Canadian flutist and composer Robert Aitken studied flute with Nicholas Fiore, Marcel Moyse, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Severino Gazzelloni; of the significant figures, Aitken regards Moyse as the teacher who had the most impact on his own playing. Aitken's composition studies were undertaken with Barbara Pentland and John Weinzweig. At the tender age of only 19, Aitken was principal flutist of the Vancouver Symphony from 1958 to 1959, and Aitken's record stands, as he still the youngest flutist to hold first chair in this symphony's history. Aitken completeed his music degrees at the University of Toronto in 1965, where he also worked in the Electronic Music Studio, composing the works Composition for flute and tape (1962), Hamlet (Incidental Music) (1963), Noesis (1964) and a Quartet for flute, oboe, viola, and contrabass (1961). Aitken's primary public debut was with his own piece, Concert for 12 Soloists and Orchestra (1968) premiered by Seiji Ozawa conducting the Toronto Symphony, where Aitken held first flute chair from 1965 to 1970. Aitken has premiered more than 65 works of other composers, most written expressly for him, including Elliott Carter, Roger Reynolds, George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu and R. Murray Schafer, with whom Aitken has worked particularly closely, premiering Schafer's opera Patria I: Wolfman in 1987.
Robert Aitken's flute playing is noted for the clarity of his tone and a subtle sense of phrasing, and concert tours has led him all over the word. In addition to many other distinctions, Aitken was a prize-winner at the 1971 Concours International de Flûte de Paris. As a composer, he has received numerous important commissions. Aitken's earlier works, such as Spectra for four chamber groups (1969) were structured around transformations of the twelve-tone series and exhibit an interest in spatial modulation of sound. After a five-month Asian journey in 1970, Aitken was greatly influenced by his experiences there, and this is reflected in his Shadow pieces. The composition Spiral (1975) features amplification of one instrument each from several blended woodwind pairs, creating fascinating timbres. Robert Aitken's later pieces are influenced by minimalism. Aitken founded the summer chamber music festival Music at Shawnigan in 1981, which continues of under the aegis of the Johannesen International School of the Arts. Although Aitken had retired from most of his teaching posts by 2001, he remains active in other ways, and from 2003 he has appeared regularly with the New York Flute Club, leading them in the New World disc Henry Brant: Music for Massed Flutes in 2006.