Boston Orchestra Makes Typewriters Sing

Boston Typewriter Orchestra performs at the Somerville Arts Festival. Via YouTube hide caption

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The Boston Typewriter Orchestra performs at the annual stART on the Street festival held in Worcester, Mass. Courtesy Boston Typewriter Orchestra hide caption

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The Boston Typewriter Orchestra performs at the annual stART on the Street festival held in Worcester, Mass.

Courtesy Boston Typewriter Orchestra

In the good old typewriter days, typists would sit together in rows and columns and transcribe handwritten text to type. To an outsider, these typing rooms must have sounded like madhouses for woebegone secretaries.

But what if this nerve-racking mix coalesced all at once into a form, streamlined into rhythm?

Enter the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

The BTO has played for multiple audiences at clubs, festivals and private parties. Derrik Albertelli, executive typist of the BTO, explains that the group got its start when a friend was given a children's typewriter by his girlfriend.

"She presented it to him at this bar and he started just kind of pounding away on it, in time with the music," says Albertelli. "He started to annoy the waitress and she wanted him to stop and he said, 'No, no, that's OK, I'm the conductor of The Boston Typewriter Orchestra.'"

Dressed in starchy white shirts and cheap polyester ties, the group creates a 1950s-style atmosphere, casually chatting about their weekends as if they are really in an office. Then, all of a sudden, the click-click of the key stroking finds a groove.

The moment of transition during their performance when the random typewriter noise suddenly hitches into rhythm is thrilling. It's also one of the secrets of the BTO's success.

"Mostly I'm just a big bag of nervous twitches. So this is a nice outlet therapy for it," says Alex Holman, a BTO member known for his hard typing style. "I tend to type with some emphasis and so I find I have to retire typewriters when I've broken too many of the keys or too many of the components."

Albertelli says that this kind of harsh treatment has resulted in some negative attention:

"A lot of people are upset with us because of the amount of abuse we put the typewriters through," says Albertelli. "We whale on them pretty hard and we break a lot of them, so there's a lot of outcry where they're just like 'These people need to stop breaking typewriters.' "

Unfortunately, "these people" don't seem likely to stop breaking typewriters anytime soon. Bad news for the typewriter enthusiasts, good news for music and art lovers.

"In a way I think we're still trying to evolve what we can do with a typewriter," says Albertelli. "We're still figuring things out about its capabilities and figuring things out about building our own technique."

By transforming a now-obsolete piece of office equipment into a musical instrument, The Boston Typewriter Orchestra is keeping the intricate typewriter from becoming extinct. So long live the typewriter, and as the group's MySpace slogan proclaims, remember: "The revolution will be typewritten."

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