Mike Block’s performances of cello music are where classical finesse meets contemporary experimentation and launches into the next atmospheric level. While in college, Block was feeling frustrated with the creative path laid out for him and the limitations of his instrument, so he began creating alternate ways to play, whether it was adapting modern songs to the instrument or physically changing his approach.
He designed the Block strap, a device that allows him to stand and move around while playing, and became the first cellist to perform standing at Carnegie Hall. He is the founding director of the Global Musicians Workshop, which aims to bring together musicians of diverse cultural and instrumental backgrounds. And he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, an active recording artist and an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music.
Block performs extensively, bringing his inventive cello playing to a variety of audiences. Notably, he has performed on programs like Late Night with Conan O’Brien and American Public Media’s Performance Today. And he’s collaborated with dozens of other artists, including Dawn Upshaw, Bobby McFerrin, and will.i.am.
21CM’s Mark McCoy interviewed Block during a recent residency at DePauw School of Music, where they discussed his creative beginnings and artistic goals.
On how frustration leads to new creative paths…
It was in college that I started becoming the black sheep of my classical family. I started experimenting with improvisation and buying really bad guitar effects pedals. Basically, I was looking for something where I could feel like myself in music. For whatever reason, I was not finding that enough in just classical.
… When I got to college, I was really excited to study music at a high level. … As I was getting further along in college, I realized that most of the music I was going to play as a classical cellist I kind of already knew or had at least heard a million times. It was halfway through my degree where I was almost going to quit, so improvisation and composing really helped save me. I think I wouldn’t have stayed in music had I not found a different outlet.
On adapting the cello to new styles of playing…
Luckily cello is … versatile. It can back people up, it can be a lead instrument, it can play chords. So, in that sense, the cello is adaptable to all these styles. … Nowadays, especially when it comes to education programs and running camps, my big mission statement is that the instrument that you play should not determine the type of music you play. The instrument is a tool, and the world of music is at our fingertips.
On managing musical projects …
At a certain point, I had to make a list for myself of what I need out of a gig in order for me to be happy. Feeling like I could creatively invest myself in this opportunity was high on that list. So, maybe I’ll get a call for a gig that has no creative influence, but they need a cellist. Sometimes that’s really good if it pays great. But I think more and more I’m beginning to value being able to be myself. And working and being busy is not something I’m interested [in] for itself anymore. As a young artist, being busy is half the battle. But now, actually, the battle is being less busy so I have time to really do the creative work I want.