Maarten Altena

On Good Form

Interview with Ed McKeon | September 2023
“I'm a cross between a structuralist, a lyricist and a colourist.”

Article by Ed McKeon on Maarten Altena: On Good Form

Published by Ensemble Klang

Increasing simplicity

Anthony Fiumara | May 2003

'I prefer music that speaks entirely for itself. Music that is clear, pungent, melodious, crude, profound, intelligent or calculating - as long as it’s never verbose or sentimental,' says Maarten Altena (1943).

One already senses this point of view in Altena’s first large-scale composition First Floor (1989), written for the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. The unpolished, rasping percussion, the grinding movement from low to high, the fossilizing of the melodic material into chords, the heterophonic character, the penchant for certain intervals such as the major second and major seventh, and the wobbly ’groove’ are all elements that return consistently in Altena’s later works. A sparing use of tonal material is reflected in the form: always based on a clear concept, it is a game whose rules unfold along the way.

Asked for a motto that describes his music, Altena replies without hesitating, 'Structure, vitality and mystery. These are the three prime characteristics that make ordinary music good music.' Within the rational complex of predetermined parameters and playful unwritten rules that determine the structure of Altena’s music, the human voice has assumed an increasingly important role. The voice represents the physical bridge between performer and audience, the factor that allows identification with Altena’s rational, coolly glistening, almost laser-like idiom. Vocalises such as Slow Motion, Lento (both dating from 1993) and Horizon (1999) - composed for the Maarten Altena Ensemble (MAE) - confirm the voice’s colouring function. Peculiar to Altena’s writing for the voice is the doubling by a recorder, which adds a sort of indeterminate ‘white noise’ to the female voice and gives her the role of primus inter pares within the ensemble. It is an aesthetic that refers to early Renaissance polyphony and monody, with which Altena feels a kinship.

The motto ‘structure, vitality and mystery’ also applies to other compositions, for example Slow Motion and Keats I and Keats II (1997). In order to avoid certain intervals, Altena devised a technique of chromatic modes that he introduced for the first time in Slow Motion. Altena: 'I have a pathological fear of octaves. Consequently I devised a sleight of hand which allows me to admit octaves into my music without emphasizing that they are there. This is very obviously a neurosis that stems from serialism.' The technique of chromatic modes consists of scales encompassing an entire octave, at times constructed as intervallic palindromes. The starting and finishing points of such a series are the highest and lowest notes of the range of the ensemble or solo instrument. 'The series in Slow Motion are based on specific intervallic relationships, akin to what one sees in a traditional scale, but here the mode is larger in range than an octave. At a certain point you have applied all your intervals, eight or nine of them, and then you start over again. This way you get a system in which the same intervals never fall on precisely the same notes.' The modes serve not only as the basis for melodic invention, but also as an aggregate for the harmony. The source of the notes used in this four-stanza monody thus forms an unmistakable underlying structure. Despite the extremely slow tempo, individual tempo indications for certain accompanying instruments - excusing themselves from the monody - bring about a high degree of vitality. The autistic behaviour of the various voices causes a friction that strengthens the imperturbable character of the monody above them. The sum of all those structural and physical principles is a wondrously self-evident whole, without it being audibly obvious how it got that way. And that makes the piece mysterious.

As in the textless Slow Motion, the voice is the pivotal element in Keats I and Keats II. But now it is the text by the English poet John Keats (1795-1821) that determines the structure. Poetry and words are, for Altena, one way to enter into a new world. The first, melancholy movement (Keats I) is about unrequited love, while Keats II tells the story of a stout-hearted knight and his love for a blonde femme fatale. In both movements the voice winds its way amongst intervals of seconds and thirds - the same intervals, incidentally, on which the orchestral harmony is based. Keats’ words are set syllabically and manoeuvre amidst a transparent orchestral context. Within the orchestra, the high-pitched, shrill winds and high strings’ flageolets form a rhythmic layer. These elements are not only separated from the rest of the instruments, but forge their way toward a climax that is closely related to the literary content of the text itself. The double basses ascend in feverish lines, while the piercing strike of the woodblocks continues to tighten its grip, like some sort of gear, on the heart of the tormented lover. The vitality of both Keats I and Keats II is created by the various orchestral blocks grazing along one another and the voice; the mystery can be traced to the way in which the almost laser-like transparency, the classical manifestation of a contemporary structure and the rhythmic vitality coalesce with the pensive sadness of the two romantic poems.

If Keats I and Keats II typify Altena’s passion for words and for poetry, it should come as no surprise that he is also drawn to the theatre. In Eluard/Beckett (2001) and in the music theatre pieces Zijdelings afgesproten (‘Sprouted sideways’, 1996) and Mijlpaal er trilt iets (‘Milestone it’s quivering’, 1998) - all composed for the MAE - Altena aims to evoke multiple, parallel realities. The first of the above-mentioned works is based on poems by Paul Eluard (1895-1952), in a remarkable English translation by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Beckett’s version is so unique that the result is in fact a new set of poems. Two female singers, alternating verses, shuffle the original with the translation.
In the 'visual radio play' Zijdelings afgesproten the controversial, intuitive mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer is portrayed in three alter egos that depict his way of thinking: Brouwer as theologist, as cultural pessimist, and as nominalist and mortal earthling. 'I only discovered (together with librettist Frank Vande Veire) the optimal approach after intensive study of Brouwer’s thought processes and fantasies.' says Altena. 'The music had to embody a timeless and wordless sensation of eternity.' And that feeling of timelessness is the basis of all his music.
The music theatre work Mijlpaal er trilt iets, based on the poem 'Solo' by Remco Campert (1929), is an attempt to depict the world of the poet on the stage. A sung dialogue unfolds between a pair of female singers, amidst spoken texts (recited by the poet himself) and the sung versions of those texts. This dialogue eventually becomes a merry-go-round of sung and spoken text, the poet remaining on stage alongside the musicians.

Maarten Altena began his post-conservatory musical career as an improviser on the double bass. He made a name for himself both as a soloist and in ad hoc ensembles, performing in Europe, the United States and Canada. But eventually, as he puts it, 'the interchangeable formlessness of it all, and my own role in this situation, began to irritate me. It had become a circus act.' By the end of the 1970s, Altena’s yearning for his own ensemble had led to the establishment of a quartet. That in turn was the basis for the MAE, founded in 1980: an octet that grew from 'a sort of overgrown improv combo' to a grouping of soloists that one rarely encounters in the more standard ensemble settings: voice, recorder, clarinet/saxes, trombone, percussion, piano, violin and double bass.

Over the years the repertoire has undergone a transformation as well. Altena, with his improvisation background, had started a jazz group, but the emphasis gradually shifted to composed music. Since the founding of the MAE he has felt the need to compose more himself, and at the age of thirty-six Altena embarked on a five-year period of private lessons with the Dutch composer Robert Heppener. 'The fact that I was older [than the average conservatory student] was in fact an advantage, because I knew more or less what kind of music I wanted to write. Our lessons concentrated on giving form to my ideas, learning the craft of composing and the ‘tricks of the trade’.' The MAE grew, as it were, together with its creator, who, continuing to focus on composition, ceased performing with the ensemble in 1998. As the ensemble’s artistic leader, Altena is responsible for the quality of the playing, the overall sound and the programming.

Additionally, Maarten Altena is known as a skilful arranger. His arrangements of works by such diverse composers as Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, Erik Satie, William Byrd and John Dowland - fiercely individualistic kindred spirits of Altena himself - are perfectly suited to the nine-member ensemble (counting the newly-added conductor).

While works such as Slow Motion, Lento (1993) and Prikkel (‘Prickle’, 1992) were still based on chromatic modes, at a certain point that technique had become so intuitive that Altena no longer needed the intervallic matrix. The result was, on the one hand, far-reaching chromaticism, as in Mouthpiece I (1995) for the Netherlands Wind Ensemble (in which the melody unfolds in two directions, like an expanding fan) while, on the other hand, the harmony took on an increasingly important role. That can be clearly heard in, for example, Eluard/Beckett (2001) and Horizon (a 1999 DVD produced in collaboration with visual artist Ger van Elk), in which the melody gropes its way forward, drawing on the upper notes of the harmonic structure. The octave is still strictly taboo; Altena prefers to build his harmonies out of stacked-up overtones.
The composer uses palindromes (the quintessential embodiment of spielerische structure) on a metrical level as well, particularly in the ambling works Prikkel, Tik (‘Tick’, 1994) and Trappel (‘Kick the wind’, 1995). In Tik, the beating of the 11/8 time signature on aluminium bars evokes the ring of the ice cream man's bell, tapped out above the ensemble”s walking bass. Musicologist Frans van Rossum once aptly described Trappel (constructed according to the same procedure) thus: 'Trappel is a portrait of Hans van der Meer, who plays percussion with the precision of a Swiss watch. The ensemble stacks up, in stepwise motion, intervals of a second and third, with a transparent and toy-like sound quality. Once they reach the upper reaches of the instruments, the piece is finished. Meanwhile Van der Meer’s woodblocks dance in skipping patterns through a breathtakingly obsessive 7/8 time signature.' (Donemus CV 69).

In addition to the words ‘structure’, ‘vitality’ and ‘mysteriousness’, Altena also often describes his music as ‘laser-like’. It is a fitting comparison, because just as a laser beam projects a sharp line of light through space, Altena’s compositions travel transparently and linearly through time. ‘Transparent’ not only describes the concise concepts on which his works are built, but also the horizontally-focused and occasionally vertically-intersected forms, the light and pure sound quality of his instrumentation, and the concentrated, stepwise melodic lines that he allows to dominate the harmony. Altena’s approach results in a rhythmically stratified, heterophonically lucid sound object with a sensual sort of bareness.

'Melodic beauty also indicates an increasing simplicity,' says Altena of his work. His compositions can be viewed through both ends of a telescope: reduced to an unpredictable but controlled play of sparkling details, or enlarged to a never-ending rainbow in the expanse of time. But always crystal clear, always to the point, always laser-like.