Mike Block: The Ideal Musician of the 21st Century


Last year, I interviewed Mike Block, a pioneering cellist who has performed in unlikely venues, worked with YoYo Ma, and revolutionized the way cello is performed. I wanted to know how he went from studying at Juilliard as a classically trained musician to becoming a musical pioneer known for challenging the classical status quo. 

A bit about Mike:

MIKE BLOCK is a pioneering multi-style cellist, singer, composer, and educator, hailed by Yo-Yo Ma as the "ideal musician of the 21st-Century", and acclaimed by the NY Times for his "vital rich-hued solo playing". While still studying at the Juilliard School, Mike joined Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, with which he has toured extensively throughout the world, and won a 2017 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. Mike is also an active recording artist of original material, folk music, cross-cultural collaborations, and he has an ongoing project to record all of the Bach cello suites in acoustically glorious bathrooms of famous concert halls, via BachInTheBathroom.com. As one of the first wave of cellists to adopt a strap in order to stand and move while playing, Mike was the first standing cellist to perform at Carnegie Hall, using a cello strap of his own design, called the Block Strap, a performance which the NY Times called "Breathless ... Half dance, half dare." 


LS: What direction do you see classical music taking in the next twenty years with respect to the symphony as a sustainable artistic and financial institution ?  What direction should it be taking?

MB: It seems like the symphony model for both artistic and financial motivations is going to become a more flexible organization. They will need to present small ensemble concerts in various venues and provide music for their community in a larger variety of contexts as opposed to only a concert hall with a hundred people on stage. It would become something like an umbrella arts organization that would largely focus on the classical canon, but with smaller groups focusing on various stylistic exploration outside of that.

LS: For you personally, what role do you see new composition and new orchestral works taking in the next decade?

I’m actually not that interested in the future of classical music; I’m more interested in the future of musicians. Who are the people who are going to play music in this world? What are the options they have, regardless of their background?

MB: People associate an orchestra with a certain type of sound as represented by Beethoven, Brahms and movie soundtracks. There will always be a place for that in society. But composers themselves are less drawn towards the orchestra as a medium than they are to various smaller group ensembles that can even mix traditionally classical instruments with electronic sounds. So I think a lot of the new music is going to happen in smaller groups. Ultimately, it really depends on the artist or performers as to what they feel passionate about pushing.

LS: Has multi-media industry changed the way audiences perceive classical music? If so, how?

MB: I think it’s definitely changed the way audiences have perceived classical music. That’s true, even for myself. I love watching videos of musicians. Even for my own recording projects, I’ve made a point to have video in the studio every day, because I do think it’s an important part of sharing music today.

LS: Do you think there’ll be a point where videography and visual design will take over?

MB: Sure, I think that will happen. And I think you could even say that already has happened. If you follow Lindsey Stirling or the Piano Guys---Lindsey Stirling is the most watched violinist on the internet. In cases like hers or the Piano Guys, I think they’re bringing a lot more to the table, with beautiful cinematic videos and mass production around music--that is the key to their success.

LS: You’ve revolutionized cello playing with the cello strap which has allowed you to perform in different venues. What has been the public reaction or your experience of planting classical music in non-conventional venues?

MB: I’m not going to bars and playing Bach and Beethoven. But when I do play in bars, I’m crafting programs I feel are appropriate for those venues to ensure I’m not playing music that is inappropriate or unusual for that space. What I enjoy most about playing in different venues and contexts is that the community one serves in a bar or venue gives you the opportunity to serve a different audience. I really enjoy figuring out what I can share with the audience to make a musical experience a very natural experience versus going to a Celtic festival and playing a Shostakovich concerto. That’s the wrong context for that music. I’m not trying to be rebellious by playing the wrong thing in the wrong venue. It just goes back to what best serves the audience.

LS: What has it been like playing in the Silk Road Ensemble?

MB: Working with the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo Yo has definitely changed my perspective on what music can be and what role I can fill within it. Actually, Yo Yo and I have been talking about education for a while and have formed this Global Musician Workshop. This is Silk Road’s answer to what kind of musicians we want to help foster in the twenty-first century. And so a big part of that is learning from multiple traditions and that’s the primary premise; that no matter where we’re coming from- there’s a lot we can learn from other cultures and other instruments. Whatever we learn, we’re going to internalize and make our own-- so that when we leave, it’s a part of us.

LS: What steps should millennials be taking now to keep interest for classical music afloat?  

MB: For me, it comes down to individual people. What is the trajectory in your musical life that is going to keep you engaged and inspired? If that means playing in an orchestra, then that’s the exact type of orchestral musician we need. And if that means you’re going to play string quartets then that’s the exact type of string quartet musician we need. Those are the directions you need to pursue. I’m actually not that interested in the future of Classical music; I’m more interested in the future of musicians. Who are the people who are going to play music in this world? What are the options they have, regardless of their background? If we have this external burden of perpetuating classical music as an art form outside of ourselves and our personal passion--- well, that’s how we got into this situation to begin with. Even if the orchestra is not serving us or the community as much, we still feel obligated to save it, just because it’s an orchestra. The idea of saving the orchestra simply because it’s an orchestra is not a very convincing argument to me. All that to say, the whole idea of the “future of classical music” is a dangerous premise for me at least, because it doesn’t excite my own musical passions.

LS: Do you think the Arts will exist into the 22nd century?
MB: Yeah, absolutely. I think the arts in every form are going to exist. I think the medium will continue to evolve and create new types of arts as well.