Iva Bittová doesn’t always make sense, and she’s fine with that. The Czech musician is known for crafting emotionally gripping performances, entwining both of her instruments so closely that it’s hard to tell where her voice begins and her violin leaves off—but sometimes words fail her, and when they do she’s comfortable resorting to gibberish.
“It’s nonsense,” she admits, speaking in heavily accented English from her “little house in the woods” in Rhinebeck, New York. “But it’s also information, kind of. It’s what I would like to say if I could, and people can feel that. And there’s also music and melody, which also bring information and meaning.”
When you think about it, there’s no good reason to demand that a singer should be more intelligible than a saxophonist: if a horn or stringed instrument can convey emotion in wordless form, then the human voice should be allowed to do the same. And Bittová’s singing style has nothing to do with the clichés of jazz vocalese, as she demonstrates over the phone with a brief burst of sharp-edged and mildly unnerving vocal improvisation. It’s a powerful sound—and a unique one, too, even if the occasional audience member is unsettled by her mix of free improvisation, song, and violin virtuosity.
“Some people come to my concerts and they’ll ask me, ‘But what was the language? What did it mean?’ ” she relates, laughing. “And they can get really, like, angry at me: ‘I’d like to know! I’d like to know what the words are about!’ And I’ll say, ‘You just should be open,’ but no, no, no. Some people are just crazy about those things.”
The list of those who are crazy for Bittová is much longer than that of those on the fence. Guitarist and composer Fred Frith is a fan; the two have collaborated on several projects over the past 25 years. The members of New York City’s Bang on a Can collective agree that she’s got a lot to offer, serving as her backup band on 2006’s song-based Elida, which is quite beguiling even though Bittová writes it off as under-rehearsed. And those who saw her memorable appearance at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 1991 know that she can be magic on-stage, which is especially true when she’s allowed to perform in her favourite format.
“I always prefer to play unamplified, because acoustic sound goes straight to the ears of every single person in the audience,” she says. “So I will walk closer to the people, and I will hopefully just enjoy it together with them.”
She won’t need to use a PA system at her upcoming PuSh International Performing Arts Festival appearances, which are cosponsored by Music on Main and will take place at the intimate Fox Cabaret. That’s good news, but less pleasing is Bittová’s revelation that, at 56, she’s thinking about cutting back on touring. “I’m flying every month to the other side of the ocean,” she says. “It’s a little bit too much, because I am not anymore so young, and I have a lot of things to do.”
Within the next two years, she adds, she plans to travel less, focusing more on teaching and composing. And then she laughs.
“Of course,” she says, “my friends and family are always joking: ‘Oh, we know that Iva. She’s always saying, “Okay, next year will be a break,” but it’s not happening.’ ”
Don’t be misled, though: Bittová’s PuSh performances aren’t necessarily her last in Vancouver, but adventurous listeners will want to attend them nonetheless.
Iva Bittová plays the Fox Cabaret on February 2 and 3 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.