Robert Aitken studied flute as a child in Pennsylvania and 1955-9 with Nicholas Fiore at the RCMT. He served 1958-9 as principal flute of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (at 19 the youngest principal in the orchestra's history) and at the same time studied composition with Barbara Pentland at the University of British Columbia. After 1959, while studying electronic music with Myron Schaeffer and composition with John Weinzweig at the University of Toronto, he participated in several Marlboro (Vermont) Music Festivals. He considers Marcel Moyse, with whom he studied intermittently for nine years in Vermont and Europe, as his most significant flute teacher. However, he also studied with Jean-Pierre Rampal (Paris, Nice), Severino Gazzelloni (Rome), André Jaunet (Zurich), and Hubert Barwähser (Amsterdam) during a 1964-5 European sojourn on a Canada Council grant.
Aitken served 1960-4 as second flute of the CBC Symphony Orchestra and 1962-4 as principal flute of the Stratford Festival Orchestra. In 1964 Aitken with his wife, the pianist Marion Ross, and the soprano Mary Morrison formed the Lyric Arts Trio. He also served 1965-70 as co-principal flute of the TS, after which he devoted himself to solo performances and appearances with the trio and with the harpsichordist Greta Kraus. He won third prize at the first Concours international de flûte de Paris (1971) and was a winner at the Concours international de flûte pour la musique contemporaine in 1972 at Royan, France. He performed as soloist with almost every Canadian orchestra, beginning in 1960. He performed often in Europe, especially in Scandinavia, Spain, and Germany, and in 1970 he toured Japan, Thailand, Ceylon, and India. In 1970
Aitken founded, and until 1972 directed, the 'Music Today' series at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and in 1971, with Norma Beecroft, he co-founded New Music Concerts, Toronto, serving thereafter as artistic director, a position he still held as of 2002. In 1977 he recorded the complete flute works of Fukushima in Japan for Denon, one of the first CDs for flute, and was one of 12 instrumentalists invited to present a series of solo recitals for Boulez' Institut de recherche et de coordination acoustique musique (IRCAM) in Paris. He chose his own program of solo flute pieces by Takemitsu, Morthensen, Fukushima, Globokar, Sigurbjörnsson, Y. Matsudaira, Heinz Holliger, and himself. The five concerts of chamber music with flute for his CBC series 'Flute Through The Ages' were sold out in five days and the series won the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Award for the best classical music program broadcast in 1982. In 1987 his performance at Tage für Neue Musik in Würzburg, West Germany, was highly praised by the critic from the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In 1988 he played in four different concerts at England's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, including a performance of R. Murray Schafer's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, which was written for him, and which he premiered in 1984. Critic Arthur Kaptainis has characterized Aitken's tone as 'crisp and direct rather than plush' but added that 'he has a decidedly expressive edge when compared to the dully anonymous timbre cultivated by the majority of flutists' (Globe and Mail 10 Dec 1983).
Aitken gave the premieres of numerous Canadian works including:
Applebaum's Essay 1970, and Algoma Central 1976; Baker's Concerto 1974; Barnes' Nocturne 1963 and Sonata 1970; Beecroft's Improvvisazioni Concertanti No. 3 1973, Piece for Bob 1975, and Collage '76 1976; Buczynski's Four Arabesques and a Dance 1966, Cameo 1982; Burke's, Escher/Bach 1985; Collier's Waterfront, Night Thoughts 1970; Fleming's, Almost Waltz 1970; Freedman's Toccata 1967 and Soliloquy 1970; Hawkins' Trio 1975; Otto Joachim's Expansion 1963; Kemp's Two Folksongs 1957; Kenins' Concertante 1967; Morawetz' Suite 1974; Morel's Nuvattuq 1967; Papineau-Couture's Verségères 1975; Pentland's Trance 1979; Schafer's Five Studies on Texts by Prudentius 1963 and The Enchantress 1972; Symonds' A Small Concerto for Flute and Others 1971; Tremblay's Traversée 1997; Weinzweig's Riffs 1974; Wuensch's Sonatina 1970 and Cameos 1970; Wyre's Snowflake 1979; and Zuckert's Little Spanish Dance 1970.
In addition Aitken has participated in premieres of works by Beckwith, Garant, Heard, Hodkinson, Jaeger, Laufer, Mather, Pauk, Saint-Marcoux, Tremblay, and others (see Lyric Arts Trio, New Music Concerts), and by foreign composers including Larry Austin, Warren Benson, Attila Bozay, John Cage, Lukas Foss, Haflidi Hallgrimsson, Hikaru Hayashi, Jo Kondo, Nikos Mamangakis, Páll Pálsson, Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Atli Sveinsson, and Toru Takemitsu. He also performed Canadian flute works including Schafer's concerto, his own Plainsong, and Beecroft's Tre Pezzi Brevi, in Europe, where as of 2002 he continued to perform frequently.
As composer, Aitken received commissions from the NACO, CBC, NYO, Elmer Iseler Singers, and other organizations. Aitken approaches composition through his experience as a skilled solo, chamber, and orchestral player. To a broad and practical knowledge of instrumental uses he applies a keen intuition for the effective combining of sounds. In an interview (Music Scene, July-August 1969) he said, 'I still compose aurally, and though I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of organization, and acknowledge, in most cases, the necessity of it, if a conflict arises between my preconception and the preference of my ear I generally give in to the ear.' Consequently, though the works following his neo-classic Concerto for Twelve Solo Instruments and Orchestra (1965) are in most aspects idiosyncratic and extremely free, they appeal directly - if not conventionally - to the ear. In Kebyar (1971), one of several works written after a four-month eastern tour in 1970, Aitken entrusted parts of the score (where notation is replaced by vivid drawings) to the performers, whose improvisations reflect the meaning of the title: an explosion of spontaneous activity. The Musical Times wrote that his Plainsong (1977) 'beautifully explores tone-variety in many different melodic shapes, using unusual fingerings and singing while playing' (vol 123, October 1982). In January 1989, Aitken was one of 20 composers featured in the series Sound in Silence filmed in Poland, sponsored by the Louis Vuitton foundation and ISCM.
Aitken frequently performed his own works, eg, in 1992 he premiered his Berceuse for flute and orchestra, a commission from the Esprit Orchestra, with whom he performed it. CBC radio later broadcast the concert on Two New Hours.
Aitken taught 1957-64 and 1965-8 at the RCMT and 1960-4 and 1965-75 at the University of Toronto. He also taught 1972-80 at the Shawnigan Summer School of the Arts, and in 1981, shortly after that school became the Johannesen International School of the Arts, Aitken founded and became music director of Music at Shawnigan, a three-week festival devoted to advanced chamber music study. With the Lyric Arts Trio, Aitken was artist-in-residence in 1971 at Simon Fraser University and in 1976 at the University of Saskatchewan. He was director 1985-9 of the advanced studies in music program at the Banff CA. In 1986 he taught at the Summer School of Young Composers, organized by the Polish Society for Contemporary Music, in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland, where he gave classes and performed works by Beecroft, himself, and others. He was engaged for short residencies and master classes in many countries including Cuba, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Sweden, New Zealand, and the USA. In 1988 he became a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany, continuing active there in 2002. His pupils included Kathryn Cernauskas, Bill McBirnie, Suzanne Shulman, Douglas Stewart, and Aitken's daughter Diane.
As artistic director of NMC he conducted the NMC Ensemble in much contemporary music; he also conducted the Victoria Symphony (1989), the Hamilton Philharmonic (1990), and the orchestra for Music Today (Japan 1983), and in 1987 he conducted the premiere of R. Murray Schafer's Patria I for the COC. A member of the CLComp, he received that organization's Canada Music Citation in 1969. In 1982 he received both the Wm Harold Moon Award from PRO Canada and the Canadian Music Council medal. He was also presented with the Roy Thomson Hall Award (1995), and the Jean A. Chalmers National Music Award (1996). Aitken was invested in the Order of Canada in 1994, was a Chevalier de l'ordre des Artes et Lettres (1997), and was an associate of the Canadian Music Centre.
This biography was largely inspired from the excellent "Encyclopedia of Music in Canada"
Website of Robert Aitken