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Maarten Altena in Paradiso, November 1995


22-01-1943 - current


contemporary classical music, improvised, jazz



Maarten Altena

As an improviser, and from 1977 as leader of his own ensembles, Maarten (van Regteren) Altena (Amsterdam, 22 January 1943) has built an international reputation. He is pioneering a music that manages to structure improvisation with composed elements in an inimitable and sophisticated manner. Over the years writes dozens of ...
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Mentioned in the biography of

1940   Willem Van Manen
1967   Michel Waisvisz
1967   Willem Breuker
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Biography Maarten Altena

As an improviser, and from 1977 as leader of his own ensembles, Maarten (van Regteren) Altena (Amsterdam, 22 January 1943) has built an international reputation. He is pioneering a music that manages to structure improvisation with composed elements in an inimitable and sophisticated manner. Over the years writes dozens of compositions for his own ensembles. Together with Michel Waisvisz he founds the Stichting Claxon (Claxon Foundation) in 1978, which releases records as well as organizing five festivals. They are awarded the 1978 Wessel Ilcken Prijs (the major Dutch jazz award at the time) for their work. From 1991 to 2001 Altena is involved in the concert series Rumori. He stops playing the double bass in his own ensemble in 1997, but he continues as artistic director and supplier of compositions. In November 2005 he celebrates his 25th anniversary with the Maarten Altena Ensemble and steps back as its artistic director.

1959 - 1967

Maarten van Regteren Altena is captivated by jazz and in Portugal he plays in a trio with pianist Piet Kuiters and drummer Harry Piller, focusing largely on the music of Bud Powell. 'I simply wanted to become an incredibly good jazz bassist, just as good as any American, that was my ideal,' he says to interviewer Bert Vuijsje, twenty years later. But he gradually becomes more and more convinced that this is not what is in store for him. 'I've never been that good at it. It has taken me some time to admit it to myself, but I simply haven't got that heart beat, as Ray Brown likes to call it. [..] I'm from the south of Amsterdam, and not from Brooklyn or Harlem.' In this period he finds employment in groups led by Theo Loevendie, Nedly Elstak, Willem Breuker and others.

1967 - 1975

When bassist Rob Langereis quits the Misha Mengelberg Quartet for musical reasons, Van Regteren Altena is his replacement. The quartet has by then changed its musical direction, taking it further and further away from American (free) jazz. When Mengelberg, Bennink and Breuker found the Instant Composers Pool in 1967, the bassist joins them, although his involvement is never really active. When Breuker quits the ICP in 1974 to start his Kollektief, Van Regteren Altena opts to stay on with Mengelberg and Bennink. In the larger ICP groups it does, however, become increasingly difficult for him to be heard, since he refuses to play with an amplifier, on principle. In the early seventies he starts doing solo performances; he considers this the start of formulating his own music. He falls off a staircase and breaks his wrist. With his arm in a cast he records his first solo LP, the aptly titled Handicaps.

1976 - 1978

Van Regteren Altena's role in the European improvisation scene becomes more and more important. Guitarist Derek Bailey regularly invites him to his Company projects in London. The German trombonist Günter Christmann includes him in his Vario groups. And the bassist starts a duo with the Paris based American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. 'What I liked [about Lacy] was that he also has this clear melodic style, and doesn't use too many notes,' is what he has to say about this partnership to Kevin Whitehead. In 1977 the bassist leaves the Instant Composers Pool and he starts concentrating on his own groups, like the string ensemble K'ploeng, featuring Derek Bailey, violist Maurice Horsthuis and percussionist Terry Day. An important role in this group is set aside for Michel Waisvisz, who plays his self-built crackle box, a kind of primitive synthesizer. With Waisvisz he also starts Claxon, an organization aimed at organizing concerts and festivals, and releasing records, more or less following the ICP model. Their activities are such a success that they are awarded the 1978 Wessel Ilcken Prijs (the major Dutch jazz award at the time). Van Regteren Altena also enters into another remarkable partnership with musical theater maker Teo Joling. He sees this as a solution for what he calls 'the audience problem': to get his music across without having to compromise. 'It worked, since the music was strengthened, because something commonplace, that everyone can relate to, was placed against something unusual, like my music.' (from the interview with Bert Vuijsje).

1978 - 1985

For the production Willem de Zwijger (William the Silent; which he makes with Teo Joling) he assembles a quartet with a chamber music-like instrumentation: oboe (Maud Sauer), alto saxophone (Paul Termos), viola (Maurice Horsthuis) and his own double bass. It marks the beginning of the Maarten Altena Quartet (he has decided to drop the first part of his family name by then) and his increasing interest in composition. Hence he decides to take private composition lesson from Dutch composer Robert Heppener. In 1980 Altena extends his quartet into a larger ensemble, an octet, featuring two brass, three reeds, violin, piano and double bass. The quartet continues its life, but brings in trombonist Wolter Wierbos instead of Maurice Horsthuis as its fourth member.

1986 - 1991

The octet is rechristened to Maarten Altena Ensemble and for the first time the leader gets a percussionist into the group: Michael Vatcher. With vocals (Jannie Pranger), guitar (Jacques Palinckx, later Wiek Hijmans) and recorder (Walter van Hauwe, later Michael Barker) the outfit has a very distinct ensemble sound. Together with Michel Waisvisz and composer-guitarist Huib Emmer Altena starts a new concert series: Rumori. Just as was the case with the earlier Claxon festivals the starting point is that there should be no boundaries in programming of the events: composed and improvised music, as well as electronic music and musical theater.

1991 - 1997

The Maarten Altena Ensemble organizes projects with guests. In 1991 there is Open Plekken (Open Spaces), for which poet Remco Campert writes the text, which he reads himself. In 1993 the group can be heard in the musical theater production Zig Zag, featuring Mark Terstroet and the Hollandia Theater Company. Then there is the series The American Connection, which has the ensemble collaborating with American improvisers with a strong composed oeuvre, like John Zorn, Roscoe Mitchell, Butch Morris and Anthony Braxton. In the ensemble's repertoire improvisation recedes more and more into the background, in favor of completely written compositions. When personnel changes occur the improvisers are replaced by classically trained musicians. In 1997 Altena decides to stop playing the double bass in his own ensemble, but to stay on as artistic director. He provides compositions and invites composers outside the academic tradition to write or arrange works for the group.

1997 - 2009

Altena concentrates on his activities as a composer, both for his own ensemble and for others. In 1998 he writes the musical theater piece Mijlpaal Er Trilt Iets (Milestone Something is Trembling; again for the Hollandia Theater Company) on a text by Remco Campert. For the 17th World Wide Video Festival (1999) he composes music for visual artist Ger van Elk's De Horizon. In 2000 there is Eluard/Beckett (on texts by Paul Eluard and Samuel Beckett) for the Maarten Altena Ensemble, and in 2001 Album for clarinetist David Kweksilber, and Mouthpiece II for the Nederlands Blazersensemble (Netherlands Wind Ensemble). In 2002 Altena composes La Dolce Ferita (on a text by Torquato Tasso) for the vocal quintet Kassiopeia and the Maarten Altena Ensemble. In 2003 the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble commissions him to write Der tolle Mensch (on a text by Nietzsche) and he arranges Mahler's Kindertotenlieder for fifteen instruments. For the Maarten Altena Ensemble and the Leine&Roebana Dance Company he writes Dans, and in 2005 Terts for the same combination. In 2005 he steps back as artistic director of his group, which continues under the new name of Ensemble MAE, with Yannis Kyriakides as artistic director. In 2008 he writes Beasts & Birds for David Kweksilber's big band, which premieres during the Holland. In the same year Slagwerkgroep Den Haag (The Hague Percussion Ensemble) performs his Scrape, Scratch & Shake.

Yannis Kyriakides


Maarten Altena composes the musical fairy tale De Tapijtenweefster (The Carpet Weaver), on a text by Dutch/Moroccan writer Abdelkader Benali. It is performed by the Nederlands Blazersensemble in collaboration with actor Sabri Saad Al Hamus and singers Claron McFadden and Matthijs de Woerd. In November the ASKO/Schönberg Ensemble will perform his Up and Up/Down and Out (on a text by Tijs Goldschmidt).

Discography Maarten Altena

In the discography you will find all recordings that have been released listed chronologically. We restrict ourselves to the title, the type of audio, year of publication or recording, label, list of guest musicians, plus any comments on the issue.

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