WILLIAMSTOWN -- The self-described "chamber pop collective" Cuddle Magic was formed at the New England Conservatory in 2005. The legend goes that the band got its name from the audience's need to huddle up close to hear them; they were all-acoustic and shows began to resemble a group cuddle. The practice wasn't just to be precious but was for technical reasons as much as any others.
"It's the best sound that you're ever going to get because if you're hearing people playing and it's real voices coming through the air and going into your ear," said band co-founder Ben Davis. "I don't think any thousand dollar microphone can ever sound that good."
Cuddle Magic will perform at the Billsville House Concerts on Satur day at 8 p.m.
Any given Cuddle Magic composition might include not only guitar, bass and keyboards, but also ukulele, banjo, clarinet, harmonica, flute, glockenspiel, trumpet, toy piano and whatever else is required for that song.
The music is created through a combination of isolation and convergence that sees each member write music, but explore and expand in conjunction with bandmates in a multitude of configurations. The group has featured up to 10 players on a recording, though only six of those are considered the core unit of the band, and to work with this number of people, the band has a system of teams that function as working groups inclusive of the extra members.
"Generally, different people have different arrangement ideas," Davis said. "We get together a lot in duos and trios and work out different aspects. Sometimes, like on the song ‘Disgrace Note,' I had already come up with the drum part to that, and some of the different parts by myself, but in some cases all the arrangements come collectively."
"Once we get an arrangement together, then we'll take all the separate parts and put it all together and try it and make subtle adjustments, but a lot of how things come together are people being together in smaller groups and having ideas about what the separate instruments are going to do and then when we actually get together, we make subtle adjustments from there."
Cuddle Magic's creative goal might be expressed as "experimental, but accessible" in that the group employs some techniques that draw on its conservatory background in performance and concept, but it doesn't want that to overshadow the sounds it creates. For the song "Disgrace Note," a response to the suicide of musician Vic Chesnutt from their most recent album "Info Nympho," Davis and his brother, Tim, created the song's structure through math, dividing the number of beats in the song with various methods in order to create cycles within it, ranging from a section of 24 beats to a section of 128 beats. It's a very technical process that underlies the building of the music, but as Davis points out, it doesn't sound it.
"To my ears, I think that we've developed a sensibility that's like a balance," said Davis. "It's not necessarily that we're doing it because we want to balance it on purpose, but I think our sensibilities have been driven to this place where there's a common ground."
"It's a place where complexity and simplicity are like a yin and yang sensibility that has come out, where it's this unique, interesting, weird type of idea and grounded, beautiful, pretty, and functional, and understandable sounds -- putting those two things together in a way that makes us happy. That's what we're shooting at: making music that we love, and hopefully other people will like it, too."
For Davis, that compositional technique is just one of many that differentiates Cuddle Magic from other musical efforts, a manifestation of the very specific personalities that have gathered in the group and the ability for those members to allow the work of the band to take on a life of its own that follows its own definition, rather than any of the individual parts commandeering what results.
Part of the major effort of the group involves experimentation in arrangements and instrumentation. Though the band is thought of as an all-acoustic effort, electronic sounds have entered into the songs. Davis says that the group gets a lot of inspiration from electronic music in general, and a drum machine has been utilized on the second and third parts. Prior to that, drum machines were influential to the group's percussion. Most recently, Davis has been adding synthesizer bass to the arrangements.
"There are some instruments that we've acquired that are exciting to us," he said. "Like on the second record: I have an old drum machine from the ‘70s; it's a big thing, and we used that on one track, ‘Don't Forget.' When I acquired that drum machine, it was exciting, and I wrote a song based around that.
"The same way, there's this Yamaha PS130, which is a toy keyboard that I had for a long time, and that's also on that track and it's also on the track ‘Moby Dickless' on the new album. The drum machine beat is from that toy keyboard."
This sort of endless experimentation is a continuation of the breeding ground that the band formed in. It was typical for conservatory students to make music together in various ways -- orchestras, string quartets, jazz projects -- but Davis found his era also had a subculture that was forming into more traditional and mainstream groupings that were, for lack of any better term, bands, at least on the surface.
"It's funny, you get together and play music and call it a band, and it's a fixed thing compared to a singer songwriter that is under one person's name," said Davis. "Sometimes I feel like there is a difference to what it's called and to the process, but I'd say Cuddle Magic and a lot of these bands, it ends up like there's a song and the music grows around the song, and in some ways, whether it's called a band or a singer songwriter or whatever name you put on it, it's all just making music."
Cuddle Magic began to form when Davis and keyboard player Christo pher McDonald had two songs they wanted to record -- "Sandinista" and "Lonely Red" -- so they gathered up friends and got together in the practice room. With a couple personnel changes, that's exactly the same line-up that records as Cuddle Magic now.
"We got together and put the music together with the songs," Davis said, "and we had a lot of specific ideas for those songs and they were relatively simple, but there are elements of polyrhythmic complexities in both of those songs, and in a strange way those two songs, the rest of our albums have spun off of those songs, which are, in a way, simple folky songs but also have complexities that wouldn't necessarily pop out at you."
The band's next project comes after the collaboration with toy keyboardist Phyllis Chen -- she collaborated with the band on the song "Baby Girl" on their most recent record, and that experience was enough to convince them they wanted to pursue a larger project with her.
"We play some of our music and also some of her music and music written for us by outside classical composers," said Davis. "On that we play a lot of toy instruments -- toy drum, toy this, toy that -- and sounds that we were inspired to use by Phyllis, who's really interested in toy instruments. She mostly plays toy piano and music box and bowls and things that you wouldn't think of as being serious instruments."
The band also has material for another album -- to be recorded in Brooklyn with producer Bryce Gog gin sometime later this year -- which will feature the results of all their explorations post "Info Nympho," and sets the stage for works yet to come.
"One thing that seems different about what we're doing is the way we're coming at the music comparatively to our sound. I think the angle at which we're coming toward our product is very different," Davis said. "I don't think that we're attempting to write or arrange or record any particular style -- or ‘I want to sound more like this' on the next record. It just naturally grows."
John Seven is the Transcript's arts and entertainment editor.