Beauty found amid the sounds of silence in Common Margins
By Lawrence Becker


COMMON MARGINS, the new cassette release from Charlottesville musicians Michael Sokolowski and Tim Reynolds, achieves with a few natural breaths that which so much music grows long-winded chasing after. The ten improvised pieces capture the pianist and guitarist in an exchange that's not simply like a conversation, but is instead an actual, spontaneous musical dialogue, describing a variety of topics, always eschewing the phrase that is ornate for the one that is accurate. Like anything that possesses both depth and elegance, Common Margins evinces considerable knowledge but never becomes arcane. And while the ease with which its melodies flow invites the listener in, the music is open but not amorphous. Each piece describes a small world, and each world is distinct, its climate and character defined by musical choices that are deliberate and concrete. As we listen to these musicians' wordless speech, we know what they're talking about.

Pianist Michael Sokolowski hears in this music the influences of classical and folk, and, due to Common Margins' improvised nature, jazz. He describes the pieces as stories or vignettes, conversations in which various subjects are briefly explored and then set aside. These observations, however, are offered only with hindsight, because the entire project was embarked upon on a well-timed whim.

Mike explains that Common Margins began on a Saturday morning early last March when he and Tim headed to Alive studios to do some recording. They drove to Harrisonburg without speaking a word, nothing was planned or discussed. When they arrived, the lights were dimmed and they started playing. The ride back to Charlottesville was filled with conversation of how the session had gone, but as Mike remembers, "it came out of silence."

The ideas of silence and space, and the importance of quieting one's mind are elemental to Mike's understanding of what opens the door to successful improvisation. "It's listening, really being an audience to the other player. On the bandstand, you can end up on some dead end streets grappling with thinking 'what should I play?' instead of focusing on the other player."

Also essential to the success of Common Margins, is the friendship the two musicians brought to the studio, and then expressed through the music. When playing improvised music, Mike points out, "You're totally naked, you're not relying upon agreed upon constructions. You have to be unafraid to say anything." Unafraid, as one is with a friend.

"Tim Reynolds is an incredibly giving musician," Mike says. "It's thrilling and a pleasure to play with him. As a composer, it's gratifying to have someone completely understand your music and play it the way its meant to be played without you having to tell him. He understands, he doesn't get in the way of it and he gives everything he has to it."

"It's really an amazing thing he does when he's with other musicians. It's more than filling in and playing a little guitar for somebody-He makes it his own and still keeps it yours. It's really a beautiful thing."

Over the years, Mike and Tim have come to know each other's music well, performing now and then as a duo and frequently as members of Third Ear, a larger ensemble featuring Mike's compositions. Comparing the experience of playing as a duo with that of functioning as a member of a band, Mike notes, "You can play just one note and that one note can resonate the way a whole chord progression would with a band. With Third Ear, we're drawing on so many people's diverse experiences and palettes of sound. You go to a lot of different places, turn a lot of comers and see a lot of landscapes."

Regardless of the context, there are constants that persist in Mike's musical approach. These include his striving "to play beyond licks," in a way that recognizes music's infinite, omnipresent nature. "As a musician, you're just illuminating a few notes that are already out there. A signpost here and a signpost there suggest a structure."

There's no shortage of "pretty" sounds available to us today, musical architecture that's marginally pleasant, the structures outlined on Common Margins offer that much rarer find, moments of true beauty. Mike and Tim can be heard this Saturday night, when Third Ear performs at Miller's, and on March 10 at Spencer's 206 where the duo will perform to celebrate Common Margin's official release.


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