By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Mike Block is a busy man. The 39-year-old cellist, singer, and composer has just released Planispheres, a collection of field recordings from a series of fully improvised live performances at a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. Each track on the album, named for a star chart used to map the night sky, was inspired by a different celestial object. Notably, each track was also a separate performance presented for just one listener.
Planispheres is the follow-up to Where the Soul Never Dies, Block’s 2021 collaboration with tabla player and fellow Silk Road Ensemble member Sandeep Das. And then there are the three albums Block has scheduled for release this year. “I’ve got an album of original songs coming out in February, called Machines that Fly,” he says. “These are recordings of my solo ‘pandemic’ arrangements featuring just cello and voice. Mid-2022, I’ll release Round and Round: Kids Songs for Mixed Ages, which is a cathartic re-imagination of your favorite children’s songs in a duo with an avant-garde phonograph artist, Barry Rothman. My daughter is almost three years old, so making this album was my way to artistically reclaim much of this music that I’ve come to know so painfully well by listening to it with her on repeat. In the fall of 2022, I’ll release the debut album of my folk group, the Mike Block Trio, featuring Joe K. Walsh on mandolin and vocals, and Zachariah Hickman on bass and vocals.”
Strings caught up with Block—whom Yo-Yo Ma once called “the ideal musician for the 21st century”—to discuss Planispheres, improvisation, and working with Ma’s Grammy-winning Silk Road Ensemble.
You described each of these tracks as being like “an individual star, distant and self-contained in the void.” Explain that perspective.
The space analogy felt appropriate because all celestial bodies (like stars and planets) are made up of a few of the same underlying materials, but with slightly different ratios, and then also have different sizes and different movements. Musically, each track on this album comprises the same 12 notes, and is performed on the same instrument, yet each one took on a very different character and identity.
How did the project differ from your other solo albums?
Recording collaborative projects with musicians from different backgrounds is one of my favorite things to do as a musician and makes up the bulk of my overall album output. However, this unique solo album features a series of improvised monologues that develop freely with no premeditated arrangements being followed. I merely brought the commitment to live and play “in the moment” for these performances, and to try to respond to the energy of the room and the audience. The process was more about searching inward, rather than reacting to other musicians in a dialogue.
Who were the audiences of one?
These performances were curated with audience members pre-selected for me by the presenter. As each person entered the room through the weekend of performances, I had no idea who they were going to be, or what energy they might bring with them.
Why did you decide to go that route?
The performances were presented with this concept in mind, so my decision to record them grew from the logistical desire to time the performances to make sure I could stay on schedule through a long weekend of back-to-back ten-minute performance slots.
Did the audience member offer feedback?
The single audience member was asked to stay silent, and not even applaud at the end. This funneled all of our communication to eye contact and body language, which felt surprisingly personal when encountering a stranger alone in a large room.
How did their presence influence the outcome?
It’s hard to quantify the audience members’ influence, but it felt significant in the moment. I tried to take in the energy and personality of each audience member as they entered the room, and hit the ground running by beginning to play right as they sat down, almost before they might be ready to listen. This allowed me to let the first few phrases feel like a reaction to their entrance. After the opening, though, I knew I had to play for up to ten minutes each performance, so exploring the pacing of musical development become a big part of my experience throughout the multiple performances. I’ve studied multiple styles of improvisation, and in this setting I often embraced the more time-stretching mindset of Arabic and Indian musicians, in contrast to shorter forms of improvisation found in bluegrass or jazz, for example. Maybe my love for stand-up comedy and the appreciation of a good monologue allowed me to not be too scared about whether this solo cello improvisation could still be a compelling way to fill the time.
Improv can be quite daunting for classical players—many readily admit to fearing it.
Any advice for those classically trained string players thinking about making the leap?
The art of improvisation is a part of many musical languages, so instead of trying to learn improvisation as an abstract skill, devoid of application to repertoire, I recommend classical players start by learning and playing non-classical music they love by ear without sheet music, and letting the improvisation develop naturally out ofthe desire to be spontaneous and honest as they perform.
You’ve said the project was a way to test the limits of intimacy. Why was that important?
Most musicians got a bit tired of the livestream performing experience after a year of lockdown, where interaction is funneled through a chat box. When playing for a single audience member, there is so much non-verbal communication that I felt surprisingly vulnerable. I appreciated the opportunity to play awkwardly quiet at times, kind of like musically “whispering” in the listener’s ear and sharing a directness of connection that just hasn’t been possible during the lockdown period.
How did the lockdown influence that decision to pursue an intimate performance?
The logistics of large performances were not possible or legal during the lockdown, so small performances were literally the only way to play for people in person.
How did the acoustics of the warehouse influence the sound?
The reverb was more present and with a longer tail than in a normal concert hall, so it was pretty exciting to play a loud, short gesture and let it float around the room for a long time.
How has your association with Yo-Yo Ma influenced you as a musician?
Yo-Yo Ma’s influence on my whole generation of musicians is hard to quantify, but his embrace of non-classical styles and his exploratory spirit had a big impact on my young self, expanding my concept of what cello could play from an early age. After working closely with him for the past 16 years in various contexts, including touring with the Silk Road Ensemble, one of the most meaningful lessons I’ve learned from him is the prioritization of the audience’s experience, and embracing my service role as a musician by hosting meaningful experiences that stay with listeners in their memories long after the concert ends.
What do you hope listeners will take away from this recording?
These stream-of-consciousness performances can help create a semi-meditative calmness that ebbs and flows in waves as each track unfolds its own individual story arc. I think each listener may have a different experience based on the mood they are in that day!
Mike Block plays cello made in 2014 by Fabienne Gauchet, and a bow by Pierre-Yves Fuchs. In July, he will host the Mike Block String Camp with a focus on building improvisational skills.