Monday, April 27, 2015

X-Ray Audio: Guest Post by Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld

Below is a guest post in which our good friend Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld tells the fascinating story of what he terms "X-Ray Audio," aka Soviet-era bootleg records made from second hand X-Ray plates and containing forbidden western music such as jazz and rock and roll; See images above for a few examples.

On Friday, May 8th, Coates and Aleks Kolkowski will teach us more about the subject in an image, film and sound filled presentation at The Morbid Anatomy Museum entitled The X-Ray Audio Project: The Incredible story of Bootleg Technology, Cold War Culture and Human Endeavour, sponsored by Art in the Age spirits. You can find out more  here. You can also find more about Coates' project--and see more images and hear audio!--on his X-Ray Audio project website by clicking here.
They are images of pain and damage inscribed with the ghostly sounds of forbidden pleasure. They are fragile pictures of the inside of Soviet citizens overlayed with the music they secretly loved. I first saw one when I was wandering in a market in St. Petersburg a few years ago with Russian friends. It looked somewhat like record and somewhat like an x-ray. My friends didn't know what it was and the man who sold it to me seemed dismissive.  I brought it home and tried to learn more. My research was the beginning of journey that led to a strange and poignant story. It is a story of Forbidden Culture, Bootleg technology and most of all, of Human Endeavor.  
In the Soviet Union in the years after the Second World War, a lot of music was forbidden. Most Western music was forbidden just because it was Western. The official reason given might be that it was decadent or bourgeois, but really it was just because it was American or British and we were the enemy. A lot of Russian music was also forbidden. Anything made by emigres, those White Russians who had left after the revolution, was off-limits because by definition they were considered traitors, whatever their repertoire and even if they had once been approved of. And much domestic Russian music was forbidden, or at the very least deemed 'unofficial'. Why?
From 1932, all Soviet art, literature, poetry, film and music was subject to a censor. The ideologues of the Soviet Union determined that all the arts had to be in the service of socialist realism. Self expression was out. Much popular  music, especially those in the  'criminal' or 'gyspy' genres were deemed to be 'low culture' and would not pass the censor.  Perhaps it showed the dark side of Socialist Realism or portrayed violence, jealousy or the rough and tumble of love and lust and life.  Even certain rhythms such as the foxtrot and tango were forbidden as they were said to lead to lewd behaviour and general frivolity.
But people had a huge  desire to hear this music, it was their culture. They wanted to hear songs that were played in the gulag or sung by those who had returned; songs from earlier, less-controlled times; songs by artists who they had once loved  but were now forbidden, even songs they had heard played by a local singer at a secret concert. And of course there was a demand for the exotic, cool sounds of Western music: boogie-woogie; rock & roll or jazz. But official records of this music would be rare and very expensive. And so a bootleg culture arose.
We had such a culture in the West too once  - illicit live recordings of concerts made on vinyl or tape in the days before the internet changed everything. But even if illegal, these were relatively easy to make. In the Soviet Union after the war, it was not so easy. The bootleggers' first technical problem, obtaining a machine to record with, was relatively straightforward. Literature existed from the 1930s explaining recording techniques and various recording machines had been brought back from Germany as trophies after the war. These could be adapted or copied but a further problem existed. You couldn't just go and buy the discs to record on. The state completely controlled the means of manufacturing records.
But an extraordinary alternative source of raw materials was discovered - used x-ray plates obtained from local hospitals. And that is where this story begins. Many older people in Russia remember seeing strange vinyl-type discs when they were young. The discs had partial images of skeletons on them and were called 'bones' or 'ribs'. They contained ghostly music - music that had been forbidden. This practice of copying music onto x-rays got going in Leningrad, a port where it was easier to obtain illicit records, but it spread, first to Moscow and then throughout the Soviet Union. 
With the photographer Paul Heartfield, for the last couple of years I have been interviewing and collecting images for The X-Ray Audio project, an initiative to record the testimony of people who were involved in this incredible trade. As well as live events, an exhibition and a documentary, we will be publishing a book about the x-ray bootlegs and the people who made them with Strange Attractor Press in Autumn 2015.
And we are also making new x-ray records. At our live events, sound artist and researcher Aleks Kolkowski cuts new plates using a vintage analogue record-cutting lathe from music written especially for the occasion - or from live performances
X-Ray Audio is a story about strange skeletal flexi-discs for sure, but it is really a story of people. People for whom music held a value it probably never can for us. People for who the sound of the music they really loved was only available 'off the bone'.
Stephen Coates
Images: X-Ray Records, Photos by Paul Heartfield

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Paris Morgue as Portent and the Medical Museum as Threat in George du Maurier's Trilby, 1894

A few days ago, Resident Film Programmer and Arcane Media Specialist Joel Schlemowitz screened the 1931 film Svengali at The Morbid Anatomy Museum. Although the film had many charms, it left me yearning for the novel on which it was based, George du Maurier's Trilby, an instant sensation upon its publication as a serial in 1894. A wonderful (if flawed) book and hugely popular in its time, it is little read today, probably because of the overtly antisemitic character of Svengali, the infernal Jewish mesmerist and musical virtuoso who drives much of the stories action.

Despite this, there is much to recommend this strange and idiosyncratic book; although meandering and uneven, it is worth reading if only for the sequences which try to suggest the unimaginable and otherworldly beauty of "la Svengali's" voice. Also of note is the role played by the Paris Morgue, which acts as a kind of running theme and portent throughout the book, looming over the painters in their studio. At the time the action in the book takes place--the mid 19th century--the Paris Morgue was a popular tourist attraction, drawing crowds eager to view the bodies of the unclaimed dead which were laid out behind large plate glass windows, ostensibly for the purposes of identification. You can find out more about this phenomenon here.

As if all this were not good enough, there is an incredible moment in the book where Svengali torments our hapless heroine with whispered threats of putting her bones in a handsome case at the museum of the École de Médecine; the quote is a bit long, but worth including here in its entirety.

The quote follows; if you like what you read, I highly recommend giving the entire book a read! You can do so online by clicking here, or buy a copy of the book here.
"Ach, Drilpy," he would say, on a Sunday afternoon, "how beautiful you are! It drives me mad! I adore you. I like you thinner; you have such beautiful bones! Why do you not answer my letters?... What do you know of Monsieur Alfred de Musset? We have got a poet too, my Drilpy. His name is Heinrich Heine... He adores French grisettes. He married one. Her name is Mathilde, and she has got süssen füssen, like you. He would adore you too, for your beautiful bones; he would like to count them one by one, for he is very playful, like me. And, ach! what a beautiful skeleton you will make! And very soon, too, because you do not smile on your madly-loving Svengali... You shall have a nice little mahogany glass case all to yourself in the museum of the École de Médecine, and Svengali shall come in his new fur-lined coat, smoking his big cigar of the Havana, and push the dirty carabins out of the way, and look through the holes of your eyes into your stupid empty skull, and up the nostrils of your high bony sounding-board of a nose without either a tip or a lip to it, and into the roof of your big mouth, with your thirty-two big English teeth, and between your big ribs into your big chest, where the big leather lungs used to be, and say, 'Ach! what a pity she had no more music in her than a big tomcat!' And then he will look all down your bones to your poor crumbling feet, and say, 'Ach! what a fool she was not to answer Svengali's letters!' and the dirty carabins shall—"

 ... Then Svengali, scowling, would play Chopin's funeral march more divinely than ever; and where the pretty, soft part comes in, he would whisper to Trilby, "That is Svengali coming to look at you in your little mahogany glass case!"  
... Besides which, as he played the lovely melody he would go through a ghoulish pantomime, as though he were taking stock of the different bones in her skeleton with greedy but discriminating approval. And when he came down to the feet, he was almost droll in the intensity of his terrible realism. But Trilby did not appreciate this exquisite fooling, and felt cold all over.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Fragments of Faith: Victorian Hairwork: A New Film by Ronni Thomas for Morbid Anatomy Museum Presents!

Below, film maker in residence Ronni Thomas--director of The Midnight Archive--introduces his newest film for our new Morbid Anatomy Museum Presents series, on Victorian hair art jewelry, with Karen Bachmann, teacher of our popular class on the same topic.

You can view the film above or by clicking here; Stay tuned for more episodes which will premiere monthly on our new You Tube channel, which can be found here!
Victorian Hair work was one of those things I just didn't 'get' at first... But I looked into it anyway. Karen Bachmann is a friend, colleague and fellow NYC born reformed (to some degree) street punk, and happens to be the authority on the subject, combining academic knowledge with charm and flair... It wasn't until I screened the film for my sister in law that I finally 'got it'. She has no specific interest in the morbid or the tragically designed, but she reacted pretty impressively to this film... Forgive me for this but: it's hair, AND jewelry combined... It's for women... (With impeccable taste). Once I shifted my perspective from subjective to objective, it all made sense and flowed editorially. These are amazingly designed works of elaborate art incorporating skill and sentiment in pitch perfect harmony.  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter Everybody!

Happy Easter, everyone! And to celebrate this anniversary of Jesus Christ's post-death resurrection: Piero della Francesca's wonderful mural "Resurrection," completed in the 1460s.

Image and credit sourced here.