Boretz was born in Brooklyn, New York and graduated with a degree in music from Brooklyn College. He later studied composition at Brandeis University with Arthur Berger, at the Aspen Music Festival and School with Darius Milhaud, at UCLA with Lukas Foss, and at Princeton with Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions. He was one of the early composers to work with computer-synthesized sound (Group Variations II, 1970–72). In the late 1970s and 1980s he converged his compositional and pedagogical practices in a project of real-time improvisational music-making, culminating in the formation (at Bard College) of the music-learning program called Music Program Zero, which flourished until 1995. He has written extensively on musical issues, as critic, theorist, and musical philosopher, from the perspective of a practicing composer. His earliest (1970) large-scale music-intellectual essay was the book-length "Meta-Variations, Studies in the Foundations of Musical Thought", which addresses the epistemological questions involved in the cognition and composition of music, and propounds a radically relativistic/individualistic/ontological reconstruction of the music-creative process. Later (1978), his text composition "Language, as a Music, Six marginal Pretexts for Composition" engaged questions of the origin and nature of language and meaning as they might be conceived from the perspective of music.
Boretz has taught music departments in a number of American schools, including Brandeis, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Princeton, University of Chicago, NYU, Columbia University, University of Michigan, Bard College, UC Santa Barbara, Evergreen College, and University of Southampton (UK, as Visiting Fulbright Professor).
Boretz is a co-founder, with Arthur Berger, of the composers' music journal Perspectives of New Music and in 1999 founded The Open Space Magazine, which he edits with Mary Lee Roberts, Tildy Bayar, and Dorota Czerner. He was music critic for The Nation from 1962 to 1970.
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