Iva Bittová – Czech avant-garde violinist, singer and composer

Iva Bittová, photo: archive of Iva Bittová

Iva Bittová is a phenomenal Czech avant-garde violinist, singer and composer who has developed a music style of her own. She moved to upstate New York over ten years ago where she continues performing and teaching both children and adults. We talked after one of her workshops in Prague about her career, her future projects and her passion for helping underprivileged youth to realize their full musical potential.

Iva Bittová,  photo: archive of Iva Bittová
I started off by asking her when it was that she realized that she wanted to be a singer.

“I have been singing since my childhood. I never really had lessons. My voice is totally free and because I grew up in a musical family I am connected by all the sounds around me. As I get older I feel that it was a really good decision to make music, because I think I found some freedom through this type of art. It allows me to communicate with people and listeners all around the planet. It also makes me happy - singing is a healing and therapeutic process. So I feel that I am very lucky and happy, and also probably gifted, to have found this type of work in life – to be a musician, composer and singer.”

It’s very hard to describe your genre; you seem to dabble in so many of them. How would you describe yourself and what makes your music unique?

“I think it’s my own musical language because from the very beginning I was trying to not copy anyone else, to create something that comes from myself. It was not the plan, to be original, but it became something unique – something very different. It’s my communication and my expression in life. It’s something that has to be let out.”

Do you remember the first moment that you realized that you were very popular and that people really wanted to hear you sing?

“I was quite successful from the beginning when I was in Divadlo Husa na provázku – Goose on a String Theater – in Brno. That was during the communism era and the political situation was quite tense. I feel like I was very lucky to be an actress in this theater. We were able to travel. The theater was very famous and very strong in political meaning and this made me happier as an artist on the stage. But I was not happy as an actress, and I turned back to my violin. The key moment was when I started to sing with my violin, and that was the beginning of my way.”

What made you decide to move to Upstate New York in 2007?

“One of the things you asked me was about being famous and my feelings towards it. I am not looking to be very famous and to be known, but as you know, the Czech Republic is very small in comparison to the United States. Most of the people know me because it is a small country. Since the start of my career I was well-known and probably famous. So I escaped to the woods in the U.S. because I found it quieter there and there was a stronger connection to nature. It’s the Hudson Valley, and it’s really a beautiful location.”

Iva Bittová,  photo: archive of Iva Bittová
“In 2007 I was asked to act and sing in Bard College Fisher Center’s SummerScape Festival’s production of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. That was my first experience singing with opera singers – very difficult, strong and important. I realized that I liked this location so much that I wanted to try to live there for a few years. Now I’ve already been there ten years, and I am happy there.”

“Out of the media spotlight, it’s quiet, in nature… and I can focus on my compositions. I studied at home and just got my master’s degree in Musicology in February of this year. It’s funny but very important and very nice – it gives me a very good feeling and I learned a lot of things which I can use in my life. It’s a matter of time; how you organize every day and what you prioritize, what you want to focus on. I need quiet, I need to see nature outside the window. I like to walk outside, breathe air and see stars at night, and in between that practice violin and create new music ideas.”

Would you say those are your biggest priorities?

“Yes – I mean of course my sons, but they are already very independent.”

Did you find it difficult to find work in the United States as a singer?

“It’s not easy, I have to say. I am now focused on trying to open my own private vocal school this summer – ‘In the Woods.’ It would be a special program in which students would be inspired by being in the woods and by the sounds. I have a lot of very nice connections, for instance Bang on a Can, and other musicians from all over – from California, New York, Canada… and I play with them.”

“Because my music falls a little bit outside of the genres, it is hard for most of the promoters to say what the music is about. It is oftentimes difficult for promoters to take a risk because they are not used to having such avant-garde things. It’s not jazz, it’s not classical music, it’s not really folk music or country music. I have invitations from time to time, but still not enough so that’s why I have to travel to Europe.”

“Last week I was in Oberlin giving a masters class and music program. It was beautiful and there is potential for another residency there next year. So from time to time there are some invitations. I did a special program at Hudson Opera Song with the children from the music school. That was a really important experience for me, because if you compare American children, their education and how they behave, it’s a little different from Europeans. It’s another experience for me which makes me stronger because it is like I am learning another language. You have to really see how the children behave, what is in their minds and how to you have to talk to them. If you have to be a friend, parent, phycologist… In the U.S. you have a different history, so it means there are little differences but I’m very happy to get this knowledge and I hope to maybe build up a little children’s choir or something.”

What would you say are some of the main differences between the children in the United States and the children in Europe?

Iva Bittová,  photo: archive of Iva Bittová
“I have to be more careful to really push them, to open up and react. They have a kind of space which you have to be careful about opening. There is a special way to do it. I am very spontaneous and I usually use my energy. I have experience, for example, in Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Austria – and I feel like there is more spontaneity with those children. In the U.S. it’s more like a program; you have to deal with the system and rules. It’s very hard to explain. The process of creating something with a group of children there required a little more preparation to understand them and to inspire them. This is the process which I like to learn and get more information about. For sure it’s different.”

“For example, I was in L.A., in a few schools with Mexican kids. They were so happy to play and make those sounds and it reminds me a little bit of my work with little Gypsy kids. They are also very spontaneous and have very big temperaments. But in those schools, those Mexicans don’t have much of a music program and the parents don’t have money to pay for music lessons, which is really sad. I just realized that part of my program in my school will be that I will sometimes travel and give them lessons for free, because I saw their faces. They were so amazed and they need it.”

Do you do a lot of work with underprivileged youth and with communities…?

“This is what I really like to do. I’ve had experiences and I really want to explore more.”

Do you work a lot with young Roma in the Czech Republic?

“Yes. We have some connections because my father has Roma, Hungarian, Jewish and Slovakian blood, and I think this is a beautiful mixture. My mom is pure Moravian. I mix all those ethnicities together. My sister is very focused on the Gypsy. She, Ida Kelarová, is doing very hard work – she is very good and strong. This is part of my work, but I am always looking to go outside of these borders and explore in different directions.”

Where do you prefer working, in the United States or in Europe?

“I would like to do everything, if I have time, all over. Because you always deal with different nationalities, different temperaments, different languages… every country has its own issues that are very positive and also very negative. I think it’s just about if I still have energy and if I will have invitations to work with children and adults to bring a joyful time with music. I would always like to say yes and to just go.”