Episode 6: Little Symphonies

Medium Rotation presents conversations and sonic experiences that probe the conditions (and counter the received ideas) of our time, among other times. Each season of the podcast is animated by the concerns of an issue of the magazine, which are addressed by artists, writers, and scholars. The first season, Omniaudience, asks how we understand ourselves and others through listening—and what the obstacles to listening reveal about our society.

Medium Rotation is hosted by Alexander Provan, Triple Canopy’s editor, and Nikita Gale, an artist and longtime collaborator. In the sixth episode, Gale speaks about Tina Turner, Phil Spector, and the prospect of being heard without being controlled. She tells the story of the genre-busting song that Turner and Spector, the infamous producer, recorded in 1966, “River Deep—Mountain High”: a commercial failure but a creative breakthrough for Turner, who had previously been defined as an R&B singer and dominated by her abusive husband and bandmate, Ike Turner. Gale, who has often engaged with Turner’s music and biography in her work as an artist, talks about the song as a symbol for how the music industry determines whose voices are amplified and whose are silenced. She observes that the segregation of cities in midcentury America was echoed on the airwaves, and the definition of audiences via racial and demographic categories has been upheld by record labels, Spotify, and the Grammys. And, with Provan, Gale listens to outtakes from the “River Deep—Mountain High” sessions and many other recordings and performances by Turner and Spector.

In this episode, Gale draws on her essay “Little Girls,” published by Triple Canopy last year, which describes “River Deep—Mountain High” as the zenith of Spector’s “wall of sound” technique—and as “the sound of being together—or of being packed together, forced together.” (A reading of Gale’s essay by Kaneza Schaal is available as a bonus episode.) Gale connects Turner’s effort to transcend the role of R&B singer, Spector’s desire to defy genre, and her own frustration as a teenager in Atlanta with radio stations that played rap for Black listeners and alt-rock for white ones. With Provan, she speaks about the production and reception of “River Deep—Mountain High” as part of the trajectory from “race records” in the 1920s to “urban contemporary” in the 1970s to the ongoing subsumption of most genres by pop music.

In order of appearance, the music and other recordings played on this episode are: Tina Turner performing in Gimme Shelter (Maysles Films, 1970), directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin; Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman (Elektra, 1988); Tyler, the Creator speaking to the press after winning Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards, 2020; outtakes from the recording of “River Deep—Mountain High,” from Ike & Tina Turner, What You See Is What You Get (Big Fro, 2018); the Ronettes, “Walking in the Rain” (Philles, 1964); Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (a.k.a. Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm), “Rocket 88” (Chess, 1951); Tina Turner interviewed on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” May 31, 1984; Phil Spector inducting Ike & Tina Turner into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1991; interview with Phil Spector from All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music (London Weekend Television, 1977), directed by Tony Palmer; Brian Gibson, dir., What’s Love Got to Do with It (Touchstone Pictures, 1993).

Medium Rotation is produced by Alexander Provan with Andrew Leland, and edited by Provan with Matt Frassica. Tashi Wada composed the theme music. Matt Mehlan acted as the audio engineer and contributed additional music.

Medium Rotation is made possible through generous contributions from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and Nicholas Harteau. This season of Medium Rotation is part of Triple Canopy’s twenty-sixth issue, Two Ears and One Mouth, which receives support from the Stolbun Collection, the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Agnes Gund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.