He studied both piano and composition, the latter privately under the tutelage of Ernst Bacon. He later entered the University of California, Los Angeles, where his teachers included Roger Bourland, Paul Des Marais, David Raskin, and Paul Reale, and where he won the Henry Mancini Prize. Upon graduating, his career centered around the piano, and he and Johanna Harris were frequent joint recitalists. He also accompanied many noted singers, which helped him develop his skills as a vocal composer.
His earliest compositions were largely for piano, including the duos Inisfree (1985), Skellig Variations (1986), and the 1990 Divertimento. He also wrote various solo pieces, including the 1991 Homage a Poulenc.
In 1995, he won the Schirmer American Art Song Competition, the year that his song cycle, Encountertenor, which includes the song "The trouble with trebles in trousers (Pitch can be a bitch)," commissioned by Brian Asawa, had its premiere in London. Paper Wings, another well-known cycle, commissioned and with text by Frederica Von Stade, premiered in 1997. In 1998, the year of his song cycle, Songs to the Moon, commissioned for Von Stade, he was named Composer in Residence at the San Francisco Opera, and the resultant work, Dead Man Walking, premiered there in 2000. (Von Stade was invited to sing the lead but suggested that the role be given to a younger performer, and instead sang the role of the mother.) In 2001, the orchestral version of his song cycle The Moon is a Mirror, commissioned by Bryn Terfel, premiered in Vienna, followed by the piano version in London.