The intercultural Atlas Ensemble brings together musicians from China, Japan, India, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Syria, Turkey and Europe. Thus the ensemble presents an unheard sound world of instruments from different cultures. The repertoire consists entirely of specially commissioned works.
The Atlas Ensemble opens up new possibilities for colour and orchestration. Unlike the modern western heterogeneous ensemble in which one instrument of each family is featured, the Atlas Ensemble brings together instruments from various cultures which, whilst originating from the same ancestor, have travelled and developed over the course of centuries. Thus, a wide variety of instruments came into being. By uniting these descendants and combining their timbres, beautiful and previously unheard blends are obtained. This concept embodies the essence of the Atlas Ensemble.
The Atlas Ensemble is an initiative of Joël Bons, composer and artistic director of the Nieuw Ensemble. The idea originates in earlier successful projects by the Nieuw Ensemble with combinations of western and non-western instruments. With the Atlas Ensemble these experiences are stretched and elaborated into a richer, more balanced instrumental palette. At the same time the meeting and cooperation of musicians from both eastern and western traditions will reach deeper understanding. A central issue – and one of great potential – is the difference between the oral/improvisational traditions on the one hand and the notational/compositional traditions on the other.
The Atlas Ensemble made its debut on 13 September 2002 at the Berliner Festspiele and performed in December 2002 in Holland (Amsterdam and Utrecht). Under the guidance of Ed Spanjaard a première programme was presented to great acclaim with works by Guo Wenjing, Jia Daqun (China); Faradj Karajev (Azerbaijan), Fabio Nieder (Italy) and Theo Loevendie (Netherlands).
The Holland Festival invited the Atlas Ensemble to be ensemble in residence for three weeks in June 2004 featuring workshops, master classes, concerts with traditional non-western repertoire and premières of new works by Frangiz Ali-Zade, Bun-Ching Lam, Jack Body, Stefano Bellon, Artjom Kim, Javanshir Guliev and Evrim Demirel. The ensemble regularly presents a new première programme. In 2005 artistic director Joël Bons received the prestigious Amsterdam Prize of the Arts for his work with the Atlas Ensemble.
Since 2009 the ensemble has organized the Atlas Academy which later became the Atlas Lab - an international meeting place for composers and musicians from all over the world, dedicated to the creation of new intercultural music along with the study of Asian instruments and their musical practices through masterclasses, demonstrations, lectures and concerts.