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New album in hand, cellist Mike Block rallies musicians to play at the polls

Launched a week after the first presidential debate, his ‘Play for the Vote’ has hundreds of sign-ups

After releasing his fourth album in the space of a year, cellist Mike Block is recruiting fellow musicians to play at the polls.
After releasing his fourth album in the space of a year, cellist Mike Block is recruiting fellow musicians to play at the polls.Todd Rosenberg

More than 73 million people watched the notorious Sept. 29 debate between President Trump and Joe Biden, a verbal clash that CNN’s Jake Tapper called “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.” One of those people was Mike Block, a prolific cellist, singer/songwriter, arranger, and teacher based in Somerville. The following morning, he was practicing as usual, and ruminating over what he’d heard on the debate and afterward — chiefly, how stressful voting could be this year amid the combination of long lines, an ongoing pandemic, and the volatile political climate.

Suddenly, Block had an idea, a modest one at first. “Practicing and playing music brings me joy, and I’m not able to share that through concerts right now,” he explained over the phone. “[I thought], ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I went down to the polling station and just played music all day for everyone who was voting?’ ”

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That idea didn’t stay small for long. Block was gearing up for the Oct. 23 release of “Edge of the Atmosphere,” his fourth new album in the space of a year. However, this idea seemed too important to just let slide.

“It seemed like a perfect storm. I thought it over for an hour or two before I managed to muster up the courage to share it with my wife [fiddler Hanneke Cassel]. And as crazy as it seemed coming out of my mouth, I was like, ‘If this is gonna happen, I have to start working on this right now.’ ”

And so, he did. Six days later, the new organization Play for the Vote launched its website with a welcome message from Block, who plays with Silkroad Ensemble, arranges for the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, and teaches private lessons at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory. The mission: to station musicians outside as many polling places as possible on Election Day. By the time the Globe reached him — eight days after his initial idea — hundreds of musicians had signed up, representing 32 states and the District of Columbia.

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A lot had happened in those short days. Block had dived into research on the logistics of coordinating such an effort, to make sure no performer would run afoul of busking or electioneering laws. He recruited a tech team from among his friends, which quickly repurposed some software created for Block’s string players' camp for assigning musicians to locations. He connected with other get-out-the-vote organizations, including Power the Polls and Vote Early Day. It took over his life, he said.

Maybe the timing wasn’t wholly ideal, but the all-in ethos is entirely typical. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Block was deep in what he called an “obsessive phase” of recording material. During his solo shows, he leaps between genres and styles; a Bach suite here, a fiddle tune there, an Arabic tune next. But what works on the stage doesn’t necessarily work in the studio. Combine that with what Block calls “an addiction to recording,” and that’s how he ended up dropping four albums in a year with one still on the way, all recorded pre-pandemic. First came the bluegrass and old-time album “Walls of Time,” then a solo sojourn through Bach’s immortal cello suites, then the global music collaboration extravaganza “Guzo,” and now “Edge of the Atmosphere,” his second album of original pop songs.

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The approach he took for “Edge of the Atmosphere” radically differed from his usual process. “In the past, when it came to my own songs, I was very controlling. I had such a clear vision of what my songs could and should sound like, and they were very much driven by the cello playing,” he said. For “Edge of the Atmosphere,” Block handed off skeletons of his songs to what he called “the best band that [he] could find in Boston,” including guitarist Lyle Brewer, bassist Zachariah Hickman, and drummers Sean Trischka and Dave Brophy, and let them take leadership on the arrangement; the cello, Block’s primary instrument, was overdubbed afterward.

This approach did have one semi-drawback. Because the process depended so much on the band, Block found that if he just sat down with the cello, he couldn’t play his own songs. During the pandemic, he’s been working on solo versions of the “Edge of the Atmosphere” songs. Some of those have taken on lives of their own already — and that’ll be the next album project, once he runs out of pre-COVID material. (“Have I used the word ‘excessive’ yet?,” he asked semi-jokingly.)

So, some voters on Nov. 3 might be fortunate enough to hear a few new arrangements of Mike Block originals while waiting in line to cast a ballot. He’s still figuring out his set list; the songs can’t contain anything that could be construed as political, and then there’s the question of how much he wants to sing while he’s wearing a mask and unamplified. But as a cellist, he’s got one reliable ace up his sleeve. “It’s always nice to be able to fall back on the Bach cello suites.”

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