ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is Day to Day from NPR News. I am Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I am Madeleine Brand. You know, Alex, I have this old typewriter in my office and my kids look at with just an air of confused curiosity and then they go banging on it and they love it when all the keys stick together.
CHADWICK: That used to be so much fun.
BRAND: And it's fun for them. And you know, there's a group of grownups having fun with typewriters in a different way. The Boston Typewriter Orchestra makes music on them. Reporter Sean Hurley went to a recent show.
SEAN HURLEY: 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 imagine if this nerve-racking mix all at once coalesced into a form streamlined into rhythm, into music. This is Boston Typewriter Orchestra. The composition is called Qwerty Waltz. The BTO has played clubs, festivals, and private parties. But this night, it's a literary gig at the Boston Center for Adult Education. I ask Derrik Albertelli, executive typist of the BTO, how the group got its start.
Mr. DERRIK ALBERTELLI (Executive Typist, Boston Typewriter Orchestra): A mutual friend of ours was sitting in a bar with his girlfriend at that time and she had recently bought him a - like a children's typewriter. A little thing from Goodwill, I think, across the street. And he started just kind of pounding away on it. You know, in time with the music and things like that and he was starting to annoy the waitress. And she wanted to stop and he said, no,no, it's OK, ma'am. I am the conductor of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.
HURLEY: In their standard uniform of starchy white shirts and cheap polyester ties, the group creates a 1950s office atmosphere. They chat informally about their weekends, complaining about their work and the worry that the boss will be showing up at any moment. All while typing out of sync and out of rhythm, just like a real office. But then suddenly, the haphazard keystroking finds a groove.
Unidentified Man #1: How's your weekend?
Unidentified Man #2: Uuuh, I kind of do a lot of stuff around the house.
HURLEY: This moment of transition when the random typewriter noise suddenly hitches into rhythm is thrilling. It's one of the secrets of the BTO's success.
Mr. ALEX HOLMAN (Member, Boston Typewriter Orchestra): You know, usually I say, my band the Boston Typewriter Orchestra and they pause for a moment, and they like, what? I said, the Boston Typewriter Orchestra. And they say, so, what do you play? I say Smith Corona - tenor Smith Corona.
HURLEY: That's Alex Holman of the group. Alex hits the keys hardest and with greatest interior need.
Mr. HOLMAN: Mostly, I'm just a big bag of nervous twitches. So this is a nice outlet therapy for it.
HURLEY: He crouches over his Smith Corona. Long hair slipping down toward the keys. Fingers locked in a kind of battle formation. If there is ever a contest to see who could destroy a typewriter first using just two fingers, I'd bet on Alex.
Mr. HOLMAN: 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 components.
HURLEY: Do you have some letters that you use continuously or…
Mr. HOLMAN: Usually, I start out and start on the home row because it's easy to access and I start out right toward the center of the home row because those keys have the most direct path up to the paper, but then as they break, I sort of moved outward on home row and then once the home row is pretty much gone, I moved down to the bottom row.
HURLEY: Derrick Albertelli says that this kind of harsh treatment has resulted in some negative attention.
Mr. ALBERTELLI: A lot of people are upset with us because of the amount of abuse we put the typewriters through. I mean, we whale on them pretty hard and we break a lot of them, in such, there's a lot of outcry where they're just like, no, these people need to stop breaking typewriters.
HURLEY: Unfortunately, this people don't seem likely to stop breaking typewriters any time soon. Bad news for the antique typewriter collector, good news for music and art lovers.
Mr. ALBERTELLI: In a way I mean, I think we're still trying to evolve what we can do with a typewriter, because I mean, day to day, we're still figuring things out about its capabilities and figuring things out about building our own techniques. We've had to find a sound and a sense of rhythm that play well in a typewriter. It really appeals to me that you get this intricate little machine with all this moving parts on the inside, it's completely useless this days.
HURLEY: The typewriter is dead. Long live the typewriter. For NPR News, I'm Sean Hurley.
(Soundbite of applause)
BRAND: You can see a video of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra as well as hear a full song from them at npr.org.