Maarten Altena
Photo Paul Koeleman
Photo Paul Koeleman

Maarten Altena extensive biography

Originally composing primarily for his own ensemble, Altena has composed many pieces for other ensembles, soloists and orchestras over the years.

Maarten Altena (1943) works as an independent composer. After the relative restrictions of the Maarten Altena Ensemble he now allows himself to be led solely by his curiosity. In his own words: ‘I am now a freelance composer with loads of experience, enjoying collaboration with all kinds of musicians, ensembles and orchestras. New ideas about sound, repertoire and mentality present themselves all the time. There are always new discoveries to make. This tickles my curiosity and inspires me.’ Altena’s repertoire consequentlyis many-sided. His compositions since 2005 include the dance performance Terts (2005) with dance group Leine & Roebana, Song Book (Words of Whitman) (2008) for the Metropole Orchestra and Claron Mc Fadden, Scattered Scenes (2008) for the Amstel Quartet, Scrape, Scratch & Shake (2006) and Table Piece (2007) for Slagwerk Den Haag, and the musical fairy tale De tapijtenweefster (The Carpet Weaver) (2010) for the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble, Claron Mc Fadden and Mattijs van de Woerd, based on a text by Abdelkader Benali, and Up and Up | Down and Out (2010) for the ASKO|Schoenberg, based on a text by Tijs Goldschmidt. In November 2011 he finished working on Slam, Pluck & Blow, for Ensemble Klang and in 2012 he wrote Twomb, in cooperation with  Peter Adriaansz (for Slagwerk Den Haag).  2013 saw the birth of three pieces:  Green Horizon (for Godelieve Schrama), Consort Music, for  13 periodic recorders (for  Royal Wind Music) and  Seven Short Pieces (for recorders).


In 2012 Altena started working on an opera, The Shadow, based on the story 'The Shadow' by H.C. Anderson (libretto by  Frank Vande Veire). The piece was written for Slagwerk Den Haag, but up until now has not been performed. In the years that followed we saw the birth of Five Short Pieces for String Quartet (2018), Dreaming Jazz (2019), and Full Moon (2019), which premiered on line during the infamous Corona period, played by Ensemble Klang.

The beginning of the '20 brought us: Island (2021),  a geographical/linguistic fantasy written for Noa Frenkel on words/vocals by Altena (for solo alto voice & recorded alto voice), and Dreamland (2021), on poems by Edgar Allen Poe. With Remember (2022) he went back to his performing roots: a solo piece for double bass.


Altena was born in Amsterdam January 22nd, 1943. After his double bass studies at the Amsterdam Conservatorium (1968) he plays with a large variety of ensembles and ad hoc formations both in the Netherlands and abroad (e.g. with Willem Breuker, Theo Loevendie, Micha Mengelberg, the Instant Composers Pool, the Dutch Ballet Orchestra, De Volharding, Derek Bailey’s Company and in Gunther Christmann’s Vario projects). Around 1975 he starts giving solo concerts of his own work, both improvised and composed, in the Netherlands and abroad. Together with mime artist Teo Joling he produces a number of small scale music theatre performances (Ploink, Willem de Zwijger, Raffia and Conifeer) and with Michel Waisvisz the series ‘Avonden over Jazz’ (Jazz Nights): satirical programmes with a theatrical slant, featuring guests like Hugh Davis and Steve Lacy. Together with Waisvisz he also produces the legendary Claxon Sound Festivals, with innovative performances by various music and sound artists (1975-1980). In 1978 Altena and Waisvisz receive the Wessel Ilcken Award for jazz and improvised music.


Ever since the formation of his first ensemble (the Maarten Altena Quartet, 1978, extended in 1980 into Maarten Altena Ensemble), composing has become increasingly important. Wishing to extend and deepen his skills, Altena takes private classes with Robert Heppener (1980-'85). Continuing to play the bass in his own group, he also organizes the Rumori-concert series with Huib Emmer and Michel Waisvisz from 1991 to 1996. At this time he writes large pieces such as Open Plekken [Open Spaces] (1991) (text by Remco Campert); Zig Zag (1993), a music theatre piece played by Maarten Altena Ensemble in collaboration with Mark Terstroet and Theatre Group Hollandia; Zijdelings Afgesproten [Sprouted sideways] (1996), a music theatre piece for Maarten Altena Ensemble and Theatre Group Discordia (text by Frank Vande Veire); Mijlpaal er trilt iets [Milestone, it's quivering] (1998), for Maarten Altena Ensemble and Theatre Group Hollandia (lyrics by Remco Campert); La dolce ferita (2002) for Kassiopeia Quintet and Maarten Altena Ensemble (text by Torquato Tasso) and 1+1=11 (2003) for Solex and Maarten Altena Ensemble.


From 1997 Altena stops playing in the Maarten Altena Ensemble: he can no longer combine the different activities. From now on he concentrates on composing and considers himself the ensemble’s ‘musical choreographer’. Led by his aversion to academic music, he organizes the Connections Series: programmes featuring different non-academic musical celebrities. Adriaansz, Isidora, Padding, Termos, Van Bergeijk and many others are invited to write pieces inspired by or referring to such singletons as Gesualdo, Satie, Thelonious Monk and Varèse. Averse to conventions, Altena also organizes The American Connection, with jazz-related composers such as Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Roscoe Mitchell and Butch Morris.


Originally composing primarily for his own ensemble, Altena has also composed many pieces for other ensembles, soloists and orchestras over the years. In 2005 he takes his leave as artistic director of the Maarten Altena Ensemble (which then continues as Ensemble MAE) and now works as an independent composer.