Several years ago, while poking around a flea market in St. Petersburg, musician Stephen Coates came across a record unlike any other he had ever seen. Rather than etched on vinyl, its tiny grooves were cut onto a medical X-ray, tracing shallow circles over the ghostly shapes of bones.
“I immediately knew I had to find out who made it, why they made it, and how they made it,” Coates told Hyperallergic in a recent phone interview. He soon realized that the 78 RPM he had purchased — a single of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets — was just one of many strange, makeshift records created in the Cold War years of the Soviet Union. Produced and disseminated on an underground market to circumvent government control of culture, these flimsy sheets were known as roentgenizdat, or “bone music.”
Working with photographer Paul Heartfield, Coates has since established the X-Ray Audio Project, a multi-faceted endeavor to chronicle and share the history of roentgenizdat. The pair has released a book and documentary on their extensive research and have also organized a traveling exhibition. It is currently at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where examples of the decades-old transparencies are on view along with documents and other ephemera that together tell the technical, cultural, and human stories of this particular form of audio. Visitors can also listen to digitized recordings of the bone music, which, like homemade mixtapes, are far from crystal clear.
An absolutely fascinating subject! Humans are utterly amazing in their ability to circumvent control, and there’s nothing like declaring something forbidden to bring out the creative rebellion in people. You can read and see much more at Hyperallergic. I would love to be able to see this show, if you have the chance, don’t miss it!