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FALL 2010

A high note

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From playing drums in garage bands as a youth to winning a national competition for music he wrote in college, Young Alumnus of the Year Robert Litton has displayed notable gifts and grit that have led him to Hollywood to score films.

PHOTO MAX GERBER

Composer Robert Litton ’00, ’02 dubbed Young Alumnus of the Year

BY KIM GIRARD

Robert Litton ’00, ’02 was a 15-year-old kid sitting in a movie theater watching Jurassic Park when he realized what he wanted to do with his life: Score movies.

“It was the first time that I had watched a movie and was aware of the music and the excitement and power of the music,” says Litton, now 32, who was recently named California State University, East Bay’s 2010 Young Alumnus of the Year for his work as a film composer. 

After he saw Jurassic Park, Litton ran out and bought a CD by legendary film composer John Williams. It became his inspiration. “Some kids had pictures of baseball players on their walls. I wanted to meet the French horn soloist on the Jurassic Park soundtrack and the woman who did the harp solo in Jaws,” says Litton, who earned his bachelor’s (2000) and master’s degrees (2002) in music composition and percussion performance at CSUEB and now lives in Los Angeles.  “I became obsessed with (composing) and wanted to know more about it.”

Litton began his musical journey as a drummer. He played in the high school jazz band, in garage bands, and was a classical percussionist in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Studying music at CSUEB opened a new world for the Walnut Creek native. There, he says, he had access to teachers who could help him understand the basics on any instrument so he could begin to experiment with composing.  Because of that trial and error process, he says he was “able to go to the symphony conductor and say: ‘I wrote a minute of music, can (you listen to) it?’ Or go to the choir director and say, ‘Do I need to change the soprano or alto part? By the time I got to LA, I had an enormous bag of tricks.”

Frank La Rocca, professor emeritus and former chair of the CSUEB Department of Music, calls Litton a born musician. 

“He’s not only an outstanding composer who won, as a college student, competition after competition as a performer in percussion, he’s also very versatile,” says La Rocca, who taught Litton composition. “Some composers get pigeonholed. He can do everything from heroic to tragic to lighthearted animation and romance ... and he can do it quickly.”

As a CSUEB senior Litton wrote his first piece of music — for the University’s wind ensemble — called “One for All.”  Later that year the piece won a national competition and was performed at Carnegie Hall. Members of the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and the New York Philharmonic have also performed his works. In 2007, La Rocca asked Litton to write the fanfare for the inauguration of Mohammad H. Qayoumi, CSUEB’s fourth president. “I knew he’d know how to write something suitable for a college band that conveyed a sense of occasion, and he did that perfectly,” La Rocca says.

After graduating from CSUEB, Litton moved on to graduate first in his class from the prestigious Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at the University of Southern California in 2004. Living in LA for the past five years, he’s written scores for films including Love in the Summertime by Paul Wie, Gerald’s Last Day by Justin and Shel Rasch, and Negotiations by Ethan Cushing, which was selected to be part of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. By working with many first-time directors, Litton says, he’s hoping to find his Spielberg “who will take me up the ladder.”

Getting composing jobs in Hollywood is feast or famine, Litton says, but it’s validating when top musicians who play for John Williams “show up and play for me, because they respect me.”

“They want to help me out,” he says. “Those moments have been astonishing.”

Litton finally met Williams, his childhood hero, during a 2008 summer music festival in Santa Barbara. “Time stopped,” Litton says of the meeting. “It was just John and me talking.” 

Litton says he thanked Williams for all of his music. “He seemed touched,” he says. “I was blown away.”

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