The art of the musical interlude

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 4:10pm

Frank Ocean

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Def Jam Records

An interlude, at its most basic definition, is “an intervening or interruptive period, space, or event.” Technically speaking, an interlude is meant to disrupt, to draw attention or to provide something else to focus on. Albums are often judged on their cohesion and flow, on how well each song complements the entire album in the context of its specific tracklisting. So where exactly does the decision to include an interlude come into play? Famous interludes include Björk’s “Frosti,” Beyoncé’s “Yoncé” that introduces hit “Partition” and SZA’s “Wavy” from the critically-acclaimed CTRL. Interludes are far from genre restricted, and often pose interesting questions about the way a listener will interact with the piece of music.

Frank Ocean’s Blonde was the greatest release of 2016, featuring the maternally-charged interlude “Be Yourself,” connecting the immortal ambience of “Pink + White” to the give-and-take defiance of “Solo.” The gentle resignation of “Pink + White” is quickly interrupted with: “Many college students have gone to college and gotten hooked on drugs, marijuana and alcohol. Listen. Stop trying to be somebody else.” It’s a 1:27 voicemail from a seemingly overbearing mother, which suddenly drops from: “This is mom. Call me. Bye” into: “Hand me a towel I’m dirty dancing by myself / Gone off tabs of that acid / Form me a circle, watch my jagger / Might lose my jacket and hit a solo.” After being told to “be yourself” through abstinence, Ocean naturally responds by hitting solos with the help of acid and marijuana. He asks the question of how to be yourself, how to truly exist on your own without feeling alone, without the aid of substance: “Inhale, in hell there’s heaven” he croons, finding a sense of paradise through THC in an otherwise hellish state of solitude. Without the stern warning of the voicemail, listeners would lose that sense of responsibility to self that Ocean so carefully, so softly conveys. His sweet, sweet notes feel all the gentler (and all the sadder) for the harshness that precede them.

Another R&B artist of in the vein of Ocean is Solange Knowles, whose masterful A Seat at the Table features a series of eight separate interludes. The first of them, “Interlude: The Glory is in You,” links the foreboding “Weary” with the desperation of “Cranes in the Sky.” The interlude is only 18 seconds, questioning the place that peace has in our world. Unlike Ocean’s voicemail, Knowles’s first interlude is only a tiny fraction of the whole, so diminutive it could be easily overlooked during a casual listen. But this small clip introduces a tangible theme in between the poetry of the songs that bookend it: “But as long you find peace in what you doing then you successful, and that’s what people don’t realize. See, you got do stuff ’till where you can go sleep at night. ’Cause the glory is, is in you.” The interlude, in describing the need for peace, gives the listener an idea of what the “it” is in “Cranes in the Sky:” the persistent, perfusive aggression experienced by minorities, a theme that slowly gains layers as the album progresses. Where Ocean’s interlude provides a foil to Blonde’s understated loneliness, Knowles’s works in tandem with her music to express the pain of racism.

Now the question is raised about the role of instrumental interludes, those without discernible messages for the listener. Metalcore titan Underoath features these types of interludes on their two most acclaimed albums. The first, They Were Only Chasing Safety, features “The Blue Note,” which splits the album down the middle with a jazzy, ambient instrumental, completely disrupting the ferocious energy of the preceding “Reinventing Your Exit” and drops with a “Three, two, one … ” into the massive breakdown of “It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door.” What is gained from this nosedive of an interlude is not only a way transition from one half to the next, but it allows an otherwise assaulting album to breathe. Metalcore isn’t necessarily known for its accessibility, and Underoath were pioneers in mainstreaming the genre with the release of this record in 2004. The second album Define the Great Line features “Salarmnir,” again mostly ambient but this time including a Psalm read in Russian accompanied by rapturous applause that echoes through the background. Again, Underoath recognized the merits of adding room to breathe in an album filled with harsh vocals and intense breakdowns, this time spicing up the formula with epic, religious sentiments. Not know for their subtlety, Underoath draws their fans into the storm of their music with an enticing interlude that immediately drops the floor beneath the listener with a silence before “Returning Empty Handed.”

This list could literally go on forever and ever, moving backwards in history and maybe even music of the Middle Ages (which would require far more research than I am capable of), but for now, the modern interlude accentuates the poetry of music and allows a breather from intensity or a moment of reflection on powerful themes. As music has evolved, so has the weight it has been able to carry, and, though often small in size in today’s world, an artful interlude can provide just the right amount of reprieve to perfectly accent an album and the tracks that surround it.