When it comes to contemporary music, Michael knows the score
Sarah Pitt talks to Michael Brailey, the new principal composer of the National Youth Orchestra
Michael Brailey is an avant-garde composer in the making, and the 17-year-old musician from Mid Devon is already making waves. Sound waves, naturally.
He's just been made principal composer of the National Youth Orchestra (NYO), a major honour. Michael, who lives near Cheriton Bishop in Mid Devon, will compose unique pieces of music for the orchestra of the most talented teenage musicians in the UK.
Michael takes his place on the podium as one of 165 young people, playing everything from violas to oboes, selected for the 2014 orchestra from 750 hopefuls. "I'm really surprised," he says, with typical modesty.
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This is the second year he has been part of the NYO, which gives the country's most promising classical musicians access to the best tuition – and the chance to perform together.
Last year, as one of a handful of composers with the orchestra, Michael worked with contemporary classical composers Anna Meredith and Larry Goves, inspiring his talent for classical music which breaks the mould. He even saw one of his compositions for the NYO played on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in central London.
"That was really cool, it is such a prestigious place – we were supposed to be playing in the foyer, but it just so happened that it was double booked, so we ended up being on stage," recalls Michael, chatting in a rare break in his busy schedule of A-level study (art, English and music), the school play (he's in his last year at independent Exeter School) and auditions for four-year degree studies in composition at a conservatoire.
And among Michael's other commitments are "classical club nights" which he DJs, until recently at the Bike Shed Theatre and now at the Phoenix arts centre in Exeter.
These are inspired by avant-garde composer and music producer Gabriel Prokofiev's (grandson of Russian composer Sergei) "Nonclassical" movement, playing music which blends acoustic and electronic sounds in a club-style ambiance. "You don't sit in rows having to be quiet, there's a bar and it is a bit more laid back and fun," explains Michael. "We follow the same format as the ones in London."
Some of Michael's own work has been released on the Nonclassical record label, "which means that when I write something it doesn't just get played once".
Michael wears his talent lightly. He was a violinist and pianist before he got into composing, and that was almost accidental, the way he tells it anyway.
The only child of non-musical parents, he was minding his own business in the primary school playground when the headteacher came out looking for a volunteer to have a violin lesson – as someone had dropped out.
"She called my name and said 'you're learning the violin' and that's basically how I got into it. I really liked it and I've been playing ever since. It was a bit of luck to be honest."
Learning the violin led to the piano, and from there to the really creative bit – composition. "I don't really know why I wanted to start composition, I actually have no idea," he says. "I was looking up pop songs to play on the piano on the internet, and I found Sibelius, the Microsoft Word programme."
"I would look up sheet music on the internet and download that and re-input it note by note," says Michael. "I still use Sibelius, it's a really useful tool. I grew up with it and I'm really interested in contemporary composition and avant-garde composition – that's the stuff I like."
From the beginning, Michael made a point of creating classical compositions, including a piece for strings called Prokingrass.
"That was the first piece I was public about," he says. "I gave it to my violin teacher and said 'what do you think?' I was a bit embarrassed about it."
His teacher, needless to say, was impressed and sent the composition, in the contemporary classical mould, to Gabriel Prokofiev. "He seemed to like it," says Michael. Prokingrass went onto win "highly commended" in the BBC Inspire Young Composers.
Michael says being part of the National Youth Orchestra has been above all a creatively fulfilling experience for him.
"I have learned more in six or seven weeks than I have learned in six or seven years at school," he says. "It is really nice to know composers my age who are interested in writing slightly different music and it is also great to work with Anna Meredith and Larry Gove, who are great composers in their own right. They really understand the music I am writing, which is good because a lot of people don't.
"There's lots of freedom, On one course we had to write a piece for an object in the room, someone put paper towels on the air conditioning fan to make different tones. It is not just about writing a string quartet in a traditional way. I don't think any of the composers write traditional stuff at all."