So much has already been written about Iva Bittova, about her multi-genre music and talent, her success in the Czech Republic and abroad. Once again Iva Bittova is here to surprise us with something new. Superchameleon is Iva Bittova’s debut music DVD. As the title suggests, it reveals many sides of her ever-changing musical character.
Iva Bittova with Bang On a Can All Stars
The DVD is divided into three parts. The first is an exceptional, ninety-minute concert with the New York-based contemporary music ensemble Bang On A Can All-Stars . The concert was recorded in the Palace Akropolis in Prague on 26 March 2006. The concert repertoire is from the BOAC All-Stars and Iva Bittova’s Elida studio album recorded in New York, which won general appreciation and critical approval. The reception to touring Elida in late 2005 prompted the decision to film the performance. However, the programme opened with Iva Bittová – just voice, violin and solo magic – performing material from her past and present. This DVD is preserved proof positive, as never before, of the mesmeric atmosphere she can create and conjure, no matter whether alone on stage or in the good company of New York’s Finest, the BOAC All-Stars, when they become, as it were, her orchestra. Extended piano lines mingle with strings, while clarinet improvisation partners the rabid noise of electric guitar. The outcome is music that is at the same time both sophisticated and direct, no-nonsense sharp and nostalgic. It combines Eastern European classical music and folk customs while the non-traditional connection of Iva Bittová’s vocal parts and piano create inspiring melodies. The concert recording was directed by one of the Czech Republic’s rising stars, Jakub Kohák. Once again, he has succeeded in ennobling the result, lifting the production out of the all-too-frequently sterile concert recording genre, rising to the occasion to capture an unrepeatable symbiosis of visual and audio action and the atmosphere that concert-goers in the Palace Akropolis’ hall witnessed.
The DVD’s second, no less important or impressive part is its selections from the Czech Television archives. The result is a treasure trove of 18 carefully selected songs. Totalling some sixty minutes, this material captures Iva Bittova in varying incarnations and in a variety of projects – rock, folk, folkloric and classical. The oldest footage is with the band Manana from 1984. Other performances include collaborations with the Czech string quartet, the Skampovo kvarteto (Skampa Quartet), the Czech band Dunaj, the Dutch group N.B.E. and Pavel Fajt. Naturally, Superchameleon has to include performances from the magisterial White Inferno, which Iva Bittová recorded with Vladimir Vaclavek, and the nigh-legendary popular ballad Zabili, zabili from the ‘mutant musical’ Balada pro banditu (Ballad for a Brigand) and Divadlo na provazku, which she recorded with Miroslav Donutil.
The last and shortest part of Superchameleon is an exclusive, 12-minute video-collage created specially for this project. The five-part collage includes footage from her first major film appearance in the film Rosy Dreams also known as Rose-tinted Dreams and an assembly of rare scenes. The whole is a flicker-book of impressions of an indefinable artist.
Ken Hunt’s notes to Superchameleon:
Trust me, Iva Bittova is pretty much a sure-fire guarantee of exquisite, unrepeatable musical experiences. Whether what emerges is high-flown or sensual, earthy or erotic, you don’t just hear her music, you experience it. Yet no matter how heady the ‘audio experience’ may be, if you know her music you remain keenly aware that hearing is but one of six senses. For the complete Bittová experience, that vital visual element must be imbibed too.
When Iva creates music on stage, she plays it with her whole body. Just as she summons all manner of vocal shadings, she uses every inch of her violin to obtain notes and produce sonic effects. As actors do, she uses the concert stage to enhance her music, planting non-verbal ideas as she goes. She stalks and walks. She gestures and grimaces. She coos and shrieks. She acts out private fantasies in public. Solo, she has even been seen to skewer imaginary insects with her violin bow.
The total theatre of Iva’s art, be that her music or her acting, relies on donning masks, adopting and switching identities whilst remaining in the moment and staying true to her inspirations. But she isn’t just an artist of the profoundest and highest order. Beware, she’s a brown-eyed jackdaw who will thieve a parakeet’s call, a brook’s purl or your child’s chuckle. Seeing her perform adds other levels of appreciation – her total presence, the sheer physicality and emotional range of her performance art.
Many Czechs view Iva Bittová as a Czech cultural icon. I would be less po-faced. She has played so many roles, made music of many different colours and shades. In the graphic book of her life and art, Iva plays the starring part of Superchameleon. Over the course of her career – as we experience here – Iva is a woman who has made many choices. The outcome is a musical language that is truly sui generis and hers alone.
Until the time comes when you and I can download the total experience, Matrix-fashion, whether that be The Compleat Iva Bittová, the films of Milos Forman, the works of Mucha or the entire palette of ceská kuchyne (Czech cuisine) in one nigh-instantaneous fix, we have to make use of – to misquote Louis Armstrong – all the real time in the world. That is no bad thing. Trust me, it takes real time and wide-open senses to savour and assimilate experiences like these of Iva Bittová’s.
Ken Hunt is a London-based writer, broadcaster, translator and lyricist.