In the 1950s, music enthusiasts in the Soviet Union made copies of banned Western records using sheets of x-ray film purchased from clinics and hospitals. Photographic film, like wax, acetate, or vinyl, is thick and firm enough to be used with commercially available music engraving machines. X-rays weren’t the ideal medium, being prone to warping, but they worked well enough, and were cheap to boot.
“St. Louis Blues” dubbed onto a skull, from here
Roentgenizdat are interesting, first, as a series of artifacts. Prefiguring picture disks, non-circular shapes, and other graphically novel record gimmicks, these albums feel like an early example of what few people got into until the 70s and 80s – experimentation with records as objects. Although dubbing onto x-ray was in this case a matter of political necessity rather than unprovoked aesthetic tinkering, the dubbers quite clearly paid attention to the images they chose, as well as the placement of the center holes. (See this gallery for examples, many of which are lovely.) Record collectors in particular seem to like them for this reason.
Meanwhile, researchers like Cadava are taken by roentgenizdat because of their metaphorical richness. 20th-century philosophers were very much preoccupied by the advent of mechanical reproduction and its consequences (Benjamin and Adorno on music, and Barthes on photography, spring to mind as obvious examples, but there are many others as well), and death is always in the mix – recorded sounds and images, the moment they’re captured, become more immortal than our bodies. For this reason, a series of objects that make the relationship between mortality and recorded music visually explicit carries deep poetic power. Cadava discusses.
The third source of intrigue is one that hasn’t gotten much attention so far, but that is timely now because Professor Martin Daughtry is doing research on it in preparation for a publication. That is, the sound of roentgenizdat. The aforelinked LiveJournal gallery includes MP3s of each song. I am not certain that these are taken from the x-ray records (although I suspect so), but in any case they remind us that the recordings have a sonic specificity. The recording medium affects what and how we hear, and it has a history that extends into the realms of visual technology, medicine, censorship, commercial networks, and the availability of raw materials. The ways in which our hearing of music is mediated includes not only the format as such, and not only the choices of musicians and producers, but a whole confluence of political circumstances.