Freedom of Expression: An Interview About Music on the Bones

by - September 28, 2023

It was during dinner with a family friend that Jody Marriott Bar-Lev first heard the term “music on the bones”. This friend had been a Jewish refusenik, denied permission to leave the Soviet Union until the 1980s. They explained that one of the many freedoms taken away from them was music, and at great personal risk, they copied records from The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and more onto disused x-ray films. The story sparked creativity for Bar-Lev, and through this fascinating piece of history she has created a multi-media platform.

“I was just absolutely enthralled with what it represented,” she said. “These x-ray records were visual representations of the power of music and I became obsessed with it.”

Music on the Bones is a fictional book inspired by the true events of this time. Max, a young doctor, is trapped behind the Iron Curtain. He and his friends are striving to work for freedom of expression, and freedom from oppression, against an Orwellian backdrop of constant surveillance and persecution. They are willing to risk imprisonment, or worse, to listen to the forbidden music of the free world, which holds the promise of another life. Valerie is an American college student who has the opportunity to study Communism in the USSR. When their two worlds collide, both of their lives will change.

Although the story is fictional, actual photos of the x-rays films in Bar-Lev’s collection made their way onto the pages. Her collection began shortly after learning about it, and was first able to track down a copy of The Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week”. She now has around 80 records in her collection.

She knew right away that this story was more than a fictional book. She saw an album and film as part of her creative journey, and after sharing her ideas with one of her former industry collaborators, Stephan Manpearl, she brought him on as an advisor.

“To me, it triggered a lot of growing up as a young person in the 60s and being familiar with what was happening in both the United States and other parts of the world,” Manpearl said. “There was oppression of rights and various movements that were all fueled by the great music of the 60s, and when [Bar-Lev] told me about this I got goosebumps. It’s about how music is a universal language and it connects with people.”

Since this story is a testament to the power of music, it was only fitting that the music from this era became a soundtrack to the novel. Bar-Lev wanted to re-record tracks that she had actual x-ray films of, and there was no better place to record them than at Abbey Road Studios.

“These were tracks that people were literally putting their lives on the line to be able to just listen to them,” she said. “The Beatles were one of the major artists that people again risked their lives to listen to over there and make the copies onto the x-rays, hence Abbey Road.”

She recruited two powerhouse vocalists for the project, Katie Kadan and Chris “CJW” Weaver. Both artists were contestants on seasons 17 and 13 of The Voice, respectively, and brought a dynamic to these songs that spark a new generation.

Weaver remembers getting the initial email from Bar-Lev in 2017, and after a global pandemic halted all plans of moving forward, she finally reached out again in 2021. He couldn’t believe that out of all the singing competition television programs and contestants, she sought him out.

“There was just something about her, before ever meeting her, and once I understood what ‘Music on the Bones’ represented, that’s when I [knew] this is something amazing to be a part of,” he said.

He remembers the first time walking up to Abbey Road Studios and seeing music lovers from around the world stand outside the gates to take photos. Once he was allowed to step inside of those gates and into the building, that was when the moment really hit him.

“They filmed us walking inside and in that moment I realized we’re officially in the place where the world’s best and the world’s brightest musicians and geniuses have been and spent days here making music that you love,” he said. “It’s such an energy and it’s so charged, you really can’t explain it.”

Weaver shared that the plan was to play through the songs a few times just for the band to get a feel of the tracks before playing a few more times for the actual recording. However, the mood changed the minute they heard the studio musicians. It became much more of a jam session, and made the experience that much more meaningful.

Another part that added to the experience was the collaboration encouraged by Bar-Lev. Before recording began, everyone sat together and offered suggestions or ideas that ended up making recording much more enjoyable.

“I’m learning to be an artist, and I think this was a major artistry moment for me because I had input and arrangement of any song,” Weaver said. “Through this whole experience, [Bar-Lev] has taught me how a true artist and musician should be treated, and I can’t go back to taking anything less. It’s really raised my standard of who I am as a musician and how I see myself and how I want to be seen.”

There was a moment during their time at the studio that Bar-Lev was brought into the post-production studio and they were able to play one of the x-ray recordings of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun”. Here she was, holding and now listening to a symbol of resistance against oppression, in a place that holds so much meaning to the legacy of music.

“[‘Music on the Bones’] resonates in terms of what people will do for freedom of expression,” Manpearl said. “It’s an incredible story of what people will do for freedom and the magic and power of music, to be able to unite people and be able to resonate, regardless of what language they speak or what country they’re from.”

The message behind Music on the Bones is still relevant today. With bans on music and books still being pushed, the risk to be creative is still there. Bar-Lev was able to be creative when writing the book, and has since turned it into various ways to get that message across. An upcoming album and film are just some of the parts of the story waiting to be told.

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