What happens when your source of inspiration expires and your influences can only have a posthumous effect on you? Ben Davis, one of the songwriters behind the Brooklyn chamber ensemble Cuddle Magic wondered these things after Vic Chesnutt passed in 2009.
Coping with the loss of the inspirational musician, Davis thought, “I can’t write a song, with Vic Chesnutt gone”. But he and the rest of Cuddle Magic did, and they did it with gentle grace through their song “Disgrace Note”. It’s not easy to write a song about suicide, as it’s a heavy topic.
Prompted by the death of Chesnutt, the group thought of other artists and literary figures who took their lives, or as Davis says “offed themselves”, and soon, the song paid tribute to an array of figures, from Walter Benjamin to Diane Arbus. The song title itself is a play on a musical notation of a grace note, which, “occur as notes of short duration before the sounding of the relatively longer-lasting note which immediately follows them”. Much like the short-lived note, these artists left behind legacies through their work that resonate enough to continue to inspire their fans, even enough for them to write songs.
But Brautigan and Benjamin aren’t the only literary figures mentioned on Cuddle Magic’s album Info Nympho. Characters such as Ishmael from Moby Dick and Marie Cardona from The Stranger surface in song references. There’s even a nonsensical song, “Autobiographies”, where Davis sings, “Autobiographies never get read by me”. It might seem like the band members were English majors, but the current lineup “all studied our respective instruments at the New England Conservatory, which is where we met and formed the band around about 2006,” says Kristin Slipp. “We’ve all studied classical music to some degree, and it certainly finds its way into our music, both compositionally and in our approach to practice and rehearsal.”
The group sees themselves as a collective. Alec Spiegelman notes that “various songwriters in Cuddle Magic will bring in material that’s in various stages of completion. Often we bring in not just melodies, harmonies and words, but also the bare bones compositional material that fed into the songs at their creation: for instance, cycles of pitches and rhythms, tone rows and graphs of the sort used by a lot of modern classical composers. And then, everyone in the band will learn this material and use it as we hash out all of our parts and the arrangement for the song.”
Their music has also been described as chamber music, music composed for a small group of instruments. Historically, chamber music is known for its intimacy, and therefore has been dubbed as “music for friends”, which applies to the bands’ personality quite well. Last time they were in DC, they played a house show at Petworth’s Paperhaus, making a literal chamber in the living room out of keyboards, drums, a large glockenspiel and an electric vibraphone. (“ The vibraphone is unique,” says Dave Flaherty, delving into total detail.
“It’s a chopped Deagan ElectraVibe with black anodized bars that has recently been serviced by the original builder of the instrument.” What other instruments does the band use during live sets? To name a few: concert bells, acoustic guitars, a circuit-bent Yamaha PS130 keyboard, clarinet, and trumpet. The group is almost as ambitious as an orchestra. But chamber music is fitting for them. “We love playing in intimate spaces,” says Slipp. “I think it’s safe to say we’ve had some of our most “magical” shows in small, quiet rooms.”
“Some of our favorite shows have been house concerts,” adds Cole Kamen-Green. “The limitation of space usually makes it so that we have to play very close to one another, which we really like. Also, having the audience all packed in and listening gives off a great energy which, because of their proximity to us, is more tangibly felt.”
Cuddle Magic plays tonight at the Hamilton, opening up for Anais Mitchell.