Black Cedar Trio at Berkeley’s Arthouse

A curious trio explores a path less trod…

Consisting of flute, cello and guitar, the Black Cedar Trio brought their atypical sound palette to an equally unusual subject, contemporary music from the Pacific Rim, at downtown Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse last Saturday, July 13.

The Black Cypress Trio began as a duet between flutist Kris Palmer and guitarist Steve Lin, naming themselves for the African blackwood of wooden flute and the cedar used in classical guitars. Both woods define a sound that is more subtle than bright: blackwood, a stable and dense material, gives a breathy liveliness sought in Irish flutes, but avoids the bright clarity of the usual silver flute. And cedar gives a guitar more warmth and sensitivity than its brighter cousin, spruce.

Those instrumental choices reflected their two passions—the subtleties of Baroque and the wider nuances of contemporary. They were later joined by Nancy Kim, who mustered a wide range of voices from her cello to fit their sound and Saturday’s demanding program.

Adding to their exotic timbres, Palmer supplemented wooden flute with the long re-curved alto flute and extending the ensemble deeper into non-Western culture.

They began with a New Zealand composer, Ross Carey, in a work that celebrates water. “Te Whanganui-a-Tara” (The Great Harbour of Tara) opened with mysterious and penetrating low notes of alto flute, then notes that began explosively and tapered into whispers, defined by spaced chords of guitar. The three movements held lovely combinations: the low liquid gurgle of flute with soft scumbling of guitar; a dark density of harshly scrubbed cello with the metallic spangle of sharply plucked guitar notes; high bird-calls on wooden flute and low cello whispers.

And through and under it all was water in all its mumbling runs and waves and tears.

Toru Takemitsu, one of Japan’s most prominent twentieth century composers, wrote “Toward the Sea” as a commission from Greenpeace in its efforts to save whales, although the titles refer to Melville’s Moby Dick. A theme that recurs throughout is E-flat, then up a half step to E, and up a fourth to A. In German that is “Es E A” or “Sea.” A little silly, but it worked as a thematic device, and was developed generously. Palmer used alto flute, but fought its classical tuning with bent notes and hoarse edges, and rolled the flute in for a rich and chesty sound that sometimes broke up an octave. Her inward directedness seemed even more focused against a backdrop of slowly spaced guitar arpeggios. The duet for flute and guitar was a convincing meld of ancient Japanese principles and Western atonal, and brilliantly performed.

In the excellent program notes (also written by Palmer, who has a Doctorate in music), she quotes Takemitsu’s thoughts on the spiritual aspects of the piece. “Meditation and water are wedded together… The music is a homage to the sea which creates all things and a sketch for the sea of tonality.”

Steve Lin had an opportunity to shine in the next piece, Lei Liang’s “A Journey into Desire.” I heard a work by Liang, a young San Diego composer, showcased in the Contact! series by the NY Philharmonic two years ago. “Journey,” which the composer wrote for Lin, follows a thread from Dream of the Red Chamber, a famous eighteenth century novel, in a journey that bends reality and illusion.

Lin played the guitar almost as if it were a samisen, with sharply etched attacks and bent notes. “It uses a lot of extended techniques,” he said in introduction, “but it still sounds, as one of my students at San Jose State says, like esoteric Chinese music.”

It began with a ringing harmonic, and then the crack of a string plucked so far it snapped against the guitar. And then sudden chords, notes bent like a waw-waw pedal, a soft flutter of notes, and the impulsive passions of youth. This was a composition in contrasts, an appropriate vehicle to explore illusion, with each melodic shard reflecting a different aspect of the broken mirror of life.

After intermission, Palmer took her own solo on the wooden flute, Tan Mi-Zi’s Flute and Drum at Twilight. This was a perfectly realized conjunction of ancient Chinese tunings and Western classical music, and full of sharp colors. In the small hall—dimensioned like a miniature of the new Weill Hall—echoes enriched the chuffs and breaths into sudden intimacy, then built with rich tones into something almost painfully deep, and cool for all of that.

All three performers returned for the last two pieces. In Narongrit Dhamabutra’s Bhudachat, triplets chased each other playfully from one instrument to another, then slowed at the end like a favorite bedtime story.

Chinary Ung’s Luminous Spirals was, by contrast, fraught, with a subtext of the Khmer Rouge and their murder of two million Cambodians—which incidentally included all of Ung’s family. “Life is so delicate,” wrote the composer, and dedicated much of his life to helping his country recover. This was a difficult piece for performers and audience. “It’s like being chased through the jungle,” said Lin. Palmer added, “He is very spiritual. I hope you can hear that in this.”

There was an off-balance quality to the piece, almost as if the three voices had so much inner turmoil that they could hardly bear to hear or answer each other. In searching out the center, the wail of cello and pained cries of flute over desperate guitar flurries could lead one full circle to Liang’s premise of life as illusion. But the piece certainly worked, and that, powerfully.

They kindly returned with a lighter encore, the Appalachian folk tune “The House Carpenter.” Their arrangement well suited their vibrant sound fabric, with flute and cello trading stanzas and guitar setting up brash Irish/Appalachian scales.

—Adam Broner

Photo below of the Black Cedar Trio; from left, Nancy Kim, Kris Palmer and Steve Lim.

This trio will next be heard Aug. 22 at 8:00 p.m. at San Francisco’s Emerald Tablet, in the heart of North Beach at 80 Fresno St, for an evening of contemporary-classical guitar and electronics, and an evocative program of chamber music that spans 25 years. Only $10 at the door—see for more information.

Black Cedar Trio