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Born in 1925, PIERRE BOULEZ can look back on nearly six decades of activity in making music an essential part of the contemporary world. His first compositions date from the mid-1940s, when he had recently emerged from studies with Olivier Messiaen in Paris, who encouraged his technical acumen, his intensity, and also his curiosity about Asian and African as well as European music. At the same time, lessons with René Leibowitz, a Schoenberg and Webern scholar, introduced him to twelve-note composition, which he immediately adapted to his own purposes. His Second Piano Sonata (1947-48), a work of Beethovenian range and power, marked his creative coming of age.
The next step was a reduction, an exhaustive examination of the basic elements of music in an attempt to make rhythmic values, loudness, and nuances of touch obey serial principles: this happened in the first section of his Structures I for two pianos (1951-52). With the knowledge gained, he could return to larger issues in the later part of this work and in Le marteau sans maître for contralto and mixed sextet (1953-55). A further opening-out produced the brilliant Pli selon Pli (1957-62), a portrait of the poet Mallarmé in music for soprano and an orchestra rich in percussion.
After this his compositional output decreased, partly because he had since 1957 been appearing more and more frequently as a conductor. At first he specialized in 20th-century music, especially in his work with the Domaine Musical organization he had founded in Paris, but by the end of the 1960s he had conducted Wagner in Bayreuth, Beethoven in London, and Machaut in Los Angeles. Then in 1971 he was appointed musical director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, posts he held until 1975 and 1977 respectively.
In the mid-1970s, however, he decided to reduce his conducting commitments drastically in order to concentrate on work at IRCAM, the Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music he founded at the request of President Georges Pompidou. There his contacts with computer technicians and musicians were brought to bear on the composition of Répons, followed by another electronic project, ...explosante-fixe... for MIDI flute, two solo flutes, ensemble, and electronics. At the end of 1991, Pierre Boulez left his position of director of IRCAM, maintaining his ties with this institute, however, by accepting the title of Honorary Director.
Again conducting on a regular basis, he has created a close relationship with outstanding American and European orchestras. Among others, he conducted the inauguration concert of the Cité de la Musique in Paris, prestigious tours with the London Symphony Orchestra celebrating his 70th and 75th birthday, a four orchestra Boulez-Festival in Tokyo and new productions of Schoenberg's Moses and Aron with Peter Stein, Stravinsky's The Nightingale, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle with Pina Bausch and was named principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
After signing in 1992 an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, Pierre Boulez devoted a considerable amount of his time to record important works of the 20th century. His recordings have earned as many as 24 Grammy Awards, in addition to Gramophone, Echo, and Deutscher Schallplatten awards.
At the same time he continued his work as composer, writing Incises, sur Incises, Notations VII, Dérive 2, and Anthèmes 2, and accepted the tenure of the Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall. Numerous prizes and honorary doctorates have been conferred on him.
Pierre Boulez first conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in January 1969 (in programs that included Berg's Violin Concerto). In May 1984, he began an ongoing association with the orchestra, leading concerts which marked his first return to the U.S. since ending his music directorship of the New York Philharmonic in 1977. In addition to his frequent visits to conduct in Los Angeles, Boulez appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during its widely-acclaimed residencies at the 1992 Salzburg Festival and at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 1999. In May 2002, he conducted the Philharmonic in two weeks of farewell performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, followed by performances at the Ojai Festival in June.