Born in Amsterdam, Joël Bons trained in the modernist composition tradition. His teenage years however were steeped in the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and later Stravinsky. He became acquainted with music from all over the world already in early childhood, through the unique record collection of his parents: boogie woogie, Mexican mariachi, polyrhythmic African percussion, Indian ragas, the irregular time signatures of the Balkans, plucked chitarrones from Venezuela and pipas from China. He learned to play the guitar, formed a band and wrote music for it. When this became so complex that he could not play it any more, it was time to go to the conservatory. There he studied with Robert Heppener, after which he attended summer courses in Siena with Franco Donatoni and in Darmstadt, visited music festivals in Venice, Donaueschingen and Paris and continued his studies in Freiburg with Brian Ferneyhough.
In 1980, Bons was co-founder and guitarist of the Nieuw Ensemble. As artistic director he has since then been responsible for all programming. In 1988 he visited China where he met a young generation of composers (including Tan Dun), introducing them in Europe with Nieuw Ensemble. For their ‘markedly lively and adventurous programming’ Bons and the ensemble were awarded the Prince Bernhard Fund Music Prize in 1998.
In 2002 he went on to found the Atlas Ensemble, for which he received the Amsterdam Prize for the Arts 2005. In that same year he became a lecturer and later professor of composition at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. In 2009 Joël Bons initiated the Atlas Lab. He gives lectures, masterclasses and composition workshops throughout the world, and his music has been performed by ensembles such as the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble, Nash Ensemble, Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Guangxi Symphony Orchestra and Vancouver InterCultural Orchestra.
Among his recent works are Tour à Tour, Cadenzas and Green Dragon (all for intercultural ensemble), Summer Dance (clarinet and piano), Revolutions (clarinet, cello and piano), Pendule (harp and guitar), Spring (orchestra) and Thirty Situations (for the Nieuw Ensemble, soprano, trombone, jazz drums, electric guitar and electronics).