The exhibition ‘Forbidden Music: X-Ray Audio in the USSR, 1940–1960,’ about the censorship of pop music in the former USSR, and its relevance in today’s world opened recently at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In collaboration with London-based curators and researchers Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield, the exhibit tells the story behind the ingenious and inventive “bone records” made by an underground community of bootleggers in the postwar Soviet Union from late 1940s to the early 1960s.
After the 1917 revolution when Russia became the Soviet Union, a massive shift in culture took place, according to Coates.
“At first, it was a very exciting time for Russian music, as composers and electronic pioneers were encouraged to experiment with radical new ways to create a soundtrack for the new era,” said Coates. “Yet as the 1920s passed and Stalin came to power, the climate changed and avantgarde artists came to be regarded as decadent and degenerate. Art, it was proclaimed, should be easily understood by ordinary people.”
As this restrictive political environment – the ideological dictates of totalitarianism – created the ideal recipe for innovation and improvisation. At the risk of persecution, music lovers found unique and unconventional methods for recording and distributing music.
“In the modern age, as art came to be identified with autonomy and creative freedom, music became one means of political protest and individual resistance to the existing social order,” said Tel Aviv Museum of Art Curator In-Charge Meira Yagid. “These ‘bone records’ constitute a fascinating chapter in the history of samizdat – the underground production and distribution of homemade cultural materials that were outlawed by the Soviet censorship authorities.”
Bone records were made using stealthily acquired rolls of rectangular X-ray film sheets, often from local hospitals. The X-ray sheets were cut by hand into discs about 15-30cm in diameter. These were called “bones” or “ribs,” and each of these records could hold three to four minutes of sound, which was usually a single “song.” They were predominantly single-sided, and recorded at 78 rpm.
“Broken hip joints, shattered knees, damaged hands, skulls, rib cages, and numerous other, often unidentifiable, fragments of anatomy appear under the spiral grooves of the recordings,” said Coates. “Images of pain and damage inscribed with the sound of forbidden pleasure; fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens layered with the ghostly music that they secretly loved; skin-thin slivers of DIY punk protest, made with effort and risk and sold on street corners. These are records of bone music, known in Russian as Roentgenizdat.”
The recordings ranged from jazz and Western rock ‘n’ roll to songs by Russian émigrés and gypsy romances. Each was one-of-a-kind, and while the records greatly varied in quality and would wear out quickly, they were inexpensive to produce and thus sold cheaply on the streets. Due to the nature of the material used, the records were also easy to roll up and conceal.
“The display of these cultural objects marks the intersection of music, the Cold War, underground culture, the history of recording technologies and recycling and repurposing trends. At the same time, it reflects the dynamic relations between coercion and resistance, and sheds light on the aesthetic of a creative endeavor shaped by numerous challenges and constraints” said Yagid.
While the practice of making bone music ended in the mid-1960s when reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorders were introduced, the artifacts themselves are visual and audible reminders of this specific time in Soviet history.
“Although bone music is about another time, about a half-forgotten culture in the Soviet Union, it is a story that still matters because music still matters,” said Coates. “Even now, when songs are almost free for most of us, it is a poignant reminder of how much freedom is worth.”
In addition to the historical materials and “bone records” on show are recent documentaries exploring injustice and censorship around the world, specifically drawing attention to those countries where musicians are targets of violence and where foreign radio is prohibited.
“These documentary films are concerned with the numerous connections tying together music, censorship, and freedom – not only in the USSR but also in Cambodia, Mali, Iran, and various countries in the Middle East” said Yagid.
Akin to its theme, the accompanying exhibition text materials rebuff convention. Instead of the traditional catalogue or pamphlet to accompany the show there is a specially created newspaper, which includes relevant articles and images about the topics discussed in the exhibition.
Throughout the duration of the exhibition, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will host an assortment of activities from tours and lectures to special events and record imprinting workshops for children. On February 20, TAMA will hold an international symposium on the topic of “Taboo Music.” The symposium will feature the artistic stylings of DJ Artemy Troitsky, followed by talks with Music Producer Stephen Coates, DJ and Russian activist Artemy Troitsky, economist and scholar Maksim Kravchinsky, director of the film Raving Iran Susanne Regina Meures, International activist and human rights advocate Magnus Ag, and Peter Lee, the president of the North Korea Strategy Center.Through May 12. Advanced registration to the International Symposium is required. For more information: (03) 607-7020 or www.tamuseum.org.il.