Bittova silences audience with a whirlwind of sound

by Peter Jenks | 11/13/02 6:00am

A standing-room only audience sat in Rollins Chapel last night looking expectantly at the woman on the stage. As she began to chant in long, held-out notes occasionally interrupted by animal-like squeaks while walking up and down the aisles, those watching knew that this was not a run-of-the-mill musical performer.

Despite never having taken voice lessons and having taken a 10-year hiatus from the violin during what are most artists' formative years, Iva Bittova gave the impression in her performance of complete mastery over both instruments. Trained as an actress and raised in the rich musical tradition of Eastern Europe, the avant-garde musician combined a stunning array of sounds to create enchanting and beautiful music.

Born in Bruntal in the Northern Moravia region of the modern Czech Republic, Bittova was brought up with a deep sense of music's importance. Under the influence of her father, a musician himself, she began taking violin and ballet lessons as a child.

When she entered a local conservatory as a teenager, she primarily studied drama. However, frustrated with the limitations of expression merely through words, Bittova sought to combine her musical heritage with her prodigious dramatic flair.

Despite her continuous commitment to music, Bittova continues to place emphasis on the words of her pieces.

"Lyrics are very, very important," she said in response to a question in the post-performance discussion. "I think the words are very important to the music."

But as the words were sung primarily in Czech, the audience was left to simply focus on her musical talent.

Mixing her voice and the violin, Bittova seemed to coax her pieces out of herself and her violin. Often, she would start with small bursts of sound or long, harmonic chanting. Over time, she would begin to layer on top of that sound and add violin.

As the pieces progressed, she slowly added to their complexity. Usually adding layers of arpeggios within one or two octaves on the violin, Bittova would coax a song out of the unordered yet intoxicating beginning. By the time she had reached the point in the song where the lyrics were to be sung, she would begin to accompany the tune of the piece, usually in a minor or diminished key, either through simple melodic accompaniment or by complementing the violin harmonically.

Bittova is definitely not one to adhere to a fixed structure. Although her pieces followed a basic trend, each had its own individual character.

Often, there was a drama within the piece. Some songs were dialogues between lovers or between children and their parent. Bittova's voice ranged from childlike squeals to a mature alto, reminiscent of the speech of an old woman. She would accompany the different voice with appropriate behavior, energetically moving about the stage as a child or mournfully leaning over in more mature roles, adding to the personality of each piece.

In addition to evoking simple personalities, Bittova used her voice in a plethora of ways to create music. Many pieces contained long periods of soulful vocals which sounded curiously like Gregorian chanting.

Other times she launched into long periods of frenetically paced musical chattering, a phenomenon impressive in its own right but overwhelming when combined with the other music she produced.

Bittova also used her violin in a wide variety of ways. Some songs featured extended periods of plucking; other times she used the bow to produce screaming sounds, with her hands at the very base of the violin's neck. At one point in the night, she even turned her violin over and ran her bow over the back of it, producing a hollow, pitchless sound.

Bittova used instruments beyond the staples of violin and voice as well. She began one piece singing while shaking two cloth balls filled with dried beans and bells. Even more impressively, on the last piece she accompanied herself with a squeeze toy and a child's rattle that had been her son's. While her methods varied greatly, her results were always the same: provocative and beautiful.

Although the lyrics were incomprehensible to most in the audience -- she lapsed into English only one brief time -- their content was still meaningful. The words, translated in the program notes, enhanced the music's meaning.

The words dealt with love and mother-daughter relationships, and often told stories. In general, they retained a feminine perspective.

"Green daisy-chain Blooming on my head/Does a young boy really ask it from me?" went the child-like words of one song. Another song spoke of lovers: "Blind fumbling of your palms/On my trembling bosom/Slow movements of of your rigid tongue/In my thrilled ears."

Bittova's music contained an almost spiritual importance. Quite a few audience members closed their eyes as she played and sang, taking in the complex richness of her music.

Sometimes it seemed that the silence between the notes was the most important part of her music.

"If you want to make real music ... if you want to be real, your own, it's mostly important to listen to silence," she told the audience.

Bittova's performance gave off an air of importance. No matter what preconceived notions viewers came to the show with, it's likely they were proven wrong.

Bittova's last comment of the night, one of the few she had to relay through a translator, addressed her ability for relentless innovation directly.

"Even though I have this gift, I don't want to make it easy on myself," she said. "I know that the violin is not going to let me go."

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