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Section of a still from Pavla Beranova's film of Flashback - Maarten Altena

“form endows sound with vitality, this peculiar feeling of animation inspires an opening to music's mystery”

Maarten Altena – On Good Form

This is the first in a new series, Films & Words, that gathers together visual work & music alongside a contextual essay. We’re proud to present three film works by the visual artists Pavla Beranová and Sasha Svirsky, all setting music by Maarten Altena, written for and performed by Ensemble Klang. And here, the British writer Ed McKeon dives in to the rich background and history of Altena’s music-making. 

The past 60 years have transformed music radically. Maarten Altena has heard the years rage and sing, having been active throughout that period: first as a performer and improviser on double bass, then also as a composer since the 1970s, a leader of his own ensemble by that decade’s end, and for a time in the 1980s additionally as a producer and promoter of concerts and label manager. At 80, he continues to compose vivid and lyrical music with as much curiosity as ever.

What hasn’t changed as much over this period is the musical question of form. “Music”, as Altena noted to Bas Andriessen in 1991 (for Tetterettet), “should have structure. I don’t even need to be able to discover it immediately, because it can be present in a very mysterious way.” In contrast with the idea that music’s organisation is political – a position characteristic of the Dutch scene of the long 1960s according to Floris Schuiling, Loes Rusch, and Robert Adlington (to mention only those writing in English) – Altena’s Credo is more enigmatic. For him, form endows sound with vitality. It gives the music he admires and aims to write its sense of liveliness. This peculiar feeling of animation, of the music having a life of its own, inspires in turn an opening to its mystery.

Nevertheless, Altena’s commitment to this position came by way of playing an active role in the campaigns that shaped the Netherlands’ distinct new music culture. Growing up in a family devoted to classical music – his father was an amateur composer and his mother played piano and sang in choirs – he put aside his cello as a teenager to pick up the double bass so that he could play jazz. His standards remained high: for example, he toured with Dexter Gordon and featured on Marion Brown’s album Porto Novo (1967). His subsequent transition from improvising through ‘instant composing’ – as an original member of the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) in 1967, founded by Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, and Willem Breuker – to composing for his own group and others took place over several decades, but his openness to invention and curiosity led to landmark achievements on the way. Handicaps (1973) was one of the first albums for solo bass (following Barre Phillips’s Journal Violone, 1968), his first of four. After injuring his wrist from a bad fall, he found that he “had to use what [he] had available to make something new”, he tells me, adopting a playful conceptual strategy of applying a bandage to the instrument’s neck in imitation.

Many of Altena’s generation of improvisers moved away from jazz to avoid appearing as European ‘imitators’ or appropriators of music understood (at least at that time) as an “Afro-American” art music (as Altena describes). New possibilities appeared with ‘free’ improvisation, instant composition (which as Schuiling notes ‘defines improvisation precisely in terms of compositional thinking’), and in some instances more fully notated composition.

“I'm a cross between a structuralist, a lyricist and a colourist.”

In the Netherlands, famously, the collective efforts of Altena’s generation in search of creative independence allied with socially-engaged practices succeeded in creating the conditions for Dutch ‘ensemble culture’ to flourish – despite the tensions inherent to that movement. Alongside the creation of collective bodies such as BEVEM, Altena himself played no small part in the initiation of BIM, which followed his participation with others in the 1971 ‘overval’ – ‘raid’ – on a Board meeting of Stichting Jazz in Nederland.

The Instant Composers Pool was in some ways indicative of an emerging scene that operated flexibly and fluidly, with diverse musicians lining up in different formations for each other’s projects in an open mode of collaboration. Altena played with Derek Bailey in Company, for example, in the Vario groups of German trombonist Günter Christmann, and was an original member of De Volharding. Collaborations beyond music also led to long-term friendships, as with the artist Ger van Elk and theatre-maker Teo Joling; his wide-ranging interest in visual art from Fernand Léger to Ingres and Bellini can be attributed in part to his father, a professor of art history. Altena’s turn to regular partnerships provided a contrast with this open-ended scene. He developed a duo with saxophonist Steve Lacy, then with Michel Waisvisz, performer and inventor of electronic instruments like the Cracklebox (kraakdoos) with whom he went on to establish Klaxon, a festival, concert promoter and record label.

Maarten Altena Live in Paradiso | © Pieter Boersma, 1985
Maarten Altena Portrait | © Rineke Dijkstra, 1994

Altena formed the Maarten Altena Quartet at the end of the 1970s with Maud Sauer (oboe), Paul Termos (alto saxophone), and Maurice Horsthuis (viola), providing a catalyst for his turn to composing. He then took private lessons from Robert Heppener whose writing for voice Altena – ever the melodist – admired. The quartet became an octet in 1980, renamed the Maarten Altena Ensemble (MAE) in 1986, after which the group began a series of special guest projects. These included collaborations – as with the poet Remco Campert, Mark Terstroet and Theatergroep Hollandia – and a series of ‘Connections’ linking programmes with new commissions, as with the ‘American Connection’ featuring Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Roscoe Mitchell, and Robert Ashley. Sensing that he had explored all aspects of his relationship to the double bass, Altena stopped playing in MAE in 1997 to focus on composing and stepped down as Artistic Director in 2005, making way for Yannis Kyriakides and the group’s acquisition of an extra letter, turning MAE into MAZE.

“The pen, notes or manuscript paper take you to something you hadn't thought of before. There is a dialogue.”

Composing for other groups and contexts became a regular feature of his work from the late 1980s and his focus after leaving MAE. In his interview with Bas Andriessen, he described this process: “You have something in mind for a certain group or for certain people. You know that they play this or that way with such and such instruments and/or voices and you come up with a complex or simple idea for that sound potential. Does it move quickly, is it more about harmony than about unison, just to name a few.” Approached in this way, composition becomes a way of posing and responding to given and self-imposed conditions, or limitations, not a matter of style in the sense of self-expression. A key motivation is precisely to find musical outcomes as a result of such restrictions that could not have been anticipated, a process shaped through the material act of composing itself which Altena described (again to Andriessen) in terms akin to the difference between a conversation and writing:

The pen, notes or manuscript paper take you to something you hadn’t thought of before. That’s the interesting thing about composing. In that sense, it has something to do with improvisation. There is also a dialogue form. When composing, the partner is the notepaper and when improvising, the musicians you play with. The dialogue makes you come up with different ideas. With both composing and improvising, the possibility arises that you will be dragged into something that you have generated yourself and of which you have not suspected the outcome. That is not conscious, you can only determine afterwards that this has happened.

Introduced to Ensemble Klang by his friend, the composer Peter Adriaansz, Altena’s first piece for the group – Slam, Pluck & Blow – premiered in May 2012, followed by Dreaming Jazz (2018-19, awaiting its premiere), the song cycle Full Moon (2019), and Flashback (2020).

These pieces resonate with his composerly self-identification as “a cross between a structuralist, a lyricist and a colourist”. In his interview with Andriessen, he affirmed his concern with “good melodic lines”, his emphasis that “music should have structure” even if this cannot be directly heard but only felt, and his affinity with the sonic qualities of “expressionism”. He tells me that indeed he likes music with a rhythmic nucleus, but also that by creating distinct scales across multiple octaves – scales organised neither diatonically nor serially but placing constraints that limit pitch selection – he could reveal a sonic palette through long melodic lines. Shaped also by lessons in counterpoint, prior to studies with Heppener, this ear for voicing can also be related to Webern’s technique of Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-colour melody), a way of articulating a line through timbre, shading, and sound quality.

Still from Ger van Elk's Horizon

A good example is Horizon (1999), written for MAE as a collaboration with Ger van Elk. A musical line corresponds with a continuous line of painted coastal, land- and seascape horizons, the camera presenting the ‘row’ and then panning across the pictures in a sly allusion to serial procedures: first as retrograde (right to left), then as prime (left to right), inversion (left to right but with the paintings turned upside down), and finally in retrograde inversion (right to left and upside down), including ‘transpositions’ (rows starting with different images / notes, but with the sequential (interval) relations maintained such that previously unseen paintings appear). This spatial rendering of the line – a line bringing heaven and earth, skies and sea into ambiguous contact – implicit with the serial principle that fixes in advance the ordering of note-to-note relations, contrasts with the temporal flow of the music in which, as Altena tells me, “colour determines the melodic continuation [whilst] time determines the degree of standstill.” The musical line is refracted by the timbral combinations of instrumental and vocal (humming) intonations.

By the time he left MAE to focus on composing, Altena no longer needed such compositional pre-planning, but found he could work with this understanding more intuitively. In particular, writing for others provides his necessary limitations from which new possibilities emerge. Notes are not abstractions but correspond to the musicians for whom he writes such that an ensemble like Klang can be approached in ways akin to site-specific practices in the gallery arts. For example, the trombone part is not simply an instrument with a particular pitch range but rather Anton van Houten’s playing within this particular group of musicians. “I like to compose something that suits them, but that also introduces things they’ve never done,” he tells me.

Three stills from Pavla Beranová's film Flashback

We can hear this in Slam, Pluck & Blow, whose three movements subdivide the ensemble in different permutations, each with one combination developing the continuity – the line –  counterposed by the other’s rhythmic ‘punctuation’, unified by the same pitch material. Each movement brings out a different quality of the group, such as its inheritance (from groups such as De Volharding) of the ‘big band’ and idiomatic jazz sound of its ‘horn section’ in the first movement – Klang’s only instrumental doubling is its pair of saxophones (Erik-Jan de With and Michiel van Dijk), usually placed with Van Houten antiphonally opposite the ‘rock’ set-up of Harden’s electric guitar and Saskia Lankhoorn on piano (or keyboards). Joey Marijs often moves between multiple percussion set-ups, such as drum-kit and orchestral percussion, balancing or complicating these. Van Houten features in the second as his muted trombone sings out the melody with cartoon pathos, whilst similarly muted piano and faint percussion interject with sympathetic embellishments. The final movement recalls the first, but couples guitar with horns and trombone to multiply the line, an off-kilter unison, before Harden and van Houten independently switch between melodic and rhythmic groups – between the constantly metamorphosing ‘figure’ and jittering ‘ground’ in Sasha Svirsky’s animation, Bokus Mang – blurring the distinction between the two groups and their material. Somewhat like an Alexander Calder mobile – a model Altena had adopted in the late 1980s for pieces like ABCDERij and Code – the two musical systems of continuity and punctuation are mobilised in different configurations, exemplifying one of Altena’s core principles: “I try to create something that isn’t simple but that appears simple to put together.”

Still from the film of Full Moon by Maarten Altena, video & lighting design Pavla Beranová

This feeling for simplicity and for the pleasure in sonority is evident in Full Moon. Altena sets four poems by William Carlos Williams from different periods in his life – the earliest from 1914, the latest from 1952 – that conjure with this celestial mystery. These in turn provide an imaginary sound-world, “a love letter” to this writing (as he described it to Harden) that conditions his music for Ensemble Klang and the soprano Michaela Riener.

In sympathy with Williams’s ‘day job’ as a doctor in rural America, Altena sets these texts in a sound-world that is pared back, touched by everyday wonders. Riener’s voice, which Altena invited her to soften and colour towards an American idiom, carries the line in which the long vowel of the “moon” stretches time melismatically as if stilling the syllabic flow of its surrounding words. He indulges in word painting, the text expressing itself musically as with the “slowly rising” line of the third song. Grace notes allow the words to glisten, sometimes echoed by the guitar or keyboard, like ripples on a pond’s surface, usually setting in play simple oscillations, wavelets that rock back and forth between pairs of notes. These rapid notes themselves resonate with a rhythmic figure on saxophones with trombone that punctuates the line, an anapest-like motif (“ba-ba dam”) with its stressed longer note removed (“ba-ba __”). Triggered by an earworm from listening to a James Brown performance on TV, this gives the music an energy and vitality, like wind moving the songs’ more contemplative waters. The sampler keyboard (emulating a harmonium) with percussion – especially vibraphone – then underscores the overall tone with slowly drifting and limpid harmonies, a voiceless backwater hymnody for the moonstruck poet. Pavla Beranová’s lighting design and video projections reflect the cool beauty of Williams’s writing and Altena’s setting.

The film of Flashback by Pavla Beranová, music by Maarten Altena (best viewed in Full Screen)

Altena’s most recent piece for Klang, Flashback – once more filmed by Beranová – again counterposes a melodic with a rhythmic system but divides the ensemble differently. The saxophones run the post-bop line almost breathlessly in semiquavers with syncopated swerves as if dodging traffic – a metaphorical licence I’m taking as he wrote the piece after being knocked off his bicycle by a scooter on a busy Amsterdam street. That experience of something happening so fast that “it’s over before you’ve made sense of it”, as Altena tells me, is passed to and fro between horns and piano – coming together only briefly – through the melody that races helter skelter. The line is punctuated at first by jabbing chords on piano that emphasise its pulsed accents. These interjections limp off kilter on cymbals when the piano picks up the melodic baton and are then gradually joined by trombone and guitar. The variation process forms the piece like a compulsion to repeat, to replay the collision scene and its (a)synchronies.

The piece is not a ‘flashback’ through Altena’s musical life – he was only shaken from the accident, not badly injured. It does, though, trace a continuity running through this time, the melody in constant motion, probing, ever curious. Like Altena himself. Its energy develops as the line accumulates collaborators, gaining compositional assurance, seeking mystery and vitality through structure. Altena is now 80 but he’s not slowing down. He’s on good form.

Ed McKeon is a curatorial producer, researcher and writer. As Co-Founder / Director of Third Ear Music he works with artists at the unregulated zones between music and other artforms. He is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Birmingham City University, following his PhD on ‘Making Art Public: Musicality and the Curatorial’ (2021). His book Heiner Goebbels and Curatorial Composing After Cage was published by Cambridge University Press in October 2022.