Words like "approachable" and "engaging" are rarely invoked when describing the work of so-called avant-garde musicians, and it sometimes seems true that avant experimentalists bend over backwards to push mainstream listeners away rather than welcome them. Not so Iva Bittová, a composer, violinist, and vocalist who proves that the avant-garde can be broadly appealing without compromising its adventurous spirit. On Elida, Bittová succeeds in humanizing the Bang on a Can All-Stars, that collective of New Yorkers often primarily noted for mind-boggling technical skills when tackling the formidable minimalist and post-minimalist works of modern composers like Louis Andriessen and the Bang on a Can collective's own Michael Gordon. Here, a six-piece incarnation of the All-Stars is her backing band, and the musicians prove to be ideally suited to the task, a dose of Bittová's Eastern European folk, chamber music, and cabaret proving the ideal formula to reveal their softer and more intimate sides. That is not to suggest that the All-Stars have lost their edge here, or that Bittová's unbridled exuberance is not on full display. Thankfully, Bittová's singing (in her native Czech) remains far from the plastic posturing of the typical mid-2000s pop diva, yet her catalog of wild vocal techniques is not avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde -- it seems a natural and effortless outgrowth of her music's core melodies and rhythms and the artfully yearning images painted by her lyricists (Richard Müller, Vladimír Václavek, and Vera Chase).
The album follows a thoughtful and well-conceived trajectory, with Bittová's shouting, babbling, and skittering vocals making an early entrance on "Malíri V Parízi" (Painters in Paris) but seeming to slide gracefully into a mature beauty before the listener's ears as the album progresses, although she never completely abandons her childlike playful qualities. Likewise, her violin assumes increasing prominence as Elida's initial cabaret atmosphere (with Lisa Moore's wonderful pianisms on full display) makes way for a fuller -- yet often delicate and understated -- ensemble sound. Bittová dips into idiosyncratic yet compelling jazz-like scatting on "Bolís Me, Lásko" (You're Hurting Me Babe), while the two-part "Zapíshej" (Whistle), an album highlight, displays her wonderful talents in synchronous singing and violin playing, both in the uptempo folk dance-like opening and the piece's centerpiece, a beautiful extended 5/4 vamp taken at a measured pace, colored by a mysterious guitar motif, driven by subtle bass and brushed drums, and embellished with pizzicato strings. Gypsy flavors can be heard in both "Zapíshej" and "Hopáhop Tálitá," the album's two lengthiest pieces, particularly in Evan Ziporyn's clarinet lines, and one also hears echoes of Tom Cora in Wendy Sutter's cello on the title track, which flirts with avant European folk-rock and may have certain listeners recalling Nimal or Skeleton Crew (an impression enhanced by some Fred Frith-like guitar from Mark Stewart, a member of Frith's Guitar Quartet). Elida is an essential release in Iva Bittová's catalog, and a fine introduction to her music for those unfamiliar with her. And it's a worthy Bang on a Can All-Stars entry, too, particularly if you're not in a mood for minimalism. (amg)