The Typing Beats of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, Interview

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra (BTO), an American collective percussion ensemble founded in 2004 in the Boston area, turns the conventional concept of an orchestra on its head by using typewriters as their primary instruments. With a blend of rhythmic typewriter manipulation, vocals, and an office-themed performance that satirizes the mundanity of corporate life, BTO offers a truly unforgettable auditory and visual experience. Their performances are infused with humor and satire, ensuring that their audiences are entertained while also pondering the creative possibilities of everyday objects..

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra’s official site & Instagram

How did the concept of using typewriters as a musical instrument first come about?

Brendan: Well, have you ever heard a song on the radio and thought, “Wow, this is a pretty good tune, but it might sound a lot better if it was played on like six typewriters instead of guitars, bass, and drums?” So we thought, why don’t we give it a shot? It was sort of a dare, if you will.

James: A 20-year-long dare.

Can you share a memorable story from your early performances and the reaction you received when you started your career with the Boston Typewriter Orchestra?

Brendan: A lot of the time, when we’re setting up, you’ll see a table, we’re all in our shirts and ties, there are all these old manual typewriters, and people are curious, what is this going to be like? Usually, when we play, because we’ve put a lot of thought into it and the arrangement, the response is generally like, “Holy shit, I was not expecting this at all.” It’s just like this blast of information, and so that’s how shows tend to work.

James: We’ve put a lot of thought into our set and the flow of things to keep it interesting. When people think of us conceptually, but haven’t seen or heard us, they think it’s probably just typewriter sounds for an hour, which would be really boring. So we have lyrics in a lot of our songs, and we try to play with the concept of being office workers. It’s a humorous band, and we have projections behind us, so there’s a lot to take in visually and audibly.

Can you discuss any influences outside of music that have shaped the Boston Typewriter Orchestra’s creative approach, such as literature, visual arts, or social movements?

James: We’re influenced by a lot of comedians. With Instagram or TikTok, there are people absolutely killing it with humor about very mundane subjects, which is right up our alley.

Brendan: What’s that lady’s name? Elle Cordova. She has conversations with herself as different fonts, embodying their entire personality. It’s hilarious. Comedy is a big thing for us. Two of the band members are librarians, so there’s a lot of literary influence as well. You draw from everything that you’ve taken in, like movies, books, puzzles, and then all of those experiences combined to form something unique. And then you multiply that by the number of us in the group.

James: Another thing is because we play typewriters, which were manufactured a long time ago, a lot of the visual things we’re influenced by, are like marketing materials from companies like Olivetti. That kind of informs a lot of what we’re going for visually, especially with our projections that switch between songs.

bto moon
Moon © The Boston Typewriter Orchestra

How do you select the typewriters for your performances, and does each model bring a unique sound or characteristic to the ensemble?

James: The typewriters come in from a lot of different sources. We have a lot of different models, but each member sort of gravitates towards certain ones based on not only the sound, which they do all have unique sounds, but also playability. Some are about speed, while others have a more bass resonant sound.

Brendan: We don’t find the typewriters; they find us. We go to the Bay of old machines and start making noises with them, tapping different keys, seeing if there’s any movable parts, and what noise that makes. And sometimes, we make a new sound and build a song around that. So, the machines find us, in a way.

James: Now that we’ve got a fair amount of press, people read about us and then they’re sitting on a bunch of typewriters that maybe their husband who passed away accumulated. People are very generous with giving us their old typewriters, and we can kind of breathe some new life into these discarded machines.

Could you describe the process of composing music for typewriters? How does it differ from traditional music composition?

Brendan: Usually, someone will find a new sound, and then we structure something around that. This is like a punk rock band; we vamp between parts, one part serves as a chorus. It’s a combination of coming up with something that doesn’t sound like anything else using machines that aren’t designed for music.

James: And we all come from the indie, punk rock scene in Boston. Traditionally, most rock bands don’t notate things out. So structurally, it’s more or less like rock music, and we don’t need a conductor. We’re a conductorless orchestra, basically.

Your performances blend humor, music, and office culture satire. How do you balance these elements to create a cohesive show?

Brendan: It’s all about attitude. We could be very pretentious, but we want to strike the balance of being creative and challenging ourselves. Typewriters have been used as supplementary pieces in music before, but we’re trying to do something sonically interesting with them.

James: Also, the last couple of years, you see typewriters used in concert films. My kids and I watched the eras tour by Taylor Swift, and there was a whole office scene with typewriters. It’s become a mainstream thing for artists to incorporate, showing a reversal in gender in the workplace. But for us, we’re entertainers, trying to engage our audience while pushing the sonic envelope.

BTO at MIT Noelle Leary
BTO at MIT © Noelle Leary

What challenges have you faced in maintaining and repairing the typewriters, especially given the age and mechanical nature? Did you ever have problems with them?

James: The challenges usually are just like keys falling off or like…

Brendan: Well, the bit that, you know, like there’s the bit that kind of goes up to the platen, those always get stuck together. If you hit like four of them at the same time, they get stuck and you can’t do that. That’s probably the biggest problem. Some of these typewriters are pretty durable, and others break really fast. Some of the more durable ones, we’ve beaten to within an inch of their lives, so certain keys just don’t work anymore. Typewriters are not like a computer keyboard; there’s so much mechanism involved. Depending on how cheap the models are, they can break very quickly because we’re using them in ways they weren’t designed for. The biggest challenge is finding a replacement or using them just enough so they don’t break.

James: There’s a typewriter repair shop called Cambridge Typewriter, just up the street from where we practice. They’re very local to us, and we have a great relationship with them. We’ll bring in typewriters, and they’re just like, “What is it this time?”

What’s your next project?

James: Good question. We’re thinking about attempting the John Cage piece, Four minutes, 33 seconds. We’ve just made a video for the latest song, “Electric Funeral,” and planning to follow it up with another video. We have a lot of shows booked. The pandemic was tough, but now everything is back, and it’s awesome. We’re playing all the time. Our big goal is going to Europe; we haven’t been yet.

Featured image: © Carlin Stiehl

Last Updated on March 23, 2024 by retrofuturista

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