The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone

Blog by Stephen Coates, film score composer

A smartly dressed young man, Nick Markovitch, is walking through the Moscow streets sometime in the 1950s. He is carrying three or four flat boxes under his arm and is on his way to a friend's house to play music just like multitudes of young people have since. In the boxes are various gramophone records: discs with current Soviet pop tunes; discs bought by his parents before the war but which can no longer be obtained in the Soviet Union; and other, stranger records, records that are illegal, records that would be confiscated and get him into trouble if he is found with them, records that he has bought on street corners in shady deals, like a Western kid buying weed or hash.

If we could listen as Nick plays these records on his friend’s gramophone, we would perhaps hear Western jazz, rock ’n’ roll, tango, gypsy songs sung by Russian émigrés, blatnaya folk songs about criminal life, love, lust, violence, and jealousy, perhaps even the songs of a local popular singer. And if we could hold the thin, flexible, roughly-cut records up to the light, we would see spectral images of skulls, ribcages, spines, pelvises, the broken bones of hands and feet. For, remarkably, these discs were cut with homemade recording machines onto used X-ray film.

In the years 1946–64, an era when a huge amount of music was forbidden in the USSR, enterprising music lovers used an ingenious means of reproduction in defiance of the Soviet censor and found a way to disseminate the music they loved through an underground bootleg network. The X-ray records they made were single-sided, recorded at 78 rpm in real time. The discs were cut into shape with scissors, and the spindle holes were reportedly sometimes made with the burning end of a cigarette. They were ephemeral and often lasted for only a few plays. Each was an edition of one, sounding and looking different from all others and often strangely beautiful. In the family of dissident cultural works that includes samizdat and tamizdat literature and magnetizdat bootleg reel to reel tapes, they are ‘roentgenizdat’  – x-ray press.

The X-Ray Audio Project tells the stories of the people who made, played, and paid for these records, people who were at times persecuted and imprisoned for the music they loved. From our position of musical abundance and almost complete absence of censorship and in a time when individual songs have diminishing value, these stories resonate with a peculiar poignancy amplified by the discs’ skeletal, intimate images.  The project, which I founded after discovering an x-ray record in St Petersburg a few years ago, has now evolved into a book, documentary, live events and an exhibition all created with my collaborator, the photographer Paul Heartfield.  The exhibition will open at GARAGE Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow in August 2017.