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Book review

Overview of publications for the exhibition Bone Music

The selection was compiled by Ilmira Bolotyan, Valery Ledenev, Mariana Karysheva, Maria Shmatko, and Yuri Yurkin.

Bone Music, an exhibition currently on show at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, examines the phenomenon of Soviet music bootlegging, a period in which music lovers used x-ray films to record and distribute music, unavailable in the country at the time. Garage Education Centre have prepared a selection of literature on the subject and its socio-cultural context.

Viktor Slavkin. The Monument to the Uknown Stilyaga

‘Artist. Rezhisser. Teatr’, 1996

Viktor Slavkin was first and foremost known as the author of legendary plays of the ‘new wave’. He was also a screenwriter and one of the presenters of the TV programme Staraya Kvartira. For many years he served as an editor at the Satire and Humour department of Yunost magazine, while also writing his own humorous short stories. He was one of the few specialists in stilyagas,—a Soviet youth subculture of the 1950s—expert (as much as it was possible in the USSR) in Western culture, and jazz lover.

The Monument to the Uknown Stilyaga comprises memoirs, documentary materials, and fragments of the author’s own plays. Key parts of the book are devoted to Slavkin’s memories of staging his plays A Young Man's Grown-Up Daughter and Serso, his work with Anatoly Vasiliev, public reaction to emergence of scenic ‘non-heroes’ and facts on Soviet censorship. In the finale of the book readers will find shocking details of the author’s life, which we won’t elaborate on here.

There is a scene in Grown-Up Daughter, in which characters are looking at an x-ray-film record, with the song ‘Chucha’ on it, popular in stilyagas circles. "Guys, this record needs to go to a museum,—says one of the characters.—Young people don’t even know that our first jazz records were made with x-ray films. Bone jazz! Rib music! My grandmother’s skeleton!". The book also remarks on the historically important role Krokodil magazine played in the subculture. By publishing caricatures and satirical remarks, this publication unintentionally dispersed information and provided ideas on how to look and talk ‘stylishly’ to those aspiring stilyagas. Although styliagas were always portrayed in a grotesque way, articles in Krokodil and satirical comedies of the time assisted the actors from the V.V. Stanislavsky and V.I. Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre in preparing for the stage production of A Young Man's Grown-Up Daughter (1978).

Slavkin also wrote on the strong condemnation of those standing out from the crowd with their looks in the 1950s and later. He pointed out that the protest expressed by styliagas was more of a biological one in nature—‘a protest of a young organism against an old mundane environment’—however those in power still perceived them as political enemies. Volunteers, police, and Komsomol organizations were gathering force to deprive styliagas of their future: they were expelled from universities and Komsomol for their weird style of dancing, skinny trousers, and their love of jazz. Historical parallels to the phenomenon of styliagas may be found in other generations, and that is exactly why the book by Slavkin doesn’t cease to be relevant with time, and is important for understanding the mechanisms of repression in culture. I.B.

Rock Music in the USSR: An Attempt of a Popular Encyclopedia

‘Kniga’, 1990

Notwithstanding censorship and prohibition, by the time the encyclopedia Rock Music in the USSR was published, the rock music tradition in the USSR had already been present for decades. A 300-page volume compiled by the ‘leading voice in rock’ Artemy Troitsky with a foreword by poet Andrey Voznesensky gives a detailed account of a whole variety of existent sub-genres of rock music from all around the USSR.

The articles in the encyclopedia provide information on dozens of Soviet rock bands and attempt to analyze their oeuvre. The book also includes reviews of local rock scenes in particular cities, regions, and republics, and lists the biggest rock festivals of the time. The following chapters are of particular interest: ‘Vocabulary of Rock-Communication’, that documents rock-vocabulary of the day, and ‘Rock-Practice’, that talks about administrative and material components of the rock bands routine. The latter gives insights not merely into specifics of Soviet musicians’ lives, but also into the technical side of their occupation, including recording methods and further distribution of concert records and music albums. Such strategies inherited the traditions of ‘bone music’, the history of which is currently illustrated by the show at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. M.K.

Alexei Yurchak. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation

Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2014

We have previously written about this book by Alexei Yurchak, anthropologist, professor at University of California, Berkley, in our previous review. Yet the depths of this theoretical work, that was met with great acclaim by professional community, justifies us addressing it on numerous occasions.

In his study Yurchak develops the idea of ‘deterritorialization’: that special modus operandi of Soviet people, shaped in the period of the late USSR. He posits that Soviet citizens existed simultaneously ‘inside and outside’ of the system in place, ‘inside its institutional and social forms, but outside of any literal meanings’. ‘A state of a subject outside of a system… implies moving out of a system’s sight or, more precisely, its “regime of visibility” <…> Such subject, while continuing to exist inside a system, can still follow its symbolical, legal, linguistic and other codes’.

‘Bone bootlegging’, a theme of the exhibition at Garage, is conceptualized by Yurchak as one of the spaces and also a technique of ‘deterritorialization’. ‘A person was listening to and looking at what was omnipresent [records on x-ray films], yet remained out of the system’s sight and hearing, which was something simultaneously non-existent and real… strictly intimate, as an x-ray film, yet public, belonging to the members of a private circle’. In a small chapter devoted to ‘bone music’, the described phenomenon receives theoretical grounding, supplied with examples, interviews with the events' contemporaries, and thoroughly-annotated quotes. V.L.

Artemy Troitsky. Rock in the Union: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s…

Iskusstvo, 1991

This book by Artmey Troitsky, as the author himself points out, ‘is not a reference or a theory book, but rather an attempt of individual experiencing’. Mainly thanks to the narrative structure, that resembles a personal diary, it differs from the encyclopedia Rock Music in the USSR, mentioned above. The phenomenon of Soviet rock is not presented in an insubstantial way and its tone brings a quality of chamber music instead. The reader joins the author at a concert rehearsal, the fitting of beatnik shoes, and a journey on a cold Moscow-Leningrad train. Troitsky doesn’t only reconstruct the timeline of events, but the spirit of the time, that he witnessed himself.

The chapter ‘Boogie on the Bones’ tells of stilyagas, who pioneered the practice of bootlegging on used x-ray films. In the chapters ‘The Beatles Have Arrived’ Troitsky writes on the Baltic ‘rock-machine that works on the rhythm-and-blues fuel’ and American ‘clamorous rock-n-roll’. The rock movement was in its heyday (beat) in the 1970s. In the eponymous chapter, the parallel is driven between the still-underground rock lyricism and academic poetry, that attracted wide audience. Later, the two merged in the songs of Andrey Makarevich and oeuvre of intellectual bards. In the 1970s, Artemy Troitsky organized the first rock festival in Chernogolovka, and the same period was marked by birth of the scampish ‘new wave’, that differed from progressive rock. The eighties (in the chapter ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’) were marked, on the one hand, by opening of the first recording studios, and, on the other, by the lists of ‘ideologically harmful’ musicians. ‘A stream of steady realism, even naturalism emerged in our rock’—recalls Boris Grebenshchikov on the first USSR record by Mike Naumenko.

Perestroika resolved questions raised by glasnost: newspapers became more interesting to read and music also progressed (‘Nautilus Pompilius’, ‘Alisa’, ‘Kino’, Alexander Bashlachev). In the closing chapter ‘Sure Game’ Troitsky derives a formula of success in rock: music needs to be made by people, who are, in the first place, free, and not by people desperately trying to justify their freedom. M.S.

X-ray Audio: the Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone (ed. by Stephen Coates)

Strange Attractor Press, 2015

The current publication was compiled by Stephen Coates, composer, music producer, and curator of the Bone Music exhibition, who devoted many years to studying this phenomenon of Soviet unofficial culture.

X-Ray Audio tells the story of Soviet bone music technology. It comprises a complex essay by Stephen Coates himself, interviews with music critic Artemy Troitsky, founder of The Beatles museum in Russia Kolya Vasin, composer Alexander Kolkovsky, collector Rudi Fuchs, and memories of other contemporaries. These materials, illustrated by images of the actual records, draw a concise picture of ideological, technological, and historical aspects of samizdat music culture. Y.Y.

 

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