Igor Stravinsky vs. J Dilla

Igor Stravinsky vs. J Dilla

Igor Stravinsky and J Dilla are two titans of 20th (and 21st) century music that may seem worlds apart today but in the future may not seem so different. Believe it or not they utilized similar compositional techniques involving repetition and layering.

Here we will look at the similarities between two tracks from J Dilla’s “Donuts” and the first movement of Stravinsky’s “Three Pieces for String Quartet”.


One way to direct the listener’s ear to a particular aspect of a song or piece is through repetition.  By repeating it we are assigning value to it and inviting the listener’s ear to explore the finer details. I call this framing.

Framing played a large role in Stravinsky’s early compositional style, especially noticeable in The Rite of Spring and the piece we are looking at here ,“Three Pieces for String Quartet”.  Instead of composing long elaborate melodies Stravinsky wrote short repetitive melodic bits with other contrasting melodic bits set against them; multiple frames on top of one another.  Often they are of different lengths and therefore repeating at different meters, creating polyrhythms.

J Dilla’s production techniques also makes great use of framing though his unique brand of sampling and chopping.  The tracks below are built from small portions of much longer songs, often layering multiple samples on top of each other.

Off-kilter selection:

In “Glazed”, sampled from Gene and Jerry’s “You Just Can’t Win”, Dilla chooses a bar from a transitional passage of the intro, passing up the very clear groove that comes in just seconds later.  He chooses a moment that doesn’t feel like a groove at all in fact; the snare isn’t on two and four, the kick drum is barely used, and the overall feel never settles.  It’s almost an anti-groove, causing the track to feel like a stilted unending intro. 

Here’s the original song:

And Dilla’s treatment:

Also, in both “Walkinonit” (below) and “Glazed” Dilla consciously loops the sample slightly out of time from it’s original groove.  In “Glazed” you can hear the groove restart just a hair late of what would be the “correct” placement musically.  By doing so he makes it potently clear that we are hearing a sample with the seams showing, and therefore the music feels not-human and abstract. 

Likewise, Stravinsky’s choice of notes and timbre is highly off-kilter.  First, none of the frames fit a common meter.  The simplest of the frames, the cello part, repeats every seven beats and the violin’s frame is even more complex. 

Also, instead of putting the string instruments in their standard “correct” registers he chooses the odd way out. For example violin one’s melody would have made sense to play on the second string of the violin for it’s register, but Stravinsky instead instructs the player to play it on the first string forcing him/her to bring his hand higher on the instrument shorten the string for a uniquely breathy tone.  Also, the viola is bowing and plucking simultaneously, a rare sound. Given the full expanse of the string quartet’s sonic possibilities he has chosen a small and odd collection of sounds to frame. 

Layering of Multiple Frames:

As mentioned above, Stravinsky’s layers are of different lengths. Below you can see where the Cello (bottom line) restarts his phrase every seven beats (red arrows), whereas the Violin 1 (top line) restarts his much longer phrase near the bottom of the page(purple arrows). Listening further you’ll hear that both of these repetitions continue through the remainder of the movement, yet never line up. This technique gives the pieces a a rhythmic unpredictability without sacrificing coherence.

Brooklyn Lessons in Composition

In “Walkinonit” Dilla layers two highly contrasting samples.  He begins with the groove, from “Walk on By” by The Undisputed Truth (another off-kilter selection btw, taken from the middle of the piece where the vocal is particularly dark) and then layers the much shorter “bring the heat” vocal sample on top of it at it’s own pace.  It isn’t repeated at a particular meter, but it gives the overall rhythm feels an added depth, much like Stravinsky’s layered frames. 


Dilla’s track:

Looking closely, we find that these two titans of very different eras and genres prove to be not so far apart. The basic building blocks of musical communication apply to all styles!

Good writing on the narrative aspects of Dilla’s sampling can be found here.