Composer, producer, singer and Brighton Festival Youth Choir director Juliette Pochin chats to BFC member Emma Gregg about the live premiere of Let There Be Peace, her musical setting of a poem by Lemn Sissay, OBE.

When I first heard Lemn Sissay recite Let There Be Peace, I found it incredibly moving. It was at Manchester Together – With One Voice, the 2018 event to mark the first anniversary of the tragic attack at Manchester Arena. The whole crowd went silent. When you hear a poet performing their own work, their words have so much weight. After that, I thought: I must seek this out. Even though Sissay had written the poem some years before, it still felt fresh and totally relevant.

I was really struck by Sissay’s interesting metaphors and juxtapositions. Who else would compare war correspondents with travel show presenters, or write joyfully about magpies returning “lost property, children, engagement rings, broken things”? His work resonates with people from very different backgrounds, and Let There Be Peace really speaks to young people. So when the opportunity arose to compose a new piece for the Youth Choir to sing at the 2020 Brighton Festival, of which Sissay would be Guest Director, I felt it was the perfect choice.

I like the way Sissay weaves together simple words that can be interpreted in different ways, and gives them rhythm and texture. Sometimes the effect is uplifting, sometimes it’s deliberately jarring. To reflect this, I built a series of time signature changes into the music, so you’re never quite sure where the pulse lies. It keeps the singers and the audience on their toes.

It was bitterly ironic that the Covid pandemic denied the Youth Choir the chance to premiere the piece. As I witnessed these young people being so horribly affected by lockdown, the poem took on new meaning for me. Luckily, we were able to rehearse remotely and we recorded a virtual performance. Sissay himself tuned in and posted some lovely, positive comments. That blew us away.

Like the Youth Choir, I started making music while I was still at school. I’d sing every day at morning assembly and compose tunes on the piano at home for fun. I went on to read music at Cambridge, studying composition under Hugh Wood, then trained as an opera singer. I’m now primarily a media composer, working to very detailed commercial briefs. So self-directed creative projects like Let There Be Peace are really refreshing.

I make a point of exposing the Youth Choir to music by both female and male composers, so they get the chance to appreciate both. To say that there’s a gender imbalance in the field of musical composition is a massive understatement. As recently as ten years ago, very few female composers were getting work commissioned or performed. It wasn’t because people didn’t think they were any good – it was because people didn’t know they existed.

Even now, it’s unusual for classical concerts to feature music written by women, and I think that’s a great pity. However, partly through schemes designed to support female composers, and partly through sheer embarrassment, attitudes are changing. Concerts like this one, which devotes the entire first half to music by women, are shaking things up. It’s a sign of good things to come.

Brighton Festival Chorus, conducted by Music Director James Morgan, will perform the live premiere of Let There Be Peace, a poem by Lemn Sissay set to music by Juliette Pochin, at a concert at the Cadogan Hall in London at 4pm on Sunday 16 July. The programme includes Mozart’s Requiem and works by three contemporary women composers: Juliette Pochin, Libby Croad and Dobrinka Tabakova.

Text by Emma Gregg. Photo courtesy of University of Huddersfield.