An industrialist's son, Boulez was born in Montbrison, near Lyons, in 1925. At 17 he went to Paris to pursue his musical ambitions, studying with Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz. The former opened his mind to rhythmic irregularity, to sonic dazzle, and to Asian and African cultures. From the latter, Schoenberg's chief apostle in Paris, he gained the passionate conviction that the future lay with serialism.
In 1945 he was taken on as music director of the theatre company run by Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud. His first acknowledged compositions date from the same year, introducing a voice in perpetual turmoil, influenced partly by the compressed rage and savagery he found in his favourite poets, Antonin Artaud and Rene Char. A Char sequence, Le marteau sans maitre (1952-54), crowned this period. At once explosive and calm, immediate and inscrutable, it made him the intellectual leader of a Europe-wide movement, a position he maintained through frequent articles, regular teaching at the Darmstadt summer school from 1955 to 1967, and, increasingly, conducting.
He became a conductor as head of the Domaine Musical, a Parisian concert series he founded in 1954, and whose innovative mixed programming (new music and 20th-century classics in the company of music from up to 500 years earlier) he took with him when he worked in the late 1950s with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and German radio orchestras. Finding it harder to satisfy himself creatively, he abandoned compositions or kept them as 'work in progress' (for example, the Third Piano Sonata and Pli selon pli for soprano and orchestra). Meanwhile, his conducting career took off. He gave his first concert with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1961, conducted Berg's Wozzeck at the Paris Opera in 1963, and made his British orchestral debut in 1964, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The combination of immense gifts with a vision for the musical future was irresistible, and he was appointed concurrently Principal Conductor of the BBC SO (1971-74) and Music Director of the New York Philharmonic (1971-77). He broadened his repertoire rapidly, but stayed committed to innovation. At the end of his New York stint he spent time founding and developing the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/ Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. He drastically scaled down his conducting and began learning the new language of computer music, which he displayed spectacularly in Répons (1980-84).
In the early 1990s he began to increase his conducting commitments again, and to re-record much of the repertoire closest to him (Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Webern, Ravel, Mahler). But he has also gone on composing, if slowly, his most recent works including further instalments of his Notations, in which he reconsiders for large orchestra, lavishly and gorgeously, some vivid ideas he set down as piano pieces when he was 20.
Profile © Paul Griffiths