Breaking Away from “Classical”: A Talk21 with Mike Block

The designation of “classical” music may be a ruse. Although many agree on grouping certain instruments, playing techniques and even geographical locations with the term, cellist Mike Block points out that “even music that is associated with a specific style and that we are very familiar with is often the result of hundreds of years of global influence.” So who are we to draw the line between what is strictly “classical” and what is not? And who are we to limit its expansion, especially when what we call classical music developed from intercultural exchanges?

In his TALK21 during the 21CMposium at DePauw University, Mike Block argues for breaking through the restrictions we place on ourselves by identifying exclusively with a specific genre. And Block should know what he’s talking about. As a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and as the founding director of Silkroad’s Global Musician Workshop, he’s made a career out of learning, playing and teaching different styles of music. Now, he wants us to do the same, so that we might reap the benefits that will come in the form of an expanded community, a blossoming curiosity and wealth of rich, new experiences.


On playing the music you like to listen to…

While I was in school, I started exploring the whole world of music – I got into a really big Pink Floyd phase – and I started to feel like the focus of my professional studying was not representing my world perspective as it grew. I felt like there was a growing divide between the music I listened to and the music I played professionally and studied. … I developed a mission statement. I decided and realized I wouldn’t be happy as a professional musician unless I was playing all the types of music that I liked to listen to. … That has guided my trajectory ever since, because I like listening to a lot of different music. And I’ve tried to learn all these languages and find out what kind of musician I can be in different environments.

On bringing together musicians from different cultural backgrounds…

I want to talk about the values behind [the Global Musician Workshop]. … The mission is to empower musicians of all backgrounds to learn from each other’s traditions and incorporate them into their own artistic voices. What does that look like? We do that by immersing students into various musical cultures and really challenging their values. That’s a big part of becoming multilingual and feeling comfortable in other musical cultures – confronting your own assumptions of values. [I had to confront] my own idea of what is a good cello sound. I developed a really clear idea of what that is in school. But now I don’t think of the words “good” or “bad.” I usually think of the words “appropriate” or “inappropriate.” And the sound world of the Dvořák Cello Concerto is beautiful, but it is not appropriate in a Bill Monroe tune! So really confronting not only your values, but also your physical relationship to your instrument – everything is up for grabs when you start to genre-hop. 

On how you can grow your community by expanding your style…

The other thing I want to say about being a multi-style musician is that styles are more than just how they sound. Every style of music has a different value system, but at the core of it, every style of music has a community attached to it. There is a community of people that love Celtic music. And they go to Celtic festivals, and they’ll go to any Scottish fiddler playing within a two-hour driving radius of their house. There are also distinct communities for Arabic music, there’s a jazz community, and we are part of the classical community. And that is actually one of the most satisfying parts of breaking away from a classical bubble, dare I say – being able to engage with different communities. Different types of audiences bring out different parts of ourselves. That’s one of the most sustaining and meaningful parts of playing different styles – engaging with and meeting different kinds of people. 

The above excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

Mike Block

Hailed by Yo-Yo Ma as the “ideal musician of the 21st Century”, Mike Block is a pioneering multi-style cellist, composer, and educator living in Boston, …more 

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