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.
The trimmed radiographs represent ingenious resourcefulness and design in an era of widespread cultural repression. All art in the USSR had to be in line with the ideals of Socialist Realism; in terms of music, much of what was censored made for great dancing tunes. Officials not only banned American music, from rock and roll to jazz, they also outlawed music by Russians who had fallen out of favor with the regime. With repression, though, often comes underground resistance, and a black market of bootlegged records was eventually born. Russians could listen to “Rock around the Clock” or songs by their fellow countryman Vadin Kozin in the privacy of their homes, and move to melodies that emerged amid hisses and scratches — marks of the covert recording process.
The decision to repurpose X-rays into records was a logical one: the government had ordered all hospitals in the USSR to discard their film after one year as they were flammable, so bootleggers simply got their hands on this readily available plastic trash and transformed it into LPs. The very first people to develop this method were Ruslan Bugaslovski and Boris Taigin, two audiophiles in Leningrad. Bugaslovski had seen a recording lathe cut individual records in a music shop, and he figured out how to recreate the machine. (Similar to how a gramophone operates, only in reverse, the lathe receives audio signals and cuts corresponding grooves into a plastic disc.) The pair set up the first underground X-ray bootleg record label, and business quietly flourished. Other music lovers soon learned to create their own lathes, and the musical contraband spread from Leningrad to Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, and other major cities in the USSR.
Coates and Heartfield have spent years retracing the routes of this black market, traveling between the United Kingdom, where they are based, and Russia. Along the way, they have interviewed many Russian individuals who were part of roentgenizdat culture, including bootleggers. Some of these testimonies are included in the exhibition, helping to root a broader story of musical censorship in personal experiences. Their voices also serve as reminders of the human risks involved in this trade: those who were caught were imprisoned. Bugaslovski and Taigin were both sent to the gulag for their dedication to their craft, with Taigin receiving two additional years for recording his own songs. Upon their release, they returned to their work, were caught again, were released, and were sent back once more.
According to Coates, it’s impossible to measure the duo’s legacy in the number of X-ray recordings that were produced between the ’40s and ’60s. No one created official documentation of the records at the time, and the LPs were fragile and typically didn’t last long. People would play the bone-covered films and dispose them before buying new ones.
Roentgenizdat is the central focus of the traveling exhibition, but at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Coates and Heartfield have complemented Soviet history with more contemporary examples of musical censorship. Playing in smaller galleries are documentaries centered on the audio landscapes of other repressive countries, from the underground techno scene in Iran to the secret lives of musicians in northern Mali living under strict sharia law.
“Over the years, the project sort of flowered into being about censorship and music,” Coates said. “One of the things I was shocked to discover myself is that music censorship is not a thing of the past, it’s a thing of the present.”
Tel Aviv marks the final stop on the exhibition tour, but Coates is working to bring it to the United States for the first time. He is currently in talks with a number of museums. Ideally, he said, he would like to share the X-Ray Audio Project in cities with particularly rich musical histories, such as Chicago and New Orleans. Considering that much of the music people were once cutting onto X-rays were American songs, it’s only fitting that these bootlegged versions eventually surface stateside in their unfamiliar, haunting form.
Forbidden Music: X-Ray Audio in the USSR, 1946–1964 continues at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (מתחם גולדה מאיר, Sderot Sha’ul HaMelech 27, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel) through May 12.