A cheer went up as the Royal Festival Hall was cast into darkness. It was the same night that a power cut in the West End caused shows to be cancelled and diners to jab blindly in the pitch black at invisible dishes. But the extinguished lighting for Autechre’s show was deliberate.
The UK duo, Sean Booth and Rob Brown, are veterans of what was once known as “intelligent dance music”, an early 1990s label applied to a clutch of challenging experimental acts mostly signed to Warp Records. Autechre are among the most challenging yet enduring of them all, makers of combatively difficult electronic music, tracks bristling with abrasive beats and spiky tones like refractory digital cactuses.
Their decision to play without lighting, inspired by grungy warehouse raves in the 1980s, presented a mutual challenge. From the stage perspective, Booth and Brown had to operate their various computerised pieces of kit without blundering in the dark — by pressing the “delete” key, for instance, and so triggering an inadvertent tribute to John Cage’s “4’33””.
Meanwhile, for the audience, the darkness took away the sense of sight, turning the live show into a mainly auditory experience. At least that was the intention. In practice, safety regulations required low lighting by the exits, while Booth and Brown could dimly be made out moving behind their consoles. But if the concept of playing in total obscurity was compromised, the music was not.
The semi-improvised set drew only tangentially on their recorded output, the most recent of which is the monumental quintuple album elseq 1-5. Metallic sounds were like huge blades being sharpened against unseen whetstones. Foreboding rumbles of beats massed in gothic formations. Computerised noises distorted and split apart as though subjected to the immense force of a Large Hadron Collider experiment.
Rather than rely on standardised software, Booth and Brown write the algorithms that produce their computer music. An embedded human touch could be heard in the melodies that emerged amid the sci-fi maelstrom, plucky life rafts of tunefulness. A cheer rang out for a passage of bleeps that resembled conventional techno. Such moments of illumination were all the brighter for being experienced in darkness.