Photo Credit: Gareth Watkins

The unique, mercurial, and larger-than-life composer Jenny McLeod died peacefully in Palmerston North hospital on Monday, aged 81.

Jenny was deeply special, and especially deep. Doughty, hearty in appearance and appetites, and profoundly musical, she was possessed of one of the greatest musical minds we have had in Aotearoa. Constantly in search of identity, spiritual and musical meaning, she veered wildly between belief systems and musical styles, but always seemed at peace with herself, answerable to no-one. Professor at Victoria University at 29, moving through rock music, the Divine Light Mission, becoming a member of Ngati Rangi, and converting to Catholicism, she has left us a plethora of rich musical gifts; from the virtuosic ensemble For Seven written during her study in Europe with the formidable Boulez and Stockhausen, the vast Earth and Sky penned on return to Aotearoa after becoming entranced with the Maori creation poetry, to the dazzling 24 Tone Clock Pieces for piano, and many hymns written for her church choir and beloved Maori whanau.

Jenny was witty, generous company, had a chuckle like no other, and her infectious laugh rocked her whole body. Living for much of her life in a modest little house above Pukerua Bay, she would sit at her table looking out at Kapiti — the island she had invited her teacher Messiaen, to visit. My first brush with Jenny was at school in 1972, when she came to visit assembly. This compact, charismatic woman was clearly subversive, and I felt a delicious rush of recognition, little knowing that I too, would become a composer. When I first visited her in my mid-twenties, as a postgrad student, I mentioned my plans to do a doctorate, to which she declared, “Oh, don’t think that’ll make you a better composer!” She was right, of course. My favourite quote of Jenny’s was, “You can’t fool the Muse, she is higher than God.”

Moe mai ra e te wahine toa, moe mai rā.

Eve de Castro-Robinson.