Villa Arconati, Milan
Terraforma stands as one of Europe’s low-key festival highlights, set in the picturesque Villa Arconati: a 17th century Baroque palace with gardens, located in the Castellazzo district, 30 minutes northwest of Milan.
Arriving on the site, there’s a hot scramble up a dusty country path to the festival entrance. The campsite itself is simple yet scenic; a shadeless field with views out to the surrounding countryside and a river running alongside it. As soon as the sun rises, the heat becomes a tricky predicament – sleeping in tents past sunrise proves to be a near-impossible feat, so revellers sprawl out en masse to whatever patch of shade they can find. Luckily, many of the festival’s highlights come in the morning hours and are well worth rising for. Sat beneath the oak trees in the villa’s winding gardens, we drink strong Italian coffee – then Aperol and Prosecco – while the day programme gets going.
On the Saturday morning, Marco Shuttle opens the main stage with one of the weekend’s highlight sets, moving from pulsing ambient to slow-mo house and pitched-down acid. When the set ends with the cacophonous piano of the DJ Sprinkles and Terre Thaemlitz’s cut Admit it’s Killing You, the crowd claps and sits happily stunned for some time afterwards, comfortably reeling from the hypnotic rhythms and the dull heat of the day.
Although the programme is spread across three stages, acts are sequenced in strict tandem, never overlapping for more than a few minutes. As one act ends, another can be heard starting up elsewhere on site, and on cue the whole festival moves en masse to seek it out. This novel setup has two interesting upshots. The first is a complete liberation from the decision making that can sometimes plague larger festivals, where too much occurs simultaneously. Surrendering yourself completely to the will of the festival programmers is a freeing feeling, particularly when they can demonstrably be trusted to make decisions on your behalf. There’s much on offer that’s unfamiliar, and it’s liberating to be led around the site with a feeling that you’re being guided by knowing hands.
On Sunday afternoon we’re introduced to Paquita Gordon – a favourite among Milanese locals, but a welcome discovery for us. Her set moves languidly between dubbed-out house, sun-kissed jungle and freeform jazz electronics – all of it sensational and none of it familiar. It’s another highlight of the weekend, and one that we would have likely missed had the programme left the decision to us.
The second effect of the linear programming is a heightened sense of togetherness and community spirit – something that is common to all good festivals, but particularly strong at Terraforma. After an afternoon spent moving as one around these palatial gardens taking in new, challenging musical experiences, strangers very quickly become friends.
In the early evenings, larger experimental acts take the reigns. On the Friday, IDM royalty Plaid perform on a twisted, robotic structure created by sculptor and engineer Felix Thorn. The machine is built from a small orchestra of acoustic percussive instruments – marimbas, glockenspiels, snares – triggered via MIDI by Plaid’s computers to create stunning, hypnotic rhythms, sounding somewhere between Aphex Twin’s Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2 and Jlin’s Black Origami. A similarly organic, percussive set follows on Saturday from Don’t DJ, who builds otherworldly sonic landscapes out of ultra-clean drum samples and melodic synth tones.
By night, the sun-soaked fields on which we’ve been lying on become dancefloors. Rising star Nkisi provides Friday’s highlight set, accelerating from grimy UK techno through to hardcore and gabba within the first 20 minutes. In a country where ravers are raised on hard 200 BPM techno, the reception from grateful Italian ravers is ecstatic. Afterwards, Jeff Mills sets things straight with an impeccable three-hour set of big room techno, interspersed with his legendary live 909 workouts. After a day of experimental sounds and broken rhythms, a 4×4 kick drum feels like a totally revolutionary idea; elsewhere, on a purist techno line-up, it’s unlikely to have registered anywhere near the same impact.
On the Saturday night, Bristol leading-light Batu steals the show. Anyone who follows him closely will know by now to expect the unexpected, and as such his set contains very little of the post-Livity Sound UK techno that he’s generally associated with. For the majority of his set, he keeps a wide berth from traditional techno tempos, leading with downtempo, dancehall-derived rhythms, before ratcheting the speed up to 160 BPM for a zippy section of drum’n’bass-referencing material. When he eventually lands a 4×4 kick drum – as with Mills the night before – the impact is all the more for the tension and release of what came before it. The journey feels symbolic of Terraforma as a whole: a place where new, experimental sounds are programmed by a knowledgable team of curators, and received joyfully by a warm, receptive and open-minded crowd.