Czech violinist Iva Bittová
Czech violinist Iva Bittová, performing on Saturday at Freight & Salvage. Photo: Courtesy Iva Bittová

As a  young artist coming of age in Czechoslovakia during the dark years of communist rule, Iva Bittová faced an array of stark options. She could challenge the despotic state directly and face censure and prison, or flee to the west and make her way as an exile. Instead, she choose a different path, mapping her interior landscape and the vagaries of the human heart. With her haunting, darkly sensual vocals and plangently evocative violin, she’s honed a powerful body of work that combines folkloric sources, conservatory technique and avant garde practices.

Singing about life as a series of mysterious encounters grounded in commonplace detail, Bittová makes a rare Bay Area appearance Saturday, Nov. 2, at Freight & Salvage as part of a brief North American tour in conjunction with the release of an eponymous album for ECM (a tour that culminates in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she joins the Calder Quartet for performances of Béla Bartók’s 2nd and 6th string quartets). 

“Iva is an amazing artist,” says clarinetist/composer Evan Ziporyn, best known for his two-decade tenure with the Bang On A Can All Stars. He and Bittová recently started performing together in the stylistically polyglot collective trio Eviyan with guitarist Gyan Riley, and Ziporyn credits her with providing a jolt of inspiration.

“Since I started that trio with Iva I felt like I was rediscovering this important way of making music that had lain dormant,” says Ziporyn, who plays a solo recital at the Berkeley Art Museum on Nov. 8 as part of the L@TE Friday Nights at BAM/PFA concert series. “I’m a lot freer and more exploratory, something she brings out in all the people around her.”

The daughter of a Gypsy fiddler from southern Slovakia, Bittová created a highly personal sound that draws on both Eastern European folk music and avant garde improvisational techniques. Her lyrics, performed in both Czech and English, range from elliptical, introspective poetry to fervent, sensual prose. “I have many inspirations from my normal life in my little house and the garden” said Bittová, 55, who relocated from southern Moravia  to New York’s Hudson Valley several years ago. “It’s like pictures of my everyday life.”

She gained a cult following in the U.S. in the early 1990s through appearances at the Knitting Factory in New York, where she collaborated with downtown masters such as John Zorn and Fred Frith (she’s featured in the 1990 documentary about Frith, Step Across the Border). While she is an eagerly sought-after creative partner, she doesn’t need anyone else to hold the spotlight. Combining voice, violin and kalimba she’s a riveting sight with a solo performance style that draws on her background in dance and theater.

“When I was a child I attended ballet school and for me dance is very important because I like to feel free with my body and this is part of my work on the stage,” Bittová says. “Rhythm is very important. I have a lot of experience with drummers, and now when I play solo I just feel the beat and then I can make some sound with my feet.”

At Eviyan’s debut performance last month at MIT, where Ziporyn teaches, the Boston Globe described Bittová’s riveting singing as “a kind of performance art, a sui generis language made up of floating pure tones, raspy cries, reedy notes, and guttural punctuations. Even when singing in English, frequently over her own violin playing, the words reach the ear more as stylized sound than as comprehensible phrases.”

“About 40% of my music is improvised,” Bittová says. “I think most of the atmosphere from my music comes from contrasts. From silence to very loud and from the serious, very smooth vocals to distorted vocals, and also I like to use a little bit of humor in music.”

Though Bittová studied music as a teenager, when she graduated from conservatory she pursued a career as an actor. She spent years with the avant garde Theatre On A String, as well as appearing in many television and film productions. She continues to take occasional roles (including in Želary, which earned a 2004 Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film) but ultimately she has found music far more satisfying.

“It was very simple. I never felt myself as an actor,” Bittová said. “I know my personality is to be a musician. When I started to play violin again when I was 24-years old it was really something I had to do. I said goodbye to the theater and now I know that the music is most important.”

Don’t Miss

Like the vast majority of Americans, Bay Area saxophonist Jeff Sanford grew up in the company of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, and the other unforgettable characters from the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes stable. For the past dozen years or so, he’s led the Cartoon Jazz Orchestra, a first-rate ensemble dedicated to the music that provided the Toons with so much of their anarchic spirit. The Orchestra performs Sunday at Freight & Salvage, celebrating the release of two new albums, Cartoon Logic and More Cartoon Logic, that focus on the antic music of Raymond Scott.

Sanford traces his interest in exploring Scott tunes back to clarinetist Don Byron’s 1996 album Bug Music (Nonesuch). Once he launched the project it quickly took on a life of its own as people in possession of rarely seen Scott charts started getting in touch with him. Most importantly, flutist Jean Cunningham, the librarian at the Paramount Theatre Music Library, opened up the stacks to Sanford, which directly led to the memorable Cartoon Logic renditions of “Girl With the Light Blue Hair” and “Siberian Sleighride.”

He recorded the albums at Fantasy Studios at Tenth and Parker, documenting the full 16-piece band he’s bringing to the Freight and the stripped down seven-piece unit, funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign led by the orchestra’s long-time trumpeter Eric Wayne. The band makes the tricky music sound effortless, delivering the careening melodies with well-polished finesse. It’s music that “definitely crosses over,” Sanford says. “Especially for little kids, they don’t have resistance to responding. You see them rocking out and start dancing. They get it immediately.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....