Linda Martinez, 29; Gifted Pianist and Promising Composer

Times Staff Writer

Linda Martinez, a promising young composer and pianist who wrote music for several films and won many musical competitions, died May 19 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 29.

Martinez committed suicide, according to her family and friends.

A child prodigy, Martinez began her studies at age 4 with the Yamaha Music Education System in Orange County and continued studying in the after-school program at Yamaha until she was 12.

After graduation from California High School in Whittier, where she grew up, she was a star student at USC's Thornton School of Music, earning a degree in music composition in 1998.

"She was one of the two or three most gifted young composers we've ever had," said Donald Crockett, a USC professor of composition.

Her career was remarkable enough to be chronicled in the media, including an interview on CNN when she was 18. She recently appeared on "CBS Sunday Morning" as part of a segment on young composers.

Suzanne Abe, who was Martinez's teacher at Yamaha from the time she was about 5, said that even at that age Martinez "had what you call perfect pitch in music, where if you played a note, she could tell you what the note was." She could play by ear from the time she was a child.

After she left Yamaha, Martinez continued working with students at the school. According to her mother, Carol Martinez, one teacher at Yamaha called Linda their "fullback" because she taught, performed and did demonstrations for Yamaha in California and elsewhere.

Martinez began winning music competitions early and in 1991 won Yamaha's International Junior Original Concert Composition Competition in Tokyo, competing with students from around the world. She performed her jazz suite, "Gunther and I," at the awards ceremony.

She also won in the jazz instrumental category of the Los Angeles Music Center's Spotlight Awards in 1992, taking home a $5,000 scholarship.

By the time she left USC, her performance career was launched.

In 1998, she was a keyboardist for Fox TV's "The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show," which led to appearances with other artists. She also toured with Destiny's Child in 2000.

More recently, she was among the musicians who performed at Disney Concert Hall with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Latin artists Sheila E. and Alex Acuna.

At the same time she was performing she was also actively composing music. In 2003, Martinez was named the grand prize winner in the Turner Classic Movies Young Film Composers Competition.

The award won her the opportunity to compose the score for a 1925 silent film, Edward F. Cline's "The Rag Man," with famed film composer Elmer Bernstein acting as her mentor.

"It's turned out to be the most important writing opportunity and learning experience in my career thus far," Martinez told Billboard magazine. On the "CBS Sunday Morning" show in April, she said that she was "just pulled into the story, pulled into the characters" of "The Rag Man," which was shown with her music behind it on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel in January 2004.

She wrote music for several other films, including the 2004 animated film "Catching Kringle" and the 2001 comedy short "Lives of the Pharaohs." She also wrote the music for Travis Davis' "Boy Next Door," which is being shown at film festivals, and new music for Turner Classic Movies for another silent film, Sam Taylor's "Exit Smiling" (1926).

Martinez's late father, Julio, was a percussionist, and both sides of the family were involved in music, her mother said.

When Martinez was an infant, her mother said, "We would sing little songs to her, little lullabies, and in her baby voice, she would come back to us, 'da-da-da-da-da-da,' in the same key and everything."

As soon as Martinez was tall enough, she would reach up to a piano's keys and play.

While at USC, Martinez began working with Laura Karpman, a composer with many film and television credits who became another of Martinez's mentors. Karpman brought Martinez in as a collaborator on scores for the History Channel's "Egypt: Beyond the Pyramids" and PBS' "Living Edens."

"She was a huge, huge talent, I mean like wildly," Karpman said this week.

Karpman, like all of Martinez's friends and family members, was trying to sort out what might have caused Martinez to take her own life. She described Martinez as "sparkly in her personality, sparkly musically."

"And that's why it's so shocking.... The person I knew I don't think could have done that."

Neal Desby, another friend and a former teacher at USC, said he had seen Martinez the night before she died and that she seemed "cheerful and looking forward to future projects."

Crockett said that things were going "fabulously well" for Martinez, adding to the shock of her death.

"She was an intense person who felt things very deeply," he said. "It's a big loss. I'm telling you, she seemed like she was going to be a rocket."

Her mother said Martinez had suffered from insomnia and back pain. She said that she and other family members had been reading through Martinez's journals and "now we understand ... that this is not something that just came on."

Besides her mother, Martinez is survived by two sisters, Alicia Martinez of Whittier and Renee DuFresne of Lakeville, Minn.; and a brother, John, of Oroville.

Memorial services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Covina Assembly of God Church, 250 E. San Bernardino Road, Covina.

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