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Still Burning Bright
Jenny McLeod at 80

Jenny McLeod delivering the 2016 Lilburn Lecture. Photo: Mark Beatty

By Michael Norris


I am no poet,
am little bewitched
by melodious babble;
I would rather profess a richness
of heart — full, without echo —
asserting & enfolding,
an inner laughter, beloved, inimitable nestling deep,
inviting me in.

– Jenny McLeod


One of New Zealand’s most creative musical minds, Jenny McLeod’s rambunctious bonhomie and steely intellect are renowned and revered in the composing community. A gifted musician, poet, theorist and radiant personality, Jenny’s music has continued to entrance and intrigue listeners over many decades. Self-described as a ‘black sheep, dyed in the wool—the enfant terrible!’*, McLeod has a paradoxical reputation for iconoclasm while at the same time having studied with some of the most notable icons in the contemporary music world—Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen, in particular.

Her compositional career has been characterised by a constant flexibility in her search for the most appropriate musical means at her disposal, shifting from angular pointillism to children’s music-theatre to rock music. At the heart of this eclecticism, however, lies the desire, using whatever is ‘at hand’, to capture and distil the essence of her sonic ‘vision’: a vision of reconciling a shimmering, kaleidoscopic love of colour with an underlying almost crystalline order.

Jenny feels unbreakably tied to this land. Her music is a vessel for ‘sonifying’ the colours, shapes and stories of Aotearoa. She writes: ‘My workroom overlooks sea and island magic, Kāpiti the guardian, haven of birds … in shimmering, sparkling blue. Over the years my whole imaginative soundworld has become imbued with the atmosphere and presence of this place. My music can't help but speak of it.’

Born in Wellington in 1941, McLeod moved to, and grew up in, small-town New Zealand: in Levin and Timaru. There, music quickly shaped her life. She recalls her own wide-ranging musical experience: ‘I played piano, piano accordion, recorder, tambourine, drums, guitar, and sometimes (not very well) my brother's trumpet or the clarinet. (I wanted to play the bagpipes, but didn't have the breath.)’

Her attendance at the Cambridge Summer School in 1960 galvanised her desire to continue on to university to study music, through her encounters there with contemporary music by Webern, Messiaen and others. In 1961, she enrolled in a Bachelor of Music at Victoria University, where she studied with Frederick Page and Douglas Lilburn.

Mid-1960s: Paris and Messiaen

On hearing the vivid, chilling beauty of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the 1963 Cambridge Summer School, she was struck, like many composers before her, by its boundless, apocalyptic voids enveloped in the raucous reverberations of birdsong. ‘I'd never heard sounds so glorious’, says McLeod. ‘God! I want to write music like that! An epiphany!’. Messiaen’s harmonic practice—a kind of kaleidoscopic scintillation of different key areas and exotic scales—was allied with his unusually candid and detailed description of musical technique. This combination acted as a strong gravitational pull on some of the top composers from throughout the world, McLeod included, and her class there was full of some of the brightest names in contemporary music at the time.

Moving to Paris in 1964, her time as a pupil of Messiaen’s was to have a significant impact on her work. Messiaen’s music held an endless fascination, primarily due to his fixation with what he called the ‘charm of impossibilities’, specific musical materials and techniques that articulated a kind of conceptual and even mathematical ‘purity’. For instance, he developed a pool of unusual musical scales known as the ‘modes of limited transposition’, scales that cannot be transposed the usual twelve times without repeating all of the pitches at some point. He likewise developed the concept of ‘non-retrogradable rhythms’, rhythmic palindromes that read the same backwards as they do forwards, suggesting a sense of time stopping or even reversing on itself.

Incorporating birdsong into his music through accurate field transcription created a new model of environmental influence that had hitherto largely been the province of the pastoralists. In Messiaen’s hands, however, birds were not gentle creatures—not cooing nightingales or distant doves—but were raucous, chaotic beings with dissonant syrinxes squawking out clangourous discords. His ensemble work Oiseaux Éxotiques is the sine qua non of avian delirium, a musical hallucination ringing with a menagerie of chirping, chiming and skrarking animals.

McLeod was struck by Messiaen’s ‘musical stained-glass windows’, a term he used in reference to the way in which different key centres or scales might trigger his visual synaesthesia into ‘seeing’ a kaleidoscope of colours, an effect not dissimilar to that of daylight filtering through the large stained-glass windows of the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris where he was organist.

He also considered music as a way of coming to understand, or at least experience vicariously, the sublimity and unknowability of God. His musical language could at times be austere and impenetrable in its rupture with the Romantic musical subjectivity; yet at other times, his music could also be imbued with a deep ‘kitsch-ness’, pushing Romantic emotive melodicism to the point of being overblown, in a manner not incongruent with the visual iconography of Roman Catholicism.

To McLeod, these elements of symmetry, colour, order, chaos, the natural world and the divine ‘beyond’ were all strongly redolent of her own conception of music as transcendental act. As McLeod’s own career unfolded, she was always to draw upon the model of Messiaen as someone who melded three key aspects of his musical being: 1) a formidable technical understanding not just of Western tonal harmony, but also of other ways of organising sound including those from non-Western sources; 2) drawing inspiration from the natural environment, especially the avian inhabitants thereof; 3) a deeply intuitive and improvisational approach to form and musical utterance, but one underpinned by rigorous organisational technique. (These three things were to become increasingly important in later years as she developed her idiosyncratic ‘tone-clock’ techniques.)

Late 1960s: Boulez and Stockhausen

After Paris, she went to Basel to study with Boulez, then on to Cologne to study with Stockhausen. While an important point in her career, McLeod does not look with complete fondness back on her experience of the composers of Darmstadt: ‘Reading Die Reihe in English, I was puzzled by certain passages, so carried the journal round and asked everyone I met (people began to avoid me). But I found that nobody else understood them either! A case of the emperor's new clothes?’

In Stockhausen she recognised a significant creative being, however: ‘Fresh new ideas—new models for new music—simply poured out of him’. And in her major work from this period For Seven (1966), she fashioned a work that pulled together the intensely structured pointillism of Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel or Boulez’s Notations with woodwind calls that almost resembled Messiaen’s ornithological interests. Written for members of Stockhausen’s own ensemble, it included parts composed specifically for Aloys Kontarsky, Siegfried Palm, and Cristoph Caskel, who were amongst the leading performers of contemporary music at the time.

Retrospectively, we can begin to sense the ‘call of home’ in For Seven, her longing for a musical language that captures ‘the presence of the land’. In looking back at this work, she often refers to how in the babbling woodwind lines we may hear the call of the tūī.

Back at home, Douglas Lilburn had recognised the impressive scope and technical brilliance of For Seven, and selected it as the very first score to be published by the newly formed Wai-te-ata Music Press.

Returning to Wellington

Upon her return to New Zealand in 1967, McLeod took up a position as lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington School of Music, later to become Professor in 1971. This period is perhaps most characterised by the ‘music-theatre extravaganza’ Earth and Sky. Using the story of the separation of Papatūānuku and Ranginui as a starting point, the work was a significant cultural event in the late 1960s, receiving its premiere in Masterton in 1968, and going on to have a Royal Command Performance at Mercury Theatre in Auckland in 1971.

Writing in The Musical Times, 1969, Fred Page wrote that Earth and Sky was ‘surely one of the most ambitious works ever written for children. Some 200 children were involved in chanting and dancing, a further 50 in a band of xylophones, drums, cymbals and pianos, with choirs of children and a group called onstage to play woodwind and brass. In its orchestration Earth and Sky may owe something to (Messiaen’s) Chronochromie: and it is a visionary work of great power.’

Her follow-up work, Under the Sun, was another large-scale ‘happening’, couched somewhat in the style of a rock-opera. Commissioned by the Palmerston North City Council for its centenary, it was performed twice there in May 1971. It tells the history of the Sun, from the formation of the earth through the entire span of life on Earth until the Sun cools. Written for four orchestras, a five-piece rock group and two choirs around the perimeter of a large open auditorium, it also features four ‘floor choirs’ of over 400 children who sing, act and dance. The production involved over a thousand people and took two years to bring to performance.

Around this time, an awakening to the impacts of colonisation on Māori led McLeod to further explore themes of biculturalism, and particularly to work with Māori stories and text in te reo Māori. This perhaps culminated in her 2012 opera Hōhepa, which originated from a request by Matiu Mareikura (Ngati Rangi) to compose an opera around the story of Hōhepa Te Umuroa, a member of Ngāti Hau of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi who was wrongfully court marshalled and sent to a penal colony on Tasmania under the orders of Governor Grey.

Peter Schat and the Tone Clock

It was a chance encounter with Dutch composer Peter Schat at a festival in Kentucky in 1988 that created a new flurry of intellectual and creative energy. Recognising in Schat much of what she had already been searching for in her music—a colourful, improvisational yet highly structured technique—it proved to be a serendipitous meeting of minds. McLeod talks of it as ‘Forgotten lines of thought returned, of primitive discoveries made in my music-theatre heyday’.

Schat, who had also been a pupil of Boulez, had developed his own idiosyncratic solution to the ‘problem’ that many composers in the mid-twentieth century had found: a desire to retain the chromatically saturated surfaces of free atonality and twelve-tone composition from the Second Viennese School, but also the forging of a stronger sense of harmonic ‘flavour’ and even tonality from the Franco-Russian composers.

‘De Toonklok’, or The Tone Clock, was Schat’s answer to this problem. It was based around the twelve possible ‘chromatic triads’—which range from a three-note tone cluster of two consecutive semitones all the way up to an augmented triad of two consecutive major thirds—which he called the twelve ‘hours’ of the ‘tone clock’.

One of his key discoveries was that for eleven out of the twelve triads, there was a process by which one could transpose and/or invert the three pitches of the chromatic triad to create each of the twelve notes of the full chromatic scale once and once only. This almost geometrical ‘mosaic’ of notes—which shares much in common with fellow countryman M. C. Escher’s own tessellations of two-dimensional spatial figures—lit a spark of recognition in McLeod, whose own practices had been heading down the same path in Earth and Sky. It allowed composers to create music that was extremely ‘colourful’ in its vibrant range of pitches, yet also highly economic in its fixation on a small number of constituent intervals. ‘I’m very happy,’ says McLeod in an interview for RNZ, ‘with its balance of passion and reason.’

McLeod took Schat’s concept of ‘tone clock steering’ and married it with similar intervallic insights of Allan Forte’s own ‘pitch-class set theory’, further linking it to Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition and Xenakis’s sieve theory. She developed the terminology significantly, with often quirky, humorous and memorable titles such as ‘hour groups’, ‘anchor forms’, ‘steering’, ‘reverse steering’, ‘oedipus groups’ and ‘gemini groups’.

Tone-clock theory has since underpinned one of McLeod’s longest-running projects: the creation of a set of piano works written using Tone Clock principles. The ‘24 Tone Clock Pieces’ for piano span two and a half decades, from 1988 until 2011. The complete set has been published by Wai-te-ata Music Press, and recorded on Rattle Records by Dierdre Irons and Michael Houstoun.

In the 1990s, McLeod wrote a textbook in which she retrospectively mapped out this ‘chromatic terrain’, providing it to students in the composition classes at Victoria University, where it was taught by Ross Harris. Called Chromatic Maps, this text has remained unpublished, but is currently in the process of being edited for publication in 2022 by the very music press that first published her in the 1960s, Wai-te-ata Music Press.

Jenny’s home in Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington, looks out towards Kapiti Island. The intervening stretch of sea can often be found glistening in the sunlight, or moody in an overcast northerly. ‘The ocean is so vast,’ recounts McLeod, ‘so much bigger than we are.

Living by the sea, you become part of it somehow. After more than half a life, here at the heart of my existence is an almost unconscious sense of deeply comforting 'deep waves', the music of an islander, descended from islanders’ Shetland, the Hebrides, Ireland. Aotearoa’

Her musical ‘waves’ have unfolded over us, and become a defining musical voice of this country. Like the plumage of the native birds of Aotearoa she so reveres, her music is similarly subtle and reserved, yet with flashes of iridescence and animation. It never aims for ostentation or pretension; instead it draws you into its inner logic, with its refracting symmetries and an unfailing sense of humanity.

Her music continues to burn bright, and rewards all those who care to wander through its brilliant, varied terrain. *Unless otherwise noted, all of Jenny McLeod’s quotes are taken from her Lilburn Lecture 2016