Born in 1960, Turnage studied with Oliver Knussen and John Lambert, and later with Gunther Schuller. With the encouragement of Hans Werner Henze, he wrote his first opera for the Munich Biennale festival, Greek, which received a triumphant premiere in 1988. The many ensuing productions worldwide established Turnage's international reputation. The important works that followed, Three Screaming Popes, Kai, Momentum and Drowned Out, stemmed from a four-year period as Composer in Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, from 1989 to 1993.
Three years later Blood on the Floor was commissioned by Ensemble Modern. Turnage's major work in the late 90s was his second full-length opera, The Silver Tassie, premiered in 2000 by English National Opera; it won both the South Bank Show and Olivier Awards for Opera in 2001.
Turnage's appointment in 2000 as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's first Associate Composer culminated in a major retrospective at the Barbican in January 2003; and in autumn 2002, Sir Simon Rattle had conducted Blood on the Floor at one of his first concerts as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, attracting a largely new, younger audience to the Berlin Philharmonie. Other significant works include Bass Inventions, premiered by the bass player Dave Holland in Amsterdam in 2001, and Scorched, co-written with John Scofield for jazz trio and orchestra, premiered in 2002 with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Big Band, conducted by Hugh Wolff. The trumpet concerto From the Wreckage (2005) was written for soloist Håkan Hardenberger.
Turnage was appointed Mead Composer in Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 2006-2008.