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!
Daz: Uffish, yet slightly frabjous says
I remember, must have been in the late ’80s, seeing a Russian rockabilly band at a weekender in England (at Weymouth, for those who prefer more precise geography) who had been arrested at one point in their home country for playing the music. Kinda threw my “I’m a rebel ’cause I’m not trying to climb Thatcher’s greasy pole to yuppie success” into sharp perspective, I must say.
Since the fall of the Wall an’ all that, I’ve met a fair few Russian and East European fans who own a few of those old underground/bootleg reprints. (I believe, though don’t quote me on it, that the “bone music” appellation is local to Russia.) And they treasure them as much, if not more than, I treasure my small collection of original 78 recordings. And, I’m happy to say, mostly for the same reason; not the monetary but the cultural value.
It’s a good reminder that resistance takes many forms, not all of them overtly political in motive.
Raucous Indignation says
I remember the feel of older x-ray film: thick glossy firm. We don’t use film anymore. Haven’t for going on two decades.
I’ll have to ask a good friend, he’s a big fan of records and Soviet stuff, plus odd finds of all kinds (fashion, music, you name it): would be cool to see one of these in real life!
I’d really like to see one too. It’s one of those things you want to see and touch, rather than imagine.