McLeod graduated BMus (Hons) from Victoria University in 1964, and the same year a New Zealand government bursary enabled her to study for two years in Europe with Messiaen, Stockhausen and Berio. In 1967 she became a lecturer in music at Victoria University, and Professor in 1971, a position she held until 1976.
In June 1997 she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music.
She is best known for two major works, Earth and Sky and Under the Sun for large forces. She has also composed many songs and hymns. She is a great admirer of, and was greatly influenced by the music of Messiaen.
In the mid-1980s, McLeod encountered the work of Dutch composer Peter Schat, who had developed a post-tonal compositional technique called the Tone Clock. This technique emphasised the role on forming the chromatic aggregate through the transposition and inversion of three-note chords (trichords). McLeod expanded this technique to encompass all 223 possible set-classes (to use the terminology of Allan Forte's pitch-class set theory), and also developed an exceptionally coherent labelling, categorisation and analytical approach to the chromatic universe. Her unpublished manuscript Tone Clock Theory Expanded: Chromatic Maps I & II explains the theoretical and philosophical basis behind her theory, and includes a rigorous listing of all set-classes (called Intervallic Prime Forms) with details notes and observations on their properties.
Earth and Sky
Earth and Sky is a large work for choirs and orchestra, mainly of children. It tells the story of the Māori myth of creation, notably the separation of the Earth Mother, Papa-Tū-ā-Nuku from the Sky Father, Ranginui. It uses many passages involving voices moving independently. It was first performed in Masterton in 1968, and was performed in Tauranga in 1970. In spite of its few performances, it is regarded as a landmark in New Zealand music, by reason of its large scale, local content and experimental nature. A Royal Command Performance was recorded at Mercury Theatre in Auckland in 1971.
Under the Sun
Under the Sun was commissioned by the city of Palmerston North to commemorate its centenary. It was performed twice there on the weekend of 29–30 May 1971. It tells the history of the Sun, from the formation of the earth through the entire span of life on earth till the Sun cools. It is scored for four orchestras, a five-member rock group and two adult choirs around the perimeter of a large open auditorium, and four "floor choirs" totalling 440 children who act and dance as well as singing. Each has its own conductor, coordinated by listening through headphones to a tape of McLeod herself counting beats and bars. (Another track of the tape carries the narration.) At the end of one act the audience is invited to join in the dancing. The production involved 1000 people and took two years to bring to performance. Children from 16 schools contributed 2000 paintings of which 70 were chosen to be projected on screens above the audience. The show was produced (US: directed) by Peter Tulloch. A recording of a whole performance was published, as well as a single of a song in popular style, Shadow People performed by Grant Bridger.
The Emperor and the Nightingale
Commissioned in 1985 by the Wellington Regional Orchestra (now the Vector Wellington Orchestra) for a family concert under Sir William Southgate, as part of the 1986 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in Wellington, The Emperor and the Nightingale has subsequently been performed by a number of New Zealand regional and youth orchestras. The version recorded here was revised by the composer in 2010. The text was adapted by the composer from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Nightingale, in the English version found in The Yellow Fairy Book (1894) edited by Andrew Lang (1844–1912) and translated by Leonora Blanche Alleyne Lang (1851–1933).
The Rock Concerto began life in 1986 as a (first) Rock Sonata for piano, a work with strong classical roots and in places of Lisztian difficulty, commissioned by the New Zealand pianist Bruce Greenfield for his gifted virtuoso pupil the seventeen-year-old Eugene Albulescu. (Partly on the strength of this score, the composer was invited in 1987 as an international guest composer to a ten-day contemporary music festival in Kentucky, hosted by the Louisville Orchestra for its fortieth anniversary.) At Albulescu’s request, in 2009 she scored and revised the rock sonata as a piano concerto which he might also direct from the keyboard.
The first two movements are in sonata form, each complete with first subject, transition theme, and contrasting second group, with a classical-type development section, at the end of which there is also an opportunity for an improvised cadenza (Albulescu’s idea, and an uncommon feature of his performances—by his own desire held well in check, however, in the present recording). Though the music is newly composed, and its rhythmic language is very much of our own time (in a popular sense), it is also strongly impelled by the spirit of Beethoven (Mozart, Schubert, Liszt, Debussy, Gershwin…)—the "distant friends" referred to in the first movement Another friend was Charlie French, to whom the second, rather darker movement (scored for solo piano, strings and flute alone) is dedicated. Charlie was an Australian aboriginal activist who shared our home in Wellington for a time and later succumbed, alas, as an early victim of Aids. The headlong last movement is in rondo-sonata form, with a Latino romp as its recurring rondo, a nursery-type second theme, and a development-cum-episode that starts in a quasi-Iberian vein. Each movement has a coda (in the first and last cases quite extended), and each may also be played independently.
Songs and hymns
Several of Jenny McLeod's songs were written for a "Sun Festival" in Wellington Harbour in the mid 1980s. Each is based on a different colour. One that is still performed is "Indigo II" (Light of Lights").
- Music in New Zealand Spring 1992 / number 18
- Music in New Zealand Summer 1998–99 / number 34
- Tone Clock Theory Expanded: Chromatic Maps I & II
- Lambert, Max (1991) . Who’s Who in New Zealand (12 ed.). Wellington: Reed. p. 404. ISBN 0790001306.
- Julie Anne Sadie, Rhian Samuel, The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.
- McLeod, Jenny. "Tone Clock Theory Expanded: Chromatic Maps I & II". The Centre for New Zealand Music (SOUNZ). Retrieved 16 July 2014.
- McLeod, Jenny (2011), Liner notes for The Emperor and the Nightingale".
- McLeod, Jenny (2011), Liner notes for Rock Concerto.