Milan’s Terraforma festival returned for a sixth edition this summer with performances from Juliana Huxtable, Mica Levi and Bambounou. FACT’s John Twells was there in the thick of it for a humid exploration of psychedelic culture in many of its forms.
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Terraforma. I can clearly remember my first experiences at outdoor festivals, isolated in a field in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by posh hippies I couldn’t have possibly been expected to relate to. I would routinely find myself holed up in some tent in a far corner, attempting to get my mum’s work laptop to function long enough to play what might pass for a live set. At the time, my unprocessed trauma didn’t allow me to accept the conditions around me, and I let it dominate my experiences entirely. Older and with some of my anxieties in check, I’m still not thrilled at the prospect of the outdoor hippy festival, but Terraforma’s line-up was interesting enough to pique my interest this year and the festival has long maintained a good name internationally. So I pack my factor infinity sunscreen (redhead special edition), extra-large shades and lead-lined bodysuit and head to Milan, where the European heatwave is already pushing temperatures north of 35C (95F).
Terraforma bills itself as an “experimental and sustainable” music festival, and the theme for this sixth edition is “language”. Multi-disciplinary artist and Memphis Group founder Nathalie du Pasquier created an alphabet entirely for the event, highlighting the fact that electronic music is an art form mainly defined by the absence of text. But the sustainability aspect of the festival is intriguing. My friend and old workmate Chal Ravens recently wrote a feature for Resident Advisor highlighting some of the issues behind destination festivals: if fans and DJs spend all year traveling to music festivals on planes, surely we’re helping tear down the environment at a time when the climate crisis has become completely unavoidable? As a destination festival, in the grounds of the gorgeous Villa Arconati just outside of Milan, Terraforma is exactly the kind of event that needs to address this.
When I arrive, I head to my tent and find a printed pack of information detailing the festival’s sustainability that feels somewhat self defeating. But I’m pleased to see some familiar faces; covering festivals alone can be punishing, so having friends nearby offers solid anxiety relief. As I unpack and fill some empty bottles with cold, clean water – which was readily available across the site – I chat to Ollie Zhang and Aya Sinclair (aka LOFT) and we trade cold drinks and bug spray, wondering how we will cope in the predicted heatwave. Zhang, who is covering the festival for The Quietus, tells me about a psychedelic trance festival they covered recently, and we wonder together what kind of festival Terraforma 2019 will turn out to be.
Wandering through the campground and into the festival, the natural beauty of the setting begins to materialize. This is an exquisite location, and not just because of the impressive Villa Arconati, which looms large in the distance. The burning sunlight that trickles in through the trees shifts the experience as the day transitions from bright white to fiery orange, pink and red. Fog machines make the frosty rays of light look almost cinematic, and I can’t help but marvel as I explore the different empty stages that sit between a criss-cross layout of art installations, food stalls, bars and makeshift camps. It’s not exactly that the trees or landscape here are particularly unique or exceptional on their own, but combined with the natural light, it’s clear the ground was assembled with a certain experience in mind. Terraforma is a festival that embraces psychedelic music and culture in many forms, and its location has been picked and primed to accent that experience.
Psychedelic music surfaced in the 1960s after a surge of interest in lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a hallucinogenic drug developed from the fungus ergot. The drug was introduced in 1947 in the USA by Sandoz Laboratories as a psychiatric cure for alcoholism, schizophrenia, and a spread of other conditions. It was made illegal in 1968, after its influence kickstarted a counterculture movement in the USA that mobilized the political left. That counterculture, despite the legal status of LSD, never really stopped: as time went on, acid’s influence spread through jazz, blues, funk and rock music, into electronic music in the 1980s, and was absorbed into the DNA of rave. Its culture has been both celebrated and derided, but for many years, has been the target of ridicule. To a passerby, Terraforma no doubt looks like a forest gathering of European hippies, swaying and sweating to music that may not be psychedelic trance, but might as well be.
In the last decade, psychedelic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms (fungi that contain the psychedelic compounds psilocybin, psilocin or baeocystin) have experienced a renaissance as public opinion has softened. There are plenty of reasons for the drugs’ rise in popularity, but the demystification of the substances, following extensive research that restarted a decade ago after a 35-year hiatus, has undoubtedly helped ease them back into the mainstream. In early 2017, author and academic Ayelet Waldman wrote about the positive role LSD played in improving her life in A Really Good Day, introducing the concept of “microdosing” to a new audience. And last year, author Michael Pollan detailed the history of the compounds, as well as his own experience with psychedelics, in his award-winning bestseller How To Change Your Mind. He highlighted the crucial recent work of Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, who has worked with psychedelics in a laboratory setting, using fMRI technology to visualize exactly what happens to the brain when the substances are activated. Both of these books were important in breaking down some cultural barriers and explaining clearly how psychedelic drugs are known to be helpful in treating certain mental health issues.
In the USA, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been studying psychedelic drugs and assessing their usefulness in therapeutic settings for many years. The organization has highlighted the use of psychedelics for certain disorders, including MDMA and psilocybin for PTSD treatment, and hopes to have psilocybin available for patients as early as 2022. Some of MAPS’ research has revealed the importance of music in these therapeutic experiences. Writing for MAPS in 2017, neuroscientist Mendel Kaelen explained his studies into the relationship between psychedelics and music. “In our first studies, we demonstrated that under the influence of the classic psychedelic LSD, people feel stronger emotions in response to music. This effect was associated with increased activation of a brain network specialized in attributing meaning and emotion to ‘sequences of sound’ — including a region usually associated with language, known as Broca’s area.”
Kaelen discovered that the combination of LSD and music “targets a brain circuit associated with the construction of personal memories,” underlining its potential usefulness to those whose brains have been affected by trauma. He believes that psychedelics help in therapy by temporarily dissolving the brain’s “inner roadmap”, a map that can be made complicated by emotional trauma. “In the absence of the usual roadmap, music functions like a navigator that suggests new routes to follow without using words. Instead, music bypasses the intellect to shift the person’s awareness directly to those most intimate parts of their being.”
A few years ago I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a difficult-to-treat condition that remains controversial in the medical profession. I was left reeling when I started to investigate further; some things made sense, but some didn’t and I wasn’t sure where to turn. Lengthy, frequent talk therapy sessions were suggested as the main treatment and while that method was undoubtedly helpful, my mind was still a jumbled mess of anxiety and trauma that I was struggling to untangle. I had been self-medicating for years, drinking constantly to numb my senses rather than deal with the constant nightmares, flashbacks and mood swings. When I began to experiment more rigorously with psychedelics sober, something strange happened: I started to gain the ability to catalog my thoughts and experiences and get control of my mind. I didn’t even have the need to drink any more; when I understood the dissonance that had been making me sick for so long, I didn’t have the same desire to block it out. I was re-diagnosed with complex PTSD a little later and it made sense why the treatment had been working so well. I hadn’t had access to psychedelic therapy, but music and psychedelics had done more than enough to help me come to terms with myself and my experiences.
I wander through the trees into the dimming sunlight as Caterina Barbieri steps up to perform her ecstatic computations to a crowd sat cross-legged at the doors of perception. She’s the first to play, and I’m already impressed by Terraforma’s decision to avoid having music overlapping during the festival. As dedicated psychonauts can probably tell you, choices can be a complicated wrinkle in any psychedelic experience. It can feel a bit like having the feeling that you can do anything in the world, except cross a road; so not having to consider seeing one artist over another is a smart plan for this kind of event. When the light fades, I make my way to the largest stage, in the shadow of Villa Arconati, to see Laurie Anderson express her personality to an adoring crowd. For many visitors this is the festival’s highlight, and she chats warmly about her life and experiences – a moving tribute to Lou Reed inspires cheers and tears – as last of the sun disappears and the night begins in earnest.
Walking back into the private forest, I grab savory donuts (more portable and markedly less stressful than the squid bruschetta, which looks too animated for comfort) and head over to catch algoraver Renick Bell, who is already wowing a dedicated crowd with buzzing rhythmic precision. So much of the “Artificial Intelligence” era was shaped by psychedelics, and Bell’s sci-fi tinged percussive constructions slot in perfectly here. It’s a welcome appetizer for Monolake, who is performing in the center of an imposing hedge maze known as the labyrinth.
In the natural darkness, surrounded by sweaty, stranded ravers trapped between hedges, my mind is fired back to Birmingham, where around two decades ago I saw Monolake perform for the first time. It was a milestone for me, not just because of the music but because it was where I met the Boomkat crew for the first time. Boomkat helped me release my first album and employed me after I finished school, so I can honestly say I wouldn’t even be at Terraforma if it wasn’t for that early start – Monolake was the soundtrack. In 2019, few things about Robert Henke’s sound have changed and that hardly matters; he’s here to remind ravers of his place in the canon, and I can hear decades of electronic music in his obsessively engineered beats and bass.
Efdemin & Marco Shuttle follow on the well-lit main stage, and command a jubilant reaction from a crowd who appear to have been waiting patiently for the familiar thump of minimal techno. I take this as an opportunity to head backstage and grab a can of sparkling water, and run into a gathering of inebriated males. Since I stopped drinking, it’s been useful to establish firm boundaries to avoid certain situations. Drunk men are my kryptonite, so backstage areas often prove challenging; this time I try to be as courteous as I can be without getting involved in mindless, triggering drunk chatter. Have you ever tried to explain to a group of drunk men why you don’t want a shot or a beer? I don’t want to, or need to anymore. I’m awkwardly goaded by one notorious manager and make my exit, escaping back to the minimal techno, happy to be in a relatively controlled setting again.
Eventually, Detroit legend DJ Stingray steps up to remind European dancers exactly where techno and electro comes from, and what it’s still made of. At a time when the USA sits in a precarious position globally, it’s important for this message to carry loud and clear. If a festival is booking house and techno, there’s an obligation for that organization to take the roots seriously and it’s refreshing to see DJ Stingray dictate his unique language to thousands of Europeans. As bass rattles through the night, it makes me unusually proud of the place I’ve called home for over a decade.
By the next afternoon, the camp has warmed up to particularly uncomfortable levels and tired ravers are strewn through the various stages sitting on blankets, drinking in the atmosphere while liberally applying sunscreen. My friends and I walk over to see Daniel Higgs utter eerie poetry that has us swaying from fear to uncontrollable laughter, so we head instead to the ground’s confounding “futuristic and sustainable semispherical structure” in the shade, where Leila Hassan reads Harry the Dog that Bit You. It’s a setting perfectly engineered for psychedelic experiences, but for us seems a little daunting so we head back to the music. Mica Levi begins her set calmy by playing relatively downtempo material, splattering dusty beats with CDJ effects and loops before slipping into choppy, bass-heavy dancefloor material – a mixture of edits and odd, unexpected gems. Using iPhone earbuds to monitor, she stops the set after a while, getting on the mic to tell us, coolly, that she’s running out of tunes. The heat rises and then plateaus, before clouds darken the skies completely and wind howls through the trees.
As Levi plays her final track, the skies open and giant hailstones rain down on the festival ground, forcing us to run for any kind of cover we can. Some wisely run back to tents, I opt to cower beneath a bench before using one of the many decorative canvases as shelter. It’s an unsubtle reminder of the climate crisis, watching giant hailstones hit festivalgoers as they dart in-between neatly separated recycling bins, clutching their reusable bottles. If Terraforma was making a point, this hail dance helped hammer it home. When I run into Levi later, I gush and marvel at how planned everything seemed. “I bought the USB on the way to the airport,” she laughs. It was a legendary display.
After drying off, I make my way to the center of the crowd for Juliana Huxtable’s set, breathing deeply to balance as she begins to test the tolerances of a growing gathering of soggy Italians. This is exactly what I need; I’ve not been shy about my appreciation of Huxtable’s sets before and this comes at just the right time. Any negativity I’d been feeling, any dysphoria or anxiety is immediately released from my body as she lets forth a barrage of noise, harmony and rhythm that confuses and awes the dancers and onlookers. As the set progresses, Huxtable folds in reggaeton, R&B and The Slits, creating animation and empowerment, hope and jubilation. This expression of contemporary black, queer American psychedelia, in all its magnificence, is exactly what Milan and Terraforma needs. Her style of DJing – constructing a personal narrative from diverse fragments using multiple decks – is latched to the psychedelic experience and her emotionality as a DJ is unique and biographical as a result. It’s a jaw-dropping display, wowing and confusing the crowd in equal measure.
I wander backstage for another sparkling water and run into the same manager from the night before, who this time seems rather more irate. Almost immediately, he berates me for not wanting to give him the attention he desires. Still buzzing from Juliana Huxtable’s set I’m more prepared, so explain quickly that I have trouble communicating with men, not to mention inebriated men, that it’s to do with my mental health and that I need to set solid boundaries. Surrounded by compassionate friends it’s far easier to state what you need and not engage in the same toxic exchanges repeatedly. But my boundaries aren’t respected, instead I’m called a sexist and shouted at. So I leave with my friends, happy I could stand my ground but reeling from the exact shitty exchange I was trying to avoid. This is a festival dedicated to the exploration of language, and I just reached a massive failure of communication with a person from my own cursed isle.
When I get back into the crowd, perennially underrated French producer and DJ Bambounou is awing sweaty revelers with an obsessively technical rhythmic voyage into polyrhythmic techno that highlights another facet of psychedelia. This is music that splits apart with psychedelics and Bambounou shifts through rhythms with subtle, undulating sexuality. His unique blends are the perfect way to end the night, frothing with creativity, energy and most importantly, bass. As usual, music provides a much-needed release, and I walk back to my tent, satisfied with what I’ve seen, if a little damp.
The next morning, my clothes are still wet, my batteries depleted and my vaporizer malfunctioning, but Kelman Duran’s set is so impressive I quickly forget the circumstances. He traverses the global dance continuum with ease, blending reggaeton, singeli and similar global bass experiments in a dense haze of THC. Snippets of voices sing out in various languages, everything united by an echo of melancholy. It’s a perfect morning after set, dragging weary minds into another day of perception-widening musical experimentation.
RAMZi and Sir Richard Bishop follow, offering two polar visions of psychedelia. RAMZi begins with a suite of lurching electronic productions, before Sun City Girls’ Bishop shows his chops, coaxing folk and blues mysticism from his electric guitar as fans perch on stage in front. But it’s unofficial Terraforma resident Donato Dozzy who provides the set everyone’s been waiting for. Dozzy plays every year and provides a musical backbone for the festival; here, his diverse selections fall on receptive ears, with festival regulars beaming with each odd selection. Dozzy knows the crowd and the setting so well that even when there are technical issues with one of the decks, he doesn’t appear to miss a beat – selections keep coming as he dissects rap, dubstep, techno, acid, bleep and anything else that showed up in his bag that day, blending styles and tempos with an eerily precise control. This is the sound of Terraforma: music to dissolve life’s infinite complexity, spanning genres and united by humid psychedelic pressure.
There’s barely time to pause for breath before RP Boo shells the main stage with a barrage of 160bpm kicks and edits that reform decades of black American music in the style of footwork. An originator of the genre who now sits at the center of contemporary global soundsystem culture, RP Boo wears his crown with pride here, celebrating his city of Chicago with the kind of vibrant expression that has pushed footwork from the US to China and beyond. Italian producer and Hundebiss boss Simone Trabucchi, aka STILL, follows with a powerful collaboration featuring a trio of MCs who spit excitedly over Trabucchi’s rapid-fire productions. Exhausted, we wander to the other side of the campsite where DJ Nobu is playing an unannounced after-party to finish things off properly, dragging sleepy ravers (one poor soul was asleep in the middle of the dancefloor) through a dusty, eclectic set.
Terraforma was smart to pick “language” as the theme for this year’s event. This is an event that sees itself as a community – and it is, in many ways – and that community is rooted in experimental electronic music, first and foremost. The exploration of this in a psychedelic setting does make it slightly different from a psychedelic trance festival in some ways; the music can be quite unexpected, at least. With artists like Juliana Huxtable, RP Boo, Mica Levi, Bambounou and Kelman Duran, language is expressed from a place of urgency and speaks to a confused world with expressive clarity. But after language must come action. This, I suppose, is one step; now we need to take another flight of stairs.
If there’s a marked difference between Terraforma and the muddy hippy campouts I attended decades ago, it’s that while we might have slightly better representation of the diverse world we live in, we’ve got less time to address its biggest issues. The climate crisis isn’t a distant concept; it’s a fact that is verified every time we look out of the window or turn on the television. But to engage with this healthily, we need to find a way to engage with each other constructively, with language that isn’t informed by antiquated hierarchies or obscured by the state’s cascading web of abusive systems. We need to find a way to collaborate and attack these existential threats as a unit. For that, we need to conquer our demons, overcome our prejudices and visualize the problem. Maybe we all need to change our minds; however you choose to do it shouldn’t be an issue.