Iva Bittová

‘Don’t be afraid to be yourself.’

Text taken from online.muni.cz

Iva Bittová is one of the most original and internationally successful Czech musicians, although she has not been living in the Czech Republic for several years. Eight years ago, Iva Bittová moved to the United States, where she is selling out prestigious music halls. She doesn’t spend all her time in the US; she returns home quite frequently. This is partly because she has become more popular in Europe, but also because she was busy completing her fourth year of music studies at the Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University.


Recently, you have been releasing two or more albums a year. Are you going through a particularly inspirational time?
I wouldn’t put it that way. I had a bit of a pause after 2007, when I was moving to the US and had a lot of work to do with getting established and settling in. But even during this change in my life, I tried to get some inspiration, so that period is still somehow productive. But I have never stopped making music. It gives me energy and I need it to live.

How do you work on your albums?
Mostly, I think it’s good to play, play, and play, get used to it, make it a part of you, and then go and record it. On rare occasions, we go to the studio and record something right away, after only playing it a few times at concerts. It happens quite frequently that I get offers in various genres from different people at the same time, and often a record comes out of it. This is a really nice way of archiving my work.

Do you view the albums only as an archive of your work?
I’m not the kind of an artist who works intensively in the recording studio. When I’m making an album, I am usually in the process of closing some chapter of my life. And then, I move on.

Do you prefer live concerts to recording?
There’s a very different type of energy from recording. The listener experiences a completely different feeling. I work a lot with the dynamics and expression of a particular concert hall. I also play mostly acoustically and try to use the acoustics as a substantial effect. In contrast, in the studio it’s like you are under a microscope. You always have to adapt to a particular sound engineer, which doesn’t allow for those strong expressions. Besides, when I play, I need to see the people’s reactions. Their behaviour is a signal for me whether everything is all right, or whether something isn’t working and I need to make a change.

Do you really keep an eye on the audience? At your concerts, you seem quite immersed in your playing.
I just feel the reaction of the audience and I respond to it right away. After all these years I’ve been playing, it’s a bit of a routine anyway. During my first improvisation, I get to know the space and the people in it, and then I proceed accordingly. This is why I also prefer playing for smaller audiences. It is good, once in a while, to enjoy those big crowds of thousands of people, but I feel more comfortable in smaller halls where I have more control over what I do, and how, and with whom. When I see people open up and relax during the concert, it gives me strength. And it works both ways. I give people my energy, and they return theirs to me.

Music critics are still seeking to describe your genre. How about you?
If I wanted to, I would probably find some genre box for myself. I understand that the critics need to somehow describe for the media what I’m about. But that’s their problem. Let them keep trying. I need to focus on my own work. Over the years, I think I have created my own original sound and impression that people like. Of course, I try to surprise them with a new programme or an interesting guest, or by doing a lot of improvisations; that’s a part of me as well and people know it. It allows me to feel free, a certain sense of freedom. Once I limit myself with a genre, it probably wouldn’t work. Anyway, I believe that music itself has no limitations at all. The divisions into styles and genres exist only because people need to name and categorize things, so that they are able to say, I’m going to study jazz or I’m going to study classics. But this sometimes creates quite pointless walls.

Don’t you care about your image?
I’ve never bothered with that. I’m just being myself. When you come to a place where I’m supposed to have a concert, you find nothing there. People who don’t know me often say: Is anything actually going on here? There’s nothing ready. But that’s just it. There’s me, the violin, the audience, and the atmosphere of the hall. And I don’t have to be worried that some little gadget that is crucial for the concert won’t work, or that I accidentally mess up my make-up. I can’t be asked to do all that.

What does your preparation for concerts look like?
I try to sleep and eat well, have a base, be calm. It’s about having an everyday lifestyle. Of course, I have to be ready for the programme, rehearse the pieces I’m going to play and overall to keep myself in the right condition in order to have enough energy. Fortunately, the violin is such an intense discipline that it keeps me in good shape all the time.

Do you practice hard?
Sure, you have to. Otherwise, the violin won’t let you play.

What do you mean?
If you don’t practice for a while, the violin will hit you back right away. It’s one of the most difficult musical instruments to master, and if you don’t spend enough time with it, it simply doesn’t care about you.

Do you practice daily?
I have to. Travelling sometimes complicates it for me, but the practice is a priority which must always be included in my schedule.

Do you have a special relation to one particular violin?
Right now I have a new one from the violin-maker Mr. Bursík from Brno. We have actually made each other very happy. He is glad that I’ve taken his latest instrument, and I’m glad that I can start to play on this beautiful violin myself.

Why did you leave the previous one?
It didn’t inspire me anymore, and it just wasn’t ideal. I need new inspirations. When I feel this need, I just exchange the instrument.

I thought that violinists yearn for older instruments, those that already have something behind them.
If we were to draw only on the old ones, they would become scarce sooner or later. And we have to support the violin-makers, because their craft is slowly disappearing. Besides, I take it as a challenge, to start the instrument with a good sound. Mr. Bursík actually told me that it can happen that a violinist ruins a new instrument by how they start playing it, not hearing it properly or misinterpreting the intonation. And as you mention the old instruments, you can have a violin with a great name from a famous violin-maker from the 17th century, but that doesn’t guarantee that it will have a good sound. If it has been just laying in the closet for a long time and not been played on, it is dead. You have to play the violin to keep it alive.

So you don’t have a violin collection at home?
What I usually do is that that one instrument leaves and another replaces it. I’ve got a deal with Mr. Bursík. My previous violin goes to someone else who will enjoy it and be inspired by it. I’m not generally a person who keeps things.

How is it with your study at Masaryk University? I find it incredibly funny that you left Brno, moved to the US, and then started studying back in Brno.
It is all quite funny. I left Brno, and Brno, or Europe as such, started asking for more of me. It seems as if I became more appreciated as soon as I moved to the US. It’s a strange feeling that you’re still doing the same thing, but suddenly when you live in the US, people feel you’re special and you get more respect. Anyway, I don’t let this influence me at all.

And about the school again: Why didn’t you study years ago?
I spent the years of my youth under totalitarianism, and after graduating from the Conservatory I was given the opportunity to start working at Husa na Provázku (Goose on a String Theatre), which was, at that time, the best thing I could ever wish for as an artist. I still draw on that experience today. I thought that I would try to continue my studies, but I ended them pretty soon because the system then was more interested in knowledge of Marxism and Leninism than in any kind of talent. I’ve been self-taught in many areas my whole life. I concentrated on the things that interested me, that I was good at, and that I enjoyed doing. I also spent thirty years studying violin with Professor Šťastný, who was still with us when I was about to start studying at Masaryk University.

How did you get the idea?
The children are grown now, I have something behind me and there is more time to read, so I thought I’d like to study something. It would be quite complicated in the US because I would have to pass their high school exams or some exams of that kind and I probably wouldn’t have the time and energy to do it. So I called someone I know in Brno and she immediately responded and everything started off. Apparently, she said, the Academy of Old Music would be a great study programme for me. So I applied, passed the entrance examinations, studied Baroque singing and violin, and this year I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree.

And are you planning to continue the Master’s degree study ... [she has since passed the first year of the Master’s degree programme – ed.]
I thought I’d give it a go. If I do well, it will be good; if not, no harm done. I just study for myself. I want to learn something. I’m not doing it for the academic title. I would like to write something in the future, some kind of handbooks about how to play the violin and sing at the same time. Anyway, I have some ideas for which the study can be helpful. There are things in the study, of course, that I’m not so good at, I’m not exactly the studying type, but it’s a great adventure for me and it’s enormously enriching. Despite the criticism, I believed that what I was doing was right, I played with the sound of the violin and my voice, and it helped me to return to my inner child and free myself.

So actually studying old music in Brno is a complete coincidence?
But a good coincidence! My life is like that most of the time. Good things somehow come to me.

Has it enriched your work in any way?
Enormously! I totally fell in love with the old lower tuning and playing the violin with intestine strings. It’s a kind of a nice return to the roots of the music, and it seems to me somewhat more natural than where contemporary music is heading now. It is slowly starting to show in my music.

Are you planning some specific project?
We are preparing a programme with Jan Čižmář, who plays the lute and theorbo [a big bass lute with a long neck with sleepers and bass strings – ed.]. We draw on lamentations and 16th century music. I think it will be amazing. At that time, there was a lot of space for improvisation, and that’s something I’m always trying to do. After all, the notations used to be much simpler and more readable. Today, every detail is written down; it’s often so complicated that you can barely handle it without an academic education. It binds you and there is no room for interpretation.

How do you write your music?
I’m pretty unconventional. For myself, I don’t have to write anything down, and when I prepare music for the people I play with, it really depends on who they are. I try to meet the musicians’ needs, but I don’t like it when the notes are just read, then played, and that’s it. Music needs to be experienced, and so my notations are always quite simple and the musicians can find space for their own interpretation, which must come from the concrete situation at a particular concert.

If you don’t write the notes down for yourself, do you just remember it all?
Well, yes.

You have to remember a lot then.
[laughs.] It’s not that bad. I keep only the most important parts in my head. I have to say quite immodestly that I have an absolutely amazing memory for melody, but as I get older I have a bit of a problem with remembering the words. I often have to remind myself of the words, and sometimes I have them on the stand in front of me just to be sure.

And about the school again, wasn’t it a bit of a shock to you, after so many years, to be back at school?
Jesus, sure it was. When the first semester ended, I was terribly afraid, especially at the first exam period and then just before the final exams. Well, it was quite scary! I felt like a little girl. Those were terrible times. And to top it all off, imagine that some people know me there and they think that I should already know everything. [laughs.]

I’ve noticed that the composer Miloš Štědroň opposed your bachelor thesis.
Yes, and he was very pleased to say that the work was amazing. So I believed him then... Studying really is an adventure. I did everything the way I was supposed to do it and now I carry on.

There aren’t many people, at least not in the Czech Republic, who would start studying much after their 20s or 30s...
People probably don’t believe in themselves. I was pretty scared, too. But I followed my instincts, which is what I usually do in my life. And also at the very beginning, I was in touch with people who encouraged me a bit. And they were right when they said that it was important to pass the first exam and then one knows what to expect from the other ones and gains more confidence. At first you hesitate, you are not very confident. It takes some courage. And that is true for everything in life, at school and in music. Here in the Czech Republic, we are often quite satisfied with ourselves too quickly. We don’t get out of our comfort zone and instead we always find some excuses for why we cannot do something. But it’s exactly these decisions that move us forward.

Do you like getting out of your comfort zone?
Nobody likes it, but it needs to be done. In my case, it usually is an outcome of various fast-paced decisions, like for example, I promise some kind of cooperation, for example on an opera, and then I even cry about it because I have too much to do. But it’s these situations that enrich you the most. Small steps are great, but ...you know. Even if you hit the buffers and get burned, it’s an experience that helps you to learn something about yourself and then you can continue on your way. From this point of view, I quite like the American culture, where everyone feels a strong sense of competition, so the musicians really enjoy their concerts. They never know if this is the last time. Your career is going well at one point, but somebody better than you may appear tomorrow. Sometimes it’s almost unhealthily harsh, but I think we could learn something from it. Here in the Czech Republic, we are all a bit like ... cannot be asked that kind of thing.

In the past, you were struggling a bit here, in the Czech Republic, with how people understood your music. Is that also related to what you’ve just said?
I think this is more of a general cultural problem. In the US and in other countries, people can more easily appreciate someone’s originality and their own specific style. I’ve always been doing it, and I also say it at my seminars, that you need to listen to your own inner voice. You need to create your own world according to that voice, so that it’s just yours, original and unrepeatable, and then add something to it that you like from outside. It is very important for us not to become just some little machines.

To do this, however, you have to overcome a great shyness, let people into your private space. At your concerts, you show quite a lot of yourself. How do you achieve this?
Some even say that it’s like I’m naked ... Well, and how did I overcome my shyness? I believed that what I was doing was right, I played with the sound of the violin and my voice, and it helped me to return to my inner child and free myself. Take a look at how amazing children are. They have no barriers. And we take them and make them into frightened adults who suppress their inner feelings and then they have to go to therapy. It isn’t easy to avoid this state, but everybody has a chance.

How is it actually with your work in the US or on the world scene? In the Czech Republic, we don’t know much about it or at least people don’t talk about it.
In the US, I have a decent base, I am a well-established artist in New York and California, and wherever I go, I play to a full concert hall. And it’s not like some Czech artists who rent out Carnegie Hall and play for the compatriots. I have had the honour of being invited to play at Carnegie Hall. I’ve already been there five times and I really appreciate it. And the fact that it’s not in the papers? I have no need to boast about it or announce it to the media. I’m enjoying it there, right on the spot, and it’s a great feeling, of course. I think that it somehow naturally adds to my self-esteem and confirms that I’m doing it right. But it also means that I have to work harder. People at the concerts can immediately feel when you don’t give them the right energy, they might think that you can’t do it anymore, and then next time they won’t come.

You were, from the beginning, saying that your move to the US was a temporary thing. Now, you’ve lived there a considerable part of your life, eight years ...
But I’m not really there all the time. I’m always somewhere. In the summer, I spent several months in Europe and a lot of time in the Czech Republic. But I would like to get more settled there, run a private school, for instance. But we will see. I have another vision - to go somewhere into the mountains, to a cave. Fire. Herbs. No bills. That would be nice.


Author: David Povolný


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