Lou Harrison's interest in the sound and structure of Indonesian gamelan music is a long-standing one. In 1971 he and his partner William Colvig constructed their own version of the gamelan ensemble. In the late 1930s Harrison formed a percussion ensemble with John Cage--partly for concert performances, partly to accompany modern dance recitals. Many of the instruments they employed were homemade, and included "found" objects from junkyards and garage sales, etc. Harrison and Colvig drew on that experience in creating the first ensemble of American gamelan instruments, collectively known as Old Granddad. Among the instruments were variously-sized aluminum slabs with tin can resonators, galvanized garbage cans, and oxygen tanks struck with baseball bats. Harrison and Colvig were not creating a true gamelan ensemble; the tuning and range of the instruments were not quite authentic. But the rich yet delicate sound of the tuned percussion evokes the sound of the gamelan remarkably well.
Old Granddad was originally constructed for use in Harrison's opera Young Caesar (1971). The following year, Harrison and his student, teacher-violinist-composer Richard Dee, wrote a Chaconne for their violinist friend Loren Jakey to perform with Old Granddad. Not long afterwards, Harrison was awarded the Norman Fromm Composer's Award from the San Francisco Chamber Music Society. When the Society commissioned a new work from Harrison, he and Dee wrote the other six movements of the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, which received its premiere at Lone Mountain College, San Francisco on December 9, 1974 with Jakey as violin soloist.
The Suite opens with a Threnody in which the violin spins out a long, sinuous line spiced by double stops and mild dissonance. The gamelan accompaniment is very spare here, for the most part just a few strokes to mark off the violin's long phrases. The second movement is an Estampie, a dance from Medieval Europe and one of Harrison's favorite musical forms (he has used it in over a dozen compositions). It features an ornate melodic line over a lively, irregular rhythm. In the third movement, Air, the violin plays slowly and melodically over a repetitive and hypnotic pattern in the gamelan. Then comes a trio of Jhala movements, the first two fast in tempo, the third slow. The Jhala comes from north India; its main feature is the frequent repetition of a single note between the notes of the melody, or what Harrison has called an "interrupted drone." The Suite ends with the initial Chaconne that Harrison and Dee wrote. Typically, the Chaconne features melodic variations over a repeating bass line, here sounding sonorously in the lower-pitched gamelan instruments. The violin joins in, as do other instruments in the gamelan. The texture gets gradually richer, bringing the work to a grand and solemn conclusion.
Due to the impracticality of securing a gamelan ensemble and trained players, the Suite has received a couple of very effective alternative arrangements, including one for violin and orchestra by Kerry Lewis, and one for violin, piano, celesta, two harps and strings by Dennis Russell Davies.