If you asked me when the history of bootleg music began, I would have assumed it arrived with the invention of the cassette tape, something small, inexpensive and portable that was easily duplicated in any garage from deck A to deck B. In reality, widespread bootlegging dates back even further, to the 1950s in the Soviet Union where music lovers, desperate for banned Western tunes, devised an ingenious way to print their own records. The only problem was the scarcity of vinyl.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. With the aid of a special device, people started pressing banned jazz and rock n’ roll music on thick radiographs scavenged from the dumpsters of hospitals. X-rays were plentiful (not to mention cheap), and while the records could only be pressed on a single side, the music they produced using a standard turntable was passable. The recordings even had a catchy name: bone music. From an interview with author Anya von Bremzen via NPR:
“They would cut the X-ray into a crude circle with manicure scissors and use a cigarette to burn a hole. You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Ellington on Aunt Masha’s brain scan—forbidden Western music captured on the interiors of Soviet citizens.”
By 1958 the authorities caught on and the act of making x-ray records was made illegal. It wasn’t long before the largest distribution networks of illicit bone music were discovered and shut down. You can see more scans of bone music over on this page created by Jozsef Hajdu, and FastCo has a great article about the entire phenomenon. (via Junk Culture, NPR, FastCo)
Share this story
Another day, another collection of fascinating discoveries from medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel who previously introduced the internet to his observations on the history of doodles, color theory, and rare forms of bookbinding. Kwakkel has also been investigating how bookmakers found creative solutions around damaged parchment—thin membranes of cow and sheepskin used for printing books between the fifth and thirteenth centuries before the rise of paper. Parchment was extremely delicate and costly to manufacture well, so imperfections from animal hair follicles to small tears and texture anomalies were left for the poor scribes to contend with.
After witnessing their doodling artistry, it should come as no surprise that medieval scribes had a host of ideas to work around bad parchment, from webs of silk embroidery to cheeky illustrations, the blemishes were incorporated right into the physical texts. Although a different medium, the process is uncannily similar to the ancient Japanese process of repairing broken ceramics, Kintsugi, where fractures in pots or bowls are mended with precious metal, acknowledging the history of the imperfect object instead of discarding it.
Share this story
The Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong was built gradually—building on top of building—over time. Without a single architect, the ungoverned and most densely populated district became a haven for drugs, crime and prostitution until it was demolished in 1993. Photo documentation of the site exists but for the most part much of the inner-workings of the city remained a mystery.
Perhaps due to its proximity, Japan, in particular, developed a keen interest towards Kowloon. Its demolition in 1993 was broadcast on national television. But watching the footage, what most spectators didn’t realize was that up until the night before demolition a team of Japanese researchers were taking precise measurements and documenting the vacated city. Their findings were compiled into a book that, among other things, featured this panoramic cross section of the city depicting what life was like inside. You can read more about the book on Spoon & Tamago, and if you look hard enough, a few rare copies of it are available online.
Share this story
Located in a park near the center of Lede, Belgium, the Castle of Mesen dates back to the 17th century where it served as a home for various lords before a conversion to an industrial site. Throughout the 1800s the complex was used as a gin distillery, a tobacco factory, and a sugar refinery. In 1897 the castle was then sold to a religious order who constructed an impressive neo-gothic chapel and turned the entire facility into a boarding school.
Although it was still in use up until the 1960s, a tragic storm of abandonment, looting, and a failed attempt to designate the castle as a monument lead to a decision to demolish of the entire castle just a few years ago. Lucky for us, photographer Jan Stel of Past Glory managed to sneak inside and capture a few amazing shots before it disappears forever. The juxtaposition of the stained glass windows and decaying roof and sprawling foliage is especially striking. See more from this series here. (via Arch Atlas)
Share this story
Medieval Book Historian Erik Kwakkel Discovers and Catalogs 800-Year-Old Doodles in Some of the World’s Oldest Books
For the past few years, medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel has been poring over some of the world’s oldest books and manuscripts at Leiden University, The Netherlands, as part of his ongoing research on pen trials. Pen trials are small sketches, doodles, and practice strokes a medieval scribe would make while testing the ink flow of a pen or quill. They usually involve funny faces, letter strokes, random lines, or geometric shapes and generally appear in the back of the book where a few blank pages could be found. Kwakkel shares via email:
From a book historical perspective pen trials are interesting because a scribe tends to write them in his native hand. Sometimes, when they moved to a different writing culture (another country or religious house) they adapted their writing style accordingly when copying real text—books. The trials, however, are done in the style of the region they were trained in, meaning the individuals give some information about themselves away.
In some sense, these sketches are like fingerprints or signatures, little clues that reveal a bit about these long forgotten scribes who copied texts but who had no real opportunity to express themselves while working. Including additional sketches or even initials in these books was often forbidden.
While many of Kwakkel’s discoveries are standard pen trials, other doodles he finds relate to a human concept as universal as topics discussed in these 13th and 14th century books such as love, morals, or religion. Specifically: boredom. It seems the tedium of reading through a philosophy textbook or law manuscript dates back to the very invention of books. Some of these scribbles were even made hundreds of years after a book’s publication, suggesting no margin is sacred when monotony is concerned.
Lucky for us, Kwakkel has left a trail of ancient doodle discoveries all across the web on his Twitter account, his Tumblr, and on his recently established blog medievalbooks. His obsession with margin minutiae has lead to two scholarly publications and also caught the interest of NPR’s ‘How to Do Everything‘ who interviewed him last week. All images courtesy Erik Kwakkel, respective of noted libraries.
Share this story
Artist Kevin Weir Creates Ghostly Animated GIFs Using Archival Photos from the Library of Congress (Sponsor)
Art director and designer Kevin Weir uses historical black and white photographs forgotten to time as the basis for his quirky—and slightly disturbing—animated GIFs. His path to online GIF superstardom began when he was in high school. He tells us that “my parents’ boss bought me a copy of Photoshop and I decided I wanted to be some kind of designer.” Having mastered the software, he found himself five years later “making black and white GIFs as a way to occupy myself during the downtime of an internship I had during grad school.” He shared the images on his Tumblr, Flux Machine where they quickly went viral.
Weir makes use of photographs he finds in the Library of Congress online archive, and is deeply drawn to what he calls “unknowable places and persons,” images with little connection to present day that he can use as blank canvas for his weird ideas. Perhaps it’s the nature of his imagination, or maybe a result of the medium’s limited frames of animation to communicate anything too serious, but despite the creepiness factor, it’s hard to not to smile at the absurdity of his ideas.
Share this story
Editor's Picks: History
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.