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    Spinning sounds

    Dear collective wisdom,

    Some of you may know Jankélévitch's "Music and the Ineffable" (1961).  In one passage, he talks about various rhythms as connoting spinning, rotating, twirling, or swirling.  Examples might include the beginning of Smetana's Die Moldau, Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade,

    Saint-Saëns' Omphale's Spinning Wheel, and Dvořák's The Golden Spinning Wheel.

    We're looking for more musical examples. Suggestions welcome.

    David Huron & Niels Chr. Hansen

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    • 21 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Hi David,

      Two operatic instances spring immediately to mind: "Summ' und Brumm'" from The Flying Dutchman and (a deeper cut) the opening women's chorus from Fauré's Pénélope ("Les fuseuax sont lourds...").



    • Hi David,

      There is a "Spinning Song" by Felix Mendelssohn from Lieder ohne Worte, op.67, no.4.

      Here's Earl Wild playing it.



      Hello David,

      I don't know whether there is any "spinning" explicitly associated with it, but your post immediately brought the Scherzo from Bruckner's Third Symphony to mind.


    • Hi David,

      Radiohead's 2001 "Like Spinning Plates" uses backwards playback of a highly percussive loop to create a spin-like "whoosh" throughout, but the more explicit spinning is in the omnipresent corrugaphone, which we hear spinning faster and faster (necessarily) as it ascends in pitch from Eb4 to Ab4 and finally, higher and faster to C5. I write extensively about this song in my book on Radiohead (OUP, 2016). 



    • Haydn's "The Seasons," number 38: "Knurre, schnurre, knure, schnurre, Rädchen schnurre"


    • Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" is an obvious example.

      You might also listen to the chorus of "Watching the Wheels" (1980) by John Lennon. Beginning at 1:34 (where Lennon sings, "I really love to watch them roll"), one of the keyboards plays repeated 16th notes that suggest a motoric motion.

    • Serendipities happen. Just today I had in my a podcast episode I want to record on "My favourite classics". Gretchen am Spinnrade is the song i had in mind. And recently I finished my last composition for quintet (fl. cl, pno, vl, vc) were the introduction form Moldau was an important point of departure. It is a commisioned work that must be based on some place of my home town. I chose the main commercial and promenade street, which in my mind appeared as a river. The main street starts in the confluence of two smaller ones, so the resemblance to Smetanas piece was almost inevitable. In a minimalistic mood, flute and clarinte start "spinning, rotating, twirling, and swirling", until strings and piano join in the game. I am conscious this was not what you were looking for, but couldn't resist to comment. I should have a recording of the premiere in a month or so.




    • Carl Maria von Weber's "Perpetuum Mobile" has a lot of spinning passages in it, and I'm sure the same is true of many moto perpetuo-type pieces. A related category you might want to look at is music evoking machinery. Composers in the "Machine Age" sometimes wrote pieces imitating spinning gears and wheels. I'm thinking of passages from Antheil's Ballet Mecanique, Mosolov's Iron Foundry, or even Honnegger's Pacific 231. More recently, we have things like Rouse's The Infernal Machine, Schuller's The Twittering Machine, and lots of mechanical things by Ligeti.

    • Kodály's wrote an opera Szekely Fono translated as The Spinning Room or Transylvanian Spinning Room.  I haven't explored it for spinning sounds, but scene 5, "Te tul roszam" may have some spinning sounds when the chorus enters.  And scene 3 "Ures ladam az ajtoba" is a women's chorus which is usually staged in the spinning room.


    • "Am Feierabend" from Schöne Mullerin.

      The final variations of endless theme-and-variations works for and by Herbert L. Clarke and other turn-of-century cornetists and bandsmen (e.g., his own and Arban's variations on "The Carnival of Venice").

      The accompanying figures opening "Jupiter" from The Planets—the metrical dissonance has a lot to do with the "swirling" effect. (And that thought suggests a trip through Schumann's music with Krebs's Fantasy Pieces at hand would unearth lots of other similar examples.)

      Much of Copland's music for the 1939 documentary The City would fit this bill—starting at around 19:30 is one such section:

    • David,

      Ravel's "Chanson de Rouet" is an excellent example. There is a literal spinning motive throughout to reflect the spinning wheel, but it also "spins" on multiple levels to reflect the cycles of day and night and the cycle of life, which is all described in the text. (This is not the same as the example from Ma Mere l'Oye but is based on a similar musical idea.)


      --Jason Yust


    • Judith Shatin - Penelope's Song (link to version for soprano sax & electronics -- there are also versions for violin, viola, cello, clarinet & flute). The electronics are from a recording of a large treadle loom.




    • Also, I just remembered: the accompanying figure (starts in vl & vc) in the Dvorak f minor Pno Trio (op.65) – the allegretto grazioso mvmnt. I just wrote a program note for this piece a couple months ago when I discovered Dvorak's obsession with trains -- especially locomotives. He wrote 'I'd give all my symphonies if I could have invented the locomotive.' (I think I can dig it up again if anyone wants the cite - a letter, I think.) When he came to America he wrote of his disappointment that there weren't as many trains as in Europe. I now have trouble listening to this movement without seeing the turning wheels of a locomotive as the train leaves the station.

    • A number of films link postminimalist music with rotating machines.  The opening scene of The Theory of Everything (2014), for example, anchors Jóhann Jóhannsson's cue to circle images including spinning bicycle wheels.

    • Frank Zappa's "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" there is a reference and sound denoting a circular motion!  Approximately at 3:56

    • Cool topic!

      Among some of the other film music mentioned, there's the main theme from Vertigo by the great Bernard Herrmann.

    • Brahms's op 94 no 3, Mein Herz ist schwer, parallels Gretchen in a number of obvious ways.  

      Many tarentellas sound like spinning, and every Viennese waltz has spinning connotations for me, but that may be more about dancing than about music.

      Farther from the canon, there's Jerry Jeff Walker's "Wheel"

      Curious to see where this ends up going!

    • Thanks to everyone for the many suggestions. We have been following up on each recommendation. Some of you might have noticed that a disproportionate number of the suggested passages are in compound meters -- as we anticipated. Jankélévitch thought that triplets have a natural affinity for spinning or twirling. This seems obvious enough, but the question is why listeners would have this experience? When you think about it, there is no apparent reason why a spinning wheel should feel like it divides into three rather than two, four or five subdivisions. Niels and I have a theory regarding why triplets might be more likely to evoke the perception of spinning or rotating -- compared with other possible beat divisions. The theory draws on the field of "ecological acoustics," which emphasizes how listeners infer properties of the world based on environmental experience. We are currently running an experiment to test our theory. Stay tuned. Once again, our thanks for the many suggestions.  -David Huron & Niels Chr. Hansen

    • Salonen "Helix" . Spinning/twirling on a gigantic scale, may not conform to your model?

      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.