No, not the black/sludge metal band from Colorado. Though it’s also a two-member project, this Cobalt is a piano duo — Kate Halsall and Fumiko Miyachi. They made their debut as performers at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2014 and have subsequently recorded one previous album, 2019’s Catalogue d’Emojis, featuring vocalists/composers Paul Norman and Michael Wolters. They also recorded together on Halsall’s 2016 album Miniaturised Concertos & Maché, and Miyachi’s 2017 album Transitional Metal.
Their latest release, Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm, features six pieces, three of which are multi-part suites. The title piece is by Miyachi; others are by Wolters, James Black, Sarah Lianne Lewis, Anton Lukoszevieze, and Egidija Medekšaitė.
The album begins with Medekšaitė’s “Textile 1,” an eight-minute piece that has some of the repetitive, cellular structure of Philip Glass, with just enough adornment and variation to keep things interesting. In a way, the subtle shifts do recall the patterns in a hand-woven piece of fabric. Unlike a two-piano jazz concert, where each player is striving to be heard as an individual while still serving the larger piece, the way Halsall and Miyachi allow their instruments to blend seamlessly creates an effect that’s literally more than the sum of its parts — the notes fall like gentle rain, seemingly from everywhere at once.
The second piece, James Black‘s two-part “Crow,” is very different. The first movement, “Monument,” begins with clanging strikes so heavy it almost sounds like the piano is going out of tune. Then there’s a pause, a very quiet interlude during which the strings inside the instrument are strummed gently and allowed to ring out for a long time, before the forceful, concussive chords come back. The second movement, “Mantra Melody,” is effectively the opposite of the first. A thoroughly non-mantralike sequence of notes like a cat walking down the keyboard is played over and over, as a second sequence provides a counterpoint. Another extremely quiet passage ends the piece.
Sarah Lianne Lewis‘s “I have observed the most distant planet to have a triple form” comes in seven movements, the longest of which runs 2:06 and the shortest of which is a single note, struck and allowed to ring out for 11 seconds. The piece is a collection of gestures with relatively little cohesion; though the melodies are occasionally similar in some vague way, each movement stands on its own, defined by qualities not shared by the sections before or after it.
After two more pieces, Anton Lukoszevieze‘s “Sutra” (on which the two women play the same music simultaneously, and hum/vocalize together) and Michael Wolters‘ “Gisela Doesn’t Care” (a shimmering interweaving of lines), the album concludes with the title piece. It’s a six-part suite that takes up nearly half the disc’s running time, performed on piano four hands (both women seated at a single instrument). It rarely seems like they’re both playing at the same time, though; the passages are extremely sparse, with an e-bow placed on the strings in order to create long sustain, and passages of silence in between bursts of sound. At times, the sustain is so extreme, and the contrast between one woman’s striking of the keys and another’s strumming of the strings inside the instrument, that it’s almost like a piano-harp duo. At its best it’s quite haunting.