The award winning and pioneering South-West Open Youth Orchestra (OpenUp Music) is the UK’s first disabled-led regional youth orchestra. Composer Liam Taylor-West followed up on their story featured last year in The Sampler and looks forward to the launch of the National Open Youth Orchestra in 2018.


Building an accessible repertoire

“What is the difference between a composed musical work and a devised one?” Of the many topics discussed during my initial meeting with OpenUp Music, this is the one that has resurfaced most since. Posing the questions were Doug Bott, Musical Director, and Dr Liz Lane, their Composer-in-Association. “When writing a piece involving electronic instruments, should the composer prescribe the exact sounds to be used, or is the sonic palette the responsibility of the performer?”

As the conversation developed I began to better understand the philosophy that had formed the foundation of OpenUp Music, and led to its recent achievements. Not only were they developing accessible instruments combining versatility of playing technique with full expressive range, they were re-evaluating the traditional idea of repertoire, and imagining how musical compositions written for their ensembles might be constructed.

I had been commissioned to write a piece for the South West Open Youth Orchestra (SWOYO), an ensemble of young musicians playing a combination of acoustic and electronic instruments, including OpenUp Music’s own Clarion instrument. The group had recently given their inaugural performance of Liz Lane’s Silver Rose at Bristol Cathedral alongside Lydbrook Band and the University of the West of England Singers, conductor Ian Holmes; been featured on BBC The One Show; and performed live on BBC Radio 3 as part of BBC Music Day 2016. The bar had certainly been set high, and the ensemble’s focussed ambition and determination was tangible.

My composition began to take shape with each fortnightly rehearsal. Music was taught predominantly by ear and rehearsed in smaller groups, before being played by the full orchestra. I would then spend the time between rehearsals deciding what music to keep and what to discard. I quickly learned that these abandoned fragments were not so easily forgotten: Ashleigh, one of the orchestra’s pianists who is blind, partially deaf and on the autistic spectrum, still remembers and can perform all of the extracts I have ever introduced, both her parts and those of other players, and has often queried when we’ll be working on them again!

As we continued working towards the concert date, OpenUp Music’s long-term commitment and dedication to accessible music making began to be recognised on a national scale. SWOYO won a prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award in the learning and participation category, and OpenUp Music was granted National Portfolio Organisation status by Arts Council England. The support of these institutions, alongside the partnerships with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Bristol Music Trust, and The British Paraorchestra, will help OpenUp Music in achieving their next goal: September 2018 will be the launch of the National Open Youth Orchestra (NOYO), the world’s first disabled-led national youth orchestra.

My finished piece, The Umbrella, has now been performed twice in public, and a video performance of the piece can be viewed on the NOYO website. The process of its creation certainly involved devised elements, but the finished product is a composition scored for a very specific group of players and instruments. Does it fit into the vision of an accessible repertoire? NOYO intends to question the traditionally understood makeup of an orchestra, and as an ensemble of ever-changing instrumentation it needs to perform music that is flexible and adaptable. It needs music that can be constructed by the players without the composer’s presence, and which retains its identity with each newly devised performance.

So what is the difference between a composed musical work and a devised one? And what does a devised musical work look like? I am writing another piece for SWOYO to perform in Easter, their final concert before the launch of NOYO, and hope to be one step closer to an answer by then.

For more information about the National Open Youth Orchestra visit