When you learn that Soviet music-lovers bootleged Western rock, pop, jazz, and more on the surfaces of discarded x-ray plates, you can’t help but want to learn a bit about it. We posted about that curious Cold War phenomenon back in 2014, but much more material on this culture of “bone music” has emerged in the years since, including Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield’s book X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone. They also put together the fourteen-minute companion documentary above, featuring conversations with some of the actual participants in this forbidden musical scene which lasted roughly from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, when tape recorders came around and the censors loosened up.
“This is a truly fascinating subject that seems to captivate people by combining pain and suffering reflected in the X-rays with the pleasure of listening to music,” writes filmmaker and photographer Michael Dzierza, who produced the short video above on Coates and Hartfield’s work with x-ray audio in which they discuss the origins of their fascination with this illicit medium and how that fascination turned into a subject for a long-term multimedia research project. The world of bone music also became the highly suitable subject for an episode of Fugitive Waves, the podcast by radio producers the Kitchen Sisters on “lost recordings and shards of sound, along with new tales from remarkable people around the world — people with a mission, a purpose, a story to tell”:
The Soviets who made it possible for their fellow citizens to enjoy the sounds they craved — whether music forbidden for its foreign origin or music performed by musicians hailing from U.S.S.R. countries but deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime — certainly had a mission, purpose, and story to tell, and their efforts have left as cultural artifacts some of the more fascinating lost recordings and shards of sound in recent history. Now that almost everyone in the developed world takes for granted their 21st-century ability to share high-fidelity music more or less instantly, it can restore a measure of gratitude to learn more about these medical records turned musical records, passed in dark alleys between one trenchcoat to another under the ever-present threat of imprisonment. The vinyl revival has happened; could an x-ray audio revival be on its way?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.