A place of sanctuary
Time goes by in a curtain grove
And time it will stand still
Remember the time of your first love
Looking out of the windowsill
—Cheval Sombre, Time Waits for No One, “Curtain Grove”
IN A WORLD consumed by cynicism, superficiality and darkness, the release of Cheval Sombre’s third solo LP, Time Waits for No One (2021), produced by Sonic Cathedral, brings an awe-inspiring reprieve. An anthology of ten exquisitely crafted compositions, his latest album offers a musical concatenation of aching beauty, elemental sensuality and otherworldly grace.
An eight-year hiatus after his sublimely realized Mad Love (2012) and innovative eponymous debut (2009), Cheval Sombre—nome d’arte of Christopher Porpora, singer-songwriter-poet from Upstate New York—draws inspiration from Thomas Merton’s reading of the teachings of the Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu, with particular emphasis on the meaning of time and the role it plays in our lives.
A fusion of introspective folk and psychedelia, Cheval Sombre’s meditative music seeps deep into the soul, transmuting the very essence of its being and rendering it irrevocably and ineffably changed. Through the understated simplicity of his hushed, raw vocals and elegant open-tuned acoustic guitar, majestically counterpointed by the swelling arrangements of Sonic Boom’s keyboards and Gillian Rivers’ and Yuiko Kamakari’s strings, the resultant effect is to be transported unto the realm of the timeless, a revelatory resting place of light and sanctuary:
Music doesn’t have to be so ambitious all the time. Once a lovely element is discovered, I say let it ring out for a while—allow the listener to get acquainted with it, to enjoy it, to lean on it. No need to take it away and replace it with all kinds of technical flurry. There is a place in music where we might suggest something eternal, a refuge—something to rely on.
In this month’s guest interview for The Culturium, Cheval Sombre gives an intimately compelling account of the inspiration and creative processes that shape and guide his outstanding body of work.
PM: You live in the Hudson River Valley region of upstate New York. Could you speak of the effect of being so close to nature, specifically water, and the way in which it infuses your work?
As an aside, I am reminded of another great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, and his seminal tract, the Tao Te Ching, which reveres the element of water, likening a person of great virtue to a flowing river, his profound mind synonymous with its deep water, his benevolent heart with its life-sustaining properties and his sincere words with its perpetual flow.
Cheval Sombre: Living beside the water brings a daily reverence. Each time I step out, gratitude and awe arise, gazing at the river, watching the direction of the waves rippling, a lone barge, passing in slow motion, the sun reflecting in dotted speckles from the north southward. Entire worlds of abundant beauty in just one glance, in each moment. Deer often rest in threes in the grass, curled—and all is silent, except for the wind. This atmosphere has undoubtedly taught me to listen carefully, and to cherish each quiet unfolding, with—what did Anaïs Nin once say?—expectation of miracle.
PM: Do you have a private space to compose your songs and write your poetry? If so, could you describe it to me—objects on the desk, pictures on the surrounding walls, books on the shelf, the outside view from the window?
Cheval Sombre: Much composition has taken place on the go—walking down the street, on restaurant tables, in quiet corners of others’ homes—wherever the work can get done, when it strikes. But I do have a special desk which my father gave to me years ago that I look forward to working on, when I’m not moving through space and time. On it just now are a few drafts of poems that never became very good, notebooks that generous folks have given me over the years still to be filled, envelopes, stamps domestic and international, five candles, a little stained glass lamp, a tiny lava lamp, a stack of blank CDs, a small figure of George (the pig) wearing a crown, a miraculous origami heart made from a dollar bill, some tacked-up notes from dear friends, a note I haven’t noticed in a while that reads precisely, william klein quelques femmes au hasard chapeau + 3 roses 1956, initial sketches I made for the cover art in black ink for these next two Cheval Sombre albums, a photograph a dear one took in a moment of unusual possibility, an old driver’s license of mine which expired, a book of Alan Watts and Merton’s Chuang Tzu translations, an unusual red notebook given to me in Italy filled with scribblings from the Mad Love sessions, a War Sucks pin Pete (Kember) gave to me, a few cowboy album pins from Dean (Wareham), which resemble the two of us riding horses around one another, impossibly sweet drawings my goddaughter made, some extra paper, the pens I like—precious things all. Outside the window, the yard is filled with snow. The hedges which line the street are covered in white, and looking toward the mountain—well I can’t see it today—it’s been snowing for hours.
PM: In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke gives advice to an aspiring writer who is seeking guidance at the threshold of his literary career:
There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer.
Would you agree with his words and if so, what has been your own answer to Rilke’s plea?
Cheval Sombre: Ever since I can recall, words (and music) have had a way of visiting me—somehow welling up. I’d be walking down the street feeling as though on the threshold of something, unnamable. An anticipation would lead me—as though I were invested with some wildly potent energy—and it wasn’t until I began to allow myself to try and write that I started to find some direction, some relief, some sense of belonging, purpose, satisfaction—there was a coming home. I didn’t have a Rilke to help guide me in the early days. On the contrary, discovering solace in creation was the result of many feverish hours, stumbling across all kinds of landscapes alone. I didn’t know who to ask about it all—beside prevailing moods, dour as they were, I felt wayward, strange. But in the end, there was nothing I could do except realize these energies. There wasn’t much of a choice, as I recall, and I’m glad for it. Another cannot forbid one’s pure, actual purpose. Purpose simply is. Later, I had a marvellous encounter with Nils-Ole Lund [Danish architect, teacher and collage-artist], who encouraged me to continue, after seeing my notebooks.
PM: Many of your live shows have taken place inside a chapel or sacred space, for example, St Pancras Old Church in London. Could you relate how the architecture of a venue elevates your performance? And how is performing live different from recording in a studio?
Cheval Sombre: I’ve played my fair share of clubs, bars, dives. I spent my first years playing music at The Rhinecliff Hotel, which was just next to the train tracks by the river in a town north of here. The place would rattle when the Amtrak went by, pints of beer spilling across the floor, shards of glass. There was an atmosphere of lawlessness at The Rhinecliff—anything goes, everything permitted—which of course had an effect on the sound, which was then incredibly loud, ramshackle, improvisational. I can’t recall when I began playing churches, though Pete (Sonic Boom) & I have played Union Chapel, St. Giles, St. Pancras (Sonic Cathedral released that performance), and come to think of it St. Marks, too, in New York. I prefer these venues as the music itself is quieter and nuanced these days, meant to be experienced with minimal distraction. It’s been wonderful in England as folks can have drinks if they like while sitting in a pew. In a rock and roll club it’s helpful to be armed with amplifiers and electric guitars, to contend with a bustling crowd. But Cheval Sombre shows are meant to bring an oasis of a kind to folks who wish to step out of the noise, and into something gentle. Sacred spaces cultivate a certain hush, which ends up itself being an integral aspect of the music.
PM: What are the creative influences on your artistic life—music, literature, visual arts, film? And when and why did you decide to make music and poetry your raison d’être?
Cheval Sombre: All kinds of things influence this life—quality of light, scents, atmosphere. For instance, at this moment I’ve a cup of coffee—I’ve added some cinnamon and cacao, which is bringing a loveliness to the morning. Debussy’s Arabesque is playing at a volume, just so. All is influence, so we must choose well. If I were to list music or literary or other artistic sources of wonder, I could fill a (never-ending) book. But to speak about today, I began with a collection of Venetian lute music, I’ve been reading A Drink with Shane MacGowan, if I could be in a room with paintings this evening I’d like them to be Van Gogh’s, and very recently I was glad to have revisited the film My Dinner with Andre. Regarding a raison d’être, I have always had the sense that music and writing chose me—it was something to which I had to awaken.
PM: You have said that you are “obsessed with beauty”. In a similar vein to John Keats’ immortal phrase, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”, could you expand on this recurrent theme in your poetry and music and why it is so important to you?
Cheval Sombre: This is difficult to distil, as beauty is seen as subjective. But can, for instance, Satie’s Gymnopédies be disputed? All I can say is that when I am in a certain presence, there is a feeling of being at home. And I suppose that seeking the beautiful has always felt vital, especially in the context of a world which often feels so purposefully callous, awful, insensitive. Since I was very small, I had a hunch that while hidden, there was another world to discover in each moment, even if those around me seemed blind to it—and after committing to uncovering such a reality, there it was, and is—what I would call enduring, endless beauty.
PM: My sense of you is that you are self-effacing and humble. How do you navigate the requirements put upon you to promote your work without sacrificing your inner self?
Cheval Sombre: The only way I can get through it is to keep it about the work, and the work only. In the end, a record (or a book) must speak for itself, as it is an artefact—a world unto itself. When I play a concert, I simply take a breath and do all I can to inhabit the songs fully—or allow them, I might say, to inhabit me. Allowing the work to be the guide has brought me to some fantastic places, physical and otherwise.
PM: Listening to your first ever released record, Cheval Sombre (2008), I am struck by how accomplished it is. Tracks that particularly move me are the alluring “I Sleep” and the magnificent “I Found It Not So”. The harlequin artwork is stunning and seemingly embodies the myriad shades of meaning—longing, personal freedom, regret—that weave their way through the entire piece. Could you expand on that and also tell me the impetus behind your earliest LP?
Cheval Sombre: Thank you for giving it a listen, and bringing it to life. That record holds a dear place in my heart, as it was the first one. It was reissued last year for its 10th anniversary in a luxurious edition, for the first time ever on vinyl. I Sleep and I Found It Not So were two of the very earliest releases, through the incredible Esopus magazine, and Static Caravan, respectively. The artwork grew from some black ink drawings I made, where I envisioned stained glass, based on the paintings of the great Georges Rouault—illustrator Ben Javens realized this perfectly on the sleeve. Grateful that you could perceive “longing, personal freedom, regret” in it—indeed, they are all there.
The first LP came together after Matthew Lyndon Wells [a fellow musician and poet from New York] showed me how to record at home. Soon after, many songs visited. I sent those recordings to Pete Kember (Sonic Boom), as somehow I felt that he alone could understand and embrace this music, and bring too something elegant to complete it. When he contacted me, I remember telling him that I would drink champagne on that very day. This life is often full of disappointments, but it is also filled with magic, and soon we were recording the first LP together in a converted bakery run by the extraordinary Nick Kramer—Dean (Wareham) and Britta (Phillips) played these incredibly subtle, shimmering, sympathetic parts on many of the songs, and then Dean generously offered to release it (Double Feature, 2009). I’ve mentioned this before, but making that record felt much like a long-awaited coming home.
PM: The theme of love appears to be the overarching conceit of your work, sublimely manifested in your next album, Mad Love (2012). Songs that moved me close to tears are “Red Moon”, “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and “February Blues”. In fact, you have mentioned that the cover is a reference to the devastating love letters of Emma Hauck, written to her husband from the University Psychiatric Clinic in Heidelberg, Germany, which are now considered to be works of art.
Being in a state of limerence is a condition we are all familiar with. Indeed, Plato himself likened it to a “divine madness”, whereby someone possessed by eros is afforded a vision of the world not otherwise available to others. Everything seen through the eyes of the lover thus becomes enchanting and sacred. Could you elaborate on this with reference to Mad Love?
Cheval Sombre: Yes—in this state, all is tinged with intensity. Enchantment infuses each moment and even sorrow illuminates, like a flickering fire. There is great elation and utter exhaustion. I agree with Plato there but I would caution too about the treacherous nature of living in such a way. But it isn’t a choice, is it? It happens. I’m still surprised that Mad Love got finished—that it could have been written (and recorded) under the circumstances it was. But there is an extraordinary catalytic power—a seemingly endless reserve of energy—one just burns and burns and burns.
Other experiences of love are just as important, though less manic of course. Sharon Lock (who did the sleeve art) ingeniously introduced the concept of Hauck’s letters, and she could not have been more prescient. On release of Mad Love, folks thought that the songs were written around the story of Emma Hauck, but the album was already recorded before Sharon mentioned this connection. “February Blues” came together at the height of, as you say, much madness. I had heard “Once I Had a Sweetheart” years before on a live album of Joan Baez, and leaned on memory to reconstruct it. “Red Moon” is from a group called The Walkmen—it was one of those rare instances where a song feels as though it is narrating your reality.
PM: On your follow-up remix LP, Madder Love (2014), you play an exquisite adagio for voice and guitar called “Someplace Slow”. It has a purity and innocence to it, which is utterly heartbreaking. How does playing solo feel in contradistinction to collaborating with other musicians, i.e. Pete Kember (Sonic Boom), Darshan Jesrani, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, amongst others?
Cheval Sombre: “Someplace Slow” is a reimagined version of “Someplace Else”, the first song on Mad Love. These incredible artists reworked the song “Couldn’t Do” (from Mad Love) for that release, and I wanted to contribute in my way. My dear friend Matthew Lyndon Wells had recently passed away, and I began singing that song for him on my own, to hold onto him, to sing to him. When I first played the finished version of “Someplace Else” for him long before Mad Love came out, we were in the car, and I could never forget his reaction—it was pure exuberance. I wanted to put something on a record just for him, and I was thrilled that Sonic Cathedral obliged. Playing solo is a vulnerable experience—there is nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide, like Martha & the Vandellas. But it is good to whittle down to the foundation of a song, and explore its essential elements—one discovers what a song is truly made of in this way. And in choosing vulnerability, strength often unexpectedly emerges.
PM: You have just released your latest LP, Time Waits For No One (2021), nearly a decade in the making, which will soon be accompanied by a complementary album later this year, Days Go By (2021). Despite the gap, your songs are still permeated with an elegiac musicality and timelessness that are uniquely your own. Songs that particularly spoke to me are the majestic “Curtain Grove”, the beguiling title track, “Time Waits For No One” and the instrumental “Dreamsong”, which is one of the most sensual pieces of music I have ever heard.
In your previous guest post on The Culturium, you beautifully outline your creative process for the album, drawing inspiration from Thomas Merton’s reading of the teachings of Chuang Tzu, in particular, his rendition of a poem, “Autumn Floods”, which speaks of the transience of life: “Time does not stand still” / “Nothing endures” / “All is in movement”. The striking artwork on the album sleeve similarly reflects the fleetingness of time with its gliding white bird gracing the cover, a harlequin trail in its wake in a nod of continuity with your debut LP. Could you speak about the paradox of capturing the ephemerality of sound for all eternity?
Cheval Sombre: Initially I wanted to release a double album, but Sonic Cathedral’s wisdom prevailed. The sleeves for Time Waits for No One and Days Go By had to be carefully interrelated, as these records are halves of a whole. The tracklisting of the first was built around the concept of time as linear, sensual, physical, dark, experiential—a birth and death record. The second album approaches time as unmeasurable, lighter—another realm entirely—airier. Something like innocence. I did some drawings to bring to light the album covers and then contacted Craig Carry in Ireland. He had done posters for a couple of Cheval Sombre shows—one in Cobh and another in Brooklyn—I knew only he could help to realize these ideas properly (which he did, with unparalleled grace). I don’t want to say too much about it, as Days Go By isn’t out for a few months, but once both records are side by side, an incredible symmetry and merging will happen—an intersection visually, musically and otherwise. In the end, Sonic Cathedral suggested a subtle design touch that perfectly finished the initial vision of these two records, essentially joined.
I wanted to do something instrumental, approaching a sort of classical music on these records— “Dreamsong” was recorded in Brooklyn with Darshan Jesrani at his magnificent studio, Bhakti Box. We recorded the guitar first, just before Gillian Rivers and Yuiko Kamakari arrived to play strings. They were both wearing elegant, black dresses, as they came straight from a late-night television performance. I can’t read music, or notate it for that matter, and I ended up whistling the melodies to them—I was astonished at how precisely they both translated the parts—pitch perfect reflections, and Darshan captured it all. I can recall when Pete (Kember) first added his parts to “Time Waits for No One” —he sent a mix and I heard it for the first time driving in the snow and very nearly wept, swerving, so keen was his touch. These moments along the way become somehow very finely etched in one, for all time. Now that the album is finally being released, I should admit that there has been a tremendous process of letting go.
Speaking of paradox, there are times when one wonders if the work will ever see light of day, and then once all begins moving, a wicked, stubborn reluctance appears. Deep condolences go to Matt Saunders, who mastered Time Waits for No One. He is a perfect gentleman, so I can’t imagine him trumpeting this, but at one point I realized that he was pleading with me to please-just-let-go, let go. I would hear something imperfect in the mix, run it past him, and often he could hear it and tenderly address (bear in mind that these things are minuscule). But as we got closer to delivering the finished work, some of these anomalies would loom terribly for me. I can see now how attachment makes these details horrific, gigantic. Britta (who sings beautifully on “Curtain Grove”) pointed this out to me gently—that letting go of the recordings was bringing these strange instances of resistance. Eventually, I had to yield, as Merton would undoubtedly warn we must.
PM: Before you followed the path of a musician, you published two collections of poetry, In Mine Eyes (2004) and Becoming (2005). “The pull of the world is great”, taken from the first anthology, I found to be particularly profound and lyrical:
After living in a dream
and unseen, stopping
with every rose
and lilac, hanging in
the streets, swooning
in the faintest
daisies at the feet
of queens, and gone
from time and place
trail or trace or
even petals behind
of flowers now
the pull of the
world is great,
it has invaded
and caused us
and made the dream
and now memory
litters the street,
and the day now
though golden and sweet
—Christopher Porpora, In Mine Eyes, “The pull of the world is great”
Could you speak about the difference between composing poetry and writing lyrics? More specifically, the quality of a word when it manifests in harmony with a musical sound as opposed to when it arises from silence?
Cheval Sombre: The nature of how these things arise has always been a mystery to me, and one that I have not tried to grasp—I’ve just been grateful for these occurrences. Long ago, I learned that if I showed up—sitting at the kitchen table before dawn with paper and pen, or finding a quiet place to unlock the guitar—things would happen. With poetry, I developed a strict discipline that led me to sit each day, for years, in the earliest hours. Sometimes words would come, some days nothing was written. I came to understand that each experience was invaluable, whether work was produced or not, as each sitting was connected to the next. One realizes that creation is a continuum, with its own timing.
It’s true that with poems, there is a deliberation over each and every word. Songs generally come to me all at once, often fully formed, and very little editing takes place. The two processes have always remained very separate, discrete. Though there was an unusual cross-pollination with Had Enough Blues (on Time Waits for No One). One evening, the song came to me, and after playing it, I ended up writing a poem about the experience of singing it. You ask an interesting question about what goes on when a word merges with music versus its existence with silence. I have to confess that I do not know—despite the years I’ve been practising both, these alchemies remain mysterious to me. I find these realms impossible to scrutinize—but perhaps the truth is that I prefer not to get too close to the structure of what I would call the miraculous. I don’t want to know too much.
PM: The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, said: “… aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.”
Do you agree with his statement and if so, what do you believe to be the function of Art—specifically poetry and music—in relation to the opening of the heart and the death of the egoic self?
Cheval Sombre: As I said just before, through working, I’ve come to gladly leave knowledge, as well as the need to know, behind. Stepping into the unknown, one must abandon the accumulated—all that would hinder discovery. One must, in a sense, toss what weighs, what defines, what limits, off the cliff. Sacrifice means making room—we become light, unencumbered, open, able to receive. And when we encounter a great work of art, I do believe that we are delivered from the trappings of the ego, from the petty self. When I am absorbed in certain pieces, there is a taste of eternity, which is beyond all thought, far and free from constructed limitations. We return—we’ve then made the pilgrimage home—at least for some wondrous, prolonged moment.
I want you to know, it’s not time
I still think, you’re the one, the one for me
Oh but it’s not time
And watching, it all, it all goes by
I see, I see it all go by
Just yesterday, I want to see you smile
—Cheval Sombre, Time Waits for No One, “It’s Not Time”
- Cheval Sombre @ Bandcamp
- Sonic Cathedral
- Cheval Sombre: The Wilderness of Music
- Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet
- Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching
- Plato: Phaedrus and the Charioteer
- Joep Franssens: Harmony of the Spheres
- Arvo Pärt: Silentium
- John Cage: Silence
- John Tavener: Towards Silence
- John Adams: The Dharma at Big Sur
- Wassily Kandinsky: Concerning the Spiritual in Art