Jenny McLeod has had far too full and diverse a life to cherry-pick a few "big moments" for me.

Today, the veteran composer is happy in the glow from this month's 75th birthday celebrations, which coincided with the launch of her 24 Tone Clocks, a two-CD release from Rattle Records featuring pianists Diedre Irons and Michael Houstoun.

"It's the biggest project I will complete," McLeod tells me, and the result of 30 years working with and expanding the chromatic harmonic theory of Peter Schat.

She shrugs at her many achievements, studying with composers Stockhausen and Messiaen in the 1960s and returning home to write 1968's consciousness-shattering Earth and Sky. There were periods of low public profile but she returned in 1985 with a charming film score for Yvonne Mackay's The Silent One and some boisterous orchestral and other commissions.


"They were moves that I never had a choice about," McLeod says. "The need for me to do whatever I did was so overpowering."

We remember her 1966 ensemble piece For Seven, so fiendishly demanding that it wasn't performed in this country for 20 years. She says it was "completely intellectual," representing one extreme of a life torn between the intuitive and the rational. The Tone Clock Pieces eventually solved that.

Composer Jenny McLeod describes 24 Tone Clocks as the biggest thing she has ever done.
Composer Jenny McLeod describes 24 Tone Clocks as the biggest thing she has ever done.

"Their harmonic networks allow me to improvise. I'm very happy with their balance of

passion and reason."

McLeod was a radical in the 1970s, instigating rock and non-Western courses before she became Victoria University's youngest ever Professor of Music at 29. She still plays keyboard rock 'n' roll with her Maori whanau, but also finds pleasure in Dvorak ("brilliantly entertaining and witty"), Mendelssohn ("His Midsummer Night's Dream overture is so alive") and Delius ("I find things surprisingly in common with him - there are times when I suddenly think, 'oh, I might have written that myself'.").

I'm not alone sensing a moody jazz ambience in many of her Tone Clock Pieces. McLeod was chuffed when a fellow composer asked to pass on the first to some jazz performers.

"You have to be a real musician to play jazz," she says. "You have to know what you're doing."

Another piece, first heard in Stephen De Pledge's Landscape Preludes, reflects her struggle to prevent the Pukerua Bay road, on the Kapiti Coast, being levelled for motorway developments. McLeod describes it as fighting a government that had all the power and all the lawyers and could afford to do anything it wanted. "But we won," she chuckles.

Birdsong is absent in that particular piece, as she explains in the CD's beautifully produced 46-page essay, but elsewhere there's a profusion of it, as one might expect from a pupil of Messiaen and a composer in Aotearoa.

She greatly admires Irons for her attention to detail in getting the flow of a piece and Houstoun for the way he worked himself into the last six pieces written specifically for him. Houstoun also delivers the album's first six.

McLeod describes the Tone Clock Pieces as her most personal, independent and intimate music to date, saying the last is the most important as the piano is perfect for conveying that.

Although 24 Tone Clocks is a wonderful introduction to the world of Jenny McLeod, lovingly recorded on no less than eight microphones by Rattle's Steve Garden, there's another bonus.

On Tuesday, December 6, RNZ Concert broadcasts this year's Lilburn Lecture at the National Library of New Zealand. The annual Lilburn Lectures are a collaboration between the Lilburn Trust and the Alexander Turnbull Library.

McLeod, whose music studies began at Victoria University under Douglas Lilburn, has titled her talk "Prosaic Notes from an Unwritten Journal" but I can guarantee it will be one of the liveliest hours spent by the radio this year.

What: Jenny McLeod, 24 Tone Clocks (Rattle, through Ode Records); Jenny McLeod delivers the 2016 Lilburn Lecture, RNZ Concert, Tuesday, December 6, at 8pm.