Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

NOTE: Today, I’m digging back into the A-Track, A-Day archives for a gorgeous piece of autumnal music, Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, one that still remains too criminally hard to find. No matter, it’s my sonic balm for you, today. You can find a lot of what I said then below, but what do I think about it now?

I’m still presently surprised at how intricate the combination of field recordings and neoclassical piano melodies remain. You can count in one hand all the instruments used in any particular track, yet it’s this wonderful combination of sophistication and innocence that projects larger than it really is.

What we have here still remains a wonderful gateway into a transforming idea of what we should think of as constituting folk music. Time changes, traditions reform, communities fall into dust, places regather, memories become hazy, yet we still hold on. Neo-folk or new age, phrases like that don’t matter when you hear how an unlikely combination of squeaky swing, bird song, and piano stir things in you that no simple words exist to describe. 

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Here’s to another unheralded and quite forgotten one. In the summer of 1983, a humble, charming bit of pastoral neo-folk music was released. Mixing field recordings, piano, guitar, flute, and, very sparingly, voice, a young woman presented a breathtaking idea of how a certain English feeling can reveal itself to you. Back then, Virginia opened her gate to a garden somewhere nearby and in doing so introduced the world to a new type of folk music.

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You see, the garden depicted on the back of the album played a monumental role in the creation of this album. Filled with cherry blossoms and all sorts of wandering birds, this natural environ seeded all the wonderful melodies you’ll hear here. Back then, no one quite knew how to label this Watford-native’s music. Clearly moved by the little things most other people take for granted — in her case the sound of the actual gate leading her to that beautiful scene — Virginia diligently took a field recorder and captured all these sounds we tend to push aside in our hurry to some gray life. Many times, other early ambient or new age musicians had drawn on purely bird sounds or specific moods to make music that said: hey, this is what you should imagine. Not so, with Virginia.

In From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, Virginia starts to realize that many of the forgotten bits of noise; maybe a stream running by, a church bell ringing in the distance, or wind rustling to and fro, quiet thing, that can be recorded, can also fill the out the rest of our meditative life. In turn, these sounds, as she would loop, fade in between, overlay, and play back in her studio, would form the bed from which a musical imagination can roam and germinate.

As you hear bird song get accompanied by clarion call, as in “A Summer Long Since Passed”, can you hear how Virginia tries to play a piano melody no longer evoking a mood but instead trying to blend it into its gorgeous, naturally-found pastorale? Rather than step back, and musically say, here is an instrument imposing this thought of nature, or separating the music from the environment…here’s this bit of nature moving the melody. It’s something most ambient and new age musics lack; the intrinsic feeling of being an active participant in a genuine world around them.

The album itself is divided into two sides, one for dawn (starting with “With My Eyes Open I’m Dreaming”) and one for afternoon (now with “Out on the Lawn I Lie in Bed). It’s nigh impossible to describe the innocence, nostalgia, and freshness pervasive throughout the recording. Few albums evoke memory, or nostalgia, so beautifully. Played quietly, it can fill your atmosphere with thoughts you forget are always there in the background. Few albums invite you to step in, listen, and engage with these bits of half-forgotten stories. In the end, it all sounds so familiar, right? Could it be our new traditions filling the remainder?

Bonus track, watch Virginia perform “Waiting to Fall” a track from this period at the BBC:

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