American composer Peter Lieberson was born in New York City, the son of Goddard Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records, and Vera Zorina, an actress, ballerina, and choreographer. As a child, Lieberson taught himself harmony from listening to the jazz records of Bill Evans, and he was exposed to the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern. At Columbia University, he studied composition with Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino, Martin Boykan, and Charles Wuorinen, at the peak of serialism in the early 1970s. The twelve-tone method strongly influenced his music, though his use of it was not rigorous.
In 1976, Lieberson moved to Boulder, CO, to study Tibetan Buddhism with master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He went on to receive a Ph.D. from Brandeis University, then taught at Harvard University from 1984 to 1988. After a period of directing Shambhala Training in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Lieberson concentrated all his energies into composition from 1994 on, though his music was still informed by Buddhist thought. His opera, Ashoka's Dream, was based on the life of an Indian emperor who converted to Buddhism. Other notable works were a Piano Concerto (1983), orchestral pieces Drala (1986) and "Red Garuda" (1999), and Songs of Love and Sorrow (2010). Lieberson's style blended modern atonal harmonies with lyrical lines, resulting in music that was highly expressive and effective. Lieberson's works were performed by the major orchestras of the United States, and he collaborated with such prominent artists as Peter Serkin, Yo-Yo Ma, and Emanuel Ax.
Lieberson was married first to Ellen Kearney, a fellow student of Tibetan Buddhism, then to mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. His Rilke Songs and Neruda Songs (winner of the 2007 Grawemeyer Award) were composed for Hunt Lieberson, and she performed them several times, most notably with the orchestras that commissioned them, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, respectively. They remained married until Hunt Lieberson died from breast cancer in 2006. Shortly afterward, Lieberson was diagnosed with lymphoma. During this period of treatment, he married his longtime friend, writer Rinchen Lhamo. For a time, Lieberson's cancer was thought to be in full remission. However, he died while seeking further medical treatment in Tel Aviv, Israel.