We copy legally available music illegally all the time and think nothing of it. But things were different some 60-70 years ago in Soviet Russia where the term ‘legally available music’ referred to music that wasn’t prohibited by the state censor. And a lot of it was. Back then those who copied music didn’t do it because they were too stingy to splash out on the latest Ella Fitzgerald or Elvis Presley record. No. They simply didn’t have access to those records. Some music was banned – mostly Western, but also that by some unruly domestic crooners – some was simply difficult to get hold of.
So what do you do? As always in such circumstances, you improvise and invent. Luckily, there was an overabundance of old X-ray films in Soviet hospitals. Someone also got hold of a nifty machine that could turn an image of a human skull into a jazz record. Mind-boggling, eh?
The technology wasn’t only used in Russia, in fact it is claimed it had been used extensively in Hungary earlier, where shellac resin, back then used to create records, was unavailable after the second World War. Old X-ray films became a cheap substitute.
The X-Ray Audio project is the brainchild of Stephen Coates, a London-based musician who discovered X-ray based music in Russia a few years ago. Together with photographer Paul Heartfield they travelled back to Russia to meet the surviving bootleggers, document their stories and preserve what remains of this once-thriving underground business.
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.
I met with Stephen and Paul at The Horse Hospital in central London (home of the project for a couple of months) to find out more about X-Ray Audio for my ongoing Creative Types project:
Previous Creative Types:
Rob Lowe aka Supermundane (video)
Dave Walker (video)
Niall McDiarmid (video)
James M. Barrett (video)
Roger Ballen (video)
Paul Clarke (video)
Adde Adesokan (interview/pics)
Pablo Delgado (photos)