Although Otto Luening composed prolifically in all musical genres during his long life, he is best remembered for his pioneering work in electronic music. Luening was also a significant booster of contemporary American music and an effective organizer of non-profit institutions designed to provide support for American musicians and composers.
Luening's parents were German immigrants and both musicians; by the age of six Luening was already composing. When Luening was 12, the family moved back to Germany, and Luening studied at the Staatliche Hofschule für Musik in Munich from 1915 to 1917, making his debut as a professional flutist in 1916. Luening's debut as a conductor came in 1917, leading one of his own compositions. Luening moved to Switzerland later in 1917 and attended the conservatory in Zurich, studying privately with Philipp Jarnach and Ferruccio Busoni.
Luening returned to the United States in 1920, settled in Chicago, and worked as an opera conductor and silent film accompanist. Named executive director of the opera department of the Eastman School of Music and conductor of the Rochester American Opera Company in 1925, in 1927 Luening married one of the company's singers, Ethel Cobb. Although the couple separated in 1944 and later divorced, as Ethel Luening she continued to perform, collaborate, and record with Otto. In 1930, Luening received two Guggenheim Fellowships that enabled him to compose his only opera, Evangeline. In 1932, Luening turned to teaching, first at the University of Arizona and then at Bennington College, where he was hired as chair of the music department (1934-1944). Luening's interest in promoting new music led him to help establish the American Composers Alliance in 1938 and the American Music Center in 1939.
In 1944, Luening began an association with Columbia University, serving as director of opera productions, and as a music professor at the University's Barnard College. At Columbia he advocated new music; among new works that Luening championed during this time were Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium and Virgil Thomson's The Mother of us All. In 1952, Luening was elected to membership of the American Academy of Arts & Letters.
In 1952, Luening also began experimenting with the possiblities of electronic music on magnetic tape; Luening co-founded, with Vladimir Ussachevsky, an electronic music studio that would become formalized in 1958 as the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and served as its director from 1958 to 1980. Luening and Ussachevsky's work added an important and humanizing element to electronic music: the original source of their electronic sounds is often a conventional musical instrument, such as Luening's flute. Early on, they reacted against the sterility of the typical electronic music "concert" and sought to combine live and taped electronic music. Their Concerted Piece for Tape Recorder and Orchestra and Poem in Cycles and Bells are pioneering pieces of this kind.
In 1954, Luening joined forces with composer Douglas Moore and administrator Oliver Daniel to found a non-profit record label, Composers Recordings Incorporated (CRI), which provided the most consistently important forum for American classical music on record in the nearly 50 years it existed. He retired from Columbia positions in 1968, but continued to teach classes at both Columbia and Juilliard, becoming one of the great elder statesmen of American music. Although Otto Luening's early music was practically avant-garde in its degree of atonality and polytonality, over his long career he demonstrated a tendency to embrace many styles, often within the same compositions, anticipating by many years Alfred Schnittke's famous polystylism.