Joël Bons was born in Amsterdam. He 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 studies with Brian Ferneyhough. His music has been performed by the Asko Ensemble, Atlas Ensemble, Irvine Arditti, Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, Nash Ensemble, Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Nieuw Ensemble, Radio Chamber Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vancouver InterCultural Orchestra.
Joël Bons co-founded the Nieuw Ensemble. For ten years he played the guitar in the ensemble and then became its artistic director. Bons has been responsible for virtually all programming and led the renowned Nieuw Ensemble’s yearly composers practicum.
He organized festivals such as Complexity? (1990), Rules and Games (1995), The Year of the Ensembles, the multicultural Festival of Plucked Instruments (1998) and The Refined Ear (on microtonality, 2002). As artistic adviser Bons 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. Bons supervised cd recordings of the Nieuw Ensemble and violinist Irvine Arditti; together with film director Frank Scheffer he made a documentary on 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 Near 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 became professor of the composition department.
At the request of the Festival d’Automne à Paris 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, a laboratory for the creation of intercultural music, which takes place in August at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. As a result the first Atlas Festival was presented in 2012 with big success in and around the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. The Atlas Ensemble released demonstration video's of the Middle Eastern and Asian instruments. Documentaries about the Academy include Why Atlas? and Imagine Utopia.
In 2010 the Atlas Ensemble premiered Bons' Cadenzas and in 2011 the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra commissioned Green Dragon which was performed in Vancouver, Taiwan and Amsterdam. On 21.12.12 the Nieuw Ensemble and conductor Ed Spanjaard performed a programme of Bons’ works 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 and received the highest critical acclaim. In 2017 Spring for Orchestra was premiered at the China ASEAN Music Week in Nanning. In March 2018 a new large scale work for the Nieuw Ensemble, Thirty Situations, was met with great success. Over the years Bons taught, held masterclasses, led composition workshops and gave lectures in Canada, China, Germany, England, Estonia, Italy, Uzbekistan and Turkey.