Just northwest of Milan you'll find Villa Arconati. In 1610, nobleman and art collector Galeazzo Arconati acquired the castle that had sat on the site since the Medieval days. Under his watchful eye the the palace was reconstructed with grand intent; furnished with frescos and populated with the patron's extensive collection of Roman statues. The gardens were designed in keeping with 17th century taste, replete with pristine gravel tracks and a maze of symmetrical hedges.
400 years on, the further reaches of the garden contain an overarching canopy of trees; a festoon night-lit tunnel has emerged. Off to one side is the beginnings of a labyrinth, in the centre of which stands experimental Berlin-based vocalist Stine Janvin. Looping and bending her voice, she builds bursts of shrill notes into a dizzying wall of sound—the initially fragile-sounding vocals, quickly becoming a heady surge, as delicately placed notes waver into screams. The afternoon has dipped into evening, and the sky's blurred from burnt-peach into bruised-blue.
It is the first of many occasions across a weekend when music and place seem to be conspiring. The same weekend, in fact, that saw most of the UK descend on another eco-conscious festival slightly closer to home, THUMP spent three sweltering days in the muggy cloisters of Villa Arconati's wooded gardens for Terraforma Festival.
Walk around the villa in 2017, in June's 37º degree heat, and it's still majestic, if a little scuffed. The building's face seems stately, palatial, but its corners have softened over time.
On closer inspection the plaster is fractured, the features of the gargoyles muted and the walls swept yellow by centuries baking in the sun. For all its historical standing, it looks ready to fall apart in the places—something recognised by the Augusto Rancilio Foundation who are currently leading a massive restoration project on the site. Using private investment and visitor donations, they are on a mission to, in their words, "bring about a rebirth of Villa Arconati as a new centre of the creative and contemporary arts."
Restoration is loaded term, and it's not one you'd necessarily associate with rebirth. Typically, certainly here in the UK, renovating a historic property means bureaucracy and preservation—lots of a cordoned off four-poster beds and "KEEP OFF THE GRASS" signs. It normally means opening a small cafe, and charging pensioners £15 to wander around the drawing room before trying to flog them a commemorative biscuit tin. What it doesn't mean, generally speaking, is avant-garde electronic music.
Speaking to Ruggero Pietromarchi, one of the festival organisers, after the event, he explains how the festival's relationship with the villa began. Prior to organising Terraforma he had been working for a production agency that had been putting on a series of events at Arconati for years—mostly classical concerts by the likes of Ludovico Einaudi. Through working on the site in this capacity, Pietromarchi realised its potential, largely down to the untouched, left-to-ruin gardens—along with collaborators he began to envisage Terraforma, a festival that was "site-specific," that would interact with and positively improve its environment. "I realised we could help this place of huge importance to Italy's cultural history," he tells me. "It was perfect."
Talking to Pietromarchi, what's striking is his flexible understanding of what it is to be sustainable. "That can be more short term, or long-term, like the way we are cleaning up the park. Sustainability is trying to find the balance in every action you take."
Even the number of Italian acts the festival books is viewed as an act of sustainability. "It's both philosophical and practical," Pietromarchi adds. The high percentage of local artists—from the hisses and lulls of Rome-based DJ Rawmance to Paquita Gordon and Ece Duzgit's slow-building, but ultimately transformative B2B— of course cuts down on flights, but also contributes to the site-specific nature of the event. Pietromarchi adds, "I want it to be international of course, but this is an Italian festival." This interplay between the festival and the site even extends to what the artists play. While he obviously doesn't dictate their setlist, Pietromarchi is keen to speak with artists ahead of their sets to introduce them to the festival's spirit and atmosphere. "I try to make every artist aware of the specific setting; who is playing before, who is playing after," he adds.
The dialogue between artist and setting is everpresent. On Saturday morning we drag ourselves to the main-stage for 10am. Already the sun is bearing down, and the constant scourge of mosquitoes hover expectantly. Enter Italy's brightest star and Terraforma resident Donato Dozzy, who embarks on three-hours of some of the most enthralling ambient we've ever heard. Like the hot, sweet air itself, it sounds like being dragged through honey—strange and soporific. Or Suzanne Ciani's triumphant set in the aforementioned labyrinth, the drowned arpeggios of her Buchla almost mimicking the garbled clicks and whistles of the twilight forest.
This is no mistake of course. The clue's in the name. "Terraforming," so their website goes, "is the theoretical process in which life on a planet becomes possible through the creation of an atmosphere." It's the sort of self-aggrandising that in lesser hands could come off as unsightly, but in this case the claim checks out. At every stage the festival are concerned with how their presence on the site can create something new.
The labyrinth stage, for example, is entirely new venture the festival organisers have constructed in collaboration with the Augusto Rancilio Foundation. Using sketches that dates back to 1743 of a maze that may, or may not, have actually existed in the garden, the three-year project has seen rings of hornbeam hedges planted, with the final inner circles of the design due to be completed next year. A pamphlet, handed to festival goers on arrival explains the project in detail, along with period illustrations of Milanese nobility enjoying the "garden of delights," and extensive catalogues of the flora and fauna on display.
There are smaller touches as well. On arrival festival attendees are given personal ashtrays to collect their own cigarette butts, as well as biodegradable soap and deodorant. These free gifts seem to inspire everyone, miraculously, however wavey they get, nobody seems to drop a cigarette end or a plastic cup on the floor all weekend. We should also add, that at no point does conscience cloud the party. From the subterranean tremors of Mala's buoyant midnight set, to the distorted pummels of Dreesvn's sudden-impact techno; reverence for the location never stops people from letting loose and kicking up a few leaves.
When I ask Pietromarchi if he thinks Terraforma's model could work anywhere else, he pauses for thought. "It's been suggested a lot that we start terraforming other places," he responds warily, "I think it's interesting, and it could be done, but I want to avoid it becoming a format." The way of working could work elsewhere, but the last thing he wants is a franchise; a Terraforma template that can be rolled out in any other part of the world. "I could imagine a Terraforma somewhere else but it would probably be called something else. It wouldn't be 'Terraforma Sicily'. It would have its own soul."
Nevertheless Terraforma offers an important case study for the festival market. Environmental concerns are gradually moving up the agenda, but too often they are translated into cursory gestures of recycling bins and refillable cups. These are, of course, important considerations, but what's largely missing is a more meaningful assessment of how festivals can contribute and interact with their locations. Before we got lost in the mire of city-park weekenders, gourmet hot-dogs and silent disco tents, there must have been a reason why we thought putting live music on outdoors was a good idea. Terraforma points to the way back—showcasing that when a festival works with and programmes around its site, the results can be singular and extraordinary.
Sustainability doesn't have to be a box-ticking exercise, it can be weaponised. By building on Milan's past, Terraforma is signalling the future.