Virginia Astley was born into a musical family, the daughter of a commercial composer who had written the memorable theme songs to British television shows The Saint and Dangerman. She began studying piano at the age of six, and flute at the age of 14. As a young music school student, she joined post-punk group Victims of Pleasure as keyboardist, and performed as session player on more than a few albums of the period. As a solo artist, she contributed background music to the epochal Les Disques Du Crépuscule compilation The Fruit Of The Original Sin. She eventually formed her own group, The Ravishing Beauties, who were tapped for a highly prized opening slot for The Teardrop Explodes.
Astley’s first solo release was a beguilingly strange 10” EP entitled A Bao A Qu (named in tribute to a mythical creature invented by Borges), released on the tiny Why Fi imprint in 1982. Songs such as “We Will Meet Them Again” and “Sanctus” are early indications of Astley’s unique aesthetic, an application of traditional English pastoral and liturgical motifs to minimal wave chamber pop. An atmosphere of wistfulness and nostalgia permeates all of Virginia Astley’s early recordings, a complex longing for a particular way of life now irretrievably lost. This isn’t quite the pagan royalism of mythical Albion that became a focal point for the Wicker Man-era 1960s British folk revival (and the subsequent re-revival in the form of apocalyptic folk), but something far more parochial, abstract, and personal.
The style reached its full expression on Virginia’s masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, released in 1983 on Astley’s own Happy Valley Records imprint, a subsidiary of Rough Trade established specifically for the release of the album. Divided into two movements, “Morning” and “Afternoon,” Gardens broke decisively from the electronic pop of Astley’s early recordings, eschewing vocals and pop structure almost entirely in favor of abstractly decorative works of pastoral neoclassicism. At times Astley gestures towards the ambient drift of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, perhaps an unavoidable comparison for instrumental music of this period, but her command of melody and harmony keep one foot firmly grounded in tradition.
A series of looped field recordings — birdsong, village church bells, the gentle baaing of sheep, the squeaks and scrapes of gardening implements — lend the music an electroacoustic dimension, creating a uniquely mimetic counterpoint to the baroque sensibilities of Astley’s compositions. From The KLF’s Chill Out to Boards Of Canada’s In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country, British artists have often returned to this same wellspring of pastoral nostalgia, though Astley’s take has a certain ambiguity all its own.
Following the abstract detour of Gardens, Virginia Astley returned to making electronic pop and continued to record and release music throughout the 80s and 90s, but largely failed to find a discernible audience outside of an insular cult following based largely in Japan. She gently faded into quasi-obscurity over the ensuing decades. Gardens was reissued by Rough Trade in 2003, perhaps in a bid to focus critical attention upon an overlooked masterpiece, but the label may have been a few years too early to make the right kind of impact. A scant year later, Ghost Box began releasing music by a small group of artists focused on (re-)creating an imaginary collective past inexorably tied to British provincialism and a fraught relationship with nostalgia. The music of Belbury Poly in particular seems to slot in nicely with Virginia Astley’s hallucinatory waking dreams of an English village and the security promised by a benevolent social order.
Though it does not appear Astley had much interest in drawing explicit references to trad folk, library music, or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, her lightweight instrumentals have a certain appealing kind of neoclassical blandness that makes them feel hauntingly familiar, perhaps a residue of her background in commercial composing. Almost 30 years later, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure still manages to insinuate itself into the unconscious with an eerie congeniality, promising sepia-toned nostalgia but delivering something irrevocably strange and ambivalent, a nagging sensation in the corner of one’s memory, a perfect English garden disturbed by the presence of ghosts.