The Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition – one of the most prestigious contemporary music awards – has this year been given to Dutch composer Joël Bons, for his work Nomaden.
The composition – for which he receives $100,000 – is an intriguing collaboration of Western classical instruments with those from other cultures, including the Chinese erhu and sheng, Japanese sho and shakuhachi, Indian sarangi, Turkish kemenche, Armenian duduk, Persian setar and Azerbaijani tar and kamancha.
Bons, 65, wrote the piece - commissioned by the 2016 Cello Biennale Amsterdam - for French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and the Atlas Ensemble, a group of 18 musicians from China, Japan, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
It’s an approach to music that has been crucial to Bons’s work for many years, since first visiting China in the 1980s and forming partnerships with composers who, while now familiar in the West, were then relatively unknown here. In subsequent years, Bons held festivals such as that for plucked instruments from various countries – from the guitar to the pipa - who all owe their ancestry to the oud, and ultimately in 2002 founded the Atlas Ensemble, where such diverse musicians can collaborate, learn and perform together. In 2009 he started Atlas Academy/Lab, described as ‘a laboratory for the creation of intercultural music’.
Bons described Nomaden to Gramophone as ‘very much a portrait’ of the Atlas Ensemble. It consists of many short movements, involving Queyras as the 'nomad', on a journey, meeting and engaging in dialogue with those other instruments through duets, trios or other combinations – and in some ways, therefore, in a dialogue with those cultures themselves. ‘An instrument is not just a timbre, not just a nice tool - but actually a whole culture is inside an instrument,’ reflected Bons.
The Grawemeyer Awards are given annually by the University of Louisville, and previous recipients have included Hans Abrahamsen, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Brett Dean, György Kurtág, Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin.
Nomaden is shortly to be released by the Swedish BIS label, and incidentally will be the first to use the label's new environmentally-friendly packaging. According to BIS, their new ‘ecopak’ is fully recyclable, and made from certified cardboard, soy ink, eco-friendly glue and water-based varnish. BIS also says that weighing a third less than a standard jewel case, it will therefore reduce the carbon emissions associated with transport costs.
What could be more appropriate than a composition embracing global cultures helping to highlight one of the key challenges facing the world, that of environmentalism?