Cultural History

BONE MUSIC: Recording Communism at the ICA

November 20, 2016

Irina Margareta Nistor

Irina Margareta Nistor

Resistance to dominant political forces can come in many forms. A small audience at the ICA on Sunday was treated to two excellent discussions about two forms of resistance in the former Soviet bloc and Romania. At the heart of both stories are illegal bootlegging and the remarkable ingenuity people find when faced with censorship and oppression. Irina Margareta Nistor’s story is well known: Irina was a state translator working for Ceausescu’s Romanian TV in the 1980s, but moonlighted dubbing VHS copies of films for the citizens of Bucharest to watch illicitly. The astonishing story of bootlegged ‘bone music’ in the Cold War Soviet Union, unearthed by musician Stephen Coates, is perhaps less well known.

A few years ago, after a gig in St Petersburg, Coates was leafing through a flea market and found an object that intrigued him – a circular x-ray with grooves cut in it. Quizzing the store holder he found nothing out about it, but bought it anyway. Unknowingly, Coates had bought a relic of Cold War ‘leisure’: a bootlegged copy of a gramophone record that had been banned in the Soviet Union. The curious object set him on a course to discover more, the result of which is his fantastic X-ray audio project.

large_soviet_music____on_the_bone____vinyl_record__copy_on_medical_x-ray_fluorography__sheet__1950s___1960s__courtesy_stephen_coates_and_paul_heartfield__x-ray_audio

Bone music via Paul Heartfield

Citizens of the Soviet Union had daily life strictly proscribed – not just their work, but ‘leisure’ was tightly controlled. Cultural outputs of the West were not permitted and many forms of music were banned outright – jazz, blues, Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few – for fear they could incite Soviet youth to run amok. But fortunately human ingenuity and endeavour finds ways around such strictures as it did in this case: illegal copies of records made their way into the Soviet Union – typically pilots, diplomats, those that crossed borders regularly were the agents of import – and as copies came in, so copies of copies were made.

Ingenious minds soon solved the problem of how to design a copying machine in the form of home-made recording lathes, but the next problem was how to find material on which to copy – getting your hands on blank gramophone discs was not a viable option during the Cold War. A solution emerged that was literally part accident and part huge leap of imagination: there had been a number of fires at hospitals as a result of X-rays combusting. To mitigate against this, Soviet authorities decreed that X-rays should only be kept in hospitals for 1 year, after which they were to be destroyed. Serendipity intervened – the bootleggers now had x-rays on tap, secretly received from hospitals upon which they could inscribe illegal music – ‘bone music’ was born. (Though it’s not clear who had the initial spark of inspiration that an X-ray could  substitute for vinyl).

St. Louie Blues via Igor White

St. Louie Blues via Igor White

‘Bone music’ spread throughout the Soviet Union, and X-rays continued to be used to press out records until around 1964, at which time Khrushchev visited the US and saw first-hand the consumer goods – and music – that US citizens enjoyed. He permitted reel-to-reel tapes to be imported, which in a single stroke effectively eroded the bootleggers X-ray record market.

Bootlegging is at the heart of Irina Nistor’s story too. Irina was a state employee of Ceausescu’s Romanian government. When not working for the state, she illegally translated and dubbed approximately 3,000 VHS cassette films smuggled into Romania from the West. She started around 1984 – at which time Romania had only one state TV channel that broadcast two hours of programming every night: news, music and highly censored black and white propaganda films about the ‘workers’ efficiency in making great products for Romania’s citizens.

All this changed when one man – Irina never names him – started to smuggle VHS machines into Romania. Not only did this elusive brains behind the operation procure VHS machines, he also managed to get illegal copies of Western films – typically fine American fodder from Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Sylvester Stallone. People – usually about 20 – would gather in someone’s front room and have illicit evenings watching dubbed films, smoking and eating sunflower seeds as popcorn substitute. Remarkably, Irina dubbed them all. Films that made it past the censor for cinemas usually had subtitles – but her ‘boss’ didn’t have the patience or money for this, so he preferred Irina to dub them – usually in one sitting.

These films were copied and recopied: often viewers would have to use their imagination to fill in the grainy scene on the TV set, such was the degraded quality of some of the VHS tapes. The VHS tapes were also rare commodities, so Irina and the bootleggers would end up recording over and re-dubbing over films, to reuse the tapes. Irina was once considered to have the most memorable voice in Romania after Ceausescu’s: not a bad result for an underground artist, in a totalitarian terror-state.

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VHS in Off-World / Film Dubbing as Subversion at the ICR was supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute, London. If you want to know more about Stephen Coates X-ray audio project, please click on either of the Bone music images above. A documentary about Nistor’s dubbing story is available on Netflix: Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015).

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