Bolcom began studying composition with John Verrall at the age of 11. After receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Washington, he studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College. In 1960, Milhaud took Bolcom to Paris, where he also worked with Olivier Messiaen. In 1961 Bolcom went on to study with Leland Smith at Stanford. After earning his doctorate in composition there in 1964, he won the Marc Blitzstein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Dynamite Tonite, a piece that shows the influence of Milhaud and the Parisian cabarets. (His Casino Paradise, written in 1990, while still cabaret-style, shows more of an individual voice.) He returned to the Paris Conservatoire in 1964, and graduated in 1965, winning the second prize in that year's composition competition, as well as the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships. Bolcom won two Koussevitzky Foundation Awards, in 1976 and 1993, for the First Piano Quartet, and the Lyric Concerto for flute and orchestra, respectively. He has been commissioned by many of America's greatest musical institutions, including the orchestras of Philadelphia, St. Louis, Seattle, New York, Baltimore, Boston, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His commissions include a number of works for some of the greatest singers of our time, including Placido Domingo, Marilyn Horne, and Catherine Malfitano.
In 1988, he won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his 12 New Etudes for Piano. His most ambitious composition, which occupied him for 25 years, is a complete setting of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, which received its premiere at the Stuttgart Opera in 1984. A recording of the work, featuring the orchestras and choruses of the University of Michigan conducted by Leonard Slatkin, won three Grammy Awards in 2006, for Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and Best Classical Album. In 2007, Musical America named Bolcom composer of the year.
Bolcom has composed three operas, commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, all of which he wrote with librettist and long-time collaborator, Arnold Weinstein. McTeague (1992), conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, starred Ben Heppner and Catherine Malfitano. Weinstein collaborated with playwright Arthur Miller on the libretto for A View from the Bridge (1999), which was subsequently presented by the Metropolitan Opera in 2002. His third opera, A Wedding, is based on the film of the same name by Robert Altman, who worked on the libretto with Weinstein. It received its premiere in Chicago in 2004.
Since 1973, Bolcom has taught at the University of Michigan. He became a full professor there in 1983, and in 1994 he was named the Ross Lee Finney Distinguished University Professor of Music. Bolcom also holds honorary doctorates from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Albion College.