Jamming with the Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Boston Typewriter Orchestra
Boston Typewriter Orchestra / Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Talking typewriters with the members of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra is like asking for a recommendation on a good Gibson guitar from Eric Clapton.

“The portable Remingtons, they have quicker key strikes, with a higher tenor note to them,” Brendan Emmett Quigley, a professional crossword puzzle maker and part-time musician, tells mental_floss. “A Smith-Corona Galaxy 12 has a power space function that makes a nice metallic clang sound.”

“Some don’t make enough noise,” adds member Jeff Breeze.

“Alex [Holman, a fellow member] is a pro at breaking them,” Quigley says. “He’ll hammer actual type on the type bar. There will be metal shears spiraling off onto the desk.”

The potential for protective eyewear is part of the deal for members of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, or BTO, a Boston-based musical group that summons the distinctive chirping noise of old manual typewriters to create catchy rhythms. Like something out of a 1940s montage on secretarial labor, the percussive clicking at one of their shows starts out haphazardly before slipping into sync. Melodies like “The Revolution Will Be Typewritten” and “Entropy Begins at the Office” are hammered out until some of them begin bleeding from their fingertips.

“It’s kind of like our own little fight club,” Brendan says. “You’ll see friends or colleagues and say, ‘You know, you should be part of this.’ And a certain type of person will go, ‘I need to be part of that.’”

Founded in late 2004, the origins of the BTO began in a diner. An artist named Tim Devin was drinking and was also in possession of a portable typewriter, which he began pecking at. When a waitress asked what he was doing, and possibly asking him to stop doing it, Devin replied that she shouldn’t worry: He was the conductor of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

Along with some friends, Devin took the joke and began to take it vaguely seriously, rehearsing with old manual typewriters and getting a feel for their musical abilities at private functions before officially debuting at the Art Beat festival in Boston in 2006.

“We played a little theater but wound up filling it up so it was standing room only,” Quigley says. From there, a rotating cast has performed between four and seven shows annually in and around New England, typically breaking up their sets with an irreverent “office” setting that both mocks and sympathizes with corporate culture.

“We’re sort of pulling from the collective unconscious about bad office jobs and office politics,” Alex Holman says. “It’s sort of an inscrutable performance.”

Word of mouth books most gigs for the Orchestra, which has appeared on National Public Radio and opened for musician Amanda Palmer in between gigs at poetry readings, libraries and clubs. (Quigley says they turned down a gig in Mumbai over a disagreement over travel expenses, but it’s not clear whether he’s serious.) “People hear about it and go, ‘We need to have this at our event,’” he says. Sometimes writing groups or typing-related functions invite them without realizing they really don’t write anything on the typewriters.

“We used paper early on but just got gobbeldygook,” Quigley says of the typed result of their jams. “Generally speaking, there’s no sound difference, so we stopped.”

Rehearsals are on Wednesdays. A two-hour practice might be “half beer drinking,” Holman says, and half actual composition. Attendance depends on whether any of the eight current members have other responsibilities. (Among their number: a librarian, an AIDS researcher, and a mortgage broker.) Some tunes have a spoken-word frame, while a few others contain vocals. “It’s a lot of taking a 10 to 15 minute-long groove and cherry-picking parts to make a performable song,” Holman says.

The group will perform next on December 21 at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, Massachusetts and is preparing to release their third album and first on vinyl, Termination without Prejudice, Volume 1, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. One new track, "Harold," will feature Holman on "lead roller bar."

“We know we’re a niche thing and we’re happy with that,” Quigley says. “I don’t think any of us could handle overnight success.”