It’s difficult to conjure up too many more beautiful festival locations than that of Italy’s Terraforma, a blossoming music event hosted in the woodlands of an 18th century villa just under an hour’s drive from central Milan. Now in its third year, and boasting a catalog of positive reviews from both previous editions, the three-day event is quickly establishing itself as one of Europe’s most acclaimed festivals for experimental music, the reasons for which became increasingly palpable during my visit last weekend.
Reverting back to my original statement, at the core of this success is the venue. This, above all, is the event’s unique selling point; it is around this that many of the of other positives of the event fall into place. As you enter the luscious gardens through one of the ancient villa’s many archways, it feels not like a traditional festival with extensive queues and large crowds but more like an intimate gathering shared between friends and family in the know. This feeling was complimented on the opening day when Charlemagne Palestine played a one-hour early evening piano set in one of the fields. It was a pleasant scene upon which to stumble following a long day of travel, a perfect warm up as everyone grabbed some refreshments and caught up with friends before Helena Hauff and Donato Dozzy both upped the tempo later that evening.
One of the great benefits of this location is the sound quality. It was, in short, the finest I’ve heard at any outdoor event for a considerable amount of time. It’s not uncommon for rigorous noise restrictions to be implemented on many of today’s festivals, especially those in more urban spaces—but the remote location of Terraforma would appear to exclude it from such draconian regulations, allowing the music to be played at a satisfactory level for the course of the entire weekend. It’s also clear from the stacks of speakers that quality was high up on the priority list of the organizers—a wise decision for which they must be complimented. Not only did this support the auditory experience of all those in attendance, it also allowed each artist to deliver their best work. The benefits of these measures were particularly evident during the evening sets of Donato Dozzy, Helena Hauff and AtomTM & Tobias, all of which were amongst the finest I’ve seen from them in some time.
But beyond these freedoms, there is something special about listening to music in such a natural outdoor habitat—a point stressed by Donato Dozzy during his talk on the Saturday afternoon. For some reason, admittedly unknown to me, a remote woodland setting seems to offer a sound like no other, serving up a range of frequencies that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Watching Adrian Sherwood, Sensate Focus (a.k.a. Mark Fell) or Flanger (namely Burnt Friedman and AtomTM) under the early evening sun were all wonderful sensory experiences, but also ones that also seemed so connected and unique to environment in which they were being delivered.
Linked to this, of course, is the lineup and the scheduling, another tremendous takeaway from the weekend. On the whole, the music for the entire festival was nothing short of impeccable, so much so that it’s challenging to name anything a particular standout or highlight. However, Flanger’s afternoon set, and those of Marco Shuttle and Paquita Gordon will all live long in the memory. Lee Gamble’s set was a little flat, if you had to call anything out, but that’s only when compared to the artists around him, all of whom served up a superb soundtrack that encompassed reggae, dub, techno and various other experimental sub-genres. Chilled out daytime sets from Healing Force Project and Claudio Fabrianesi allowed people to unwind after the night before, while those who wanted to dance had no shortage of options in the shape of Beatrice Dillon—who delivered a simply tremendous afternoon set—Still, or many of those aforementioned names who played through the night.
All this being said, there is considerable room for improvement. It’s still clear that this is a festival in maturation, one that needs to improve in several key areas. The first thing that springs to mind is the talks: on this year’s schedule were two lectures, one with Claudio Fabrianesi and Donato Dozzy, the second with Adrian Sherwood. Both seemed to suffer from the one main problem: volume. Given the lack of microphones, something that would seem so glaringly necessary given the music that was scheduled all throughout the day, it was challenging to really engage in the content that was being delivered. In addition to this, the first talk lacked any real focus; rather the journalist seemed to flitter between topics without any real objective in mind.
Scheduling, too, requires some tightening up: Sunday’s talk was shifted around on multiple occasions, in a similar way to many of the music performances (Beatrice Dillon’s performance was several hours late and also at a different venue), and it became increasingly difficult to know where to be and when. This will become particularly important should the festival expand to include more people and several musical performances at one time. It’s to be expected that stage times will need to change at festivals—although arguably not so much at events of this size—but there must be a medium of communication to inform those in attendance of these developments. Instead, festival staff were nowhere to be found.
These talks, however, are necessary components of the schedule. While the small size of the event is conducive to this feeling of community, there is a requirement for some expansion. Breaks at a festival are important as the music itself, and yet it feels there is little to do at Terraforma besides sit in front of the stage and listen to the music, however good it may be. Attending a talk or a lecture is the perfect remedy, but with only two on the menu—neither of which are particularly well delivered—it leaves plenty to be desired.
Given the event's remoteness—there is almost nothing in the local vicinity—and the size of the grounds, there should and could be more stages (there was only really two, with just one in use at a time) and more variety on offer, be this in the form of food stands, hangout areas or other activities. It also feels like a very cliquey crowd, one that feels almost universally Italian barring a few journalists and the artists. Given this, it can be very difficult to mingle and meet new people unless you are competent in the local dialect. This, however, is likely to change as the festival grows in profile and attracts a more international audience.
On the whole, Terraforma is a very enjoyable festival to attend, especially for those who entertain a love for experimental forms of electronic music. Experiencing such performances in these surroundings makes a visit worthwhile in itself—but the inclusion of a little diversity could turn the event into a real highlight in the ever-saturating annual festival calendar.
All photos: Michela Savino