Joël Bons was born in Amsterdam. He became acquainted with music from all over the world already in early childhood, through the unique record collection of his parents. His teenage years however were steeped in the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and later Stravinsky. Bons studied guitar and composition at the Sweelinck Conservatory with Robert Heppener and attended the summer courses of Franco Donatoni in Siena and the Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik. In Freiburg he continued his composition studies with Brian Ferneyhough.
His music has been performed by a.o. Asko Ensemble, Atlas Ensemble, Irvine Arditti, Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, Nash Ensemble, Ives Ensemble, Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Nieuw Ensemble, Radio Chamber Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Guangxi Symphony Orchestra and the Vancouver InterCultural Orchestra.
Joël Bons co-founded the Nieuw Ensemble in 1980. For ten years he played the guitar in the ensemble and then became its artistic director. He has been responsible for virtually all programming and led the renowned Nieuw Ensemble’s composers practicum.
Bons organized festivals such as Complexity? (1990), Rules and Games (1995), The Year of the Ensembles, the intercultural Festival of Plucked Instruments (1998), The Refined Ear (on microtonality, 2002) and Open Music (2006). He supervised cd recordings of the Nieuw Ensemble and violinist Irvine Arditti; together with film director Frank Scheffer he made a documentary on Pierre Boulez’ Eclat.
In 1988 Bons traveled through China where he became acquainted with a new generation of Chinese composers. In 1991 the Nieuw Ensemble presented these remarkable talents to western audiences, which marked the international breakthrough of new Chinese music.
In 1998 Joël Bons and the Nieuw Ensemble were awarded the Prince Bernhard Fund Music Prize for their ‘markedly lively and adventurous programming which can be described as groundbreaking, both in the literal and figurative senses of the word’.
From 2002 Bons did artistic research in the Middle East and Central Asia and founded the Atlas Ensemble, a unique chamber orchestra uniting musicians from Asia and Europe. The Atlas Ensemble debuted in 2002 at the Berliner Festspiele and was ensemble in residence at the Holland Festival 2004. For his work with the Atlas Ensemble Joël Bons was granted the prestigious Amsterdam Prize for the Arts 2005. The same year he was appointed lector at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, where he organized intercultural projects such as Asian Winds & Strings, Focus Duduk and Orientations and subsequently he became professor of the composition department. In 2006 Tour à Tour, written for the Atlas Ensemble and dedicated to Bons' parents, was premiered.
At the request of the Festival d’Automne à Paris Joël Bons was curator of the music programme of ‘Scène artistique du Moyen-Orient’, for which he traveled to Damascus and Tehran in the spring of 2007. In 2009 he founded the Atlas Academy/Lab, a laboratory for the creation of intercultural music, which takes place at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. As a result Atlas Festivals were presented in 2012 and 2014 with success in and around the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. The Atlas Ensemble released demonstration video's of the Middle Eastern and Asian instruments and documentaries such as Why Atlas? and Imagine Utopia.
In 2010 the Atlas Ensemble premiered Bons' Cadenzas and in 2011 the Vancouver InterCultural Orchestra commissioned Green Dragon, which was performed in Vancouver, Taiwan and Amsterdam. In 2012 the Nieuw Ensemble performed a programme of Bons’ works (Tour, Bref, First Edition among others) entitled The Ark of Joël, which received excellent reviews (5 stars in the daily Volkskrant, 4 stars in NRC and Het Parool). In February 2013 the Atlas Ensemble was ensemble in residence at the Musica Nova Festival in Helsinki, presenting two of Bons’ compositions. In June of the same year the Atlas Ensemble did workshops and concerts at SonUTopias CampUSCulturae in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Early 2014 Bons’ Summer Dance for clarinet and piano was premiered at the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam; in the autumn of the same year followed Revolutions at the Cello Biennale. In the fall of 2016 the premiere of the large scale Nomaden was a highlight at three festivals – Cello Biennale Amsterdam, November Music and Soundsofmusic. The work was written for and performed by world renowned cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and the Atlas Ensemble conducted by Ed Spanjaard and received the highest critical acclaim. In 2017 Spring for Orchestra was premiered at the ASEAN Music Week in Nanning, China. In March 2018 a new large scale work, Thirty Situations, for the Nieuw Ensemble, soprano, trombone, jazz drums, electric guitar and electronics was met with great success. New commissions include a work for Score Collective to be premiered in January 2019.
Joël Bons led composition workshops, held masterclasses and gave lectures in Canada, China, Germany, England, Estonia, Italy, Uzbekistan and Turkey. As artistic adviser he has worked for the Holland Festival, Gaudeamus, ISCM, Donemus, Rotterdam Arts Council and the Concertgebouw and he served as jury member of international composition competitions.