When Festivals Respond to Their Environment, Magic Happens

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.

All photos by Michela Di Savino.

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 recognized 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 organizers, after the event, he explains how the festival’s relationship with the villa began. Prior to organizing 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 realized 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 realized we could help this place of huge importance to Italy’s cultural history,” he tells me. “It was perfect.”

Suzanne Ciani.

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 ever present. 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.

N.M.O.

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-aggrandizing 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 organizers 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 programs around its site, the results can be singular and extraordinary.

Sustainability doesn’t have to be a box-ticking exercise, it can be weaponized. By building on Milan’s past, Terraforma is signaling the future.

Follow Angus on Twitter.

Kraftwerk to Play Eight of Their Albums at Italy’s Club to Club Festival

Organizers for Italy’s Club to Club festival in Turin today shared the first wave of artists on their lineup. Heading the roster are German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, who will present The Catalogue – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 through a series of eight performances from November 4–7. Each performance will see the band perform one of their eight most popular albums in chronological order, starting with 1974 LP Autobahn and ending with 2003’s Tour De France.

Club to Club will also host the Italian debut of Richie Hawtin’s new CLOSE live show, as well as the Italian debut of Arca and regular collaborator Jesse Kanda. Others scheduled live performers include Bonobo, Kamasi Washington, Mura Masa, Actress, Amnesia Scanner, Jacques Greene, and JLin.

View the lineup below, and head here to see Kraftwerk’s Club to Club schedule.

The 71-Year-Old Composer Behind The 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' Theme Song Is Here For Your Memes

Photo courtesy of artist

This post ran originally on THUMP Canada.

Quick, name the most iconic TV show theme song of the 2000s. The various covers of American singer-songwriter Tom Waits’ 1987 gospel deep cut “Way Down in the Hole” in The Wire? Columbus, Ohio producer RJD2’s smoky hip-hop instrumental “A Beautiful Mine” from Mad Men? All strong picks, but for sheer recognizability, it’s hard to beat the opening tuba and mandolin waltz of HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm.

As the story goes, the show’s creator and star Larry David discovered the jaunty tune by accident when he heard it in a bank commercial four years prior. “It just sort of introduces the idea that you’re in for something pretty idiotic,” he said in a 2009 interview. The title of the lighthearted track was “Frolic,” and the man behind it was Rome-based pianist, conductor, and teacher Luciano Michelini, whose career began in the early 1970s mainly composing for Italian and foreign films.

In the time since the globally beloved show ended in 2011, the song has enjoyed a second life courtesy of countless internet mashup videos, which pairs the track with other pop culture and political clips. These humorous results range from Steve Harvey announcing the wrong winner of the 2015 Miss Universe pageant, to Bernie Sanders being interrupted during a speech by Black Lives Matter protesters and New Jersey governor Chris Christie realizing four years of President Donald Trump is going to feel like a whole lot longer.

With Curb set to return later this year and the memes not slowing down anytime soon, we recently spoke to the 71-year-old Italian composer over email (through a translator) about his career, the enduring legacy of “Frolic,” and what’s he’s learned from working with his son on music.

THUMP: When did Larry David reach out to you about using “Frolic” for Curb Your Enthusiasm?

Luciano Michelini: Larry David never contacted me directly. In 2000, the son of Franco Micalizzi (an Italian composer from RCA) called me and said that an American label bought the music rights to a film by director Sergio Martino, La Bellissima Estate. “Frolic” was one of the songs in the movie, but I never thought that “Frolic” would have a future life because of this.

A while later, Larry David’s production team contacted the music editor, and I found out Larry had chosen “Frolic” as the main theme song for his new series. The funny thing is they also wanted to know if I was still alive because the movie was from 1974!

How was the song originally used?
I wrote “Frolic” for a funny character named Il Barone Rosso (The Red Baron), who was played by an important Italian actor at that time named Nino Toffolo. In the movie, Il Barone Rosso lived in a small airplane on the beach after an air disaster.

Throughout your career, you’ve written music for numerous films, what’s been the biggest challenge of composing for others versus composing for yourself?
The difference between original music and music for films is the fact that the original music is completely autonomous, with no rules and just the author’s feelings. This is most of the time difficult to do for a song used in a movie. The great when it comes to electronic music. I do however appreciate Bjrk.

He’s a techno producer, what lessons has he taught you about making music?
He’s helped me to understand the electronic scene and all of the sub-genres. It was a world that I didn’t know also in terms of technology. It’s incredible now what you can do from your bedroom with just a computer. Very different from my era of creating music with actual instruments.

When Lorenzo was four years old, my wife Anna and I started him in music with the Yamaha method, and then he then studied at the Conservatory Saint Cecilia in Rome, where I taught for more than 50 years. He has shown me a new way to write and think of music. We are actually working together to combine his live set with the orchestra in Rome, where I will get to work beside him as the conductor. It’s the first time that our roads will collide and I’m very excited and proud about this.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Max Mertens is on Twitter.