At the time Ernest Bloch wrote this suite he was composing works with a notable Jewish content, but notes that this composition is not among them. Instead, he found an element of the exotic in yielding to a romantic vision of the Far East, of islands like Sumatra, Borneo, and Java (which he had never visited). It is the primitive and/or mysterious reputation of those places, and not any contact with their actual cultures or music that he sought to convey in the music. At one time the suite had a set of descriptive titles, but Bloch suppressed them in favor the purely musical ones listed above.
The first movement seeks to portray Nature in its wildest and most primitive state. The original title was "In the Jungle (Life in the Primitive World)." The introduction is like the cry of a raptor bird, followed by silence, then by a motive that becomes very important. The movement proper is initially joyful and exotic. It ends in an epilogue that broadens the tempo to present a "slumbering" mood as the composer called it.
Bloch once called the second movement "Grotesque (Simian Stage)." Sardonic and fantastic elements abound in this music. Men, animals, or grinning shadows are half-glimpsed.
The third movement was originally called "Nocturne." It was inspired by the tales of a close friend who had been to Java and told of a night-time journey, passing through villages from which could be heard the distant sound of wooden musical instruments. Bloch tried to recapture the mood evoked by that story.
The finale, originally "Land of the Sun (China)" was, Bloch said, "the most cheerful think I ever wrote." It is a simple ABA form. The first part is based on pentatonic (i.e., five-note, like a common Chinese scale) motives. The middle section quotes ideas from the first and third movements. There is a pause while the viola repeats a meditative theme from the third. Then there is a cheerful concluding passage marked Allegro vivace.