Black Cedar was originally founded as a duo in 2011. The name referred to the naturally black wood of Kris Palmer’s flute and the cedar from which Steve Lin’s guitar was made. By 2014 they had expanded to a trio with the addition of cellist Nancy Kim, whose instrument was neither black nor cedar. The following year they arranged to record three of the compositions in their repertoire. Two of them were the results of commissions, Garrett Shatzer’s “Of Emblems” in 2014 and Durwynne Hsieh’s “Miscellaneous Music” in 2015. (As a duo Black Cedar had performed Hsieh’s 2013 composition “2.37 Minutes at the Widget Factory.”) The oldest work recorded was Klaus Hinrich Stahmer’s 1983 “Debussyana,” one of eight pieces he described as nocturnes. The recording sessions also included “Hungarian Trio,” composed by Nathan Kolosko, which was very much in the tradition of the ethnomusicological studies of Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók. (Since those recordings were made, Isaac Pastor-Chermak has replaced Kim as the trio’s cellist.)
While the instrumentation is unconventional, it is surprisingly effective. The flute and cello complement each other well as high-register and low-register melodic voices, each of which has the ability to move into a portion of the other’s tessitura. Lin’s guitar work can then do “double duty,” serving both as continuo and as an additional melodic voice (sometimes both at the same time). The potential of this combination of sonorities thus poses an intriguing challenge to the commissioned composers, both of whom rise to that challenge with works of three relatively short movements, both of which take almost haiku-like stances in capturing highly expressive sonorous moments.
“Debussyana,” on the other hand, is a delightful exercise, again relatively brief in duration, in sly wit. Stahmer does not waste any time in introducing the familiar flute theme that opens Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (prelude to the afternoon of a faun); but those with a deeper knowledge of Debussy will also recognize his “La sérénade interrompue” (the interrupted serenade) in Lin’s guitar part. To the extent that Stahmer seems to have pulled off a rather broad deconstruction of Debussy, it is easy to imagine that he also snuck in at least two of the sonatas, the one for cello and piano and the trio for flute, viola, and harp. Kolosko’s piece is similarly engaging, simply because he found a voice that would never be mistaken for either Kodály or Bartók but still gave a clear account of Hungarian folk roots.
Calling this album mildly engaging should not be taken as pejorative. I have been fortunate enough to attend several Black Cedar recitals, and they are particularly effective for the rhetoric of intimacy they establish. That intimacy is just as evident in the strategic command of understatement one encounters in the performances on this new album. Those who take the trouble to listen attentively are most likely to come away feeling well rewarded.