French composer, conductor, and theorist, who is a leading figure in contemporary music.
Boulez was born at Montbrison. His early aptitude for mathematics destined him for a career in engineering, but in 1942, against family opposition, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen, master and pupil quickly establishing a mutual respect. As a composer, Boulez has written his music according to mathematical formulae, which he himself derived. Starting from the serialism of Schoenberg, he developed a system of total serialism, in which not only the pitch, but also the timbre, intensity, and duration of each note is ordered. As this precision is difficult for human performers, in the 1950s Boulez increasingly used electronic means in the search for perfection. Boulez's pieces are subject to constant revision and therefore potential development, which ensures that they have a certain vitality.
After a period working with the Renaud-Barrault theatre company, Boulez turned to conducting. In 1954 he founded the Domaine Musical Concerts of contemporary music and also wrote Le Marteau sans maître (revised 1957), his first publicly acclaimed work. Since then Boulez has been in demand both as a teacher (Darmstadt, Harvard University, and Basle) and as a conductor, originally of his own works, as at Cologne with Le Visage nuptial (1957) and Pli selon pli (1960). He conducted the Cologne Orchestra at Baden-Baden in the late 1950s, Berg's Wozzeck at the Paris Opéra (1963), Edinburgh Festival concerts (1965), and Wagner's Parsifal at Bayreuth (1966). He has been guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra (1967) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (from 1995) and principal conductor of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1971–74) and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1971–78). In 1966 he conducted the controversial production of Wagner's Ring cycle at Bayreuth, and in 1979 the first performance of the three-act version of Berg's Lulu at the Paris Opéra. His own more recent compositions include Notations (1980), Répons (1981–86), and Derivé 2 (1993). In 1976 Boulez became director of the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, devoted to developing the use of electronic music. He writes and lectures on his music copiously and entertainingly.