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The Floating World and the Wood Beyond

The Float­ing World is the main artistic pro­ject of Amanda Votta, spe­cial­ising in flute-based ambi­ent music with dark and mys­ter­i­ous under­tones. Start­ing as a solo flute pro­ject with its first releases eight years ago, it has since attrac­ted numer­ous col­lab­or­at­ors on vari­ous instru­ments and, occa­sion­ally, spoken word. Recent albums The Appar­i­tion and We Hunted have appeared on Cyc­lic Law and Reverb Wor­ship, respect­ively, and this label atten­tion will hope­fully pro­pel Vot­ta’s music into a wider audi­ence.

Her latest album, The Wood Bey­ond the World, is just out on Eclipse, the sub­si­di­ary label of Cyc­lic Law, and it is the dir­ect inspir­a­tion for the inter­view below. Not only did I find it one of Vot­ta’s most inter­est­ing releases to date, it also promp­ted me to finally dive into the Wil­liam Mor­ris novel after which the album was names, which had been on my to-read list for quite a while. If you’d like to read along, you can down­load a digital copy of a nice early edi­tion of the book on archive​.org.

‘The Wood Bey­ond the World’ album cover

The album is a nat­ural con­tinu­ation of the slightly psy­che­delic mater­ial on We Hunted, although it has its darker moments that remind me of The Appar­i­tion. While flute remains the core of the atmo­sphere and music, the gui­tar con­tri­bu­tions on The Wood are extremely fit­ting and add the extra bit of tex­ture that, frankly, the music needed after a few years. Per­cus­sion, bells, and well placed samples of water and voices give space to the tracks here and there, and it feels less claus­tro­phobic than the work on The Appar­i­tion, though the album is by no means a happy affair. If any­thing, it feels oth­er­worldly and strange, and in that sense it draws strongly upon jour­ney described in the novel, where Wal­ter finds him­self in a place that is alien to him, and where not all the usual rules apply.

The Wood Bey­ond the World is avail­able on CD from Cyc­lic Law, and digit­ally through vari­ous out­lets. You can hear tracks from it on our three latest Cloud­scapes (#40 and #41), as well, if you’d like to hear them in a dif­fer­ent con­text.

The inter­view below is the res­ult of an email con­ver­sa­tion I had with Amanda. My inten­tion was not just to give her the oppor­tun­ity to tell us a bit about the his­tory of The Float­ing World, but also to get her to delve a bit deeper into lit­er­ary and art his­tory, a topic I know she enjoys. As you’ll see, those prom­ises were ful­filled, as Amanda has a lot to say on the sub­ject.

[OS] How did you start play­ing the flute, and how did you decide you wanted to record solo flute music?

[AV] I first star­ted play­ing flute when I was about 8, as part of the con­cert band at the school I was attend­ing. Before that, I’d had some gen­eral music classes at my pre­vi­ous school and bits of piano here and there, cour­tesy of an uncle. I did actu­ally stop play­ing flute for a couple of years and picked it up again later when I switched to a pub­lic school from the Cath­olic school I had been attend­ing. That time it stuck though and it’s been my instru­ment of choice for the past 20 years. It’s the one thing, aside from fam­ily, that’s been a con­stant part of my life for that long.

While I star­ted play­ing quite young, I didn’t even con­sider record­ing any­thing until much later. I did write songs all along, first just note names – F-Aflat-G – then using staff paper I’d make myself with a pen and ruler. I used up quite a lot of my mother’s type­writer paper doing that, but she never seemed to mind. Once I felt com­pet­ent writ­ing songs myself I did that for a few years before I star­ted think­ing about record­ing any. That was around the point that I began writ­ing music to go with poems my sis­ter had writ­ten. She’d give me a bunch of her poems and I’d sit down, determ­ined to write one song an even­ing to match them. These songs seemed to me like they were finally start­ing to express whatever it is I keep try­ing to con­vey with music. They had that qual­ity to them, the right keys, the right tone, mood. Prob­ably helped by the fact that I was writ­ing music to match her and she and I have always had the same kinds of ideas about art. We’re try­ing to express essen­tially sim­ilar con­cepts with what we do. It was these songs that ended up form­ing the Folk­lore of the Moon EP I did, and also made me aware of just how much other art forms – not just music – could and did influ­ence me and what I wanted my music to be, the dir­ec­tion I wanted to go in.

Amanda Votta

*I sup­pose you’ve known Timothy Ren­ner since you did that Folk­lore of the Moon EP in 2005, but how did you get in touch with col­lab­or­at­ors Grey Malkin & Ned­dal Ayad?

I’ve known Ned­dal nearly as long as Tim. He and I star­ted talk­ing right around the same time and it was actu­ally him who asked me if I wanted to do the Folk­lore of the Moon thing – he and Tim arranged that together. At the time I made that EP I was liv­ing in Ontario near Toronto and not long after that came out he ended up liv­ing down the road from me. We’d spend most days hanging out, listen­ing to music, watch­ing movies and such. This was when we star­ted work­ing on our band Secrets to the Sea. We had a tape out in 2006, I think. We hadn’t worked on any SttS in years, but lately we’ve been writ­ing more songs that are com­pletely dif­fer­ent from either older SttS or any­thing TFW does, which has been very enjoy­able to do. We’ll prob­ably have a tape of our older songs out on Lost Grave some­time and then the newer stuff some­where at some point. We’re not quite fin­ished work­ing on that yet, though. He also had an album out of his solo work, Great Attractor, on the Eng­lish label Reverb Wor­ship not long ago that I played on and mastered for him. Work­ing with Ned­dal on music is always enjoy­able since he and I have known each other for a while now and we have very sim­ilar ideas about most things, art and oth­er­wise. He knows what I’m going for, I know what he’s going for, aes­thetic and sound wise so it just works. At times, with TFW espe­cially, we don’t even really have to listen to one another’s parts to end up com­ing up with some­thing that works. We know what keys the other likes and how we each play well enough now to basic­ally impro­vise everything. At some point, we had a dis­cus­sion about how when record­ing layered parts neither of us both­ers to listen back to what we’ve done. You just record the one part, go right on to the next. Work­ing that way has helped a lot to make this and the last TFW album what they are. The kind of not think­ing when you make some­thing, hav­ing some­thing in mind but noth­ing con­crete or fully formed and just allow­ing the thing to make itself is some­thing I value and why I enjoy mak­ing music with Ned­dal so much.

And while I haven’t known Grey as long as I’ve known Ned­dal, he does under­stand that some­thing we’re try­ing to achieve, that mood or idea that we want the listener to take from the music. He’s added a whole other dimen­sion to the band as well, thanks to his own par­tic­u­lar way of play­ing, and helped to fill it out and fur­ther refine things. He and I first got in touch when he asked me to con­trib­ute flute to his incred­ible, spooky folk band The Hare and the Moon, and I loved work­ing on his songs so much that I asked him to start adding to TFW. He, without us hav­ing to dis­cuss it really, knows pre­cisely what to do with each song he’s con­trib­uted to. It cer­tainly helps that we share and aes­thetic and sim­ilar taste in music, movies and books. For whatever reason, that’s always been import­ant to me in choos­ing who to work with—possibly because if you have sim­ilar tastes it’s more likely you’ll be cre­at­ing for sim­ilar reas­ons. More likely you’ll have some kind of mutual, intu­it­ive under­stand­ing, which I find to be extremely import­ant.

I also have to men­tion Roy K. Felps of Korper­schwache, who plays acous­tic gui­tar on “Stars and Gleam­ing Leaves.” We’ve also been acquain­ted for a while now and have gone back and forth a bit about work­ing together over the years. While his music and mine might seem to be from com­pletely dif­fer­ent ends of the spec­trum, Korper­schwache being gen­er­ally much harsher than TFW, we do also share sim­ilar tastes and he knew exactly what to do with the song he worked on, too. He ended up con­trib­ut­ing because I men­tioned some­thing about lik­ing Low’s sound on their song “Do You Know How to Waltz?” and he offered to take a song and see if he couldn’t do some­thing sim­ilar sound-wise. Which isn’t really what ended up hap­pen­ing, but what did hap­pen seems per­fect to me for the song.

There’s also my sis­ter, Nicole, who has either writ­ten some­thing for the vast major­ity of TFW songs or I’ve writ­ten the songs for some­thing she wrote. She might not be a musical con­trib­utor, but to me she’s just as essen­tial through­out the pro­cess of writ­ing an album and integ­ral to mak­ing the end res­ult feel com­plete as the other musi­cians involved. For The Wood Bey­ond the World, she wrote one piece to kind of tie the whole together which will be prin­ted inside the digipack—though I don’t know if it’ll be included on the digital edi­tion. Her writ­ing has always been impress­ive to me. She’ll write some­thing that will amaze me both because I think it’s just good writ­ing and because every time I read some­thing she’s writ­ten I’m reminded again that she knows that indefin­able thing. One of these days I’d love to see a col­lec­tion of her work pub­lished, illus­trated by Tim. That would be per­fect.

Over the years there have been other people I’ve tried to work with on TFW, but it just didn’t hap­pen. At this point, these are the people I’ve found who really have some­thing import­ant to add and who know just how to do that. It’s nice, much more enjoy­able than doing the bulk of the music on your own.

*Your con­tri­bu­tions to Far Black Fur­long are some of my favour­ite things. How did you get involved with them?

Richard Moult con­tac­ted me not long after the Folk­lore of the Moon disc came out and asked if I’d be inter­ested in con­trib­ut­ing some flute to the album they were in the pro­cess of work­ing on at the time. Since I very much admire his work—his music, paint­ing and writing—I agreed. He’s incred­ibly tal­en­ted, as were the other musi­cians work­ing on that album and it’s one of the things I’ve done that I’m most happy with. Richard is someone else who, though his work may be tied to a tra­di­tion, has an extremely unique per­spect­ive that comes through in everything he does. He’s a com­poser, painter, writer, who under­stands and is versed in the­ory and tech­nique, but everything he does is dis­tinctly his own. And there’s a dis­tinct strange­ness to it as well, which I def­in­itely appre­ci­ate.

Frontispiece of the Kelmscott edition of 'The Wood Beyond the World'
Frontis­piece of the Kelmscott edi­tion of ‘The Wood Bey­ond the World’

*What about the book The Wood Bey­ond the World made you ulti­mately choose to name an album after it?

I’ve always liked the book and there’s some­thing about that title that it just pops into my head unbid­den at times. The way it sounds, what it makes me think. The book tells the story of Golden Wal­ter, who leaves his home­land on a voy­age by ship after becom­ing estranged from his wife. While trav­el­ing, he learns his father has killed his wife and in turn been killed by his wife’s fam­ily, and is swept to a dis­tant land by a storm. This and the death of his wife and father make him feel removed from his home, caus­ing him essen­tially aban­don the idea of the land from which he came being his home. He has no ties to it any longer, no reason to return. Mean­while, there’s a new coun­try for him to explore. On his voy­age, he’d has a vis­ion of a Maiden, whom he sets out to find when he arrives in The Wood Bey­ond the World with some dir­ec­tion from a her­mit. He does find her, enthralled by an enchant­ress, whom they even­tu­ally escape from. The book ends with a hap­pily ever after scen­ario, but the part that interests me and that I find most enga­ging is the middle act and it’s this part of the book I had in mind when nam­ing the album. The wan­der­ing through a strange land, arrival in the primeval forest, and dis­cov­ery of those he had vis­ions of are what I find most enga­ging. Not to men­tion the dwarves who make dire pro­nounce­ments con­cern­ing Wal­ter and the maiden. There’s some­thing almost eerie about it, des­pite the dense lan­guage it’s writ­ten in or the way Mor­ris treads lightly here as though he doesn’t want to write any­thing too fraught with what I always feel is the poten­tial for ter­ror. Just think of Wal­ter, far from home in a strange and seem­ingly per­il­ous wood that exists yet some­how doesn’t. It’s a thing of vis­ion, a thing set apart from the real world by dis­tance and by its fant­ast­ical nature, by the jour­ney he went on—not just the phys­ical jour­ney, but the entire exper­i­ence he’s been through. Also, though the maiden is a pris­oner, she’s also an enchant­ress like her captor and she plays a large role in their escape. She’s not simply a pass­ive prop, a prin­cess in a tower. Though, I do feel the end of the book isn’t really in synch with the begin­ning and middle. Wal­ter and his new bride pre­sum­ably live hap­pily ever after as the mon­archs of a king­dom they hap­pen upon after escap­ing The Wood Bey­ond the World, which is a stark con­trast to the danger and strange­ness of what came before. It’s that strange­ness that made the title stick with me and why I chose to name an album for the book.

*To me, it feels like you took some­what of a dis­tance from the book in terms of atmo­sphere. Mor­ris’ works feel very famil­iar and European in some sense, while your music — not just on this album — feels more detached and alien. Per­haps closer to Dun­sany’s work than Mor­ris’. Do you feel the same way, or does Mor­ris con­jure up dif­fer­ent images for you?

Beneath the medi­eval lan­guage and style there’s a def­in­itely unset­tling under­cur­rent. The danger Wal­ter and the maiden are in, the very fact that he’s in a world not his own, the enchant­ress who holds the maiden cap­tive, and all things that, to me, con­trib­ute to the sense of creep­ing dread under­ly­ing the tale. To be sure, Mor­ris takes his cue here from the medi­eval roman­ti­cism of Thomas Mal­ory, but even in Mal­ory there’s the alien. This can be seen in what could be termed the super­nat­ural ele­ments of a work like Le Mort d’Arthur, the sor­cer­ers and sor­ceresses, the quest for the grail, Excalibur and what is per­haps the oddest sec­tion to me, “The Tale of Balyn and Balan.” This is the sec­tion deal­ing with Arthur’s affair with his half-sis­ter and their child Mordred, and also describes how Mer­lin instruc­ted Arthur to take every new­born boy and set them adrift on a ship. The ship crashes and Mordred is the sole sur­vivor, Arthur’s son who later kills his father. What is most strange about it isn’t even the events them­selves, it’s the rather impar­tial way the events are recoun­ted. You might think that, to a medi­eval author and their audi­ence, this would be highly immoral and any telling of such a tale full of warn­ings and admon­ish­ments to not act as the play­ers here do. But it’s fairly free of such things. The oddness inher­ent in this and the rest of the tales con­tained in Malory’s work is made read­ily appar­ent if you look through the ver­sion illus­trated by Aubrey Beard­s­ley. His style, the way he chooses to por­tray scenes, com­pli­ment quite well the alien qual­ity of Malory’s tales. Or to me they do.

I sup­pose this is also what I see in Mor­ris’ work and is the thing that draws me to it, the qual­ity it pos­sesses that I most appre­ci­ate with. Both he and Mal­ory can be read as essen­tially romantic fantas­ies, but in both are ele­ments that go bey­ond that. It’s not as read­ily appar­ent as in Dun­sany, but it’s there.

Dun­sany is also a major source of inspir­a­tion and an influ­ence on me. My beaten up copy of The Bless­ing of Pan is full of torn corners of paper mark­ing pages, some with notes writ­ten on them that, look at them now, I don’t even remem­ber why I wrote them or what I meant. That book prob­ably has the single most per­fect approach, per­fect descrip­tions of music I’ve read in fic­tion. Whenever he describes the music Tommy Duffins plays he refers to is as a mys­tery, some­thing from the far past, some­thing indefin­able, inev­it­able, unavoid­able. The vil­lage can’t help but listen. It’s incred­ible, there’s noth­ing like it. Whenever I pick it up it makes me want to imme­di­ately sit down and start work­ing on a song. Whereas the alien in Mor­ris is not truly the focus, it is the heart and soul of Dunsany’s writ­ing. His writ­ing itself has that very dream-like, neb­u­lous, hazy qual­ity I try over and over to cre­ate music­ally. There’s also a dis­tinctly sin­is­ter qual­ity to his work that I appre­ci­ate, a kind of subtle some­thing that makes you feel ill at ease.

This unset­tling qual­ity in Dun­sany and the influ­ence it has on me is also why I def­in­itely appre­ci­ate Algernon Black­wood just as much. His “The Wil­lows,” which I’m cur­rently read­ing for prob­ably the sixth time, is noth­ing but unset­tling. Another factor in my appre­ci­ation for it is the way he describes sound. Unlike Dun­sany, he doesn’t call it a mys­tery and it isn’t music he’s refer­ring to, but the river, the wind, the wil­lows them­selves. The sounds you would hear nor­mally while trav­el­ing down a river become uncanny, unknow­able, dis­turb­ing because what they indic­ate isn’t that you’re in a famil­iar envir­on­ment, but in a place incom­pat­ible with your under­stand­ing of a mundane island in a mundane river. This story is often referred to as an example of the earli­est weird fic­tion and it does per­fectly cap­ture that odd, out of place-ness, that sense of strange­ness, per­fectly.

There are a couple of other books and writers that had a decided impact on The Wood Bey­ond the World and The Float­ing World in gen­eral. For this album in par­tic­u­lar, the Homeric Hymns to Dionysus were a large influ­ence. Spe­cific­ally, Charles Boer’s trans­la­tion. His sparse, min­im­al­ist and very mod­ern way of ren­der­ing the ancient Greek into Eng­lish is prob­ably the best ver­sion I know of. He doesn’t take away mean­ing from the words by trans­lat­ing them this way, he allows a mod­ern reader to feel the full impact of what was writ­ten. It isn’t lost in what might sound like overly involved lan­guage. It’s kind of a stark con­trast to Mor­ris, too. But it was from those Hymns that I got the idea for the words for “To Lay Flowers at His Feet.”

Wal­ter F. Otto’s Dionysus also has had a large and last­ing impact on me. This is really a schol­arly work on the cult of Dionysus, how he was wor­shipped, what he meant, was he was. But it’s writ­ten in a way that really will, as a friend who I loaned it to said, put the fear of god in you. The way he dis­cusses the beliefs, meth­ods of wor­ship and mean­ing of Dionysus is not like any­thing else I’ve read. There’s a chapter in it, “Pan­da­monium and Silence,” that’s abso­lutely stun­ning.

Sim­il­arly, there was some­thing I read by David Toop that had a pro­found impact. I think it was Sin­is­ter Res­on­ance, wherein he calls sound a haunt­ing, a ghost and describes sound as intan­gible, uncanny, the act of listen­ing akin to medi­um­ship. Sound is an insub­stan­tial thing. Unlike the writ­ten word, you can’t see it. A book you can touch, turn the pages, see it, feel it, read it aloud. There’s some­thing more con­crete to it, lit­er­ally. You can even run your hand over a page and feel the ink used to print the words. But you can’t access sound that way. It exists at a remove. That’s the feel­ing on it I’ve had for as long as I’ve been play­ing, but see­ing that someone else feels the same way about it and artic­u­lated it so well really caused me to focus on that aspect while work­ing on this album. That alien qual­ity you men­tion is what sound is to me. There’s some­thing of it, in some way, in most of what I enjoy music­ally and artist­ic­ally in gen­eral. It doesn’t have to be an overt qual­ity, it can even be some­thing not neces­sar­ily alien, but a rag­ged­ness. I don’t want to say an imper­fect qual­ity, because it’s more a lack of clean­ness.

It might even be in this book as well, but Toop quotes a line from Rilke, “Beauty is the begin­ning of ter­ror,” which is one of the most accur­ate ways to describe the qual­ity I’m drawn to in art. It’s not even neces­sar­ily ter­ror either, it’s just some­thing that’s a bit off which makes the whole so much bet­ter than it would be oth­er­wise.

There is, of course, the influ­ence of sound itself on the album. Sounds as in a branch tap­ping on the win­dow, the sound of walk­ing through tall grass, stand­ing out­side at night and sound as in other music.

*What’s you take on Mor­ris in the his­tory of (fantasy) fic­tion? That J.R.R. Tolkien was influ­enced by him is well-known and clear if you know where to look, but do you see his leg­acy in other writers? How would you typify Mor­ris com­pared to his con­tem­por­ar­ies?

I do have to agree that he is a sort of fig­ure­head for the begin­ning of mod­ern fantasy. What he wrote wasn’t his­tory, it didn’t share with Mal­ory that inten­tion of recount­ing events and describ­ing indi­vidu­als with a real basis in real­ity, but instead he focused on the ima­gined. The world he ima­gined may have shared sim­il­ar­it­ies with medi­eval Europe, but it was also of his own design. The tales are his own inven­tion. Inspired by Mal­ory, but not exist­ing in that same area. It’s a fantasy of his­tory, an improb­able past, that he wrote of. And he was really among the very first to do so.

Per­haps the most obvi­ous example of Mor­ris’ influ­ence in other, mod­ern writers would be someone like Patri­cia McK­il­lip. She writes about essen­tially the same things he did, but without the archaic style. Magic and strange­ness and worlds that are both famil­iar and alien. To an extent, I can also see some­thing of Mor­ris in Tanith Lee, espe­cially her Secret Books of Paradys. It might seem an odd com­par­ison, but there’s some­thing of Mor­ris’ hints of the uncanny in her work—but fully real­ized. Mor­ris also didn’t really write dam­sel in dis­tress stor­ies. Yes, many of the people, not just women, in his work were in dis­tress. But as in The Wood Bey­ond the World, they were never wholly help­less. The female lead in The Well at World’s End also acts inde­pend­ently and essen­tially saves her­self. Both Lee and McK­il­lip write female char­ac­ters that aren’t of the dam­sel in dis­tress vari­ety as well.

Whenever I think of Mor­ris, I think of him first in the con­text of the Pre-Raphael­ite Broth­er­hood, along­side Dante Gab­riel Ros­setti, Hol­man-Hunt, Mil­lais, Burne-Jones and Christina Rossetti—who was an import­ant mem­ber of their inner circle, though not an actual mem­ber of the group itself. Think­ing of him in rela­tion to DG Ros­setti, Mor­ris is cer­tainly more con­nec­ted to the idea of a chiv­al­rous past and much less likely to write a paean prais­ing a pros­ti­tute. Yet they do have some points in com­mon, not least of all the focus on an artistic medi­ev­al­ism. In Rossetti’s case, a more obvi­ously and highly erot­i­cized medievalism—as with Burne-Jones—but there’s the com­mon thread there of look­ing to the past for sub­ject. I also have to say, there are cer­tainly erot­i­cized ele­ments in Mor­ris, it’s just they’re more veiled thanks to his style. Think of the bizarre love square in The Wood Bey­ond the World involving Wal­ter, the maiden, the enchant­ress and a dwarf—not to men­tion the enchantress’s cast-off prince. Like Ros­setti, he also suc­cess­fully worked in more than one medium.

There’s also the Pre-Raphael­ite prin­ciple of tak­ing a real­istic sub­ject and apply­ing a magical, sym­bolic ele­ment. Not void­ing the real­ism, but cer­tainly not mak­ing real­ism the sole law. Mor­ris engaged with the magical more than most of his con­tem­por­ar­ies, yet there is that prin­ciple of a real­ism with magic super­im­posed. What, say, Hol­man Hunt did with color, Mor­ris did with words. He chose to write in a rich, vibrant, heav­ily orna­men­ted style akin to the rich, vibrant heav­ily pig­men­ted tones you can see in Hunt’s work. In this, he also com­pares to Christina Ros­setti, who was a super­ior poet to her brother in my estim­a­tion. Though her use of lan­guage was much more mod­ern than Mor­ris’ there’s a sim­il­ar­ity there in the way they don’t neces­sar­ily rely entirely on con­ven­tional views of gender roles. While her work could be called bleaker than the writ­ing of Mor­ris, there is a shared sense of danger and strange­ness.

Aside from his abil­ity to cre­ate things that have had a last­ing impact on the arts, Mor­ris is also admir­able for his per­sonal con­vic­tions. He was a social­ist who believed in a rejec­tion of man­u­fac­tured arts and crafts in favor of the hand-made, in the artisan as artist, in mak­ing art avail­able to those without wealth. He rejec­ted the idea of a hier­archy of art, too, and really rejec­ted the idea of hier­archy gen­er­ally. In a way, he was a unique indi­vidual among his con­tem­por­ar­ies in that he did engage in a vari­ety of artistic endeavors—embroidery, weav­ing, tapestry, poetry and prose—as well as being an act­ive thinker on polit­ical and social issues. I sup­pose that when I chose to name an album for one of his nov­els it was as much because of what the novel means to me in an artistic sense as it is my admir­a­tion for many of his ideas in gen­eral, his desire to do away with hier­archy and his need to cre­ate, to express some­thing both strange and famil­iar to his audi­ence.