Boulez was born March 26, 1925 in Montbrison, Loire, France. As a child he began piano lessons and demonstrated aptitude in both music and mathematics. He pursued the latter at Lyon before pursuing music at the Paris Conservatoire under Olivier Messiaen and the wife of Arthur Honegger, Andrée Vaurabourg.
Through Messiaen, Boulez discovered twelve-tone technique — which he would later study privately with René Leibowitz — and went on to write atonal music in a post-Webernian serial style.
The first fruits of this were his cantatas Le visage nuptial and Le soleil des eaux for female voices and orchestra, both composed in the late 1940s and revised several times since, as well as the Second Piano Sonata of 1948, a well-received 32-minute work that Boulez composed at the age of 23. Thereafter, Boulez was influenced by Messiaen's research to extend twelve-tone technique beyond the realm of pitch organization, serialising durations, dynamics, mode of attack, and so on. This technique became known as integral serialism.
Boulez quickly became one of the philosophical leaders of the post-war movement in the arts towards greater abstraction and experimentation. Many composers of Boulez's generation taught at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany.
Boulez's totally serialized, punctual works consist of Polyphonie X (1950–51; withdrawn) for 18 instruments, the two musique-concrète Études (1951–52), and Structures, book I for two pianos. Structures was also a turning point for Boulez.
Boulez's strongest achievement in this method is his masterpiece Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master) for ensemble and voice, from 1953 to 1957, a "keystone of 20th-century music", and one of the few works of advanced music from the 1950s to remain in the repertoire
After Le marteau sans maître, Boulez began to strengthen the position of the music of post-WWI modern composers through conducting and advocacy. He also began to consider new avenues in his own work. With Pli selon pli for orchestra with solo soprano, he began to work with an idea of improvisation and open-endedness. He considered how the conductor might be able to 'improvise' on vague notations, such as the fermata, and how the players might 'improvise' on irrational durations, such as grace notes. In addition, he worked with the idea of leaving the specific ordering of movements or sections of music open to be chosen for a particular night of a performance, an idea related to the polyvalent form of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Interestingly, though the two works sound similar today, and certainly represent the same impeccable craft, Pli selon pli was not received as well as Le marteau. This is perhaps more of a cultural barometer than a reflection on the work itself.
From the 1950s, beginning with the Third Piano Sonata (1955–57/63), Boulez experimented with what he called "controlled chance" and he developed his views on aleatoric music in the articles "Aléa" and "Sonate, que me veux-tu?". His use of chance, which he would later employ in compositions like Éclat (1965), Domaines (1961–68) and Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna (1974–75), is very different from that in the works of, for example, John Cage. While in Cage's music the performers are often given the freedom to create completely unforeseen sounds, with the object of removing the composer's intention from the music, in works by Boulez they only get to choose between possibilities that have been written out in detail by the composer—a method that, when applied to the successional order of sections, is often described as "mobile form", a formal technique innovated by his colleague Earle Brown in 1952 and originally inspired by Alexander Calder's sculptures.
Boulez's output since the late 1970s has been of a different kind since the early works that brought him to initial prominence. After a rapid succession of explosive works, such as the three cantatas on poetry by René Char, the first two piano sonatas, and other chamber music, compositions have tended to be contemplated and expanded over a long period of time, during which they were performed in various stages of development. ...explosante-fixe..., now resembling a flute concerto with electronics, was first published in 1971 as a sketch in the journal Tempo as a memorial tribute to Stravinsky, then worked out in various versions, including one for mixed octet with electronics performed in 1973. Éclat/Multiples has remained a large fragment, and Dérive II (1988/2002/2006) and Répons (1980/82/84) have been performed in various stages of development.
After the 1960s, during which he had produced little, Boulez began to turn back to the electronic medium and to large extended works. Although unsatisfied with the products of his work with tape in the 1950s (Two Studies, Poésie pour pouvoir) he began to explore the possibilities of live electronic sound manipulation. His first attempt was the 1973 version of ...explosante/fixe.... However, at around this time president Georges Pompidou began to discuss with Boulez the possibility of creating an institute for the exploration and development of modern music where there would be a chance to explore the medium seriously. This was to become IRCAM.
At IRCAM, Boulez created an environment where composers would have at hand the best performers available, and where the most advanced technology and computer scientists would be at their service. Boulez now began to explore the use of electronic sound transformation in real time. Previously, electronic music had to be recorded to tape, which thus 'fixed' it. The temporal aspect of any live music making in which it played a part had to be coordinated with the tape exactly. Boulez found this impossibly restrictive. Now at IRCAM, he composed Répons, for six soloists, chamber orchestra, and live electronics. With the assistance of Andrew Gerzso Boulez fashioned a work in which the computer captured the resonance and spatialization of sounds created by the ensemble and processed them in real time.
Today, Boulez continues to be one of the leading exponents of music of the 20th century. His compositions have made a contribution to musical culture, and his advocacy of modern and postmodern music has been decisive for many. Boulez continues to conduct and compose. From 1976 to 1995, Boulez held the Chair in "Invention, technique et langage en musique" at the Collège de France.
In 2002, he was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize for his contributions. In 2004, with festival director Michael Haefliger, he founded the Lucerne Festival Academy, a summer orchestral institute for young musicians, dedicated to music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The resident professors are members of the Ensemble intercontemporain.