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Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Jamming with the Boston Typewriter Orchestra

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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.”

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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