Iva Bittova: Iva Bittova (2013)
In its four-plus decade career, ECM Records has done more to blur, stretch and dissolve musical boundaries than any other label on the planet. With the world becoming a smaller place it's also become a fertile breeding ground for cross-cultural, cross-genre cross-pollination, with ECM on the vanguard of the inevitable consequences, having released countless examples of a fearless rejection of anything but the idea that music is simply music. Yes, there are delineations, but only for the purposes of trying to pigeonhole the music, something many musicians steadfastly reject.
Iva Bittovà is clearly one of those musicians. Her first label appearance, as featured vocalist, on Vladimír Godár's decidedly classical Mater (2008), represented but one of her many talents. Bittovà is also a fine violinist, but on her simply titled leader debut, Iva Bittovà, she demonstrates not just her capable skills as a singer and violinist; on some of the equally austerely titled tracksnumbered simply "Fragment I" to "Fragment XII"she also adds kalimba to the mix. A recital of stark but warm yet haunting clarity, it's impossible to categorize. Is it folk music? There's little doubt that the music of her native northern Moravia (at the time of her birth, still part of Czechoslovakia) imbues the proceedings. Is it classical music? It's equally clear that her musical family and academic training in drama, music and ballet prepared her for a life in that environs. Is it jazz? Perhaps not, but improvisation is clearly a part of her bigger picture, with additional cred from Moravian Gems (CubeMeteier), her 2007 date with bassist George Mraz. Perhaps Bittovà's music is something more easily described by what it's not than what it is.
Instead, Iva Bittovà works from a number of reference points, blending them anew. There are hints of Meredith Monk in the way she sings over the kalimba-driven "Fragment I," her vocalizing even bearing trace elements of scat, except there are no gymnastics going on, only an arcane lyricism that hints at surprise without ever being so blatantly obvious. "Fragment II" is even more abstruse; driven by a simple violin chord pattern, Bittovà's unusual choices and unpredictable stops and starts give the piece its own element of the unexpected. On "Fragment III," she opens with an idiosyncratic melody sung in unison with her violin before the miniatureall but two of Iva Bittovà's twelve tracks are under the four minute markopens up into something more folkloric, but in the way that Béla Bartók's music is also based on the folk music of his native Hungary. And if it seems that the piece is more strictly composed, there are brief passages where she might suddenly hold onto a note, repeating it multiple times before moving forward, that suggest otherwise.
It's an overall eccentric yet thoroughly compelling performance that possesses its own dramaturgy, even as it dispels myths of convention. Iva Bittovà is a curious and quirky debut, but one which reaps the continued rewards of repeat plays.
Track Listing: Fragment I; Fragment II; Fragment III; Fragment IV; Fragment V; Fragment VI; Fragment VII; Fragment VIII; Fragment IX; Fragment X; Fragment XI; Fragment XII.
Personnel: Iva Bittovà: violin, voice, kalimba.