Iva Bittova at the synagogue in Timisoara – Everything is Music

Image

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:

Image

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.

Mindguard Cover

Advertisements

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

Image

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.  

Vivaldi vs. Piazzolla – Eight Seasons

Image

I don’t often get the opportunity to review events and even more rarely do I get the chance to write about local ones, mostly on account of the fact that I’d actually have to get out of the house from time to time in order to attend anything that can be classified as an “event”. Well, that has certainly changed in recent weeks and it all started with my visit to the Banat Philharmonic on Saturday January 19th. The concert that was being advertized was billing Antonio Vivaldi and Astor Piazzolla and their respective “Four Seasons”. Now, at the risk of being shunned by the music community and having my blog actively boycotted by all my readers (though I’m not actually sure that three people stopping to read my posts can really be called a “boycott”) I must admit that I am not, nor have I ever been a big fan of Vivaldi. I can appreciate the genius but it just doesn’t resonate with me. Piazzolla, on the other hand, is more up my alley. Nevertheless, whether you are a connoisseur of Vivaldi, a fan of Piazzolla or an admirer of both, on that evening you were not going to leave disappointed.

The anticipation surrounding the event was so high that the tickets for Friday (January 18th) quickly sold out and a second show was put together for the next day, which ended up being the one I attended.

The band was split in two camps, the Vivaldi workers on the left, and the Piazzolla pack on the right, the latter complete with colorful apparel and playful props. Camp Vivaldi was being led by veteran violinist Gabriel Popa and I have to admit that it did feel great getting to experience this monumental work of music especially under the lead of the (as far as my limited knowledge of string music could let me tell) flawless playing of Mr. Popa. After “Spring” was over we were treated to spring again, this time in Buenos Aires and brought about by the lead violin of the very young and immensely talented Catalina Costin. The Timisoara-born violinist is, as of June 2011 concertmaster of the Banat Philharmonic Orchestra and, incidentally, the youngest concertmaster in the country. Her grace and charm matching her talent, the young musician brought what I thought was exactly the right attitude for the dynamic and passionate character of the Argentinean tango, both visually – with a change of outfits to match all “seasons” – but most of all musically, timing everything perfectly.

I mentioned the “visual” aspect before since that was an integral part of the show, helping to emphasize the individual character of these compositions created 240 years apart and sharing, in actuality, only the name.  The static, intransigent character of the titanic classic versus the sinuous animated nature of the modern composition reflected beautifully in the performance of both “camps” and in the interlacement of the compositions. The concert began and ended with Vivaldi and, after the last moments of “winter” came to an end the musicians were met with a standing ovation and several calls for “encore”.

As I understand, the Banat Philarmonic are planning on taking this particular concert on the road, both in and out of the country. If you are interested in symphony music I recommend catching the event if you can, it will make you happy. If symphony music is not your cup of tea, I recommend catching this event, it will make you happy. Take it from a guy who rarely ventures out of Jazz territory.

In fact, I’ve mentioned at the beginning of the article that I rarely ever get out of the house to attend any kind of event but I have to add that, since January 19th I’ve made a weekly habit of catching the shows of the recently rejuvenated Banat Philharmonic and I have yet to be disappointed.


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.

Mindguard Cover