Luening was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to German parents. When he was 12, his family moved to Munich, where he studied music at the State High School for Music. At age 17, he moved to Switzerland, where he studied with Ferruccio Busoni, and was also an actor and stage manager for James Joyce’s English Players Company. He returned to the United States in 1924, and appeared mainly as a conductor of operas, in Chicago and the Eastman School of Music.
His conducting premieres included Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, and his own Evangeline.
Luening’s ‘Tape Music’, including A Poem in Cycles & Bells, Gargoyles for Violin & Synthesized Sound, and Sounds of New Music demonstrated the early potential of synthesizers and special editing techniques for electronic music. An October 28, 1952 concert with Vladimir Ussachevsky at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City introduced Fantasy in Space, flute recordings manipulated on magnetic tape, and led to an appearance on The Today Show with Dave Garroway. Luening was co-founder, along with Ussachevsky, of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1958. He also co-founded Composers Recordings, Inc. in 1954, with Douglas Moore and Oliver Daniel.
He also set songs to words by Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sharpe, Naidu, Hermann Hesse, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
He died in New York City in 1996.
His notable students include Charles Wuorinen, John Corigliano, Harvey Sollberger, Malcolm Goldstein, John Herbert McDowell, Philip Corner, Daniel Goode, Elliott Schwartz, and Karl Korte.
He was survived by his wife Catherine.