Terraforma 2018: An Exercise in Substance, Style and Sweat

Jeff Mills on centre stage. ( Picture by Guido Borso )

Jeff Mills on centre stage. (Picture by Guido Borso)

Elliot Leavy

Terraforma 2018 was a woodland adventure that lambasted participants with impeccable experimental sets, intricately mapped out spaces and a sense of harmony that is distinctly lacking in today's climate. With an ethos that is better than my own, it was a well thought out, well-intentioned, well of ideas, wilderness and wonder.

After living in Italy for a year, you get used to the locals Italo-bashing ad-infinitum, many it would seem are completely unaware of the value this country continues to bring to the arts, and I was told frequently (and fiercely), that Italian festivals were un poco merda in general.

This was immediately disproven upon my entering of Terraforma – located at Villa Arconati, a historical villa outside Milan. Appropriately, the villa has a history centred on a patron of the arts, Galeazzo Arconati, who served as the rector of the Fabbrica del Duomo of Milan. Not only is this location bordering on the sublime with its alpine climate, foliage, waterways and grand, Milanese pathways, but has much to thank Terraforma for as the organizers help look after this piece of history increasingly with each edition.  

But anyway, back to the now (and then). Terraforma 2018 opened up on Friday evening with a lineup which set the scene for how weird and wonderful it would transpire to be. Belated by life over the course of the first day, I was only able to really appreciate the one act I was hellbent on seeing on the Friday night (Jeff Mills) as I was caught up in the festival fundamentals of orientating myself around the villa's grounds and scouting out the definitive sources of beer and other essentials for festival festivities. I'm sure that you can read about the others, Imaginary Softwoods, Nkisi, and Plaid and Felix's Machines, elsewhere if you need to. In fact, maybe I'll link a better review here anyway (or maybe I won't). 

Plaid and Felix's Machines in the Labyrinth. ( Picture by Delfino Sisto Legnan i)

Plaid and Felix's Machines in the Labyrinth. (Picture by Delfino Sisto Legnani)

Taking centre stage, nestled inside a structure which blends the ancient arches of Viking architecture with futuristic, interplanetary clarity, Jeff Mills came in strong. The Detroit techno legend refused to let down the tempo for the entirety of his three-hour set, instead opting for a performance that culminated in a cacophony of techno-tribal noise – hammering home why he remains a mainstay in the music world to this day and offering more structured drum kicks in an otherwise sea of experimental soundwaves.

By Saturday, I had got my act together a bit more, awakening to find a small lunch box of smoothies dropped off at the tent (a nice touch), and subsequently downing them (it was at least 30 degrees Celsius, one turned out to be kiwi – I'm allergic to kiwi – but nothing was going stop me). The blistering sun and bone-dry dirt fuelled the festival with an otherworldly feel. This, together with the distant, abstract, ambient sounds of Marco Shuttle sailing through the summer air, charmed festival-goers back into the main arena for a midday mooch. Konrad Sprenger sealed the afternoon off with a hypnotic experimental set that emitted a dream-like atmosphere and which swept you away into relaxed and melodic thought.

Donato Dozzy  ( Picture by Guido Borso )

Donato Dozzy  (Picture by Guido Borso)

Before moving on, it is worth noting that the timetabling at Terraforma is a unique and strictly curated affair. This seemed unsettling at first, but it soon became apparent that this direction was a stroke of genius and that surrendering yourself to the whims of the organisers was the way to go. No acts overlapped at the festival, which meant that not only can the individual ensure that they get to enjoy all that is on offer, but also mitigates any chance of a poor turn-up for the artist themselves, instead guaranteeing that participants en masse are guided to their gig. In my mind this only worked due to the detailed and rational planning itself, with each set blending nicely with that which came before it. This also opened up my own timetable to see acts I may have ignored had they had competition. 

For me, the most venerated of performances on Saturday came not from Terraforma favourite Donato Dozzy, but from Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, who casually combined rhythm and spirituality in ways I didn't know were possible. The Iranian maestro, equipped only with his Tonbak drum, managed to shift between ancient trance to modern techno with ease over the course of an eye-opening, jaw-dropping set. Known as the man with the fastest fingers in the world (ahem), if you have a chance to see the Persian live in person, do it. 

Most of my weekend was a blend of haze and delight, but from there, I ambled around the peripheries of the place, exploring the planetarium in time to witness some unexpected antediluvian audio-visuals combined with orchestral scores and down tempo sounds. Needless to say that I am now a firm believer that any experience can be enhanced by the presence a planetarium, and find myself miffed when I arrive anywhere that lacks one. 

Loose times. ( Picture by Guido Borso )

Loose times. (Picture by Guido Borso)

There was also yoga, but it's not really my cup of tea. 

The evening was carried by Tokyo's Powder, who I had little knowledge of prior. Powder's sound is a blend between the unusual and innately-primal, sounding at times natural and nuanced whilst at other times as alien and unnatural as the various treats being passed around throughout her set (but just as fun of course).

Sunday Bloody Sunday, I didn't manage to wake up until sometime in the afternoon – even Homer nods after all – and awoke just in time to see an astounding set by Paquita Gordon. Paquita Gordon is an artist I have never actually taken too, finding her sets predictable and similar to a lot of other artists from London. In this instance, however, I had to eat my hat. Her set was different to anything of her previous work, and she even managed to slip in some much-missed-Jungle vibes and a lot of chilled world tuneage.

Closing tune of the Paquita Gordon set.

The highlight of the final day was a toss up between Vladimir Ivkovic on the main stage or Vipra in the labyrinth. Ikovic played an astonishing set full of hidden musical gems, whilst Vipra hit hard with an eclectic experimental performance that really made you wonder what the hell is going on in some people's heads. My shoddy Italian leaves me pondering what they were on about, something about the Pope and a telephone I believe. In any case, it was as weird as it was good  – and it was very weird indeed.

Ultimately, Terraforma was an experience unlike any other. With such well-informed curators at its head, it's no wonder that the body of the festival celebrated and worked so well as it did. If you're looking for something refreshingly experimental and chock-full of alternative sounds and open-minded people, Terraforma is the one. And with that, all I can say is that you should head there next time, you'd be an idiot not too.

Shoutout of the weekend? Nkisi, playing some gabber – nice job.