Villa Arconati, Bollate

When festivals are described as ‘experimental’, I assume a commitment to a kind of futurism, whether that’s through technologically ambitious shows or wildly innovative music. But Terraforma, with its tagline as an “experimental and sustainable festival”, comes at it from a different angle – the festival is remarkably stripped back. Instead, there’s an emphasis on heritage and preservation, as well as the playful presentation of new ideas that forms its experimental backbone.

Sustainability is a topic that’s coming into increasing focus in the electronic music world, and the organisers behind Terraforma have been thinking about it since its inception. The festival is set in the gorgeous grounds and woodland area surrounding Villa Arconati, a baroque 17th Century palace in the town of Bollate, northwest of Milan. Evidenced by each year’s ‘sustainability report’, they are tracking their commitment to reduce their environmental impact, as well as preserving and restoring the gardens of the heritage site. The event is plastic free, and attendees clutch onto their high-quality reusable cups all weekend. Recycling bins are a fixture across the site, built from offcuts of the stage build. The lighting system for the campsite, using recycled materials, is powered entirely by solar energy. And people are remarkably attentive about not dropping cigarette butts – you’re given pouches to dispose of them in, which are used with impressive conviction.

With connections to Milan’s art scene, the festival is driven by a conceptual approach, and this year for its sixth edition its theme is language. Kicking into gear on Friday evening, this idea first materialises with a show from Laurie Anderson. Following Italian composer Caterina Barbieri’s dramatic modular live show, Anderson is tonight’s blockbuster slot, with chic Milan art crowds having made the journey up into the countryside to join the weekend attendees for the night. The New York icon agreed to a rare performance after hearing about the festival’s emphasis on ecology and language. Her show, The Language of the Future, unpacks these ideas with a moving piece based on the collosal list of extinct species, which runs on the screen behind Anderson and her collaborator Rubin Kodheli.

Playing to crowds sat across the Villa’s pristine lawn, the set feels heavy with the weight of the political climate in the US and environmental crisis, but somehow touches on loss and our dying planet without descending into nihilism. Instead, with Anderson’s voice and dramatic violin, she pours warmth and humour into her expert avant-garde storytelling. It feels invigorating, and its directness in an environment often driven by escapism is striking – 2019 has been a critical year for the climate crisis, and it’s also the year the electronic music community has begun taking stock of its place within it. Online, we’ve started talking about DJs racking up air miles and asking how we can minimise the environmental fallout of raving at large, including festivals, but it’s rare you’ll find topics like extinction and environmental collapse brought into the festival experience itself.

Aside from a sobering lecture by plant scientist Stefano Mancuso as part of a series of talks, including anxiety-inducing insights into the planet’s dwindling resources, the rest of the weekend takes on a lighter note. With no two sets overlapping, attendees walk together between its three stages for each performance. The most impressive of these is The Labyrinth. Organisers have been restoring a hedge maze in the gardens, inspired by plans drawn up in the 1700s. On Friday, the hedges host a mind-bending set by Monolake. As people descend into the maze from its various angles in the dark, peaking through the hedges in an attempt to get their bearings or catch a glimpse of Monolake at the centre, the surreal setting feels like a truly immersive artistic experience.

The trippiness continues into Saturday, where storytelling does feel central to the Terraforma experience. Izabel and Vladimir Ivkovic deliver standout daytime sets on the smaller Carhartt stage tucked into the woodland. Ivkovic doubles down on Izabel’s typically hypnagogic nocturnes with a set informed by ‘music from his dreams’, as the crowd sink into sluggish twisted dub, lopsided dream pop and sprinklings of gothic weirdness. Then there’s Daniel Higgs, former frontman of legendary post-hardcore band Lungfish, whose intense spoken word climaxes with an anecdote about a deranged 30-hour acid trip, before Mica Levi dishes out a set of warped, deconstructed dance music. I’m sad to miss Tehran producer Sote as well as Lorenzo Senni’s Stargate project in the aftermath of a sudden downpour, but return as Julianna Huxtable drives things to head-spinning intensity. As darkness falls, Huxtable pummels through EBM, hardcore and blistering slammers, dropping in a reworked vocal from Teyana Taylor, Gwen Stefani or Kali Uchis here and there. She conjures a beautiful chaos, seemingly five steps ahead of the crowd at all times.

The programming offers its fair share of satisfying left-turns like this. Sunday brings it home with more tripped-out ravey intensity from Terraforma regulars Donato Dozzy and Paquita Gordon, before a surprise set from DJ Nobu wraps proceedings in the campsite. But Milan producer STILL’s set felt the most distinct from the rest of the Sunday schedule. During STILL’s set of unusual dancehall manipulations, he’s joined onstage by a crew of vocalists, and towards the end of the set two performers wave big flags over the crowd. Later, they tell me the flags’ slogans promote unity in the face of the political climate in Italy, before reflecting on their African-Italian heritage. It highlighted the diversity of stories, and voices, at the heart of this year’s focus on language. For all its trippiness, the event has moments where it lets reality in. A striking festival option for those looking to feel refreshed, not fatigued, when it’s over.