loud, electric and electrifying performance which was highly reminiscent of Ceramic Dog (to my great satisfaction) .Clearly, Will Greene has been hanging out with Marc Ribot, and all three musicians seemed positively honored to share the stage with such legendary artists.

At first, the jazz crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of this relentlessly turbulent brand of bagatelles, but, by the end of the gig, almost everyone seemed charmed by the “young punks”. For their part, the trio never looked out of place, delivering their music with poise and – to be candid – with giant fucking balls. That didn’t come as a surprise since no one in their right mind would doubt Zorn’s instinct for picking musicians.

The show concluded with Craig Taborn’s solo performance, which he delivered with typical convulsive intensity. It was a suitably memorable finale to an evening that contained so much music it would take weeks for its broadness of scope to be fully processed. Which brings me back to my personal story from the beginning of the article.

I don’t know if this electrical particularity in my brain has anything to do with my restless nature, my ongoing battle with depression, the fact that I don’t sleep particularly well and can’t quite stay focused on a single activity or with the fact that I have a hard time winding down at the end of the day. Whatever the reason, I find it very difficult to rest, particularly to stop a torrent of disorderly thoughts from perpetually inundating the repository of my lucidity. That’s about as eloquently as I can put it and I write books for a living.

Rarely is my mind so engaged that it doesn’t seem to want to compete in an exhausting race against itself. Even when listening to music, my favorite activity along with writing and drinking wine, I find it hard to stay focused. Conventional musicality, with its repetitions, predictable patterns and harmonical spoon-feeding leaves ample room for distraction. That’s why I’ve been drawn to the coarse vocals and grotesque imagery of Tom Waits’s work and, later on, to the complexity and syncopation of jazz. That’s also why I’m drawn to John Zorn.

To me, the Bagatelles Marathon was the quintessential John Zorn experience: loud, aggressive, unpredictable, capricious and unrepentant. It was one of the rare moments when my mind was entirely engaged, so completely hung up on every note and elated by its inability to predict the erratic movements of this music that it left no room for distractions. This is as close to meditation as my cognitive construction will ever allow me to get.

Unfortunately, personal commitments forced me to return home the next day, thus missing part two of this unique musical experience, consisting of the John Medeski Trio, Erik Friedlander/ Jay Campbell Duo, Uri Caine Trio, Ikue Mori and Asmodeus.

Nevertheless, the amount and diversity of music I got to hear in one concert left me with a year’s worth of musical aesthetics to ponder and an evening’s worth of  inner peace.

 

 

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Ceramic Dog’s Your Turn – unkempt and unrestrained

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I did not pick out this week’s record specifically because it’s so radically different from last week’s, it just happened this way and I’m glad it did.

It’s interesting to compare the two guitar-driven works. They are on opposite ends of the musical spectrum just like the two respective guitar-players, both brilliant for different reasons, have powerfully contrasting styles and an antithetical approach to songwriting.  One  is a technique-driven virtuoso with an almost scientific approach to songwriting and melody and the other is an avant-garde, experienced session-master with a vast and diverse repertoire, who takes melody, throws it in a meat-grinder, then sets it on fire, puts it in a hammerlock and hits it with a bull-wrench.

I’ve written about Marc Ribot before and I think he’s one of the most entertaining musicians of the modern era. He’s also very much an acquired taste no matter which one of his many projects you check out.  With works that range in scope, sound and delivery (not to mention decibels), Marc Ribot, one of the most versatile guitarists and songwriters in the world, seems to be having the most fun on his Ceramic Dog records. At least that’s how the music comes off to the listener.

The sound is unkempt and unrestrained, a liberating experience for both band and audience as the three musicians spend little time worrying about the norms and conventions of modern music.

The aforementioned band consists of Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums, both powerful players and impeccable technicians and, of course, Marc Ribot on guitar and sometimes vocals. The variety of sounds is amazing for a band that consists of only three musicians.

The trio’s 2008 debut record Party Intellectuals was a ton of fun and it’s a work that still manages to sound fresh. Now, five years later, Your Turn  proves a worthy successor; a more consistent but also more conventional record that documents the three musicians’ growth as a band.

In my review of Party Intellectuals I said the record had “multiple-personality disorder”, meaning that the styles and sound of the songs contrasted powerfully which gave it its diversified sound but also its not-always-consistent quality. It was definitely a roller-coaster-ride but it felt like it lacked a common thread.

Your Turn, on the other hand, manages to take a page out of Tom Wait’s book and offer variety while maintaining a distinct character throughout. It’s less experimental-noise and more hard rock which I think brings it closer to what Marc Ribot had in mind for Ceramic Dog in the first place. This consistency in its structure also makes it a tad more accessible as some of Marc’s avant-garde work (and I’m thinking primarily of his Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek phase) at times proved too hard to digest even for the most stubborn connoisseur.

The album starts off with “Lies My Body Told Me” a somewhat low-key track (at least for this record) that offers great interplay between Marc’s guitar and his vocals. Speaking of that, the record is fairly evenly divided between instrumental tracks and vocal songs.  Marc is aware of his pretty much pedestrian voice and he makes brilliant use of it by intentionally employing it as burlesque instrument of sarcasm through which the message is delivered all the more raw and convincing. Some of the vocal tunes carry a powerful punch, like the clever and cranky “Masters of the Internet” which follows the technically impeccable but otherwise unremarkable title track. “Masters” is a brilliant, straight-forward song that lashes out against music pirating but can be applied to any art-form in the Internet age. Against a (sort of) Arabian theme Marc yells:

We have a new business model, We’ll blow you for a nickel

And if you like our CD we’ll blow you for free and if you don’t you can bite our heads off

As a freelance writer I personally feel a special connection to this particular track. I can’t help but get chills down my spine when I hear “our labor has no value/content is our name”. I believe this single line is the most pertinent commentary I’ve ever come across on what I call the “contentization” of art (but you can just go ahead and call it the “content craze”, it has a much better ring to it)

This being The Music and Myth, I also have a little story:

I’ve recently conducted an in-depth interview  with Al Di Meola and what resulted is probably the most extensive article I’ve written for this website. It features my recount of the struggle of getting the 30 minute sit-down, a review of the concert as well as the interview in its entirety. A reader told me she thought the article was absolutely great, that  “you can see it is well documented, and written with great passion” but that it is “too long to read when you don’t have much time but are dying of curiosity”.

Her well-meaning feedback which completely missed the contradiction, painted a great picture of a society that craves quality and information but cannot stomach anything beyond readily-available light-on-content distractions and free entertainment. “Masters of the Internet” sums this up brilliantly. I also have to commend the excellent percussion on this song.

The record continues with the instrumental track “Ritual Slaughter”, another vehicle for the band to show off their amazing skill and intuitive timing, after which “Avanti Popolo”, an interlude that would have seemed out of place on any other record (but not on this one) leads us to  “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Round” (or what Marc calls the Affordable Health Care Act song). I’m not an American so I don’t feel I have the right to comment on the context but I can make the statement that I feel this song delivers its message very efficiently.

Speaking of delivering messages efficiently, the prime example is the record’s flagship track “Bread and Roses”. Inspired by the eponymous poem by James Oppenheim, the song adapts the lyrics to fit its dynamic and explosive structure:

As we go marching, marching / through the beauty of the day

A thousand kitchens darkened/ A thousand mill lofts gray

Are touched with all the radiance/ a sudden sun discloses

Yeah, it is bread we fight for/ Bread and Roses

Powerful lyrics and passionate vocals, coupled with the angry energy of the instrument and the flawless timing of the musicians make this one of the most well-crafted songs I’ve heard in a long time. Also Marc’s “industrial” guitar solo is truly something magnificent, my favorite since his emotional guitar work on “La Vida es un Sueno” from his first Cubanos Postizos record.

For “Prayer” Marc goes back to his roots as a Rootless Cosmopolitan (I can never pass up the opportunity to make a bad pun) as the band gets to go crazy with what I’ve already affectionately called “seizure music”, once again displaying masterful cohesion in an instrumental tour-de-force. They follow it up with the laid-back, bluesy and surprisingly catchy “Mr. Pants goes to Hollywood” and the mock-nostalgic “The Kid is Back” before taking a crack at Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”. I’ve always been a fan of Marc’s cover songs, he adds his entertaining and eccentric spin on them ( see “The Wind cries Mary” or “Dame Un Cachito Pa Huele”); again, he does not disappoint.

The record closes off with the funny, if somewhat juvenile,  “We are the Professionals” in which the band parody the sound of the Beastie Boys followed by “Special Snowflake”, a quick instrumental mish-mash to close the curtains on another great album.

I generally have nothing but praise for what Marc Ribot brings to the music industry, whatever form his projects may take. I find his entire body of work fascinating but I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Ceramic Dog.

In the company of the musically like-minded Shahzad Ismaily and Ches Smith, Ribot seems to be at his most comfortable. The band  takes the elements that make Ribot’s various projects great and combines them to produce the distinctive sound of Ceramic Dog.  Their sophomore release is a commentary on the multi-faceted music industry but also it is simply one wild ride.

Zorn 2013 – Lemma, Mysteries and Dreamachines

One of my favorite things about being a freelance writer and working from my home office (aside from spending half my day in pajamas or a bathrobe and being able to take the time to properly enjoy my wife’s delicious coffee) is that I get to play the music I love all day long.  It helps me relax and focus on my writing by completely eliminating any trace of boredom that might understandably arise from spending 8 hours in front of the PC screen in a room all by myself.

One day a few weeks ago as I was searching Youtube for any gigs I could find from Jazz in Marciac I came across this little gem. I loved this show so much that I’ve been playing it every single day since and I think it’s one of the best concerts you will find online.

Anyway, that made me curious to check out what has been going on with Zorn in 2013. I decided to just focus on his “solo records” due to the roughly 17497 collaborations[i] he’s been featured on this year alone.

So what do we have solo-wise? Well, so far this year (and keep in mind, the year is not over) we have three records: Lemma,Mysteries and Dreamachines, all released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label.

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Let’s start off with Lemma, released in February and featuring three enormously talented violinists: David Fulmer, Pauline Kim and Chris Otto. The record starts off with “Apophthegms 1 through 12” a suite of 12 miniatures for 2 violins  to be enjoyed first and foremost for the virtuosity of musicians Fulmer and Otto. Naturally, since this is an avant-garde composition one should not approach it expecting what I like to call “conventional musicality” as these tracks abound in scraping noises and downright dissonant changes of pace, serving as sort of a barrier between Zorn’s art and the audience.  That means you are either instantly turned off and desperately run away to play some Mozart in order to cleanse your ears or you open yourself up to Zorn’s work with no prejudice and complete trust in this brilliant composer. If you decide to go with the second option, you will be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to adapt and focus on the virtuosity of these violinists. I’ve had a similar experience with David S. Ware’s Saturnian: Solo Saxophones a few years ago, where, after a few minutes of getting almost annoyed with the structurally chaotic music I found myself gradually adapting to the point where I could “pay attention to that man behind the curtain”. After that I found it as soothing as any lullaby. That is not to say that Lemma is without fault, but I will get to that. The “Apophthegms” are followed by “Passagen” an intense and beautifully aggressive piece for solo violin delivered by Pauline Kim which is also the most open and extrovert, almost vulnerable composition on the record and thus, in my opinion, the highlight. The album follows with “Ceremonial Music” 1 through 4, starring David Fullmer, at times emotional and harmonic, at times harsh and raw and very dramatic at the end, abounding in repetition that made me think of Michael Gallasso’s Scenes. Zorn’s whole record (especially “Ceremonial Music”) carries much of Gallasso’s tension and anxiety but fails to match it in depth and density just as it displays the inventiveness found in Iva Bittova’s record (that I wrote about last time) but does not completely equal its distinctive character. Still, a brilliant avant-garde work the highlight of which is the impeccable performance of the musicians.

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In April, Zorn teamed up again with Bill Frisell, Carol Emanuel and Kenny Wollesen to deliver The Mysteries a continuation of their 2012 collaboration Gnostic Preludes. The mystically minimalist Mysteries (see what I did there!?!) which features Frisell on guitar, Emanuel on harp and Wollesen on vibraphone is by far the softest, most melodic of the three records, and a perfect fit for Bill Frisell who really gets to do his thing on this album. The nine songs on the record seem designed for mediation, the very contemplative tone is kept throughout the record though the songs are by no means interchangeable (like purposefully designed Buddha Bar or Chill Out records or whatever the hell they’re called). Each of these songs has its distinctive personality though there is also a common thread that runs through this record making it a very solid body of work. “Sacred Oracle” starts off the album with a lovely two-minute long intro that has Emanuel provide a fertile ground from which Frisell’s guitar then gently blooms, after which Frisell takes over the melody allowing Wollesen’s vibes and bells to softly ascend, like the sun rising over the Mediterranean (this record is bringing out my poetic side). But all kidding aside this is an excellent opening track and those who have followed my blog know that I have a soft spot for a good structure. “Hymn of the Naassenes” is next and provides the general ambiance that will define  the record, with Frissell’s melancholy guitar taking the lead. On “Dance of Sappho” the musicians get to have a little fun with the tone and pacing, though never losing the air of ancient mystery that characterizes the whole album, while “The Bachannalia” returns to a more low-key, somber mood. In every song something stands out, whether it’s the beautiful melody in “Consolamentum”, the “storytelling” in “Ode to the Cathars”, the interplay and perfect timing in “Apollo” or the tension in “Yaldabaoth”. At 11 minutes long, “The Nymphs” closes off the album in powerful fashion mixing together everything that stood out in the rest of the tracks and providing a brilliantly thought-out closure which, in my opinion, is almost as important as a powerful beginning. For the careful and sensitive listener, meaning someone who has a well-developed musical attention-span and doesn’t merely expect explosions of instant gratification, The Mysteries is a veritable gem, well-worth taking the time needed to immerse oneself in this minimalist yet immensely complex work.

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The aforementioned explosion of instant gratification takes place in Dreamachines, my favorite record of the trio, as the opening track “Psychic Conspirator” wastes no time throwing avant-garde awesomeness at the listener. The track sounds like someone took the sheet of a Nik Bärtsch song, put  it in the paper-shredder, then mixed-up all the little pieces and glued-them together dada-style before handing this post-apocalyptic partitur to the band. Speaking of the band you can’t help but marvel at their mastery as they deliver this very intense and difficult arrangement. But one would not expect nothing less from the likes of John Medeski (piano), Trevor Dunn (bass), Joey Baron (drums) and, again, Kenny Wollesen (vibraphone).

“Git-le-Coeur” is at the other end of the Zorn-spectrum, more laid-back but sprinkled, at times, with short rapid sequences. Baron’s drums are highlighted nicely throughout the song (if you pay attention). The third track, “The Conqueror Worm” matches the first in intensity but with a more conventional Jazz approach and is exactly the sound that comes to my mind when I think of a John Zorn recording. It’s also one of my favorite tracks on the record if only for the incredible sense of pacing and timing that is usually the norm on a John Zorn composition.  The rest of the tracks keep this repetitive tone and structure, with occasional “zornian epileptic fits” that get to really test the skill of the musicians (and they all pass with flying colors). All the tracks are excellent but highlights include “The Dream Machine”, my personal favorite and especially a highlight for pianist Medeski whose show-stealing virtuosity is nothing short of magical, “Note Virus” for its pure madness and “1001 nights in Marrakech” for its hypnotic rhythm. Like I said though, these songs are the cream of the crop in an already excellent record.

With this trio of really powerful works Zorn has once again demonstrated not only his imagination and versatility as a composer but also his work-ethic and his talent in choosing and linking together musicians with great chemistry. Undoubtedly, Zorn is one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.


[i] Citation needed

Iva Bittova at the synagogue in Timisoara – Everything is Music

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Photo by Andrei Cherascu

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:

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Pictured: I told you so!

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.


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

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Iva Bittova – sometimes eccentric and playful, sometimes somber and reflective, always delicate

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As September is coming to a close I look at the date of my last blog entry and see that I’ve gone two and a half months without returning to my first and certainly favorite writing venture. Unfortunately, it has been a sad summer, the sudden loss of my grandfather to whom I was very close has left me in no mood to write. I have discovered with regret that there are certain moments when not even music can lift my spirits. As the summer came to a close and I had to return to writing there were many other pressing projects to get to first, before I could make time for my blog. My second novel was behind on the word count and my most recent project, debuting comic book series Fairytale Therapy (Terapie de Basm in Romanian) was nearing its deadline.

Now, with autumn having a firm grasp on the calendar and with this crazy summer behind me I can return to my first writing love, The Music and Myth.

There is an interesting record I’ve been planning on writing about for months and I am glad I am finally able to get to it.  That record is Iva Bittova, released this year by the Czech singer and violinist of the same name. It was released on the highly respected Manfred Eicher-label ECM, and that comes as no surprise since it sounds entirely like something the legendary German producer would love to attach his name to.

I have always had a deep admiration for musicians who just disregard what everyone else is doing and go out there and do whatever the hell they feel like. Same with Iva Bittova. This lady is a hoot, her music is unlike anything you’ve heard before.  Just look at this video properly titled “Iva Bittova – A Strange Young Lady”. It basically sums up what you will get out of an Iva Bittova recording, not to mention a live performance. I’ve discovered her newest release at the start of summer and fell in love with her music and unique type of performance from the first moment.

Ok, I admit, it was actually from the second moment, the first moment was reserved for figuring out just what the hell to make of this strange music (and keep in mind I listen to Tom Waits and John Zorn).

That being said this isn’t Andre Rieu or Nigel Kennedy, her avant-garde approach is certainly not for everyone, though her mastery as a musician cannot be disputed. She is like the female, violin-playing version of guitarist Marc Ribot.

She has a very interesting, dynamic and open approach to sound which, if exposed to an open mind, can make the listener feel intimately involved in her performance. Her solo record (and by that I mean there are no accompanying musicians) consists of twelve songs (all titled Fragment I-XII) and they all feature the eccentric Iva on vocals, violin and kalimba (thumb piano – because why the hell not).

From the first track – or “fragment” – you are lured into Iva’s world by the sound of said kalimba which appears to have been thrown in there randomly but which works to perfection; its gentle sound, like raindrops, in combination with Iva’s sonance are perhaps the most conventional sounds on the whole album and do a great job of not scaring off the first-time listener. The track directs attention to Iva’s voice and it takes little time for a listener to bond with the imaginative way in which she uses it, alternating from regular singing to all sorts of chirping and cooing noises.

On “Fragment II” we are introduced to the violin. At first, compared to the kalimba on the first track, the sound is almost dissonant,  somehow threatening and loaded with tension, promising an aggressive musical explosion that never happens. It sounds like her voice is trying to escape a prison represented by the sound of the violin. I know that sounds crazy but it is the type of visual sensation that Iva Bittova’s music will evoke and that, in itself, is a rare treat.

The tone shifts completely in Fragment III, where Iva’s singing and her violin playing are in tone with one another, producing an almost humorous result with constant shrieks and changes of tempo, in voice and violin alike. Her English lyrics, purposefully difficult to understand, add to the comical effect of the track though it is almost a threatening comedy, like the hysterical laugh of a madman.  As the record progresses a listener will discover that the humor is not accidental, as it appears to be an integral part of Iva’s music, especially in her live-performances (though her affiliation with ECM has significantly toned down that aspect, presumably in order to keep her in the vibe of the legendary label).

In “Fragment IV” the tense comedy vanishes, leaving in its place a very serious very beautiful and almost mournful chant.

It is with this structure-pattern that the album continues as the tone of the fragments switches from playful but at the same time somewhat melancholic, with tempo-driven tracks like Fragments VII and XI to somber incantations (Fragments V, VI and X) where Iva’s versatile voice takes center stage,  or tracks that highlight her talent and excellent timing as a violinist (Fragment VIII and, again, Fragment XI) . Yet, my favorite track has to be Fragment IX, with its clever use of the kalimba as (almost) a percussion instrument that accompanies Iva’s interesting voice; a voice that is, most of the time, overshadowed by its own liveliness. But 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 – a display of admirable musical wisdom (think back to Mark Knopfler purposefully not including prolonged guitar solos on his latter, more ripe, work).

I’m a fan of the way in which the tracks are open to interpretation, offering just enough material to stimulate the listener into using his or her imagination and connecting the dots.  In music, as in literature, leaving a few “empty” spaces and structuring the product well is a sign of good storytelling.

It is interesting that “Iva Bittova” cannot be thought of as a violin recording and neither a vocal Jazz recording as we might have expected glancing upon the letters ECM. Instead, the backbone of this album is represented by the way in which Iva’s voice relates to the sound of her violin, you almost feel like her voice is an instrument shaped by her trance-like reactions to the sound of her violin and vice-versa. She is always aware of her surroundings making her delivery as important a factor as the art itself. In fact, my only minor gripe with the record is that Iva’s personality seems a bit more toned down than in her quirky live performances, again an aspect probably planned in order to better fit the ECM canon. Other than that: a good, well thought-out record, sometimes eccentric and playful, sometimes somber and reflective, always delicate.

But do let me repeat: this is not Andre Rieu playing Johann Strauss. If you are interested in song and melody you might best skip this one but if you are interested in music, well, in that case it comes highly recommended.