Listen & Do: Lou Harrison’s Suite for Symphonic Strings

Lou Harrison gave this piece a very formal, very generic title. Suite for Symphonic Strings. Can’t get more generic than that. Can’t get more European than that. There are certainly some very European things about this music. Dismantle this music and look at any one of the parts and you can see/hear the Europeanness (if that’s even a word). But this music is clearly not European. Why? Ara Guzelimian talks about how Harrison talked about “facing toward Asia.” What do you hear in this music that suggests that?


  1. Seems to me it’s the percussion in the first movement. It’s a kind of tapping really. Not even so precise. One imagines people dancing to this music and the dancers making the percussion noises. There’s a kind of physicalness to this music that doesn’t sound European.

  2. Suite for Symphonic Strings is an 8 part mostly European sounding work with beautiful lush strings. However, in the first (Estampie) and fourth (Ductia) movements, the structure and rhythm of the percussion has an Asian sound. In addition, the continuously changing pitch of the violins in Ductia have an Asian sound. In this case “Asian sound” is more like a flavoring blended in than an overt replacement of “European” by “Asian.” This effect of blending in Asian along with the European is even more apparent in Serenade for Guitar and Percussion (also on YouTube). Again, the European is not abandoned, but extended beautifully into a blend of European classical guitar/percussion and Asian Sitar/Tabla.

  3. ojaijayar says

    Part of the “Asian sound first becomes apparent with the off-the-beat grace notes, particularly in the 1st movement. Also, the syncopatic sounding percussion against the fifths sounds Asian in tone and structure. The lyricism of the third movement really does announce some European heritage, but the final blending of styles encompasses a feeling of Asian mysticism.