His catalog of more than 260 compositions includes works for orchestra, opera, and chamber music, as well as solo instrumental and vocal works. Salman Rushdie and Annie Proulx have collaborated with him. Wuorinen's work has been described as serialist, but he has come to disparage that term as meaningless.
Wuorinen was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. His father, John H. Wuorinen, was chairman of the history department at Columbia University and a noted scholar of Scandinavian affairs who also worked for the Office of Strategic Services and was the author of five books on his native Finland. His mother, Alfhild Kalijarvi, received her M.A. in biology from Smith College. Wuorinen excelled academically, graduating from Trinity School (New York City) as valedictorian in 1956; he later received a B.A. (1961) and an M.A. (1963) in music from Columbia University. Early supporters included Jacques Barzun and Edgard Varèse.
Wuorinen began composing at age 5 and began piano lessons at 6. At 16 he was awarded the New York Philharmonic's Young Composers' Award and the John Harms Chorus premiered his choral work O Filii et Filiae at Town Hall on May 2, 1954. He was active as a singer and pianist with the choruses at the Church of the Heavenly Rest and the Church of the Transfiguration (Little Church Around The Corner), and was the rehearsal pianist for the world premiere of Carlos Chávez's opera Panfilo and Lauretta at Columbia University during the spring of 1957. From 1952 to 1956 Wuorinen was President of the Trinity School Glee Club. He was pianist, librarian and General Manager of the Columbia University Orchestra in 1956–57. During the summers of 1955 and 1956 has was the organist at Saint Paul's Church in Gardner, Massachusetts, where his parents stayed during the summer months. He was awarded the Bearns Prize three times, the BMI Student Composers Award four times, and the Lili Boulanger Award. He was a fellow at the Bennington Composers Conference for several years. Many early professional performances of Wuorinen's compositions took place on the Music of Our Time series at the 92nd Street Y run by violinist Max Pollikoff.
In 1962 Wuorinen and fellow composer-performer Harvey Sollberger formed The Group for Contemporary Music. The ensemble raised the standard of new music performance in New York, championing such composers as Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter and Stefan Wolpe, who wrote several works for the ensemble. Many of Wuorinen's works were premiered by The Group, including Chamber Concerto for Cello and the Chamber Concerto for Flute. Major Wuorinen compositions of the '60s include Orchestral and Electronic Exchanges, premiered by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Lukas Foss; the First Piano Concerto, with composer as soloist; the String Trio, written for the then newly formed new music ensemble Speculum Musicae; and Time's Encomium, Wuorinen's only purely electronic piece, composed using the RCA Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center on a commission from Nonesuch Records, for which Wuorinen was awarded the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Music at the age of 32. Wuorinen was appointed to an instructorship at Columbia in 1964 and promoted to assistant professor in 1969, the year he received an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant; during this period, he held visiting lectureships or residencies at the New England Conservatory (1968–71), Princeton University (1969–71), the University of Iowa (1970), and the University of South Florida (1971).
The 1970s were a particularly fruitful period for Wuorinen, who taught at the Manhattan School of Music from 1971 to 1979. Chamber works during this decade include his first two string quartets, the Six Pieces for Violin and Piano, Fast Fantasy for cello and piano, and two large works for the Tashi ensemble, Tashi and Fortune. Works for orchestra include Grand Bamboula for strings, A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky, which incorporates the elder master's last sketches, the Second Piano Concerto, and the Concerto for Amplified Violin and Orchestra, which caused a scandal at its premiere at the Tanglewood Festival with Paul Zukofsky and the BSO conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. In 1976 Wuorinen completed his Percussion Symphony, a five-movement work for 24 players including two pianos for the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble and his longtime colleague Raymond DesRoches, as well as his opera subtitled "a baroque burlesque", The W. of Babylon with an original libretto by Renaud Charles Bruce. The New Jersey Percussion Ensemble had also performed and recorded Wuorinen's composition "Ringing Changes" in collaboration with the Group for Contemporary Music prior to the Percussion Symphony, setting the stage for this challenging larger-scale work. The ensemble, created by Raymond DesRoches recorded the Percussion Symphony on the Nonesuch record label which was released in 1978. In the late 1970s Wuorinen became interested in the work of the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot and with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation he conducted sonic experiments at Bell Labs in New Jersey. In an interview with Richard Burbank, Wuorinen is quoted as saying:
What I did at Bell Labs (with Mark Liberman) was to try various experiments in which strings of pseudo-random material, usually pitches but sometimes other things, were generated and then subjected to traditional types of compositional organization, including twelve-tone procedures. What I wanted to do was to see whether or not these things sounded "composed," sounded purposively chosen. They did, at least by my lights. The random sequences were not just any old random sequences but were that of a kind called 1/f randomness.
The 1980s were framed by two large-scale works for chorus and orchestra based on Biblical texts, the 60-minute oratorio The Celestial Sphere for the 100th Anniversary of the Handel Oratorio Society in Rock Island Illinois of 1980 and Genesis (1989), jointly commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. Other major orchestral works during this period include the Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra; the Third Piano Concerto, written for pianist Garrick Ohlsson; Movers and Shakers, the first work commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for music director Christoph von Dohnányi; Bamboula Squared for computer-generated sound and orchestra (inspired by Wuorinen's work at Bell Labs); and The Golden Dance. Wuorinen was composer in residence with the San Francisco Symphony from 1984 to 1989. Major chamber works of the 1980s include his Third String Quartet commissioned to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College, The Blue Bamboula for pianist Ursula Oppens, the Sonata for Violin and Piano commissioned the Library of Congress and premiered at the Library on an all-Wuorinen concert, String Sextet, New York Notes, Third Piano Sonata for Alan Feinberg, and trios for various combinations including three works for horn trio. In the 1980s Wuorinen began an association with the New York City Ballet which resulted in a series of works designed for dance: Five (Concerto for Amplified Cello and Orchestra) for choreographer Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Wuorinen's longtime colleague and champion Fred Sherry, Delight of the Muses based on works of Mozart and commissioned in honor of the Mozart Bicentennial, and three works inspired by scenes from Dante's La Divina Commedia for Peter Martins (The Mission of Virgil, The Great Procession and The River of Light). In addition to the Dante texts Wuorinen was influenced by the watercolors of William Blake. For the New York City Ballet Wuorinen also made a two-piano arrangement of Schoenberg's Orchestra Variations choreographed by Richard Tanner, and Martins created a ballet based on Wuorinen's A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky. In 1985 Wuorinen was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
Wuorinen devoted increased attention to writing works for voice, including his setting of Dylan Thomas's A Winter's Tale for soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and the Fenton Songs I & II on poems by British poet James Fenton, with whom Wuorinen was collaborating on an opera. Major chamber works included the Saxophone Quartet for the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet, Percussion Quartet, Piano Quintet, and Sonata for Guitar and Piano. Orchestral works included the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra and Symphony Seven as well as the Dante works for the New York City Ballet.
With the start of the 21st century, James Levine became a major champion of Wuorinen's music. Levine commissioned Wuorinen's Fourth Piano Concerto for his first season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the tone poem Theologoumenon (a 60th birthday gift for Levine from his longtime manager Ronald Wilford), premiered by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; and the Eighth Symphony: Theologoumena, for the BSO. In honor of Wuorinen's 70th birthday Levine conducted two performances of Wuorinen's Ashberyana at the Guggenheim Museum.
Other champions of Wuorinen's music include Peter Serkin, for whom Wuorinen composed three concerti including Time Regained (based on music of Machaut, Matteo da Perugia, Guillaume Dufay, and Orlando Gibbons) and Flying to Kahani, commissioned by Carnegie Hall; the solo Scherzo and Adagio; and the Second Piano Quintet with the Brentano Quartet, another ensemble with which Wuorinen has had a very fruitful relationship and for which he wrote his Fourth String Quartet. In 2004 the New York City Opera premiered his opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories based on the novel by Salman Rushdie, with a libretto by James Fenton. Other works from this decade include Cyclops 2000 for Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta; Ashberyana, settings of poetry by John Ashbery; Spin5, a chamber concerto for violinist Jennifer Koh; the Fourth Piano Sonata, for Anne-Marie McDermott; Synaxis; Metagong; and It Happens Like This, a dramatic cantata on seven poems by James Tate premiered at Tanglewood with the composer conducting.
Between 2008 and 2012, Wuorinen composed the opera Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx's short story of the same name and with a libretto adapted by Proulx. The piece premiered on 28 January 2014 at the Teatro Real in Madrid to mixed reviews.
Wuorinen has been described as totally committed to twelve-tone composition, with Schoenberg, late Stravinsky, and Babbitt as primary influences. However, in later years he has come to disparage the term serialism as being "almost without meaning".
Much of his music is technically complex, requiring extreme virtuosity by the performer, including wide leaps, extreme dynamic contrasts, and rapid exchange of pitches. Fractals and the mathematical theories of Benoit Mandelbrot are also important aspects of Wuorinen's style, as can be seen in works such as Bamboula Squared and the Natural Fantasy for organ.
Wuorinen is the author of Simple Composition. He describes the book as
Wuorinen has lectured at universities throughout the United States and abroad, and has served on the faculties of Columbia, Princeton, and Yale Universities, the University of Iowa, University of California (San Diego), Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, State University of New York at Buffalo, and Rutgers University. He wrote the introduction to Joan Peyser's To Boulez and Beyond.
Wuorinen's works have influenced a number of other composers. Robert Black cited him as a particular influence on his own style. Black also recorded Wuorinen's New York Notes.
In 1963 Wuorinen wrote in the journal Perspectives on New Music "I must unequivocally state that pitch serialization is no longer an issue", and that young composers should be "acting out the implications of the older generation's work". For Richard Taruskin, such statements imply a totalitarian view that only twelve-tone composers are to be regarded as composers. Taruskin has described similar statements as "fantasies of infantile omnipotence".
In 1971, when Wuorinen was denied tenure by the Columbia University music faculty, he blamed it to the "hostility to the present, and those who advocate it in music". Others have attributed the decision to Wuorinen's intolerant and arrogant attitude.
While the tonal system, in an atrophied or vestigial form, is still used today in popular and commercial music, and even occasionally in the works of backward-looking serious composers, it is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream, it has been replaced or succeeded by the 12-tone system.— Charles Wuorinen, Simple Composition (1978), opening paragraph
In a 1988 interview, Wuorinen stated "I feel what I do is right [...] pluralism [i.e. non-serial music] has gone too far," and criticized views in which "the response of the untutored becomes the sole criterion for judgement". In response, he suggested: "I would try to change the present relationship of the composer to the public from one in which the composer says: 'please, judge me,' to one in which I say: 'I have something to show you and offer my leadership.'
More recently, Wuorinen has described the term serialism as "almost without meaning", a change that has also been criticized. In a 2005 interview, when asked if he was a serialist composer, he restated this opinion:
Question: People say that you [Wuorinen] are a serialist, you write atonal, difficult, thorny music. Are those perceptions correct or not, or is there some truth to them?
Wuorinen: An interesting question to ask someone about one or the other of us, "Oh, he's this or that way," is "Which particular piece are you referring to?" You won't get an answer, I guarantee you. These categories have very little meaning. To call me a serial composer, I think, is—first of all, the term has to be defined, and no one ever bothers to do it.
Wuorinen has been active as a performer, a pianist and a conductor of his own works as well as other 20th-century repertoire. His orchestral appearances have included the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the American Composers Orchestra. He conducted the American, and later the West Coast, premieres of Morton Feldman's monodrama Neither.
In 1962 he co-founded The Group for Contemporary Music, an ensemble dedicated to performance of new chamber music. In addition to cultivating a new generation of performers, commissioning and premiering hundreds of new works, the Group has also been a model for similar organizations that have appeared in the United States since its founding.