Altena studied double bass at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam (he graduated in 1968). From 1980 on, he took composition lessons from Robert Heppener.
Since 1968, he played in various music ensembles both in classical music and jazz. Besides the Nederlands Ballet Orkest, these were the jazz groups of Marion Brown, Hans Dulfer and Theo Loevendie, later on those of Willem Breuker and Burton Greene. He played in the Orkest de Volharding and the Instant Composers Pool-Tentett of Misha Mengelberg. Since the mid-1970s, he improvised with Derek Bailey, Paul Lovens and in the Vario Project of Günter Christmann, later also with Peter Kowald and in the Northern European Melody and Improvisation Orchestra of Sven-Åke Johansson. He also gave solo concerts improvising and playing his own compositions. Together with Michel Waisvisz, he organized several concert series.