In a different key: Meet the Boston Typewriter Orchestra
It looks like a group of people at work, in the 1960s. But what the Boston Typewriter Orchestra creates with its old-school, mechanical typewriters is a mix of music, comedy and satire. There’s definite beat, rhythm, even tune. To offset the lack of actual notes, there’s often singing, with comedic lyrics also commenting on work culture.
“You will not be able to turn on, tune in and white out / You will not be able to lose yourself in copy and paste and skip out for coffee during meetings / For The Revolution Will Be Typewritten,” go the opening lines of one song.
The core members are Derrik Albertelli, Christopher Keene, Brendan Quigley, Alex Holman and Jay O’Grady, aged 40 to 60, all with day jobs (biologist, software engineer, banker, crossword constructor, librarian). All members dress in formal work wear when playing.
They’ve been playing together since 2004, perform live in the US and have released three albums, the latest being Workstation to Workstation (2020). Tunes drawn on a range of genres, from metal to hip hop, and their music is also available on their website.
Wknd chatted with Albertelli about why they do what they do — and how.
How did you come up with the idea of music from typewriters?
A former member of the group, Tim Devin, received the gift of a typewriter from his girlfriend while they were in a bar one night. He started typing along to the music, which began to annoy the staff there, who asked him to stop. He replied, “It’s OK, I’m the conductor for The Boston Typewriter Orchestra”. Thinking there was something to the idea, he decided to call up a handful of people to see whether or not he could make it a reality.
How does it work — do you need a certain number of musicians, a certain variety of machines?
It’s effectively like a drum circle. We typically do not like to perform with less than four people. At a maximum we’ve performed with nine. The variety of machines is an important element. Some are large and have a really thumpy sound while the smaller portable models have more snap. We regularly employ plastic sheets, metal pipes, bells and any other materials we can fit into our typewriters.
What kind of music can a typewriter make? How would you describe it?
When we began, everything was mostly an improvised jam. We eventually grew to adopt more traditional song structures and added lyrics and singing. Surrounding all of this is a sort of stage performance where we’re playing the role of office drones. Interstitial comedic bits are a feature of our live performances.
What are its limitations?
We’re not creating notes per se, so melody is not an option and that’s a big part of the reason why we introduced singing. Another [limitation] is the simple fact of using these machines like instruments. They take a beating and don’t always respond the way you want them to.
What’s the most surprising thing to you about music from typewriters?
That we’ve been doing it for so long… for over 16 years. The public’s sustained interest in the group has carried us further than any of us had ever anticipated.
Who is this music for?
Generally, it’s for people who are into percussive music or niche acts. Typewriter enthusiasts definitely make up a fair part of our audience.
What’s the easiest and most difficult kind of music to play on a typewriters?
I find being able to fall into a hip-hop type of groove to be the easiest because it’s rhythmic, translates really well. Because the attack of a typewriter is so sharp, hip hop helps to humanise it a bit.